Farewell to Hanoi – 3 years on

Today marks 3 years since we left Hanoi at the end of our 3.5 year posting. We have been back in Australia for almost as long as we were there.

Our life has changed so much since then. Our little boys who were 3.5 months and 2 years old when we arrived in Hanoi, were still so little when we left – and are now school boys. We’ve had our ups and downs adjusting to a new life in the Barossa. There are days where I do miss the challenge of my public service/diplomatic career and I wonder whether leaving it behind was the right thing to do. But then I think about our wonderful lifestyle, the new friends who have welcomed us into this community and supported us and the opportunities we have been presented. I look at two little boys thriving in this beautiful rural town, playing sport and learning so much and I appreciate the fact I do have the time to spend with them and create my own new career.

The photos below were just a quick sample, uploaded in between the boys Crossfit class and basketball yesterday. It would be lovely to sit and browse through the albums of thousands of photos we took during the years. But how do you sum up 3.5 years of your life in photos or even words. We grew as parents and as a family and made some big decisions. We had the most incredible experiences and we made friends from all around the world. There are so many wonderful people from Vietnam and beyond that really should be in the photos below.

Its been cold and rainy here in the Barossa today and so I can’t help but miss the Hanoi summer. We are so grateful to have had the chance to call another place home and while it was only 3.5 years, it will always be a very special part of our family’s story.

 

Leaving on a jet plane – an exchange year begins

Leaving Sydney - 6 January 1992
Leaving Sydney – 6 January 1992

25 years ago yesterday I started my first overseas adventure without my parents. I flew out of Sydney with a group of other Rotary exchange students, bound first for Melbourne (where we would pick up another big group), then Singapore and then Copenhagen. Arriving in Denmark, we flew on to Odense, where we would have a two week crash course in the Danish lanuage – not to mention the art of Danish dinner parties, nightclubbing, eating and walking in the cold and ice.

I can remember the day as clearly as it was yesterday. My parents and sister were there, along with friends, my Grandparents, and other relatives. After checking in, we met with the Rotary area coordinator to receive our HSC (final year of high school) results three days early. This was almost a bigger deal than leaving our families for the year. Opening mine to receive a score of 96/100, I could breathe easy knowing that entry to my prefrred course of Commerce/Law was pretty well guaranteed and that I could enjoy my year knowing I had a place to come back to. I knew the small group from our Rotary district as we’d had various get togethers and from memory, we were all pretty happy – although I remember one friend holding out until we were outside Australia to open her incredible result.

I was so excited that I didn’t even cry saying goodbye to everyone the first time, but then my sister’s best friend (who was like a little sister) started crying setting Dad off and then it was on. I vividly remember doing the rounds of the group a couple of times before deciding that I really had to go.

Excitement soon took over as the NSW crew met on the plane. We stood out with our bright blue or green blazers with big yellow name badges and the beginnings of our pin collections. We swapped business cards and the addresses of our host families and settled in for the flight to Singapore which included a trip up into the cockpit. In Singapore our numbers grew, and from memory, the 52 Australians all flew into Copenhagen together. It was on the flight that I finally met the gorgeous Olivia – who I would go to school with in Vejle and who is a friend to this day. It was hard to believe she was only 16 and had just finished year 10 because she had more confidence and spunk (and could dance better) than most of us.

Olivia and I at our first school party
Olivia and I at our first school party

We were billeted to various Rotary families for the two week language course.  I stayed with a lady called Inge together with a girl called Nicole from Sydney. Inge’s daughter, who had died in her mid-20s a few years before, had been an exchange student with my Rotary Club in Australia and so she liked to have students from my clubs. He husband had also been involved in the exchange program and so the two weeks was a whirl of dinner parties as she introduced us to lots of exchange students, past and present. She even entertained the head of the Rotary  Program in Denmark – “Onkle Arnie”who was ultimately responsible for all of us – and would enforce the rules – “no dating, no driving, no drinking, no drugs” (to which we may have added, “do have fun, don’t get caught” – but then Denmark was pretty relaxed compared to Australia. We would soon learn the concept of “freedom with responsibility”.

