2. Making the move

It wasn’t easy to make a major life change at the age of 69. Perseverence, inspiration and the knowledge of veteran Asian expatriates helped to make possible the jump to Vietnam.

I began exploring my options, casting long glances at Asia. My girlfriend of many years, the photographer Barb Gonzalez, wasn’t interested. Not only had she had a negative experience living in Singapore in her early 20s; she wasn’t prepared to consider a new life so far away from her young-adult son.

I’m often asked how I wound up in Vietnam specifically. There is no one answer. Certainly, the experience of my traveling friend Kurt Bennett weighed in. Kurt ventured to Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon) around 2008, used his considerable wisdom to start a couple of small manufacturing businesses, and returned to Oregon with a wife. Now he and Thi have two homes, including Vietnam for several months each year. Not surprisingly, he gave the country his highest recommendation.

There was Isabel Dréan, the French Canadian film director. She and her ex-partner had launched a contest to sell the bookstore they owned for 10 years in the charming town of Luang Prabang in northern Laos. I serendipitously discovered the competition on a random website, immediately applied, and was among the first finalists chosen. The contest didn’t generate the interest she required to sell, and the bookstore is still in her family, now managed by her mother. But Isabel and I have remained friends.

Kurt and Thi Bennett, Vinh Long, Vietnam, February 2020 (JGA photo)

The Laos temptation was the spark that reignited my desire to return to Asia. It accelerated when my primary travel-writing market, the Bulletin newspaper in Bend, Oregon, stopped publishing my weekly stories after 10 years. As my income took an immediate dive, I was forced to consider where I might be able to live on a retirement income. Southeast Asia leaped to the head of the list.

With my parents and son having passed, I had only two immediate family members (and a few cousins) surviving, a sister in Oregon and my brother in Japan. Although my sister and I chatted from time to time, I had more in common with Fred, a linguistics professor who had lived in Japan since 1977. His wife, two adult children and one grandchild (now two) were all there. I missed being closer to them.

I had flashes of interest from English-language newspapers in Hong Kong and Beijing. Mostly, though, publications were seeking tech-savvy journalists in their 30s and 40s, not 60s. And I discovered, to my disappointment, that seniors were also not graciously welcomed to teaching positions. Perhaps I had waited too long in my life to make this move.

The final pieces

Enter Jessica Hill. During the early spring of 2019, I glimpsed a post on my Facebook feed from this woman, a fellow Laos bookstore applicant from Oregon. She was now promoting English-language teaching jobs for an agency called Global University. At a small independent bookstore, she laid out the opportunities available. It was true, she said, that many countries discouraged teachers of advanced age. But Vietnam and Cambodia were not among them. So hungry were these two countries for capable English teachers, they were rolling out the red carpet even for the seniors among us.

Certain things would be required of me before I would qualify for a teaching job. I would need a diploma from a university (I had two) and a clean criminal background check (my sole transgression, for drinking and driving, had been dismissed years earlier). More importantly, I would need a certificate of proficiency in TEFL, Teaching of English as a Foreign Language. With Jessica’s guidance, I enrolled in a four-week course at the Australia-Vietnam School of English in Ho Chi Minh City.

Barb Gonzalez and I dining with renowned travel guru Rick Steves, Bend, Oregon, October 2014 (Lilian Chu photo)

I paid tuition of US$1,749 in six monthly installments. I got my airline ticket and visas. And I put my life in Oregon in the rear-view mirror. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I reluctantly kissed my girlfriend goodbye. I tearfully put my aged and ailing dog to sleep. I said farewell to friends. I underestimated how much “stuff” I had accumulated in my itinerant life, but I got rid of what I could before putting the rest in storage for who knows how long.

I packed one large suitcase, a smaller one and my laptop computer, and boarded a flight from Portland International Airport on October 21, one week after my 69th birthday. Following a week with my brother in Osaka, I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City late on the night of October 29.

Next: Culture shock, and learning to teach


1. A new beginning

What in the world might have inspired this stunning, late-in-life adventure? John’s first installment explains what brought him to Vietnam.

My birthday is almost here again. That means I’ve been nearly a year in Vietnam, a tropical Southeast Asian country that, half a century ago, I did everything I could to avoid.

