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The great Saigon life swap experiment

(and why travel isn’t always rainbows and butterflies)

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I’m often guilty of only ever writing about the positives of travel, of painting our trips as a kind of utopia in which nothing ever goes wrong. I do the same on social media. On Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, I write about all the wonderful things we get to see and do, and leave out the challenges or the downright disappointments.

I know I’m not alone in this, many of us are guilty of it. I recently heard it described as “the newsreel of life”, where we present only the highlights, the bits we want to show.

I do it because I generally like to focus on the positives in life. I don’t want to complain about the things that don’t work, the things that go wrong or the times I feel stressed and completely out of control.

But the truth is travel can be hard work. It can be bloody awful sometimes.

The last couple of days I’ve been in Vietnam, starting a month-long “life swap” challenge in which I live in my friend Barb’s house in Saigon and do her job as managing editor for a local expat magazine.

And I have to admit, the first few days were hard. It started with the flight over here and me wondering what the hell I was thinking travelling to a country that I barely know to do someone else’s job for a month. Why would I leave my comfortable home, Ade and our gorgeous dog Max? Why would I leave the comfort of my hometown, which I love, my family and friends, everything that I know, to go to a town where I barely know anyone, where even just going to the supermarket is a challenge.

It didn’t help that the taxi driver, the expensive kind with a concierge desk at the airport who can help you in English, got lost. At one point we sat for five minutes in the middle of the road as the driver tried to work out where we were and where we were meant to be. If he didn’t know as a local, what hope did I have?

When Barb first asked me if I was interested in coming over and filling in for her, I didn’t hesitate. It seemed like such an adventure, something so novel. And those things are still true, it is an adventure, a crazy, unusual adventure that I know I will look back on and feel forever grateful I said yes to.

But in my first few days in this new city, as I struggled to work out where I was, how to read the map, how I would get to work, what I would eat, I really wondered whether I had made the right decision. And this was all while Barb was still here, still able to help me get around and navigate the challenges of a new city.

Street scenes in Saigon

The drive, or walk, to my house.

You see, the thing is travel is not just Instagram worthy sites, souvenir shopping, eating out and amazing new memories.

It’s also mozzie bites all over my body, it’s heavy rainfall every day at lunchtime, it’s dogs barking all through the night and chickens squawking at all hours, it’s workmen revving cars and moving building materials at midnight, it’s negotiating how to get to your destination when you don’t speak the local language and can’t read a Saigon map.

At one point, on my way to the office, I keyed in a local school as a landmark for the Grab driver, I thought this would be easier than putting in the address of the office. But it turns out I’d put in a different campus of the school than the one I knew was near the office, and when the Grab driver pulled up at our agreed location I had no idea where I was. My rational side knew I could just catch another Grab to get me to where I needed to be, that it was only time and money that I was potentially wasting. But for a split second I had a minor panic attack.

Fortunately the two campuses were just around the corner from each other, and the driver was able to work out where I needed to be.

Then this morning, as I tried to make myself a cup of tea, tried to fill the kettle with the ‘safe’ water just outside the back door, I realised there was a furry caterpillar hanging at head-height between me and the water cooler. I stood for a moment trying to work out a way around the caterpillar. I googled caterpillars in Vietnam to make sure it wasn’t dangerous. I stood there for 10 minutes trying to work out what to do. Now, as I’m telling you all this, I realise how ridiculous it sounds. It was only a caterpillar. But that’s the thing, when everything is so foreign, you question everything, every move.

This is all a part of the travel story too.

I know I will look back and laugh at these moments; even now I can chuckle at the caterpillar story, shake my head at the misdirections. I’m learning to read the local maps, getting familiar with what’s around me. I know my way to the local supermarket and have braved having lunch on my own.

For me, travel is all about pushing your boundaries, it’s about taking you outside your comfort zone to discover new things about yourself and the world around you. This trip is certainly managing to do all of those things.

I know I’ll look back and be thankful I said yes to this crazy opportunity. The nervousness and misgivings I felt in the beginning will be replaced by memories of the new experiences I’m yet to enjoy.

And while it’s challenging, it’s also so very worth it.

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