I’m sure I put on five kilos in that two weeks – the food was exciting and new, I couldn’t understand a word so I took second and thirds during dinner parties and Inge was determined to feed us up. Nicole and I would also buy danishes on the way home and then eat chcoolate cake with hot chocolate (with cream on top) for afternoon tea when we got home. Dinner usually involved large amounts of pork, fat, butter and potatoes – and dessert.

My first dinner party in Denmark - the day after I arrived - January 1992 (and have just realised I now have some of those wine glasses I bought here in the Barossa)
My first dinner party in Denmark – the day after I arrived – January 1992 (and have just realised I now have some of those wine glasses I bought here in the Barossa)

We had two weeks of lessons and I can picture my classroom so clearly. Like many of my classmates, I had never learned another language which put me at a disadvantage as we struggled with the grammar, not to mention wrapping our Australian accents around the complex Danish vowels. Lunchtimes were spent eating hot chips, drinking beer and mucking around on the frozen lake outside school.

My Danish Class in Odense, 1992
My Danish Class in Odense, 1992

We went along to Rotary and made speeches, were introduced to the now trendy concept of “hygge” (which is probably closest to cosy and comfortable – think open fires, low lighting, candles and Scandinavian design), before parting ways and getting on trains to head to the towns we’d call home for a year.

Dinner with our host Rotary Club, January 1992
Dinner with our host Rotary Club in Odense, January 1992

This was the era before email and mobile phones, so we swapped addresses and telephone numbers of our host families and planned to catch-up at the first exchange student catch-up in March. Unfortunately I missed that thanks to a school excursion to Italy! Imagine Mum and Dad’s reaction when I rang after my first day of school to get permission – and the funds – to head on a week long tour to Italy the following month. Apart from Olivia and a few people close by, we’d next meet up on our crazy European Tour in May – 50 exchange students, a yellow bus, 2 chaperones and 8 countries in  a couple of weeks – aka – a recipe for disaster! Might save that story for another post.

At the Vatican, March 1992
At the Vatican, March 1992

Before I finish, a note on the title. Danes are big performers and a few weeks after arriving at school, all the classes in my year performed at assembly in advance of our upcoming study tours around Europe. I’d never heard John Denver’s Leaving on a Jetplane, but by the end of the first verse, I was in tears for the first time since leaving Sydney two months before.

For the first time, I realised that not only did I miss my family, but that at the end of the year, I’d being saying goodbye to all these amazing new friends and host families who had made me feel so welcome. Now whenever I hear that song, I’m reminded of how bittersweet travelling and making new friends can be – but I wouldn’t change it for the world. I still consider my Danish host families as family, and I’ll be forever grateful for the experience they provided a young girl from Wollongong.

Farewell party with some of my host families, January 1993
Farewell party with some of my host families, January 1993
My first visit to the little mermaid, Copenhagen - April 1992
My first visit to the little mermaid, Copenhagen – April 1992

My exchange year developed my love of travel, gave me the confidence to travel and live overseas on my own and would eventually lead to my diplomatic career (and coincidentally, yesterday also marked six since years since our first adventure as a family when we headed off to Hanoi). 

P.S: When I set out to write this post yesterday, I thought it would be a general post about expat life and friendships – instead, I took a lovely long trip down memory lane. So over the coming months, I’m going to share a few more posts about my exchange year – going to school in a foreign countries, living with my host families, travel, turning 18 and making friends. Maybe they’ll inspire a whole new generation of exchange students!

 

The expat departure – leaving while the others continue the party

West Lake Hanoi - the morning we left in June 2014
West Lake Hanoi – the morning we left in June 2014

Saying goodbye is pretty tough and it can be even tougher when the place you’re moving to is a whole new place.

For some expats, and especially in my former life as a diplomat, the next assignment, apart from those lucky few who get a cross-posting, is heading back to home base usually where you have a house, friends, schools for your kids, family. But even then, things change while you’re away. Kids grow up, people make new friends, things change. And you change too. I don’t think anyone could spend an extended period living overseas without it having some impact on the way you view life and the world around you.

For others, moving on from the place you have spent the last few years means starting from scratch. In our case, it really was a new start – me quitting work, my husband finding a new job, moving to a new town (and a new state) and my eldest starting primary school.

For us we’ve experienced reverse culture shock in many ways, moving from a big bustling overcrowded noisy city to a rural town of about 5000. I can no longer walk out of my lane and walk across the road for a coffee, call the bakery for delivery or walk down to the convenience shop. I can’t walk outside and hail a taxi (although I couldn’t afford it) but at least I can quickly get myself on a nice running track surrounded by vines, which is almost as good (and sometimes just as smelly) as West Lake.

