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Vietnam Travel Diary #02: Ho Chi Minh City – Heat, History and Culture

I have to say that, no matter how much preparation, research and planning we had done for this trip, nothing had quite prepared me for the HEAT. I knew it was going to be very hot, but I didn’t fully realise that Ho Chi Minh City would have heat and humidity more intense than anything I had ever experienced before. We decided to take it slow, and started the morning with a stroll through Tao Dan Park.

Tao Dan Park

As we walked through the park we noticed groups of people doing Tai Chi. It looked so graceful and elegant. We also saw people doing fan dancing, and others doing their own individual exercise routines. Another group of people were playing badminton and instead of using rackets they were kicking the shuttlecock to each other over the net.

We then headed to the Reunification Palace. This was a really grand piece of architecture. I will admit that I took every possible opportunity to casually stop and stand under the cool air vents inside the building for as long as I could without looking too much like a tourist way out of her temperature comfort zone.

Reunification Palace

It was so interesting to take a glimpse inside the state rooms. The building was very open, and light poured through each room. It was surrounded by greenery and as we walked past the windows in the hallways, we could hear the sound of birds chirping and the distant whirl of the traffic.

State Dining RoomState Meeting Room

The next place we visited was incredibly sobering. We travelled to the War remnants museum; a building dedicated to preserving photographs and artefacts from the Vietnam war and the first Indochina War. As you enter the area, you are given a sticker that depicts a white dove in front of three falling bombs. For me this was a reminder that we should always continue to strive for tranquillity, kindness and peace. The symbol can be seen on the building in the image below:

The War Remnants Museum

Inside the building there were a variety of exhibitions on both the Vietnam war and the First Indochina War. In Vietnam, they often refer to the Vietnam War as the ‘Resistance War Against America’ or ‘The American War’. The exhibitions were harrowing, and the photographs were graphic, raw and uncensored. Inside that building I saw photographs that shocked me to my core.

One of the most poignant exhibitions was one dedicated to those who photographed the Vietnam War. This was so informative as it showed the transition from black and white to colour photography, and how these photographs were used to bring awareness to the realities of the war. Photojournalism helped to raise a huge amount of awareness surrounding the Vietnam war, and many photographers gave their lives in the quest to document it’s brutal realities. A plaque in the middle of the exhibition had a list of photographers who had died or had gone missing during the war.

Photographers In the War

We took a moment in the museum to just sit and digest what we had seen. We just sat silently for a while. Visiting the War Remnants Museum was so important, and I’m really glad that it was one of the first things we’ve did. I think this was a really important stop to make.

We then took a long walk to the pink church, more formally known as Tan Dinh Church. On the way to the pink church a few guys said ‘Hello!’ and held up peace signs.  The pink church was actually closed when we got there, but the outside was a marvel in itself.

The Pink Church

As you can see, it’s a very pink church. Can you spot a very small human? That’s me. The clouds above us began to get a little grey, so we anticipated that it might rain soon. After seeing the church we headed towards the post office, and on our way we stumbled across the aptly nicknamed Book Street. It was amazing! There were umbrellas hung above the street and a sudden rain started to drizzle onto them just as we got under the canopy.

Book Street

The street had lots of independent book shops and quaint coffee shops. There was also a lush sunshade of trees above us. We sat on a bench for a little while taking in the sounds of rain splashing, people chatting and coffee cups clinking. One of my favourite things to do is just sit, observe and take in the atmosphere. This was the perfect place to do it. I’d found my own personal Eden in Ho Chi Minh City.

We got to the post office and looked around the shops for a bundle of postcards to send to friends and family. The building was another brilliant piece of architecture.

The Post Office

Whilst we were searching for postcards and stamps I had a bit of a funny turn and had to sit down for a while. I sat in the post office looking at the old fashioned phone booths, and eventually felt alright after a nice rest.

We then headed to the opera house. I’m a massive opera nerd so, when I can, I always make an effort to see the opera house in each city I visit.

The Opera House

After that we stumbled upon the town hall which was a welcome surprise, and the last item on our list of things to see on that day. We strolled to the waterfront where we sat and watched the water.

We then headed back to the hotel to have a rest. In the evening we went to dinner at Pizza 4P’s which is a Japanese Italian Pizza Restaurant based in Vietnam (quite a mouthful!). The pizza didn’t disappoint and we had a lovely evening just relaxing, eating, and talking about what else we might want to do in HMC. We walked home late, and on the way to the hotel I saw three lizards scuttling around on the size of a movie poster.

