Tag Archives: working holiday

From a long journey to a single piece of paper

30 Aug

During the weekend I caught up with several members of my “Vietnam family” in Melbourne to reminisce and provide feedback to the organisers of our overseas assignments. As a reflection exercise, the event organisers asked us to illustrate significant moments throughout our time abroad.

An illustration of significant challenges and milestones during my assignment in Vietnam

I’m no Monet, so let me break it down for you: it was a bloody big year! It started like a party (represented by a karaoke microphone at the top of the drawing that looks like an ice cream) and there was plenty of time on the toilet as a result of my bad reaction to seafood and, well, stress from culture shock. I threw in a couple of computers to demonstrate that I actually worked when I wasn’t socialising or travelling. Really, I did.

In contrast, the bottom half of my drawing only signals a few of the challenges and questions I experienced as I removed the rose-coloured glasses and my understanding of Vietnam deepened. Flooding, poverty, censorship and language frustrations were just a few of the issues that caused me to question my position and future plans.

The problem was, I needed a larger piece of paper than I planned …

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I’m no Aussie do-gooder

29 Apr

Australia is just full of do-gooders, and I never realised until I moved back from Vietnam.

There are rules for driving etiquette here, eating a meal properly, drinking, standing on an escalator, walking down the street, and every single person complies with these rules and leers at me when I step out of line. I’m constantly scolded for walking across intersections while pedestrian lights remain red – an action that became not only habit but an absolutely essential skill to get around in Ho Chi Minh City. It’s a hard one to crack now and I just refuse to wait when there are no cars in sight.

Worst of all, though, I’m not allowed to drink alcohol on the street! I’m not even able to have a drink with dinner on a weeknight without being labelled an alcoholic while, in Vietnam, I could get away with three or four beers per night without judgement. I could drink cheap beer at home, take one for the road and then carry the same opened can into the club with me, while sporting thongs and a slur that would surely get me refused service at a bar in Australia. It was awesome.

It’s the unspoken social rules I’ve discovered in Australia which have surprised me though. I’ve spent the past month greeting old friends and family with enthusiastic kisses on the cheek which have been returned with scrunched up noses, hugs with about half a metre of distance between us, and a tap on the back with the strength and passion of a ragdoll. It seems my European expatriate friends in Vietnam got me in the habit of lining up double-barrelled smooches that are way too close for comfort for my Aussie mates. Apparently a hand shake is acceptable and a hug if I really must.

I’ve been back for a month now and, still, I sometimes feel like a culture-shocked immigrant who’s fresh off the boat. Imagine the troubles refugees have settling in.

By Marissa Toohey

Gut instincts about settling back in

28 Mar

The plane pulls into the terminal and I see a mob of red and white kangaroos – the symbol of Australia’s greatest airline and an icon of the hours I used to spend travelling as a corporate employee. It’s been ten months since I earned points for my silver Qantas frequent flyer account but it feels much longer, especially when I think about all I’ve done.

In all-Australian fashion, dogs are sniffing out the crowds – beautiful pedigrees – and laid-back officials deal instructions to visitors trying to make sense of the system. “Go ahead mate”, “You’re gonna have ta get a move on if ya wanna be out by this arvo”. I laugh because I’ve learnt how difficult it can be for others to decipher Aussie slang.

The electronic chip in my passport enables me to skip queues at immigration and I can’t contain my excitement when customs officials check the items I’ve declared. “I’m so happy to be home,” I tell the woman who examines my chopsticks and other wooden items. “Welcome,” she smiles and lets me through the gates without scanning my belongings.

Brisbane is just as I left it, except for areas damaged by the floods, including the Southbank beach pictured (photographed the week before I moved to Vietnam).

I expected everything to feel backwards – driving on the other side of the road, eating with a knife and fork, cooking dinner at home, even spending every hour with my partner instead of my friends – but, instead, everything feels just as it should. It’s familiar because it’s the same as I left it.

It’s only when I walk around the area that I get an uncomfortable feeling in my stomach. It takes up to one whole minute for a car to pass me in the city. It’s so quiet I wonder if something horrible has happened to Brisbane! There are no motorbikes or obstacles on the footpaths, no people calling out “hello” or trying to sell me something. I often run across intersections when the signal remains red because I can’t stand to wait while there are no cars in sight like everybody else. “You think this is traffic,” I think, “You should see Ho Chi Minh.”

