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Vietnam, the perfect place to ride out the recession

Like many Americans, Karin Esterhammer, a longtime copy editor for the Los Angeles Times, left her job last year to start a new chapter. She and her husband, Robin, who was also between jobs, wanted to move somewhere less expensive and open themselves to new experiences. Their

8-year-old son, Kai, didn't object. They settled on Vietnam, a country that the inveterate travelers had visited twice. So they rented out their house, pulled up stakes and moved to Ho Chi Minh City, where the welcome is always warm, $1 is a bit much for a meal and the language can make your head hurt. Whether you call it slow

travel, vagabonding or a sabbatical, Esterhammer's Plan B has proved a deeply satisfying way to discover another country and culture. Her story, used with her permission, is adapted from e-mails to family and friends.

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So we are here in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, in the hot, sticky southern section of the country. Robin finished a month-long course for teaching and will find work soon. They are desperate for English teachers. Whether you're at a language school or a public school, the pay is $15 to $16 an hour, plenty to live on. For now, I'm home schooling Kai, with the help of two local university students, and doing some writing. After 27 years of working nonstop in the same career, I am glad to be doing something different.

We live in a tall, narrow house -- 9 feet wide -- with three bedrooms and two bathrooms. (Apparently, the Vietnamese build this way because taxes are based on the width of your property.) It's 900 square feet, spread over four stories, with a rooftop deck. We pay $500 a month.

We rent a motor scooter for $45 a month. (Very few cars here.) Monthly telephone is $1.80. Cable with all the cool movie channels costs $4 a month. Nightly trash pickup is 60 cents per month. When our landlord warned us that day-and-night air-conditioning could push the electric bill to $60 a month, I gasped in horror -- for his benefit.

An iced tea costs 6 cents and a nice meal runs 85 cents. I never cook anymore. What for, when prices are so low?

Our neighborhood, District 4, is densely populated and only five minutes from the city center. We can see newly built high-rises from our balcony -- the city is growing up fast -- plus we can see the Saigon River, which is just five blocks away and a fun place to take a boat ride or a dinner cruise.

The Vietnamese have big, extended families in each house, so our alley is packed with kids. Sometimes, we'll have six or seven kids here at once, squealing and running up and down the stairs. The games of tag, keep-away and hide-and-go-seek are all the same, so Kai does great despite the language barrier. I no longer have to schedule play dates. He's never had as many eager and readily available friends.

The kids call me Mom, not because they know what it means, but because Kai says it and I answer.

A day in District 4

The bread man starts at 6 a.m. yelling "banh mi nong" (hot bread) through the alley. Across and down two doors, a woman chops meat with a hatchet every morning and sells it to neighbors seven days a week, also beginning at 6 a.m. These noises and a rooster make it impossible to sleep in.

The morning is nice, though. It's cooler. On our balcony, Kai and I watch the people on their balconies do morning exercises. Everyone starts the day with exercise, even the tiny grandmas.

The other day I opened the doors at 7:30 in the morning to get some cool air into the living room. In walked four kids, who all wanted to help me stir the oatmeal on the stove for our breakfast. I figured they'd want to try some, so I made six little bowls with banana slices, a little sugar and some milk.

They politely took a bite, and all four kids made little faces as if I'd just given them a bowl full of worms. So as not to waste, they lined up to dump their bowls' contents back into the oatmeal pot and ran off to play. Later, when they graciously shared some dried sheets of salty shrimp paste sprinkled with hot chiles, it was my turn to make a face.

A quick mention about shopping: There's almost no variety. My curtains are exactly the same as several of my neighbors' curtains. So are my plastic trash cans and laundry bucket. So are my dishes, electric fans and my standard-issue bicycle. I had to put a big pink bow on it to set it apart in a lineup.

But so many aspects of Vietnamese life are healthy: family bonds, neighborliness, tolerance of each other's off-key karaoke singing late into the night. They don't get mad about the frequent, sometimes daylong power outages. They just use them as a chance to throw open their doors, visit, play, nap. People cross back and forth in the alley, sharing food, playing mah-jongg. There is no chance to become lonely or forgotten.

One day my local interpreter pointed to a house four doors down. "Only two people live there," he said. "Very sad."

Why is that sad?

"Only two people," he repeated in an "isn't it obvious" tone. "Three rooms in house. Very sad. But son moves back soon with wife and daughter. Then everyone happy again."