When I got back to the hotel, I felt… exhausted. As wonderful as Ho Chi Minh City had been so far, it was also proving to be quite overwhelming at times. I vowed that most of the extra anxiety was coming from jet lag, and that tomorrow would be a new day full of even more adventure!

Thank you for reading! You can see my previous travel diary all about my first impressions of the city here.

 

 

 

 

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Dear Late Bloomer

 

At the age of 23, I was suddenly hit with a perpetual degree of self-induced pressure to succeed as soon as possible. I moved away from home to a very large, very loud and (for a time) very lonely city. I ventured into the unknown with a head full of anxieties and a heart full of appreciation and determination. I had been propelled into a course in London with the help of an incredible group of friends and family, and everything I had ever dreamt of doing was suddenly a reality.

I instantly put pressure on myself, not just because of how many people were rooting for me, but also because I already felt like I was so behind in life. Despite the many chats I had with friends and family, I had convinced myself that I needed to take this chance and succeed as fast as possible, and as young as possible.

When you look at the way the media glorifies young achievers, it’s no wonder  many of us feel a crippling amount of pressure to become one. As a society, for some reason, we place so much value and prestige on child prodigies and being the youngest person to achieve a certain accolade. The issue with this logic though, is that it assumes that someone reaching certain milestones in their life at a young age is more impressive than if they were in their 30s, 40s, heck even their 80s or 90s and beyond.

I have often felt like I’m so far behind other people my age because I’m reaching certain milestones later than they did, or later than I feel I am ‘expected’ to. This is a deceitful and deep-rooted thought process that it has taken me years to unpick. Expecting people to reach certain milestones by a certain age refuses to see the struggles, challenges and ups and downs of each individual. Thinking that someone is running late or growing too slow neglects to acknowledge that our paths are all wonderfully different, and we tread them with a unique stride.

Within my first year living in London I had convinced myself that there was an end point and that I needed to reach it as soon as possible. The reality was that my experience would turn out to be completely different and more wonderful than I had ever expected.

We each have a beautifully unique journey ahead of us, and life is about enjoying that ride. It’s just like Billy Joel says, “Vienna waits for you”. Life is all about change and growth, it’s about embracing what COULD be and not striving for what you think MUST be.

For me, success is measured in things like; growth, laughter, memories, travel, awareness, experiences, learning, kindness and empathy. And not one of those has an expiry date. So from one late bloomer to another, know this…

Uncertainty is scary but its okay.

Your journey is unique, nobody knows what it’s like to be you.

Don’t compare yourself to other people.

Don’t forget how far you’ve come.

It’s okay to be you, just as you are.

It’s okay to slow down.

It’s okay to not know what you’re doing yet.

It’s okay to never know what you’re true calling is.

It’s okay to reach milestones later in life.

It’s okay.

Take your time.

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It’s a wonderful thing to be quiet

Have you ever been told that you’re ‘too quiet’? If you’re anything like me you’ll have heard this countless times throughout your life. Some people are perplexed by quietness and introversion. It is a very western concept that extroversion is seen as the norm and that if you’re a quieter person, you’re the anomaly or the ‘shy’ one. As a young pupil I was the quiet kid, and as an educator I became hyper aware of the quiet kids within the classroom. Being quiet, at least as far as I’ve noticed, has always been considered one of those quirks that needs to slowly be developed.

The thing is, being quiet is actually pretty awesome. Many people who are considered ‘quiet’ aren’t like that all the time. Some of us are quiet in big groups, but talk the ears off of our closest friends and family. Some of us just prefer to listen and observe. Quiet people are brilliant listeners, keen observers, and we’re often well tuned in to the world. Being quiet is different to being shy. Shyness can be related to wanting to speak and not feeling confident or comfortable enough to do so. Quietness is simply the absence of noise. What kind of a work would it be if we were all shouting over each other constantly?

Often, being quiet can bring with it some worry. I’ve sat in many a room with a many a friend or acquaintance or colleague, and felt anxious about not saying enough. At times, I’ve felt the need to try to make small talk or fill frequent silences with this and that. But in all honestly I don’t always have the urge to talk. I like looking and listening and watching and understanding and simply just being.

