A lighthearted memoir of new friends, delicious food, and culture shock.
Laid off from her job at the Los Angeles Times during the recession of 2008, travel writer Esterhammer realized that she and her self-employed husband could no longer afford their huge mortgage payments and car loans. There was nothing for them to do, she decided, but leave for someplace where they could live cheaply. They sold everything, rented their house, and, with their 8-year-old autistic son, moved to Vietnam. In a year, she calculated, they would have saved enough money by teaching English to return home with a comfortable financial cushion. The author portrays herself as cheerful, unflappable, and sometimes too clueless to be believed. She was astonished by the heat and humidity, for example. Completely mistaking the cost of housing, the family wound up in one of Ho Chi Minh City’s poorest districts, in a tiny, cockroach-infested house crammed into a noisy, dirty, densely populated neighborhood where daylong power outages are common. Esterhammer also underestimated the challenges of homeschooling their son, whose attention problems and constant talking proved overwhelming. Months after settling in, she “began to wonder why the loss of something as temporal as my material possessions and job had caused me to turn and run away so quickly.” She paints affectionate portraits of the kind neighbors who looked out for her, helping her to learn Vietnamese, teaching her how to shop and cook, and sharing with her stories of the extreme deprivation they suffered growing up; apparently, she knew little about the reality of postwar life. She was shocked both by their reminiscences and lack of “anger, resentment, or defeat.” Although she wants to convey an image of cool adventurousness, she admits that the real reason she left was not because of money but “to avoid my own embarrassment”; she preferred that friends think she was daring and impetuous than to “see what losers we were.”
A brisk chronicle of a family’s (mis)adventures in Vietnam.