IT'S Friday night on the busy streets of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The smell of food, from the savoury and sweet to spicy, is everywhere. Men sit on plastic chairs on the roadside with beer in hand waiting for their orders while snails sizzle in a wok; nearby, a vendor attends to chicken feet on a griller. An aquarium with strange beady-eyed fish sits in plain view of customers, adding new meaning to 'fresh seafood'. A young firebreather entertains tourists, the bright flame shoots from his mouth, lighting up the dark sky.
It's just a fleeting snapshot of nightlife in some parts of Vietnam but it is a small representation of what makes this Asian country of just under 90 million people so unique — its street food has an international reputation of being among the best in the world and its people are not just hard working but also resilient. No one can explain this better than Trinidadian expatriate living in Vietnam, Soraya Ho Sing Loy. It takes her just a few steps from her front door to be completely absorbed in the electrifying energy of Ho Chi Minh City. The sound of traffic as a sea of hundreds of motorbikes and scooters flood onto the streets, is incessant.
Living abroad and indulging in cultures other than her own is nothing new for Soraya. She has lived in Barbados, London and Malaysia but it was love and marriage to the renowned Swedish exective chef Conny Andersson that led to her uprooting her life again and starting a new adventure in Vietnam.
It is hard to imagine, says Soraya, that Vietman was embroiled in a bloody war 40 years ago that resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands to millions of lives. The war left the country's agriculture and economy in shambles. Corruption reigned supreme in the aftermath and a trade embargo imposed by the US and most of Europe meant that most Vietnamese lived in dire poverty. Today, Vietnam is on the up-and-up. It's the third largest oil producer in Southeast Asia and its poverty rate has declined. There is an influx of posh hotels, French Vietnamese restaurants and luxury boutiques such as Louboutin, Roberto Cavalli, Versace, Louis Vuitton and Gucci. Soraya is witness to this new Vietnam that has emerged from the ashes. As she travels the length and breath of Ho Chi Minh City, she is struck and humbled by the resilience of the people who don't wear the painful past as a millstone around their necks.
If she was in search of an adventure, she got it in Vietnam. There, nothing has come easy whether it's doing something as mundane and necessary as paying a light bill to something as routine as crossing the streets — in Vietnam these activities have their own challenges. With millions of motorbikes on the roads and an increasing number of visitor arrivals, the burning question asked by many tourists is: How do you cross the street?
"I've not been to India but a lot of people have compared the traffic to India and you see these little kids without helmets on motorbikes, you see not one or three but hundreds of motorbikes on the road and you have to learn to dodge them. I'm now able to cross a highway with hundreds of scooters around me and not be fazed because if you stop, that's it, you're gonna be hit, you just got to keep walking," says Soraya.
It does help that Soraya, a practicing Buddhist, starts her day with a chant and prayer. There are some experiences that take a lot of getting used to like strange exotic food from field mice, snake, frog, roaches to dog and worms. Then there are sights that are just plain comical.
"The most inexplicable scene I have witnessed is the congregation of women in the local square picking lice from each other's hair!" she says.
Then there are experiences that are challenging.
"Some days I get very annoyed like the day I went to open my bank account and they changed my name on me and I'm now called Ms Ho they forgot the entire of my last name and they put my first name last so I'm Ms Ho Soraya and as much as I try to tell them this is not my name I wouldn't be able to use this card anywhere else they were like, "no, that's your name in Vietnam"... there is the entire old communist way of thinking and everything is so much paperwork it is now becoming a norm for me to spend a couple of hours to pay my bills, not because there is a line, but because I have to fill out forms to pay bills then have them verified, then they are able to take my money," says Soraya.
Just when adjusting to life in a far away land can get a bit taxing, Soraya conjures up some of the most unforgettable memories that always leave a smile on her face, like riding on a motorbike through the old town of Hoi An alongside rice paddy fields, or enjoying the best Vietnamese street food she's ever had with friends by the seaside. Or the feeling of accomplishment when she volunteered at a charity event for orphans in honour of the Mid-Autumn festival or children's holiday. It's in those moments that she realises that despite the occasional loneliness or the yearning for something that reminds her of Trinidad, her home is Vietnam and she has begun to embrace the country as voraciously as its people have embraced her.
"I now have a life here and new friends and a purpose. Yes some may say I'm lucky, I have a husband to support me, and I can stay at home and don't have to work being an expat's wife, but I have now realised that I too can build a life here, you don't need much, it's the simple basic qualities of love, friendship and courage that get you through these times, be it in your own country or elsewhere. So when people stare at me awkwardly, or touch my skin, or ask me a hundred times "where are you from?", even referring to me as Chocolate Lady and even changing my name to Ho S Soraya on bank statements, I can laugh about it", she says.
Aside from the personal belongings she brought with her from Vietnam, Soraya kept the warrior spirit her supportive family back in Trinidad instilled in her from early on, but living in a man's world that is Vietnam, it helps that she has her own identity. She encourages women to be bold and step out of their comfort zones and consider giving Vietnam a try.
"A life does not change because you move location but when you let prayer determine your fate everything changes in a positive way. Getting out of your comfort zone does not mean living a lower life state; it just means taking a chance, being courageous, giving yourself an adventure. We are global citizens and the world needs us. Put faith into action," she says.
What irks Soraya the most is the name 'trailing wives' that is given to wives of expatriates because it carries with it the connotation that women like her shop by day and swirl champagne by night.
"My husband has encouraged me to get involved with everything I could possibly do. Many people have this idea that expat wives drink and party all day long, well sorry but that's not the case especially here in Asia, where many wives are now the main household income earners. I suddenly found myself wanting to be creative and prove to myself that I was capable of making an income out of a hobby, that way I won't have to be stuck in an office 9 to 5. I have just invested with a Japanese designer and will be launching his fabulous hand crafted bags in Trinidad this November," says Soraya.
So what is your ambition in life? Whether it's exploring exotic cultures halfway across the globe or staying put in Trinidad, make the decision to contribute to someone else's happiness, stresses Soraya.
"A lot of women are trapped by their circumstance, seized by a sense of powerlessness and hopelessness. Thankfully through my Buddhist practice and daily prayer, I am constantly reminded that I have a mission to fulfill and I must continue to use my unique talents and abilities to achieve my goals and contribute to the happiness of myself and others," she says.
I believe that when you make a decision to contribute to someone else's happiness, it is you who benefit most... a truly happy person is a successful one."