Of course, looking back 50 years, I was of prime military draft age, and Uncle Sam would have loved to cloak me in khaki, hand me an automatic weapon and drop me into a rice padi. Student deferments enabled me to stay in university through the first draft lotteries. Then I drew a very high lottery number and wasn’t called.

The United States withdrew its forces from Sài Gòn in 1975. A year later, I was a backpacker traveling through Bangkok, just a hop, step and jump away from what Vietnamese today call The American War. From 1982 to 1984 I worked elsewhere in Southeast Asia, in Singapore, where my son was born. By that time, Vietnam’s socialist-communist northern province had consumed its once-democratic southern jurisdiction, and Westerners were not roundly welcomed during the national rebuilding process.

Vietnam is different now. If some Americans of my generation continue to hold resentment against the Vietnamese, that grudge is not reciprocated. The people are almost universally warm and gracious. Although the country has a one-party communist government, it has an unabashedly capitalist economy. And tourism — not so long ago nonexistent — is now a stanchion of Vietnam’s booming success.

Buddhist temple complex, Tay Ninh, Vietnam, 2020

With its millennia-old history and great natural beauty, Vietnam has become one of the most popular travel destinations on earth. In fact, this seahorse-shaped country has no fewer than eight UNESCO world heritage sites.

An Asian attraction

Early on, I was smitten by Southeast Asia. I had traveled through western Europe, parts of Latin America and across the South Pacific, but it was this corner of the world that most enchanted me. As a meeting place between the cultures of India to the west and China to the north, the region hosted a singular blend of world religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism and more) and history, from the Mongol hordes to European colonization.

Several years after earning my journalism degree from the University of Oregon, I did graduate work in Asian cultures and history. I focused my learning on Southeast Asia, accompanied by coursework in basic Japanese language. (My brother, Fred, by this time had become a resident of Japan.) In my subsequent career as a travel and food writer and editor, however, I returned to this area only twice after leaving Singapore in 1984. Once was in 1996 with my son, Erik, when he was 12. The other was in 2004 as a guest on a clipper cruise line operating out of Phuket, Thailand.

I had always planned to return for longer stays. But LIFE happened. (As John Lennon famously said, LIFE is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.) Between 1980 and 2019 there was marriage. Childbirth. Divorce. Child support. Attractive new job opportunities. Book contracts. Two more major relationships. Dad’s death to heart disease at age 70. Mom’s declining health and, finally, her passing at the age of 89 in early 2015.

Between it all, my life was uniquely fantastic. I wrote 19 first-edition books and hundreds of feature articles for major magazines and newspapers. I was an editor for The Los Angeles Times and France’s renowned Michelin Guides. I worked not only as a journalist, but also as a cook, a musician, a carpenter, a salesman, a university professor, a bartender, even a sheep shearer. As a ski champion and instructor, I waxed my planks on four continents. I rode the Hawaiian surf, paraglided from the heights of Wyoming’s Grand Tetons, rafted the whitewater of Arizona’s Grand Canyon, backpacked large portions of the Pacific Crest Trail, and bicycled the length of New Zealand and the Oregon coast. I played ice hockey in Sweden and roller hockey on Venice Beach, mushed sled dogs in Alaska, studied tango dancing in Buenos Aires, created batik art in Java, tickled the honky-tonk piano keys in New Zealand, and fished for tuna from a dugout canoe in the Solomon Islands.

Through all these adventures, nothing and no one in my life meant more to me than my son. Erik lived in Seattle, a half day’s drive from my Oregon home. He was only 4 years old when his mother and I split, but he and I always remained the best of friends. We skied together, rafted together, shared a love of dogs, dining and professional sports. He found a career in information technology, but his passion was music. He was a popular DJ and producer of EDM (electronic dance music) shows in his home city of Seattle. I attended as often as possible.

Major League baseball with Erik, 2015

Inevitably, a part of DJ’ing was hard partying. The lifestyle took its toll. When Erik told me in October 2015, not long after Mom’s death, that he had been diagnosed with Stage IV liver cancer, I was devastated. Eight months later, in June 2016, he was dead at the age of 32, victim of a particularly aggressive form of hepatobiliary carcinoma.

Had he and his wife, Kim, his high-school sweetheart, succeeded in starting the family they so badly wanted, I doubt that I would have left the Pacific Northwest for the long term. My travels would not have been open-ended. I would have enjoyed being a grandfather. Now that would not happen.

Next: Making the move