Every move we make, I'm certain, gets talked about the same way. People know how many appliances we bought and ask how much we paid for each. They peer into my shopping basket as I return from the market.

My Vietnamese language tutor, who doesn't live in this neighborhood, came over this morning and said, "I hear Mr. Robin left this morning in a taxi with two suitcases and a backpack. My aunt [across from us] want to know where he go."

Another morning, a neighbor rode her bike, in the rain, to get noodle soup for her family and brought me a plastic bag filled with hot soup. Her English-speaking son, Hung, interpreted: "She know you have cold. She say you Americans eat bad breakfast. You need soup to warm stomach. No bacon and egg, no cereal. Soup!"

At the outdoor market a vendor will ask how old Kai is. I answer "tam tuoi," which means 8 years old. She yells out "tam tuoi" to the next vendor, who yells it to the next one, so we hear it repeated all across the marketplace. (Your age is important because people need to know how to address you. It's always the first question, even before asking your name.)

Tourists, ladies, orphans

Kai and I play tourist sometimes. One day we hopped in a cyclo (a bicycle rickshaw) and went to the 18th century Giac Lam Pagoda in District 10, then climbed seven stories to the top for a wonderful city view.

Though I love my local market, the Ben Thanh Market in District 1 is a wild place filled with exotic foods, fake Rolexes, fake Gucci bags and kitschy souvenirs.

We've also enjoyed buying stamps at the French Colonial-style main post office, which was built in 1881. Its architectural grandeur, especially the iron-framed glass canopy, is worth a short stop.

Lonely Planet also suggests visiting the War Remnants Museum in District 3 for a view of the "American War" from the Vietnamese viewpoint. But I hear the photographs are a bit gruesome and not for kids.

Whenever I can, I join the weekly coffee meeting of the International Ladies of Vietnam. The wives in this club have husbands who have been sent here by corporations, and the companies pay for their $5,000-a-month houses in gated compounds with swimming pools, international schools for the kids, drivers, daily maid service and cooks. The good life. And then there is little me showing up at the meeting at the fancy Rex Hotel with my motorcycle helmet in hand and bugs in my teeth, telling them I live in the crowded, poorer District 4. They look concerned and confused.

It's kind of the wrong group for me, but I've had wonderful chats and through them I learned about several opportunities for volunteering. We went to an orphanage, which I now try to visit twice a week.

It houses 300 children. We headed first to the tiny-baby room with 30 cribs and three caretakers. Our group leader (there were six of us) said, "Grab any baby, get a bottle and start feeding them. It was feed, burp, change diapers and return to crib . . . feed, burp, change, return to crib. After feeding, I'd hold the crying ones and sing silly songs to the others. I wished I had more arms.

On getting around

Robin had been expecting to teach English to young adults. As it turns out, he's working with kids ages 5 to 12 after school and on weekends. The kids are well-behaved and respect teachers, unlike many of their American counterparts. A Vietnamese teaching assistant helps him address the children in their native language.

Meanwhile, Kai and I hire motorbike drivers for about 75 cents per ride to take us to outdoor markets, a city park or the backpacker area (in District 1), where small hotels and hostels house some of the best restaurants, with Western and Vietnamese specialties for pennies a plate.

The motorbike driver seats Kai in front, then the driver, then me. Motorbike traffic here is knee-to-knee: Taxis, bike riders, motorbikes and buses rumble around you on all sides. Near-misses occur every two seconds. Sometimes I just close my eyes.

You get to an intersection, and people don't stop. It's just masses of cycles crisscrossing in nonstop motion. It makes no sense that everyone isn't crashing. I had one motorbike driver go head-on at a bus (no one stays on his side of the street) and in the last second pull right to avoid instant death.

I adore weekends. The kids are home, and the alley has a party atmosphere. We sit on our stairs and order sweet iced coffee from our neighbor who sells beverages, and the party begins. Vendors in traditional conical hats push their carts with vegetables, fruit and pastries. The pastry lady knows my sweet tooth well and always stops when I'm outside. Each little roll or croissant costs 6 cents, so I usually pick out 10. So many choices on her tray, and if I hesitate, a flock of people points, wanting me to take this one or that one. And then another. . . . It's just so, so, so, incredible here. I love, love, love it.