It’s not just okay to be quiet. It’s actually a wonderful thing. Being quiet allows us space to see and feel and witness the world around us. If you have a quiet friend, a quiet child in your classroom, or maybe a colleague who doesn’t speak up as much as the rest of the team, try to see this as a beautiful and wonderful introspective gift. We are all different, and there isn’t one fixed way to be. Loud or quiet, we each contribute something unique and important to the world around us. In loudness there is movement and flurries of revelation. In quietness there is peace, understanding and stillness, and we each make up two halves of an ever continuing conversation.

 

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To the NHS nurse who held my hand

When I was 17 years old I had a Cancer scare. The ultimate outcome was that I was far too young to go through invasive screening and that they were certain I was fine. This unfortunately led to a series of health related anxieties, doctors visits and serious hypochondria. When I say the word “hypochondria’ I’m sure many people envisage a germaphobe or a comedy sketch with Dr Google sentencing me to death. It is and was, however, a serious and debilitating form of health anxiety which affects me in profound ways. I’ve written a more specific post about Hypochondria and you can find it here.

In May 2017 at age 24, the symptoms that I had gotten at age 17 came back. Without going into too much detail, I ended up getting a procedure done to screen for Cancer. This was the ‘invasive’ screening that the doctors in my teens had told me I was too young to go through, and good grief were they right. Let’s just say it involved a needle and an ultrasound machine.

When I got to the screening clinic I had no idea that I would end up getting this procedure. I was greeted by two lovely smiling receptionists and sat down in the reception amongst the rest of the people waiting. I was called through to a doctors office and I remember it being oddly dark in there. I’m sure there’s a technical or medical reason for it but it made the experience extra trippy. For the life of me I can’t remember the Doctor’s name. I only remember that she looked like Charlotte Rampling and that she was a little bit scary (though I expect anyone holding a needle with the intention of stabbing you with it is terrifying).

What I do remember though, was Louise. Louise was the nurse that called me into the room and stayed with me the whole time. I remembered her name because she was like my guardian angel that day. Thank the stars for her. When it all started she held my hand as if I was her own daughter, and I just kept wondering how many hands she’d held before.

As I looked at the details of one particular ceiling tile I realised my feet were freezing cold. I had my running shoes on and I remember looking down at them, desperately trying to put the thoughts of illness and disease and infection out of my mind, and to quiet the voice asking ‘what if she finds something?’. On the other side of the room I could see my boyfriend, who was told he had to stay on the other side of the half drawn curtain. There was a piece of fluff hanging from the ceiling vent and I stared at it… and stared and stared.

When the procedure started the Doctor said ‘You poor girl’, and I just kept holding Louise’s hand. She made everything seem okay, because she’s a bloody good nurse. When it was all finished Louise took us out of the room and asked me how I felt, I said ‘tired’ and she said ‘me too’, she was definitely more tired than me. I went home, ate monster munch and watched Lilo and Stitch.

For the first time in a long time, I couldn’t obsess about an invisible illness or an itch or a dirty hand rail on the tube, I had finally seen what I had been terrified about for so long, and it was smaller than an M&M. The fears of death and illness were suddenly replaced with rationality and planning calmly for the various scenarios that might surface.

When it all came through clear, I was relieved, but I also felt silly, and thankful, and blessed that we have a National Health Service in this country with hundreds of thousands of of Louises.

The NHS is immeasurable, irreplaceable and essential. But it’s slowly being driven to the point of total breakdown. Louise does a job that I could never do, she sees people through their most vulnerable times with a smile and profound strength. I have friends who are nurses, I have a boyfriend who’s training to be a doctor, these people are amazing and I honestly couldn’t imagine having to do what they do. The NHS has been incredible to me. It works, and it works hard.

I hope we can continue to spread our stories and share our gratitude towards the NHS staff who have held our hands, saved our lives, helped us through illness and fought for us. In a world full of hatred, selfishness and fear… I think we should all strive to be a little more ‘Louise’.

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Why ‘giving up’ isn’t always a bad thing

We live in a society in which many of our life choices are labelled as us ‘giving up’. For example, when we hear that someone has stopped pursuing a lifelong dream, or maybe moved back into their parents home, we feel like they’ve lost out on something. We might even feel a sense of sadness and pity, and the cruellest among us might even label that person a failure. “They must be devastated”, we say. But the thing is, we can’t assume that when someone takes a turn, chooses a different path, or takes a step back, that they are ‘giving up’.

