Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
At the age of 62 and a barrister in Sydney, John was outwardly a successful man—but he didn’t really like himself or his life much at all. ‘I’d had a dysfunctional marriage that ended 25 years ago and have two adult sons who also endured the pain of family dissolution from which they have still not recovered,’ John said. And even though he always had a girlfriend, good mates, and was, as he put it, ‘enjoying a reasonably successful career, making good money and living comfortably in a nice middle-class home on the northern beaches’, he wasn’t happy.
‘I was bored. I was just representing the same type of criminals all the time, drug traffickers and the like, and it was getting to the point that I was looking for new challenges in life.’ John was also overweight. ‘I was very concerned about my health,’ he added. Then along came what John described as ‘a life-changing case’.
It was 2011 and he was representing seven airline attendants who worked for Vietnam Airlines. They had been arrested by the Australian Federal Police as they were passing through customs on their way to board their flight from Sydney to Ho Chi Minh City. They each had many iPads, iPhones and a considerable amount of cash in Australian dollars in their carry-on luggage. The police suspected these were the proceeds of crime.
John won the case, which was satisfying, but he never expected that it would change the direction of his life: ‘This case resulted in me meeting many ordinary Vietnamese people and Aussie expats living in Vietnam. The airline pilots were ex-Ansett and I was invited to visit Saigon and stay for an extended holiday.’ Stale, unhappy and overweight back home in Sydney, John started to give the idea of a sabbatical a lot of thought, and decided he’d like to try it.
‘My major concern was that I would become a full-time tourist, which I didn’t want. So when the opportunity arose to actually undertake some work here in the profession I was trained in, albeit somewhat limited work, I grabbed it with both hands.’ Even though it wasn’t the lower cost of living that inspired John to pack up and take off, it did factor into his decision. ‘I’m going to try and run a little business here, but I never thought I’d make the same income as in Australia. They are two vastly different economies and Australia is far more expensive than Vietnam.
‘For example, I live in a two-bedroom fully serviced and fully furnished apartment close to the centre of the city. I pay US$900 a month. And the cost of food here is so low that you can eat out every night. You live well but you don’t need much income here.
Vietnam, like most of Southeast Asia, is cheap. Rent is 80 per cent cheaper in Ho Chi Minh City than in Sydney. It costs 75 per cent less to go to a restaurant in Ho Chi Minh. You can eat in a local restaurant for $A3. The Cost of Living is quite low, a beer will cost you about $A1. And these are the prices in Ho Chi Minh City. It is cheaper in the countryside. So John figured that he could rent out my house in Sydney, and with income from the business, live on that. ‘And if worst comes to worst, let’s say I make no money at all here, I’m still in front,’ he said.
John’s approach to his move was admirably planned and executed—his preparedness is a lesson to us all—but little did he know that his exciting new life was about to take another unexpected and life-changing turn. One day he was having coffee with a business associate in Saigon and he started chatting to a Vietnamese lady at the next table. Her name was Thanh and she wanted to practise her English and saw this casual conversation as a good opportunity. Initially they didn’t think much of each other. He thought she was ‘a dark-skinned little Vietnamese village girl who was a bit of a fatty’. While to her, John was just old and fat.
But, Thanh said, after they’d met a few times, ‘He stole my heart.’ Thanh is near 25, John near 65. Despite the age gap, they are extremely happy together. Thanh may come from a village north of Saigon, but she is no rural hick. She is in her final year of university, and the only member of her family ever to get tertiary education—her entire extended family contributed money so she could go to university. She’s also a great help to John as he tries to establish his legal practice in Ho Chi Minh City and cope with the culture and the bureaucracy. And they’ve both lost large amounts of weight and can no longer accuse each other of being fat!
We met John and Thanh on the rooftop of the Majestic Hotel on the Saigon River. It was built in 1925, a classic white French colonial building. It was sunset and the air was at body temperature. There are panoramic views from the rooftop bar over the city and across the river to less developed areas that, in the 1960s, were active with Vietcong soldiers.
John said that primary to his decision to move was simply the fact that he could. “I thought, I can do anything I like. I am now at an age where I have done my job as a barrister. I am reasonably successful. I have no debt. I want to enjoy the rest of my life – what there is left of it – and I am not enjoying it in Australia.
‘I admit I miss the beaches in Australia, but there’s so much to do here. And I often have people just coming up to me and wanting to chat, even if it’s just to practise their English. ‘I walk in the park each morning. I see the same people there because I always go at the same time. Eventually, a few came over and joined me and now we walk together. Yesterday there were five of us walking and I was the only one who could speak English. Still, we were able to exchange names and have a basic conversation and, you know, it was really pleasant.’
John likes the friendliness of the local people but a characteristic he really admires is their attitude towards older generations. ‘The aged have respect. Our society used to be like that. My father died at age 94 and he had always expressed the strong desire to stay at home. And he did. He died at home.’ John believes that in Australian society today, respect for the elderly is fading.
Unlike other Australians who’ve been drawn to Vietnam by association or by cost, John said he moved both because he could and because he needed to. He needed a change and a new life. Clearly, John now has a very new life and he is enjoying it.