This Expat Life: Month 29 (Beijing & Vietnam)


For so many people around the world (and on my Facebook feed) the month of December was all about the holidays. It seems like everyone I know was excitedly chatting about their upcoming trips to spend family-filled holidays in their hometowns.

For me, that definitely wasn’t the case. Since I left California in the fall of 2013 I haven’t gone home for either Thanksgiving or Christmas once. And despite how much I love spending the holidays with my family, I just haven’t been able to make it happen for the past four years.

For me, the holidays just aren’t the same without listening to the crazy banter of my family or stuffing my face with the always-incredible spread of food that is served during every celebration my family has. Basically the only time I ever get homesick during this expat life of mine is during the holidays.

So instead of going home, I spent the majority of December in Beijing. For me, the month was less about planning for the holidays and more about planning for my upcoming stint in Vietnam.

You’re so pretty Vietnam!

I spent the first part of December researching things to do in Nha Trang (the beach town I would set up shop in during the first two months of 2017), looking up possible travel destinations for my week-long vacation at the end of January, and basically taking note of all the amazing vegetarian food I would eat during my time in Vietnam. Because, man, does Vietnam know how to do food.

Nha Trang from above.

As I eagerly awaited my departure date on December 23, I passed the days working, packing and hanging out with the few friends I’ve made in Beijing. I even met someone new, a rad Danish girl named Lena, who is currently getting her master’s in Beijing. She also happens to be the blogger/vlogger behind Lena Around. And get this, she recently moved into my out-of-town apartment building in Beijing. If you knew where we lived, you’d understand just how random this is. It’s great to have another friendly face in my neck of the woods, especially someone who loves to talk about blogging as much as I do!

Coping with some awful smog in Beijing

December was also spent grinning and bearing the awful air pollution that seemed to cling to the city all month long. The only thing that made the air issue bearable was knowing that I’d be breathing the fresh sea air of Nha Trang soon enough.

It might be stormy here in Nha Trang, but damn the air is fresh!

As I’ve said before, the air pollution hasn’t bothered me all that much since I moved to Beijing in February 2016. But once December rolled around I finally understood what people were talking about when they said the air gets really, really bad during the winter. (If you’re wondering why the smog gets worse during the winter months it’s because China burns insane amounts of coal to heat homes and businesses during Northern China’s bitterly cold winters.)

On December 16, Beijing was issued its first ‘red alert’ of the year. A red alert is China’s highest air pollution warning, and it basically means that the air will be at a ‘hazardous’ level for a minimum of two consecutive days. This particular red alert lasted for six miserable days.

Good times in Beijing.

It’s so difficult for me to explain how bad Beijing’s air can get to anyone who hasn’t experienced it. Capturing the air in a photograph has been impossible for me, though if you want to see some photos, click here.

When it gets really bad, as it did in December, it looks like harmless white fog. At times it gets so thick it reduces visibility to 50 meters. During times like this flights are cancelled, schools are closed, major highways are shut down, construction projects are halted – even outdoor barbecuing is banned.

To put it in some perspective for those of you who can’t grasp what it is that I’m talking about, the World Health Organization categorizes healthy air at 25 micrograms per cubic meter or below. In Beijing, the AQI spiked to around a 500 numerous times in December. And during the red alert it hovered between the 200-500 range for six whole days.


After a few days I could feel it in my chest and had developed a mild, but persistent, cough. My friends complained of headaches and fatigue. And pretty much everyone was waiting for the winds to whip back into town and blow the pollution away.

Some days in Beijing are picture perfect!

I don’t want anyone to think that Beijing is always so apocalyptic. And I definitely don’t want to deter people from traveling to China’s amazing capital city… at all! But the air pollution in China is an enormous problem, and it’s one that should not be ignored.

Bidding a temporary ado to Beijing and flying to Vietnam

On December 23 I flew to Nha Trang. And although my luggage got lost somewhere along the way I was incredibly jazzed to be back in Vietnam. I spent my first couple days wearing the same clothes I’d worn on the plane, wandering around town and eating my fill of veggie pho, bahn mi and fresh spring rolls. I was so caught up in the fact that I was back in Vietnam I almost forget it was Christmas. Almost…

Vegetarian bahn mi filled with mock meat for 50 cents! I’m basically in heaven here.


New Year’s in Vietnam!

Balancing work and travel

Vietnam also happens to be the ninth country I visited in 2016. Since March I have attempted to balance working a full-time job, freelancing on the side and making a rather pathetic attempt to keep up with this blog.


Cham Towers (Po Nagar) in Nha Trang.

Given that my life in 2016 was all about work, work, work it almost boggles my mind that I’ve traveled to a whopping nine countries this year. Granted my trips have consisted of all-too-quick visa runs and lengthy work-dominated trips, but I’ll take what I can get. And I guess that goes to show that it really is possible to balance a 9-5, a slew of side projects and still fit travel into your life.


Vietnam sure is pretty, so I shouldn’t be surprised that my most popular photos from the month were taken in Nha Trang.

It’s a bit stormy in Nha Trang, Vietnam, but it’s still pretty, especially from where I’m standing.

A photo posted by Justine (@thetravellush) on

How did your December shape up?

About Justine

Justine Lopez is a California native who always seems to take the unconventional route in life. She also suffers from a serious case of wanderlust. In 2013, she set out on a yearlong round-the-world journey and never looked back. Since then she's lived the expat life in both Jakarta and Phnom Penh. She's now living and working as a freelance writer in Beijing. As she meanders her way through Asia she's always seeking out great vegetarian food, budget travel deals and amazing new travel destinations.

2 thoughts on “This Expat Life: Month 29 (Beijing & Vietnam)

  1. Hi Justine!

    I have just accepted a two year contract working at the International School of Beijing (starting this August). After much (MUCH!) deliberation (the crowds, the pollution, the language, the culture shock etc, etc), it was by reading through your blog and others that really helped seal the deal. I appreciate your honesty but I also love your positivity. The most frustrating thing when telling people we will be moving to Beijing are the negative reactions (mind you, from people who have never been there!). Looking forward to more of your posts!

    1. Congratulations Erin! We also had a lot of deliberations about our move. It’s a very scary move, especially when you’ve never been to China before, which was the situation for us. Everyone I know was VERY skeptical about our move. But it ended up being just fine. I think Beijing is an amazing (and challenging) city. But so far things have really worked out for my boyfriend and I. The one thing I’m the most unhappy about (aside from the air!) is the fact that I live so far outside of the city. That is by far my biggest complaint. I’d really love to live downtown because I feel like I’m missing out on so much! Good luck and let me know if you have any questions. I’m happy to help 🙂

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