How to be Happy in Denmark (and Vietnam): Notes on Getting it All Wrong Again

lettuce bench

Bowl of lettuce on bench contemplating life


I’ve been sick for the past two or three (maybe four?) weeks.

One of those fun, persistent malingering malaises that morphs from one form to another, then back again, sometimes overlapping in comical yet debilitating ways. I currently have twin ear infections that have swollen my already dainty canals into mere pinpricks, whilst at the same time a fine stew of bronchial miasma bursts forth in barks and wheezes and a background cold sniffles away ungracefully.

I am, I can confirm, not fit for human company and not at work this week.

Although this Winter Crud has made both Christmas and New Years festivities significantly less exciting than hoped, it has afforded me a bit more horizontal reading time than I’ve had in ages (non-MA related reading, to boot, as I can’t focus on discourse analysis for long in my current state, even with assignments looming).

One book I am currently reading on my Kindle, as I whimper over shooting aural pain or snuffle my way through more tissues, is one called something like A Year of Living Danishly (it’s in the bedroom and I can’t be bothered to go get it to check).

Essentially, it’s a fairly light memoir of a London journalist who is living the usual London journalist life, with the fairly modest expectations of happiness and comfort that such a lifestyle choice entails, whose husband is offered a very good job with LEGO  in semi-rural Denmark. Since Denmark consistently ranks highest in the world for happiness and because she consistently didn’t, she decided to make it her freelance project to research exactly why Danes are so bloody happy.

It’s been a very interesting read, to be honest, because everything that the Danes do that leads to their sense of contentment seems to be the exact opposite of everything I’ve ever done in my life and everything I’m doing now (beyond being chronically ill).

Off the top of my head, here are the things she has found so far that the Danes do that are fundamentally happy-making:

  1. Surrounding yourself with cosiness in winter, in a beautifully designed home that is simple, tidy, but warm and comforting. Lots of candles and throw pillows.
  2. Nature. Lots of nature. Long bike rides, gardening, swimming outside, hiking. Being near the sea.
  3. Community. Joining lots of clubs, groups, organizations that meet regularly and predictably to do pretty much everything with a constant group of people. Similarly, doing churchy stuff, like gathering to celebrate the major festivals, but without necessarily needing the actual religion to make it work (Danes, even churchgoers, are massive agnostics and atheists, apparently).
  4. Lots of free time. Working hours are very reasonable and time for family and hobbies are prioritised by not only individuals but also by society. Home by 4:30, earlier on Fridays. Lots of holidays, actively encouraged by employers. Lots of financial support for childcare.
  5. Super strong safety net all around. super high taxes, but super high salaries and no risk if you quit or lose your job because you’re around 80% covered for several years if you find yourself unemployed. Cradle to grave medical coverage. Free education, and actually getting paid to do your tertiary studies. Apparently, because of 1. free university and 2. the safety net, people tend to study subjects they actually enjoy because they know they’ll be okay and that they can always change jobs if it proves to be an ill-fit.
  6. A strong sense of tradition and belonging to a unified culture. They do things that are Danish, they eat things that are Danish, they think in ways that are apparently Danish, etc, etc.
  7. A life that has been calenderised (is that a word?) and rigorously scheduled in advance so that not only is the next day or three predictable, but so is next week, next month, next year. Not spontaneous at all, but apparently that’s okay.
  8. Fresh veggies, fresh fruits, fresh air, blah, blah, blah.

Something like that, anyways.

The author herself noted that, like me, she had been going about things in pretty much the wrong (or more kindly, opposite) way. The longer she spent living in Denmark, the more gently happy she began to feel, despite her inner voices shouting that it was counterintuitive (and rigid and dull).

I’m wrestling with this insight because after Tet in mid February, we are moving to Saigon for work. Same job, same university, main campus.  This campus is located down in the new build southern suburbs of Saigon, so whatever you saw on an Anthony Bourdain Saigon special, this ain’t it.


ba hoi

Plastic chairs and unswept floors make for pretty good food at Hanoi’s many bia hoi.


This is a thoroughly planned shiny chunk of new Asia, filled with more Koreans than Vietnamese, with towering modern apartment blocks housing nicely designed flats looking out over shimmering blue swimming pools, tidy lawns, western supermarkets, modern convenience stores (Hanoi convenience stores are often just someone’s open front door with a few stacks of things in front of it and the owner snoring on a chair just inside), green spaces and wide roads without potholes. There are sidewalks. Scooters are banned from honking. There are no tiny pho joints where you sit on grotty little stools at tables wiped with dubious cloths surrounded by whatever people threw or dropped onto the ground. There are Korean BBQ restaurants and craft beer pubs. When we were there last year, no one was driving on the sidewalks.


Hanoi drumming

Hanoi is not boring.


It’s a bit soulless, quiet, featureless, calm, predictable, generic, pleasant. Lots of expats doing expat things together. Family friendly. Bicycle friendly. Pedestrian friendly.

It is essentially the exact opposite of Hanoi.

It also sounds a lot more like Denmark. Aside from the financial and medical safety net.

Is this what it takes to be happy, to be content?

I’ve been feeling so fried and frazzled here over the past year that I’m having to seriously re-think my predilection for change, movement, weirdness and essentially challenging environments.

Maybe we need to move to Denmark next. Do they need teachers at LEGO?

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About MaryAnne

I live in Hanoi. I used to live in Shanghai (hence this blog's title) but I left in 2013. I tend to travel. I cook stuff. I read a lot. I try to scare myself silly with regularity. I write about it all. A lot.