What you envisage as ‘giving up’ might be another persons life defining choice. Perhaps someone quit a high paying job in London to return home and start a non-profit organisation, perhaps a seasoned west end actress decided she wants to quit the industry to become a historian, or maybe a university student decided to leave education to start up a cosmetics company. Without knowing the full context we might see a failed business man, a washed up actress and a college drop out, but we don’t see the full picture of their decisions nor the reaping of their eventual rewards. Perhaps these people ‘gave up’ on their situations because they were unhappy, exhausted, or struggling to cope.

I always found it cruel when I heard people talking about how their friends and acquaintances had ‘given up’. Some people even take this stance when it comes to complete strangers. They say stuff like, “He’s let himself go” and ‘Wow, she could have really been something if only she hadn’t given up” etc.. etc.. and so forth. The thing is, even when we think a goal or a dream is truly worth the struggle, we don’t know how soul-crushing, life-altering and embittering that journey can be until we’re on it.

People very rarely ‘quit’ or ‘give up’ on things that make them truly happy, relaxed, content and fulfilled. Perhaps for a time they felt that way and things changed, or they were trying to fight and fight for something that made their life miserable. I know of many people who have gone through struggle after struggle and finally realised that the illustrious and almost impossible end point of their ‘dream’ isn’t even what they want anymore. It’s good to fight for things we know will end up right, to strive to see things and do things we want to do, but if the expense of all this is loneliness, bitterness and burn out, we have to decide ourselves whether it’s worth it. Unless you are significantly hurting yourself or somebody else in a profound and drastic way, you have every right to say ‘enough is enough’. The wonderful thing is that ‘giving up’ can actually lead to countless opportunities and possibilities.

It takes a lot for someone to give up on a dream, and it’s harsh of us to belittle their decision and assume that they’ve failed. I think that sometimes, it takes ‘giving up’ to understand what you really want. This doesn’t mean that the journey towards your goal served no purpose, nor that you won’t someday return to the same path. It just means you might find your way there via a new route, or a different mode of transport. Maybe you’ll take someone else with you this time, or you’ll be more cautious along the way. Life is a series of choices and events, and you should never feel judged for ‘giving up’ on something that makes you feel anything less than wonderful.

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The Ship Might Sink

This blog post was my first ever, and for some reason I deleted it. I’m not sure why but I only recently found it and decided it deserved a re-upload. Since starting my blog, my grandparents have sadly both since passed away, but they stay with us in memories such as this. I hope you enjoy this old blog post which explains my blog title.

When me and my family used to sit at the dinner table for our weekly visit to my Grandparents’ house we would listen to the most obscure stories. Within them were some utter gems, and some of the most poignant, rare observations came from my Grandad, (affectionately known to us as Mandad).

One of these hidden gems seemed to come out more often than others. Imagine this, my sister is happily digging in to her meal but, like she does every week, she leaves her meat until the end. Mandad notices this, and looks on with narrow, but jovial eyes and says “Jessica! Why are you leaving the chicken?” for what seems to be at least the fifth time, and we see where it’s going. “I’m just leaving it till last…” she says with a smile “…because it’s the best bit!”. And now Mandad lets out that signature phrase we’re all waiting for “Ah, but Jess! The ship might sink!”. What’s the moral of that story? Well, we had no idea, so we asked. “Well, when you’re on a ship you never know when it might sink!” says Mandad “So, you always eat the best bit first, because it might be your last meal, or you might need that strength when you get shipwrecked!” He exhales a loud chuckle, we giggle, and Jess saves her meat till last again.

The more I heard this reappear in conversation, the more insightful it seemed. “The ship might sink” kept playing over and over as such an interesting message. “The ship might sink”, is just like saying live life to the fullest and take every opportunity as soon as possible before it passes you by… Obviously it’s a bleaker way of saying it, since in Mandad’s version you are looking at some kind of naval disaster, but it makes for an interesting blog title. And the ship sinking isn’t just a metaphor for death, or anything else which is as severe and sombre. I think the ship just signifies an opportunity, a time in which you need to seize your destiny, and try not to make the mistake of playing it safe.

 

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To Live would be an Awfully Big Adventure

Two years ago I went through an episode of serious hypochondria. The gut squeezing, head pounding fear set in after I noticed a tiny rash on my skin. I googled and trawled through the internet , finding obscure forums and even more obscure doctors until I had turned a rash into a death sentence. It wasn’t one of those comical over reactions to Dr Google, no hyperbole here, I had genuinely convinced myself that I was going to die. I look back on it all now and cringe and laugh and wince at myself, but at the time, it was reality for me. Nobody could talk me out of it. I was suddenly in raw and passionate despair considering all I was going to lose.