To celebrate my journey home, my partner shouts me a great big feast for dinner at The Smoke BBQ restaurant in New Farm. My vegetarian Vietnamese diet is forgotten as I devour half a rack of smoky beef ribs, spicy chicken wings and french fries. It tastes even better than I remember.

As I finally lay to sleep in the most comfortable bed in the world, my mind shifts back to Ho Chi Minh where my closest friends remain. My first day in Brisbane has proven that it won’t take long to settle back into Australia and my life in Vietnam will soon feel like a distant dream. It brings a tear to my eye and I fight back more when … uh oh … like a sledge hammer to the gut, I get a painful warning that it really is going to take me, and my body, a while to get used to Australia again.

By Marissa Toohey

It’s time to go home

25 Mar

I always expected my backpack to send me home early, that’s why I invested in one of the most comfortable bags on the market. I didn’t want to throw a tantrum after months of struggling with it. I underestimated myself, though, as I’ve proven to be one of the most patient and understanding travellers amongst friends.

It took an anxious night alone in a State of Islam to conceive the idea of returning home; a thought that was fostered when dozens and dozens of people aggressively accosted me for photographs the following morning, and finally a pack of arrogant Vietnamese men lacking queueing ettiquette (one of the only pet peeves I just couldn’t adjust to) solidified the idea the same afternoon. And once the idea was cemented in my mind, it was all I could think about. It was time to go home, and it was almost right on schedule.

I wonder if people will continue selling food on the street until I return again?

By the next morning I was in Hanoi and just hours away from boarding the flight that would take me back to my homeland, my partner and all the things I used to take for granted. I took photographs of the Old Quarter – which already looked more developed than when I saw it eight months ago – and I fantasised about how it might look when I return again. I also met with a great friend to laugh about all the things we love about Vietnam: street bars, the ability to have a cheap massage and without an appointment, the way men wear pink helmets and cuddle on motorbikes. Weight, of course, was a more sombre conversational point as we both expected to lose weight in Asia but had produced sizeable beer bellies. Patting my round centre, I kind of hoped a parasite was stirring in my last Vietnamese meal, just to help me lose a few of the kilos I had gained.

“Farewell Vietnam” I mouthed to the land during the drive to the airport. “It’s been swell, really swell.” The taxi driver smiled through his rearview mirror. He could see how much I loved his country and he was proud.

Over eight months I learnt the importance of development work, the hardships people endure around the world, the realities of communism and socialist countries, human rights, advocacy. I realised Australia really is “the lucky country”, ranking at the top of the UN’s Human Development Index for years while Vietnam ranked 113th in 2010 (one being the highest quality of life and 169 the poorest on the scale). My work in the development field is not over yet, just the first amazing chapter of it.

By Marissa Toohey

Building hope in the Mekong Delta

24 Mar

Click to read the full article in Exchange Magazine.

Our eyes locked across a flooded road at the Mekong River Delta in Vietnam. The man was standing in the doorway of his thatched, weary house on the banks of the river and his eyes told the story of decades of hardship. His pants were rolled up to his knees, just centimetres above the level of floodwater that had consumed his entire house.

I was on the other side of the road in the protection of a taxi. I was overwhelmed by the situation unfolding in front of me. Suddenly, the man smiled at me, happy to see a new face and I realised I have an opportunity to make a small difference.

Prior to my Australian Youth Ambassador for Development assignment in Vietnam, I wasn’t aware of how seriously the natural environment threatens the lives and livelihoods of people living in the Mekong Delta, which accounts for twenty per cent of the population. Before my assignment, I had never been to a developing country. Now, having stared into the eyes of an old man across a flooded road, I understand storms, floods and associated issues are affecting thousands of people every day damaging mass production of crops and fish, threatening the quality of surface and groundwater and exposing people to serious illnesses, including malaria and pneumonia.

In my position as Communications and Media Support Officer at Habitat for Humanity Vietnam (HFH Vietnam), I have also seen evidence of how simple, decent and affordable housing can improve the lives of people in the Mekong River Delta and around the country. Decent houses provide stability, improve health, safety and security, and enhance education and livelihoods for individuals and families.

Click here to read the full story on page one in Exchange Magazine.

