In this post I’m going to talk about what it’s like to live in a foreign country verses travelling in it. You see, travelling is a lot different to living in a country.
Initially you’re a traveller
If you want to live in another country you’re going to need a job, and unless you have a job lined up before you arrive, you’re probably going to be a traveller first.
I’ve been in Vietnam for about 11 months now and when I first got here I travelled around for about 3 months. The travelling I did was so I could find a city I liked, plant my feet and find work. I had no schedule (except to find a job somewhere within 3 months), and no plans (except to start in the south and head north). I didn’t really know much about the country but I did research on the major cities while I was still in Australia.
Having this freedom and no schedule meant I went from city to city to city, not really knowing where I was going and not having any specific reason to go there. After 3 weeks of checking out Ho Chi Minh City after I landed (and not really liking it), I asked the staff from a hostel I was staying in where was a nice place to go in the Mekong Delta? They suggested Can Tho (pronounced Can Ter), I thought the idea of living there was cool – all jungle and rivers, so I got the bus down there to check it out. Can Tho wasn’t for me.
Another time some people said that the beach was really nice in Da Nang, and this was a city that had come up in my research, so I thought I’d check it out to see what it might be like to live there, it was also north which was part of the plan. Da Nang had potential.
I went to the Imperial city of Hue (pronounced Hwaay) because an old guy on a train said it was nice and again it was further north. Hue wasn’t for me. I was looking for a place that had mountains and Da Nang seemed to have mountains and a beach, so initially I planted my feet there.
I wasn’t hopping around like a headless chicken, and each place I went too I did minimal research on it, mainly what there was to see there. And for sure some people suggested places that I never went to because it was in the wrong direction. But I was still travelling around seeing and doing everything I could see and do.
Whether you have a plan or not you’re going to travel, whether it’s the whole country or just a city, but eventually they’ll come a time when you stop the moving and stay somewhere for an extended period of time, in other words, you’ll live there.
What’s the difference between travelling and living?
The best and simplest way I can describe it is:
When you’re travelling you’re a tourist, when you’re living you’re a local.
Think of your own town where you’re living right now. Do you go to all the tourist spots? Do you think about your up coming accommodation/flights/tour? Do you eat at a different restaurant every night? Do you wander around the CBD with a backpack taking photos? I’m guessing the answer is no. That’s because you’re a local, you live there, you don’t visit these things often, or even at all because they’re always there, or you’ve seen them 100 times already. Perhaps you don’t go there because you know it’s the tourists’ spot and you don’t want to deal with the crowds.
Now let me ask you this: Do you pay rent or a mortgage? Do you buy your groceries weekly? Do you know about cool restaurants or bars or that place that sells the best hot chocolate? Do you know the bus or train times? Do you know your way around without a map? I’m guessing where you live right now the answer to most of these questions is yes, that’s because you’re a local.
That’s the real difference between travelling and living. When you live in a country you slow down, you stop rushing, you experience more of the good and bad. You get to know the area and stop visiting the tourist spots. You also need to think about things like: how do I find a rental property? Where can I buy a new lightbulb? Where’s the beast/cheapest place to buy food? What’s around here that I can do?
Living as a local in Da Nang I went to restaurants tucked away down back streets, I went to my local beach where I was the only foreigner, I had time to visit different, lets tourist places. I also found a rental property, had a landlord, got a job, and started living!
You’re living as a local but you’re not a local
I feel like I’ve experienced enough in Vietnam to know what it feels like to travel here vs live here. I’ve been ripped off at markets, taken photos at famous landmarks, gone from hostel to homestay to hotel all within a week. That’s the travelling part, it felt rushed, I was always on the move but it felt very carefree. When I became a local I discovered something: even though I’ve been living in the same spot for nearly 6 months I’m still a novelty, and I still get ripped off sometimes! I’m living in a place that isn’t a tourist town and I still get starred at a lot. This gets to me sometimes, sometimes I’ll think to myself “yes I get it I’m not Vietnamese” as I get openly starred at by almost everyone I walk past. And when I see another westerner that isn’t one of the teachers here, which is very rare, I openly stare at them and turn my head as I drive past and think ‘what are they doing here?’ The starring isn’t meant to be rude, it’s just curiosity, and Vietnamese children aren’t taught ‘it’s rude to stare’. We’re taught that in the west, and whether it’s rude or not it can still be annoying at times.
Living in a place also has it advantages, the small restaurant I sometimes go to knows what I order now, so I only need to walk in and sit down. The owners of the local shop are getting to know me and know what I like to buy (mainly cans of coke), so that’s also nice. I feel I’m part of daily life: I get up early in the cold to join the rush hour traffic on the way to work. I have a lunch break when the rest of the country does – even banks close at lunch time where I live. I get my bike’s oil changed at the same mechanic, I know the easiest ways to get places without a map. I don’t travel much!
Which is best?
This is an entirely subjective question and will be different with each different person. When you travel you see more of the famous bits, you’re constantly stimulated with the changing cities/towns you’re going through. Time seems to slow down because you’re doing so much. You know when you sometimes say to yourself “I can’t believe it’s Friday already!” or “Where did the last 3 months go?” I didn’t experience any feelings like that when I was travelling, in fact my 3 months of actively travelling around felt like 3 years. Now that I’ve settled down the weeks have literally blended together, and sometimes a week will pass and I’ll think “what did I do this week apart from teach?” I guess I’ve fallen into a mini comfort zone: I know where I can get certain things, I know my schedule, I know how much money I will get, I know where things are.
When you live somewhere you can experience what a country is really like, you get to really understand the people who live there. You’re not just scraping the tip of the iceberg, you being a local which means diving underwater in a lovely warm dry suit and seeing what’s beneath the surface, seeing more of it. It takes time to do this.
If you want to get a glimpse of the country, slow down time and do a million things that weren’t on your “to-do” list then travel is for you. If you want to see the depth of the country and it’s people then living there is for you.
Or you can get the best of both worlds and do what I’ve done: travel and live in the country.
Have you ever lived in a different country? What was it like for you?