Standing still, yet antsy in front of my grandmother, Mamie, before my next adventure is a moment which always stays with me wherever I go. I count myself fortunate to still have 3 out of my 4 grandparents, but there has always been a sickly feeling of hugging farewell. They are a huge part of my family, which unconditionally supports me, and continuously reminds me never to forget my roots or identity. I've never fully grasped the significance of their concern for my safety. They probably thought I’d be swept into an abyss like many Irish from their generation, who never stepped foot on Irish soil again.
My generation, however, is spoilt in some ways. In the 1950s my grandmother, Mamie, decided like so many Irish, at the time, to emigrate to Birmingham, England. A letter took a week to arrive, phone calls were a luxury and newspapers were the only form of media to keep up to date with the Irish news.
Travelling and emigration today has a more softening touch. The wake to mourn the foreboding exit of a friend or family member is in fact a joyous occasion, because you can guarantee their return in at least a year, or shorter if they miss their mammy’s Sunday roast.
That was the response when I left my village of Lisselton in Co. Kerry. I left for Ho Chi Minh City with a one-way ticket, a tourist visa and not a job in sight waiting for me on the other side. The odds were stacked against me, but my sheer laidback persona told me it’ll all be grand, I’ll find some sort of job and I’ll be home for Christmas 2020.
You can guess the outcome of my jarring beliefs once Covid hit Vietnam! Anywho, Vietnam has an unforeseen character that drew me in immediately as I stepped off the plane. Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon stands at the foothold between modern and ancient tendencies. The city bursts with traffic, mass construction of luxury apartments and a grand city centre, on one end, while amongst it you see a furrow of humble street food vendors and traditional market stalls. It was an experience to witness chickens being slaughtered in plain daylight, the dense smog covering the sky I once knew and the lack of footpaths. Best yet, a bag of cans can cost as little as 2EUR, so it’s easy to romanticise that image to an Irish audience. I am long desensitised to these strange twists in culture shock and happily follow along on what is the norm around these parts.
What continues to surprise me is the cities popularity amongst Irish expats. The city has become a hub for newly qualified teachers and those with other degrees to get their foot in the education system. I have a BA in European Studies from the University of Limerick and laugh to think this piece of paper got me here. I learned the hard way, that teaching was not for me and eventually wriggled out of it as soon as I could. I was teaching Kindergarten for a few months on and off which paid incredibly well but I couldn’t face the 2hr commute and other aspects involved with teaching babies.
Sport has always been something I’ve been involved with and the teaching was driving me to drink more than staying tuned to what I loved. Ironically, I met an Irish man in a bar who owned a football company in the city and that was my ticket out of listening to ‘the wheels on the bus’ forevermore. Coaching in the city is very rewarding in terms of the players I work with. I coach kids with roots from almost 20 different countries at the British International School. It brings a twist to the kids I formally coached back in Kerry. The best thing about the Rising Star Football Academy is its programme for girls and teenage girls more importantly. While it’s still frowned upon for girls in some Asian cultures, to participate in football, I have an epic bunch of girls in the school team and academy who bring great joy to me as I see their motivation and improvement every week. They are the trailblazers for the younger girls, and it has shown with 30/40 girls from 6-10 are coming to learn football and have FUN! I have tried hard to get the 20x20 initiative to the academy and the Saigon Gaels. It was well received and I will fight even more for these girls to get every opportunity on the pitch!
The city has so many opportunities to live your passion and find your identity, mine was football coaching and creating my own sports opinion website and podcast. Others I know are architects, business owners, artists, yoga teachers and the list gets weirder depending on the person.
Just to plug the podcast it’s called The Simply Sport Content Podcast available on Spotify...
Like every Irish person who settles abroad, you quickly learn the faces and names in the community. Where one finds an Irish bar, you’re never too far from finding a GAA team. That is another factor in terms of identity. At its heart, GAA is the biggest export of Irish identity where the locals can consume ‘that strange game like rugby/soccer’ and we as Irish can consume with pride and as an umbilical cord to the land of saints and scholars.
The Saigon Gael’s is my club and it surprises many to hear that we are not alone. There are three GAA teams, VietCelts in Hanoi and Saigon Gaels and Na Fianna in Ho Chi Minh. There were many battles to keep us occupied during the pandemic.
Vietnam was fortunate enough to live in a protective shield looking out of the disruption and pain surrounding Covid and get on with life, in a sense. We were fortunate to compete in a multi-discipline (GAA, AFL and Rugby) tournament on 2 occasions in 2020. Hanoi vs Saigon, North vs South, it was a sticky affair but a jubilant one for every participant who resides in Vietnam. It was a fantastic day for me, being a part of all three sports (Saigon Gaels, AFL Vietnam Swans and Saigon Geckos Rugby Club) in Saigon, there was no sitting around drinking cans till the final game.
The one downside to Asia is the lack of household Irish/European products. I know, I should have expected it and embraced the chicken feet, the random leaves in your sandwich and the heap of sugar they put in drinks but there’s something magical when Barry’s tea scalds my mouth.
I do lament from time to time, what life could be like at home. It’s an image that irks many Irish, but I can’t visualise how those feelings bubbled inside my grandmother and the thousands scattered around this earth at that time. I empathise with those feelings now. Home is no longer merely a plane ride, but a difficult decision to uproot yet again and return to a different Ireland from the one we departed.
By Charlie O’Neill
Kerry woman and sports addict