At least moving back to Australia the cultural and language barriers don’t really exist – but even then Australia has still prices go up, service offerings are more complex (don’t get me started on setting up internet!) and if like me, you’ve moved from somewhere with help, the washing, cooking and cleaning is never ending.

But all those changes are pretty easy to adjust to and as an expat you get used to making new friends.

So, the hardest thing I’m finding right now is thanks to world of Facebook. Don’t get me wrong I am a huge Facebook fan and I love being able to keep in touch with friends all around the world, many of whom I’d lost touch with for years. And I have loved sharing updates about our life here.

But sometimes, watching groups of friends hanging out in Hanoi, seeing them visiting a favourite restaurant or discovering a new restaurant, seeing snaps of a rare blue sky Hanoi day or any of the sights of street life that kept me enthralled for 3.5 years, I get a little sad and I realise just how much I miss those people and those places. Fortunately for us, we always knew our posting was 3 years (and were lucky to have a short extension) so there is never the question of “should we have stayed”?

Anyway I’m sure I’m not alone seeing those Facebook posts and feeling like I left the party a little too early and everyone else is having fun while I’m hanging out washing, vacuuming and doing the groceries!

But even when that feeling of jealousy starts to creep in, I just have to remind myself about all the positives of our new life and be thankful for all those experiences in the first place.

Spring in the Barossa Valley, September 2014
Spring in the Barossa Valley, September 2014

Unpacking our life

After 2.5 months, and 3 weeks in the house, on Monday we finally received our shipment from Hanoi. About 164 boxes, many of which were full of crockery, ornaments, toys, clothes and photos. No surprise then that this lot of unpacking is taking much, much longer than when we received our (mainly) furniture shipment from Canberra.

On Sunday, I wrote the following list of 11 things I was looking forward to seeing.

  1. my stick blender, colander and assorted kitchen utensils
  2. boys toys – and the boxes, baskets etc to keep them in
  3. the dirty clothes basket
  4. coffee making stuff – plungers, grinder,  machine, reusable cups
  5. paintings and photos
  6. the rest of my wardrobe
  7. the toaster
  8. all the beautiful things that will remind us of our time and our friends in Hanoi
  9. Simon’s tools – let the reconstruction begin
  10. cook books and cake tins – and everything else I need to cook
  11. my step-ladder
The boxes start arriving - this was before every available surface started being covered in stuff!
The boxes start arriving – this was before every available surface started being covered in stuff!

A few days later and I am not sure there is much more to add to the list. However, after living with a fairly basic lot of kitchenware for 3 weeks, it did strike me that we probably have way more plates, glasses and serving platters than we will EVER need. I also realised that in addition to loving a bit of shopping, I tend to hoard keep old things even once I purchase the “replacement” just in case something breaks or gets lost. I am also very sentimental which means I have just about every souvenir I have ever collected and many gifts I no longer want, need or like. Clearly a lot of guilt clutter but the upside of having been without it for so long, is that I have happily parted with a lot of things we don’t need, most of which will be going off to one of the local charities.

Finally - a functioning kitchen - just don't ask to see the cupboard bursting with cake tins and plasticware before I do my cull.
Finally – a functioning kitchen – just don’t ask to see the cupboard bursting with cake tins and plasticware just yet.

The boys were most excited to have the TV back (and it has been good to have news again) and play with their toys. The trampoline is on slowly decreasing list of things that need to be built. But the most excitement was reserved for their new bunk beds. So much joy – but unfortunately I have already realised what a pain they will be to make.

Just before the shipment arrived, I mentioned to friends that I was feeling a little sad at the realisation that this delivery really closed the chapter on our Hanoi posting. We are definitely all very happy to be back in Australia (and I’m certainly enjoy the change from working) but seeing all the things we had surrounding us in Hanoi and that we acquired over the 3.5 years brought back lots of great memories. So many reminders about great times shared with friends, many of whom I hope will visit us from various parts of the world. But, I’m also excited about really settling into our new home and creating a space to welcome new friends and create new memories – just as soon as we unbury ourselves from under the pile of packing boxes!