We told people we'd be here just a year, but maybe not. Our new friendships and the lifestyle are too wonderful, and I don't want it to end. Now I tell people we'll stay at least three more years. Our neighbors tell me they would be happy if we stayed forever.

The language

It's impossible.

That's it!

OK, it essentially consists of eight words. And these eight words have about 35,000 variations. If you raise your voice, lower your voice, wiggle your voice box or sound like you choked on a frog, the meaning of the word changes. If you have a cold or just swallowed too-hot coffee, you might be in danger of telling your neighbor that his mother looks like a pork chop.

After five months of daily, rigorous study, I hit a wall. My teacher Tin was standing at the white board with a marker in his hand, making a check under the accent mark of a word, testing to see whether I could hear the word go up or down or sideways. I made one too many mistakes and burst into tears.

"I can't do it! I can't hear it. I simply can't hear it, I can't memorize it, I can't say it! I'm sorry, but I must not be smart enough to handle this language."

He said, "I must not be a very good teacher. I will quit at the end of month."

That made me wail all the more. "No, then I won't see you so often."

He said, "We will still be friends." Now that sounded like a major breakup. But I do have others to learn from, including Kai's two tutors, not to mention the neighbors who are always eager to help me learn new words.

On the alley

My gentle, smiling, kind neighbors do occasionally lose it -- and the first such event since our arrival happened on my doorstep. Neighborhood Brat hit Kindergarten Boy for calling him a crybaby. Sewing Mom told Brat not to hit. Brat's mother, her hair in fat pink curlers, came out of her house and told Sewing Mom not to scold her son; Kindergarten Boy had it coming.

Curler Lady and Sewing Mom started screaming. Pretty soon eight neighbors were yelling back and forth. Not long after that, two vendors nearly came to blows over a chair.

One of my neighbors, shaking his head, used a derogatory word that can mean "uneducated" (or, some might suggest, worse -- a word that shouldn't be used in polite company). In a country where education is next to godliness, it's just about the worst insult there is. An equally inflammatory saying is, "I see you live near the market but far from the school."

I suppose these infrequent outbursts are cathartic for the neighborhood. For me, I'd rather run back into the house and hide.

At least, I can imagine that I'm hidden. Not that long ago I ran out of propane, and my neighbor Chao Hung and I walked around the corner to a house where they sell the gas canisters. The woman said she'd have her son deliver it when he returned. Hung said thanks and started to walk away. I stopped him.

"Doesn't she need my address?"

"She know where you live," he said. "Everybody know where you live."

Spring: flood season

It's been incredibly hot here -- in the 90s, and with 100% humidity it feels even hotter. But then yesterday we got a wonderful heavy, tropical downpour that lasted a couple of hours. Bone-rattling thunder, lightning and sheets of water drumming on corrugated metal roofs. The rain always floods the Saigon River, which in turn floods our alley, including some houses. But no one really has furniture -- a couple of lawn chairs maybe, plastic stools, metal armoires -- so it's not the disaster you'd think.

Kai watched a couple of his friends stomp and splash in the rain, so I let him do the same despite the floating alley cooties. They ran and squealed and splashed one another for more than an hour. One mother put shampoo in all the kids' hair, and the heavy rain rinsed it off. Kai was delighted with this method of hair-washing.

The house next door to us is being gutted and will be built up four stories, like ours. The woman's son is getting married, so they all pooled their money to make a bigger house.

I'm happy for them. She has lived in that tiny shack all her life, and the walls are made of corrugated metal, cardboard from refrigerator boxes and plastic bags. When they tore it all down, you could see into her neighbor's bedroom. So those neighbors are eagerly awaiting a new wall at no cost to them. Meanwhile, the workers put a tarp over it.

The Borneo option

We went to Borneo for vacation. To fly here from Ho Chi Minh City on Air Asia, we paid $30 each way per person. Next winter we are going to Myanmar for less than $100 per person. The proximity to all these great travel destinations is cheap, and the flights are rarely more than two hours in any direction to visit Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, China and Myanmar.

We're coming up on the one-year mark since our arrival. It still feels as though we are on vacation -- finding new restaurants, new beaches and villages, new cultural experiences and new friends.

People on both sides of the ocean often ask how long we'll stay. All I can say is that I can't imagine leaving.

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travel@latimes.com

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