The thing about hypochondria is that it is essentially ridiculous. Look at Aunt Josephine, a character from Lemony Snicket’s third book in A Series of Unfortunate Events. Her reputation is that of a ‘formidable woman’, a human without fear, but when she is introduced to us in the story, we learn that the death of her husband has caused her to become a shadow of her former self; a worried, paranoid, death conscious shadow. In the book and certainly in the new TV series she is portrayed as comically danger-aware. She doesn’t use her oven in case it burns the house down, and subsequently eats only cold soup, and she is deathly afraid of estate agents (If you live in London you might share the same fear). Her character is not put out there as being tragic and we aren’t particularly encouraged to feel a deep sense of sadness when considering her story, because her fears are obscure and irrational. But however ridiculous these fears seem, they were real for her, just as my fears were real for me. Whilst I was watching the new Netflix TV series and observing Aunt Josephine, I was reminded of a quote that my Dad gave me, which to this day helps me to manage anxiety and fear:

“Thoughts are not facts.”

I promise that if, like me, you suffer from anxiety or panic disorder, this is the most important thing for you to hear. Make it your mantra, say it to yourself, out loud if you can, whenever you hear that little voice in your head niggling at your insecurities and your fears. Often those who have intrusive thoughts aren’t helped by the fact they are incredibly imaginative. Thinking you might be in danger everyday is bad enough, but when you’re the kind of person who can imagine every tiny detail of that danger, from start to finish and with flourishes in between, that’s where the real unbearable fear comes from. The truth is that anxiety only gets worse when you let it, and you don’t have to.

The presence of fear will not change your fate. If you spend your entire life locked inside a house on a clifftop, there’s no stopping a hurricane from blowing it away. Life is a mess, really, but living it is the only option. It is in the high tides that we find our strength to climb higher still. Being alive is utterly magnificent, and even though we may be frightened, we must not let fear steer our story.

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Being brave

When I was 19 I used the London Underground on my own for the very first time. I’d started singing lessons in Pimlico and asked literally anyone I could think of asking to come with me because I was afraid of several things, namely:

  • Getting killed by commuters for walking too slow or generally being a weak country impostor with NO OYSTER CARD
  • Falling onto the tube tracks
  • Falling down the escalator
  • Falling up the escalator
  • Getting so lost that I ended up in a dystopian version of Narnia
  • Being kidnapped by the buskers who walk up and down the tube for not giving them spare change despite their unsettling, borderline aggressive enthusiasm; particularly the mariachi band that I’d seen that one time…
  • Other human beings
  • Eye contact with said human beings

I was socially anxious and cripplingly aware of it. I was a Level 97 introvert. But I wanted those damn lessons. I remember my brother teaching me exactly how to get to Pimlico station… straight from Euston to Pimlico… Victoria line… that’s blue… which blue?!… light blue… okay… I freaked out a little, but I managed it. I bought my ticket, I got on the train, then I got onto the tube, I made it there and back and I made zero enemies and was kidnapped zero times, I didn’t die and I didn’t end up in Brixton.

Recently I’ve been thinking about whether I could define myself as ‘brave’ in that moment, and it’s taken me a while to realise that bravery means different things to different people. For someone who wasn’t 19 year old me, travelling to London solo might have been the easiest thing in the world, talking to strangers without writing an entire script in their head first would have been natural, easy. But for people who suffer quiet battles and are scared to do or say things that other people think are trivial, for people who are like I was at that age, it’s hard.

I guess you could say we each have our own boggarts. If you’ve not read or seen Harry Potter, a boggart is a spirit which transforms itself into the worst fear of the person looking at it. We all have fears, some of us have plenty more than others and some have just one or two, but we are all afraid of something. I think that people forget that for some people the trivial things in life can be really terrifying. We need to realise that bravery comes when you fight your fears, no matter what they are or how small they may be. Being brave is being terrified and doing it anyway, because what you need to accomplish is more important.

Interestingly enough, I now live in London. I’ve gotten my bag stuck in the tube doors twice, met a one legged man with an eye patch on a late night tube journey home, been yelled at for trying to give a homeless man directions because he thought I was deliberately sending him wrong way AND walked up a down escalator. I’m not scared of the tube anymore.