By Andrea Ayala
Hustling through the thick traffic on a typical Saigon evening, Darren Rodgers, 25, tries not to lose his way. He is holding on tightly to the handlebars of his cheap (he pays about five dollars a week on gas) Nouvo II, 125 CC motorcycle. He’s tired, but he’ll need to focus if he doesn’t want to get run over. This is Saigon after all, a city filled with millions of residents, the vast majority of whom use motorcycles as their primary form of transportation. Around here, street lights and one-way signals are suggestions not requirements and despite what’s in tourist books or newspapers about Buddhism and Catholicism, around here, the motorcycle is God.
Suddenly, zooming as if from nowhere, a bike comes flying towards Rodgers and stops with its plastic mudflap in Rodgers’ way. Rodgers doesn’t have time to stop and the plastic scrapes across his bike and on top of his hood.
Driving in Saigon is no joke, while waiting in line to park, Rodgers often gets cut off and a simple outing like a trip to the movies can turn into a nightmare when everyone is leaving at the same time and there is little traffic control.
Some 7,000 miles away from home, Darren arrives to work.
Darren is just one of a huge community of expatriates currently living in Ho Chi Minh city (still known as Saigon.) Good weather, decent pay and low crime have drawn thousands from all over the world to the charms of the famed city, once the former capital of Democratic South Vietnam.
Fresh out of college, Rodgers wanted adventure. He had never traveled out of the country and he always wanted to study abroad but never got the chance.
Since childhood, Rodgers had always had a curious and adventurous spirit.
“I would describe myself as rule following, curious, active child. I often liked to take things apart and put them back together... I didn’t mind getting dirty and I played a lot of sports. Despite all the activities, I was still shy to new people,” said Rodgers
He also had an interest in Asian cultures.
“Things that I think help me become interested Asia (and abroad) had to be movies, grandpa in the Korean war, History about WW2 (so I was really interested in Germany/Japan), I went to Epcot center (disney world) when I was young and was really amazed at the different culture zones. With this interest in different cultures I felt like I always wanted to travel places,” said Rodgers.
Krystal McVicker, 24, might be spotted at the Spotted Cow, TnR or any Lush on a Saturday night in Ho Chi Minh City. Sitting side-by-side with fellow expats in tiny chairs drinking cheap beers, she might be spotted having a conversation about her latest challenge with her students. Krystal McVicker is also a teacher, fresh out of college. She says moving to another country is partially escape, but not entirely.
“I moved here to get a fresh start, and also I just really wanted to travel, see the world, meet other like minded people,” says McVicker. People like Thi, Lam, and Ly, her TAs and friends at the International school as well as her fellow teachers from English-speaking countries, have made the whole experience for her.
For breakfast, Darren Rodgers usually eats one of two things: Mi xai xiu, a pork noodle soup with vegetables which he adds a pepper in for spice, or a breakfast sandwich. The sandwich comes on a hot plate and it includes beef, onions and two eggs. He then cuts the bread and makes the sandwich, adds a little soy and chili sauce.
When Rodgers first graduated from college, he took a chance.He found a short teaching program in Belize, and settled there for a few months. Through the program, Rodgers found an opportunity to both teach and live in another country. He absolutely loved it.
“So I decided let’s go do that for my life, go get paid, go travel and see the world,” Rodgers said.
Rodgers applied to several International teaching programs upon arriving home and finally got a call from a program he liked in Saigon, Vietnam.
Shortly before leaving, Rodgers felt uneasy. Before he moved to Saigon, Rodgers had never been to Asia. In fact, before Belize he had never been out of the country.
“Knowing that this is deciding kind of like the next two years of my life once I signed for the job I just started to get really nervous,” said Rodgers.
Rodgers didn’t know a single person living in Saigon besides the people involved with the school he would be working with, he was moving into an apartment by himself and to make matters worse, he didn’t know a lick of Vietnamese.
He was scared, but he took a chance. Knowing that he was leaving with a purpose helped Darren stay focused.
“It was the great adventure that I always wanted, something that I could come back home and tell people about,” Rodgers said.
Back home in Minnesota, Rodgers’ family was concerned about their son’s decision to move halfway across the world.
“Moving to a different country they’re always obviously worried about the safety,” Rodgers said.
However, as Rodgers proved to his family, Vietnam is a relatively safe nation with a low crime rate. His friends also became terribly interested in the communism aspect.
“A lot of people have a different view on communism kind of like back to the Cold War views of what communism is,” Rodgers said.
The real struggles he admits, have been cultural barriers.
“I would say just finding things that you want is difficult,” Rodgers said about the language barrier. “I’m appreciative of being able to talk to service people [at home] like in restaurants and other things, taxi drivers.".
However, Rodgers has discovered there’s other ways of communicating with people.
“I guess you can connect with people in a way, and then like we try as much Vietnamese as we like and then they laugh at it and then they try some English and then we laugh at that and help them out...we had a good time hanging with Vietnamese people with a giant language barrier,” Rodgers said.
For those who say living abroad is a method of escape, Rodgers says that doesn’t apply to him:
“It can be true for some people. For me though it is definitely not. It is a step forward in my life. I am on a career path that I want to be on and getting good experience to help me in my future jobs. Also, I am saving money and I get to explore. I wouldn’t call it escaping, I would call it a more exciting way to do the same thing than if I were doing it at home. You have the drawbacks of missing family and friends of course,” said Rodgers.
McVicker admits that escape may be part of it, but perhaps it’s something more.
“I always say that people abroad all have a couple of bolts loose, we are all a little bit weird, and that's why we all get along so well,” McVicker said.
However, she adds, no matter the intention, expats are not escaping for good.
“But we are not escaping life, we are running to a new one. Life still goes on and we still have to deal with the things we are running from … we are running to new challenges,” McVicker said.
Challenges such as adapting to a new culture, new groups of people and a country where you don’t know a single person.
“Sure we are probably running from something, but we are not the faint of heart or the weak. It's for sure tough sometimes, and the more you are able to roll with the punches, the better off you are. There's not much room for rigidity,” McVicker said.
As for Rodgers, he looks forward to the times he gets to see his loved ones who are so far away. Although, he admits, when they visit him it might take them awhile to adjust. His sister, for example, might have a problem with the busy Saigon motorcycle traffic when she visits him in November.
“She’s going to be blown away with the traffic and will be scared out of her mind.”
Not everyone has what it takes to live such an adventure, but perhaps Rodgers can teach her how to honk like a local in no time.