Hit the Road: Crisis at home leads to Vietnam and a lesson in living simply

Hit the Road: Crisis at home leads to Vietnam and a lesson in living simply
Doan Van Bo Street is “so narrow I feared we’d sideswipe a house and knock its many occupants out,” writes Esterhammer of the street her family called home. “People lived cheek by jowl in two- to five-story houses with balconies only a couple of arms’ length apart.” Photos courtesy Karin Esterhammer

Live simply. Be thankful for the little things. Keep life events in perspective.

Good thoughts for this Thanksgiving weekend, but likely few of us actually are challenged to live by these platitudes. Karin Esterhammer, husband Robin and 8-year-old son Kai (who is “on the autistic spectrum”) did face such a challenge and say they have come through it for the better.

Their crisis arose with the arrival of the Great Recession in 2008.

While living in Ho Chi Minh City for three years, author Karin Esterhammer made weekly visits to a nearby orphanage to provide hugs for children in need.

Karin lost her 15-year job as an editor/writer at the Los Angeles Times with no other job prospects, and Robin’s home-based business dried up. Suddenly they couldn’t afford their mortgage or pay off credit card debt.

What to do?

The family sold their possessions, rented their home, said tearful goodbyes to Karin’s young-adult daughters and moved to Vietnam. Their life’s Plan B was to remain a year — enough time, they figured, to rebuild their savings and return to Los Angeles. But unexpected and costly events loomed again and they turned to Plan C: remaining in Vietnam for an additional two years. So it wasn’t until 2011 that the Esterhammers said tearful goodbyes to their Vietnamese friends and adopted family members.

“It was a pretty quick decision to move because we were pretty desperate,” Karin said during a phone interview from her home in Burbank.

They chose Vietnam because they had visited in 2006, and “my recollection of the trip was that it was a place of friendly people and prices so low that tightwads could spend lavishly,” she writes in her recently published memoir “So  Happiness to Meet You; Foolishly, Blissfully Stranded in Vietnam” (Prospect Park Books; $16). “Unlike any other place on earth — and I’d been to some 40 countries — Vietnam had left me in the choke hold of infatuation.”

And unlike the United States, Vietnam in 2008 was prospering with a GDP growth rate of 6.5 percent and a need for people who could teach English.

“Learning English and working for a foreign (American) company was the best way out of poverty for the Vietnamese,” Karin explained.

And so, on a sweltering mid-September day, the blond-haired, blue-eyed family of three arrived at the door of their tiny apartment (four stories, each 9 feet wide, 20 feet long) in District 4 of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). For their Vietnamese neighbors, it was an exciting doorstep circus. They quickly invaded the American family’s new home, a difficult initiation into Vietnamese culture.

“Obviously, privacy was not the cultural imperative that it was for Americans,” she writes. 

Over the next 30-some months, the Esterhammers learned that poverty is measured differently in Vietnam. Their neighbors marveled that this American family had only three people to occupy their apartment, for which they paid $400 a month. (Karin later learned that previous Vietnamese occupants had paid $200.) Schooling is not free, so Vietnamese often work 16 hours a day, seven days a week to pay tuition and keep their families afloat. Sanitation standards are far from U.S. standards, and despite stifling heat and humidity, air-conditioning is a rare luxury.

“It was physically exhausting,” Karin said, “but we stuck it out because the people are so wonderful.”

The memoir also is filled with unforgettable stories of neighbors and friends. Their biographies include near-starvation, abuse and adversity requiring gargantuan determination to survive; nonetheless, the Vietnamese seem to be remarkably optimistic. 

The Esterhammers have carried the lessons of Vietnam to their present-day life. Karin is an editor at Outlook Newspapers in La Cañada, Robin rekindled his home business and drives for Uber, and Kai, 15, attends high school with the help of special education classes. They rent their home and live in a small, one-bedroom backhouse where an oversized closet with a window serves as Kai’s bedroom.

“Living in Vietnam really changed us,” Karin said. “Before Vietnam, living in a backhouse would have upset me. I’d have felt as if we were going backward, but now we love living more simply.”

For more photos and commentary, visit www.facebook.com/elouiseondash.   

E’Louise Ondash is a freelance writer living in North County. Tell her about your travels at eondash@coastnewsgroup.com

1 Comment
  1. David Lucier 3 weeks ago

    Great story of not only thanksgiving, but of perspective on life and living. I am a Vietnam combat veteran (5th Special Forces Group 1968 -1969) who visted Vietnam in 2000 and can reinforce the idea that the Vietnamese are some of the most welcoming and friendly people in the world. I’ve often thought about living there from 4 to 6 months out of the year. To Karin and her family…congratulations on your decision to allow yourselves experience of a lifetime.

    P.S. Full disclosure…I am E’Louise’s brother and always thankful for her talent, but more importantly, for her love and generosity.

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