HO CHI MINH CITY—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.
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."