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My Norwegian-Vietnamese-Cambodian Christmas

(And what’s coming up in 2016!)

By Dave Fox
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Twenty-nine years ago, I spent a year as a high school exchange student in Drøbak, a little village on the shores of Oslofjord. This year, four members of my Norwegian host family from that year (who are still like real family) came to spend Christmas with me and Kattina in Vietnam and Cambodia.

My pal, Phúc, captains us down the Mekong River. (If you're looking for a private tour guide in Saigon or the Mekong Delta, Phúc is licensed and he's great. He'll show you real, authentic Vietnam and take you places most tourists never see. Drop me an e-mail for more info!)

My pal, Phúc, captains us down the Mekong River. (If you’re looking for a private tour guide in Saigon or the Mekong Delta, Phúc is licensed and he’s great. He’ll show you real, authentic Vietnam and take you places most tourists never see. Drop me an e-mail for more info!)

We explored the Mekong Delta with my pal, Phúc, who comes from a small village in the region. On Christmas Eve, we prowled the ruins of Angkor Wat and other nearby temples. We chilled for four days in Hoi An, a laid-back town in central Vietnam, and then flew back to Saigon for some New Year’s mayhem.

Traveling with my Norwegian family is always a party. This particular party wore me out.

I tried to translate from Norwegian (which I speak fluently) into Vietnamese (which I speak like a chimpanzee – a bald and linguistically insecure chimpanzee.) I’d get blank stares from waitresses and taxi drivers who could not understand my Vietnamese or my English because the Norwegian corner of my brain had hijacked my tongue.

per-saigon-beer-mekong-vietnam

Per goes local in the Mekong Delta.

Another fatiguing factor was beer. In Norway, a pint can cost 12 US dollars. My family was now in a country with similar pints for 45 cents. This made them extra festive. And, hey, I’m pro-festive, but my imbibing stamina isn’t what it used to be.

I became the de-facto tour guide as our group faced challenges – flight delays, overbooked accommodations, lost cameras, shredded laundry, and a hotel bathtub that overturned, spilling mysterious ooze onto the floor.

On our final VietJet flight back to Saigon, we were forced to sit on the runway for 15 minutes before the airline could find a place to park our delayed airplane. While we sat, still belted in our seats in case our motionless plane crashed, the flight crew played one song over and over – a looped recording of the most pathetic and depressing New Year’s song ever written:

hoi-an-lantern

Hoi An’s colorful lanterns made up for VietJet’s “lay down and die” New Year’s travel tune.

… Happy new year
Happy new year
May we all have our hopes, our will to try
If we don’t, we might as well lay down and die….

Nice going, VietJet! Thanks for the perky travel tune!

Abba recorded that song in 1979. We scowled at the Swedish tourists on board as we waited for the airplane door to open. We finally disembarked with the song lodged deep in our brains for the next several days.

bui-vien-marius-saigon-beer

Saigon Beer and akvavit on New Year’s Eve: Marius got so out of control, he put his label on upside down.

Nevertheless, we stayed positive. We understood that foreign travel comes with challenges. Overturned bathtubs are to be expected. Despite the mystery ooze, we enjoyed a magnificent vacation together.

Connecting my Vietnamese life and my Norwegian life felt surreal. Watching my family respond to life here helped me realize how this once-foreign land now feels normal to me.

Traffic was an endless source of entertainment for them. They’d gasp as hundreds of motorbikes, some transporting families of six, swarmed through intersections that had no traffic lights. For me, the traffic is no longer entertaining – but watching their reaction to it was.

They giggled at things I no longer notice, like bank notes with the number 500,000 on them.

“Oh yeah,” I would think. “The Vietnamese millionaire joke. I used to tell that one.”

bui-vien-marius-massage

Marius gets a sidewalk massage from my favorite Bui Vien Street masseur.

Soup for breakfast. Two-dollar shoulder massages at sidewalk bars. Styrofoam snowmen in tropical heat. Menus boasting ten varieties of frog. Those things used to seem weird to me. They’re a normal part of my reality now.

At the same time, Christmas with the family that helped me evolve into a quasi-Norwegian many years ago also made me realize how much bigger a cultural adjustment Vietnam is, compared to Norway. After six months in Norway, I understood the language pretty well. After six months in Vietnam, I can read menus and give directions to taxi drivers, but progressing further has been a humbling slog.

So one of my new year’s resolutions is to keep on slogging. By next year at this time, my goal is to be able to have conversations in Vietnamese that go deeper than, “Two more beers and frog in tamarind sauce.”

The view from one of my many makeshift offices.

The view from one of my many makeshift offices.

I started writing a book about Saigon two-and-a-half years ago. I’m determined to finish it in 2016. And I’ve got ambitions to help more people become better writers. (If you’d like to be one of them, here’s how you can.)

My family flew home to Norway three days ago. After three weeks with them, and a preceding fourth week with a visit from a friend, our house was now empty again. Kattina and I collapsed on the couch with a pizza and watched six hours of television.

The following day, I planned to get back to my usual work routine. Kattina had lesson planning to do for her next semester of teaching. But we weren’t ready. We watched more TV, read, napped, and felt ever-so-slightly awkward that we weren’t being more productive.

Then we realized, it’s hard to be productive when you’re brain has been so busy.

This, as I explained in another article, is how new years often begin. Fun winter breaks have left us drained. We must ease our way back into getting things done, not and allow ourselves time to catch our breath.

Be aware of this when taking on new projects or endeavors. This realization will keep you positive, so you gradually build the stamina you need to do great things.

Happy new year, everybody! May you accomplish your goals, have big adventures, and maintain a positive spirit!

Step one: Avoid all airlines that play the Abba Happy New Year song.


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Published on Wednesday, January 6, 2016

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