By Marissa Toohey

Leaving behind the easy life

22 Mar

I freaked out when I landed on Vietnamese soil eight months ago. It was dirty, overwhelmingly busy and there were no familiarities – not even a 7Eleven. But the things which challenged me at the beginning are now my greatest comforts. I cherish moments lost in twisted networks of old alleys, thrive when negotiating for fresh fruits at the local market and I prefer to enjoy a warm beer with ice on the sidewalk than to sit in an elaborate hotel bar.

The thing is, I’m now more afraid of returning home to Australia than I was of settling into Vietnam. Once I overcame the culture shock, life in Ho Chi Minh City was a breeze, and this is why:

  • I haven’t prepared a single meal in eight months. It’s difficult to justify the efforts of cooking when it’s usually more affordable to eat out in Ho Chi Minh City.
  • The weather is warm all year round! The sun isn’t always shining but the temperature varies from just around 30-35 degrees.
  • Where else can you catch taxis regularly, effortlessly and affordably? It sure beats overcrowded trains and buses of Australia.
  • There isn’t a day that passes without someone telling me I’m beautiful! Seriously, blondes do have more fun in Vietnam because they’re still a novelty for the locals.
  • My HCMC home has a rooftop terrace with amazing views of the city. I finish most nights relaxing on the roof with friends, drinking Ba Ba Ba beer.
  • I have been able to travel (often internationally) every second weekend, literally. Budget travelling is so easy to do spontaneously around Vietnam and South East Asia, and you can reach many more places during a weekend than you can from anywhere in Australia.
  • Meals cost as little as $1, DVDs just 50 cents, t-shirts $3 and rent around $200 per month. Vietnam is one of the cheapest countries in South East Asia.
  • The greatest thing about living in HCMC, though, is the supportive, enthusiastic and warm-hearted network of expatriates. I’m going to miss my friends – who I have grown to know very well over shared meals and beers almost every day – immensely.

You know the feeling when you walk through your own front door after weeks away on holidays? Instant relaxation, comfort, ease of mind, bliss even. That’s how I feel when I return to Vietnam after weekends travelling. I hope that feeling gets me through the first tough weeks of reverse culture shock in Australia too.

By Marissa Toohey

Vietnam, my parents and ba ba ba

14 Dec

VIETNAM, MY PARENTS AND BA BA BA  It doesn’t matter how old you get, it’s always comforting to see your mum and dad. Home-made dinners, cups of tea and big gossip sessions are always the highlights during our meetings. But my parents and I recently had a very unique reunion … because it happened in Vietnam!

Home-made dinners were replaced with Vietnamese food at local restaurants, tea was exchanged for “cafe sua da” (a super sweet Vietnamese coffee), and gossip sessions focused on the quirkiness of Vietnam rather than the latest happenings amongst friends in Sydney.

What’s most exciting, though, is that it was their very first trip abroad and it couldn’t have gone any smoother. Ho Chi Minh City is an intimidating and intense destination, even for individuals who are well travelled, but my parents embraced the madness like a fat kid embraces lollies; they just dove straight in and savoured every flavour and taste! They were dazed by the volume and logistics of the traffic, with a system of more motorbikes, cars, buses and trucks ever seen before in Australia that somehow manage to exist without road rules. They ate green bean cake, fresh catfish, ban xeo (Vietnamese pancake) and drank plenty of “ba ba ba” (333) beer. They quizzed their tour guide so much that they were only able to see one sight in the time they planned to see three! And they fell in love with the romanticised tales of Uncle Ho. What’s even more amazing, is that it never even rained! Now that’s just unheard of in the tropics …

I’m really thankful I had the opportunity to share my life and loves in Vietnam with my parents as I know it’s an experience which is changing me and, hopefully, has given them more perspectives as well. Anyway, life only gets better when you learn about “ba ba ba”. So cheers to my parents!

Mum stands in the entrance of the caves in the Marble Mountains.

Dad climbed through caves to get to the peak of one the Marble Mountains (pictured).

Dad and me on the bridge in Hoi An.

Dad and his tour guide floating on the Mekong River.

Mum climbs into the Cu Chi tunnels.

Dad and mum at the Reunification Palace in HCMC.

By Marissa Toohey

Introducing my home in Saigon, Vietnam

16 Nov

By Marissa Toohey

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