How one decision in Vietnam changed everything

On one lonely night in Ho Chi Minh City, an Asian Canadian lawyer makes one simple decision that changes everything.

My first few weeks in Ho Chi Minh City were rough. 

My friends and family were back in Canada. I knew no one aside from my co-workers. Despite being part Vietnamese, my grasp of the language was minimal. I often found myself fumbling through with my broken Vietnamese and Google Translate. 

What did I just do? Did I make the wrong decision? Is it too late to turn back?  

The pang of regret started to set in. I left my stable life behind in Canada to pursue a gut feeling. A gut feeling that Vietnam would be the next place of growth and opportunity.

Before my move, I was living the stereotypical Asian immigrant life. Study hard, attend university, go to law school and earn a high salary. It was a stable life but after a few years, my life started to feel stale and meaningless. 

Don’t get me wrong: I had a great group of friends and my own passion projects outside of work. But I felt like there was something lacking in my life. 

Despite intense objections from my dad, who left Vietnam as a refugee, I decided to pursue my gut feeling and go back to my roots.

Photo Credit: Steven Ngo

It was a Saturday night. I was sitting alone in my room scrolling through Facebook and trying to find something to do.

I stumbled upon a stand-up comedy class taking place in an hour. Stand-up comedy? This was completely outside of my comfort zone.

It was now or never. Either I continue wallowing in my misery or try something new. So I went for it. This one decision changed everything.

Photo Credit: Steven Ngo

To my surprise, I met a vibrant group of friends, artists and musicians. This comedy class became the base for my life in Ho Chi Minh City and I found myself saying yes more often to new events, new opportunities and new friends. 

My motto in life changed from “Why?” to “Why not?” Whenever something came up to stretch my comfort zone, I would ask myself, “Why not try it?” 

This motto led to running my first half-marathon, volunteering to teach corporate law to university students and starting my own business leading workshops on public speaking — all on top of a full-time job working at an international law firm.

Photo Credit: Steven Ngo

These experiences further gave me the confidence to launch the Living Room Series in Vietnam, a modern-day take on 18th-century French salons where people would gather in person to discuss ideas and share stories. I also joined the global music organization Sofar Sounds in Ho Chi Minh City and was named in Bright Magazine as one of the top three music influencers in Vietnam.

More importantly, I discovered that my family’s perceptions of Vietnam were no longer correct. Vietnam is not a war-torn country with a stagnant economy, but a prosperous one.

From the day I landed, I could feel the optimism and energy in the air. The economy is growing at a record pace and is expected to be among the top 20 economies of the world by 2050, even ahead of Canada. I know this first-hand as I worked on many of the multimillion dollar transactions that are transforming the country.

During my time in Ho Chi Minh City, I met other Vietnamese expats like myself (Viet Kieus as they call us) who felt the same calling to return to our roots. We quickly formed our own community to support one another.

This group gave me a true sense of home as we would see other at least once a week whether it was at social events, community initiatives and even simple things like sharing a family meal together. 

Photo Credit: Steven Ngo

After a year, my Vietnamese also improved drastically after taking lessons at a nearby language school (VLS) and I have never felt more proud to be Vietnamese than I do today.

And about that stand-up comedy class. Would I take it again? 

Sure, why not?

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