Living as an Expat in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Growing Up Again
I lost eight months of my life, one January 1st. On a day at the beach, of all things.
To celebrate the New Year, I went to the shore at Vung Tao with some of my Vietnamese colleagues from work. It was just a short, and cheap, van ride from Ho Chi Minh City, and seemed like a fun-loving and carefree tone to set for the coming year.
We arrived and sat down at a seafood restaurant for a huge lunch. I skimmed the menu, smiling at a few unappetizing English translations. Flaccid Oyster was my personal favorite. We ordered the non-flaccid oyster, fried that is, as well as clams in lemongrass sauce, giant prawns, and a grouper hot pot.
While we dropped the saucy seafood onto our personal bowls of white rice, we talked about the future, which we all decided would be an improvement on the past. One colleague mentioned that now that he was 23 he hoped that our bosses would take him more seriously. This surprised me, since I had just turned 22 and was pretty sure that I was older than him.
I mentioned this, and the group laughed. I was 23 too, they explained. It was simple math: you were born in 1987? It’s 2010 now, and that was 23 years ago. According to Vietnamese age reckoning, a newborn is one year old and gains a year at each passing New Year. My early twenties were literally flying by.
Rapid aging was an unexpected side effect of living in Vietnam, especially since I had never felt younger. I was living in a place where I struggled to read, write, hold a conversation for more than a minute, grocery shop and even cross the street. In effect, I was a very large child.
I was growing up though. I was learning to do things in new ways, and to solve problems I didn’t ever think I would have. Maybe this extra birthday wasn’t so off base after all.
Why Vietnam? Why Ho Chi Minh City?
If you know anything about Vietnam, it is probably that the country has been the setting for wars and foreign occupations for almost 2,000 years. The current peace is a brief anomaly in the country’s history. However, the bitterness of war does not seem to factor into the national psyche. The people in Ho Chi Min City are overwhelmingly friendly to foreigners, forward-thinking and optimistic.
It is a city characterised by shiny, new skyscrapers and non-stop commerce, but also by coils of incense burning in Buddhist pagodas and old women selling mangos out of baskets. A city of contrasts is a cliché that gets thrown around too often, but I often struggle to find a more apt description.
I loved Vietnam from the moment I arrived as a college student on an abroad program. The country is full of new colors, sounds and flavors that kept me more curious and engaged with my surroundings than I ever felt back home. And when I graduated, a year and a half later, moving back to Vietnam was an obvious decision.
Living and working in Ho Chi Minh City allowed me the opportunity to get to know this country and, in the process, turn a place, so foreign and new that it seems to belong to the realm of fantasy, into a home. It is a place for new sights and experiences, but more than anything, it is a place to learn.
Learning the Language
In theory, Vietnamese is an easy language to learn. For instance, the grammatical structure is almost non-existent. To ask a question, all you have to do is make a statement and then add the word for "no" at the end. It sounds simple, no?
There are no verb tenses, no adjectival agreements, and no noun declinations. Gendered nouns? No articles anyway! Irregular verbs? No conjugation at all! Different alphabet? Vietnamese was Romanized in the 17th century!
But before you start to think you’ll pick up the language with the ease you learned Pig Latin, take note: Vietnamese is impossible to pronounce.
It’s one of those infamous tonal languages that draws a groan from any English speaker. When you raise your voice at the end of a question, as one does in English, it completely changes the word. “Do you like to fish?” becomes “Do you like to pinch?”
Learning the language is worth the effort though, and you should get started with Vietnamese lessons once you arrive. Even though it’s possible to get by with English and a few basic Vietnamese words, I felt more confident that this was my home once I could carry on a conversation in the local language.
Learning to Shop
A lot of commerce takes place in markets and on sidewalks, for items without price stickers or receipts. In these situations, you are expected to haggle with the merchant over the cost of goods and services. Coming from a culture of fixed prices, that can be uncomfortable or embarrassing. After all, most bargaining is done over the equivalent of a pocketful of change.
Whether you enjoy it or not, haggling is part of the culture and should be attempted. Besides, once I got over the initial hesitation, I found it was actually kind of fun. And good language practice, besides.
Other than learning to haggle, I had one other big problem with shopping: trying to find clothes or shoes that would fit my (relatively) gargantuan body. A few of the more expensive department stores stock large sizes, but I found that the fit was usually off.
Ultimately, when I needed a new item of clothing, I would have it made by a tailor. Not only did my clothes fit, but I had complete control over the style and the fabric. And at $12 a dress, it was hard to find a reason not to have everything made-to-fit.
Learning to Drive
There are over 7 million people in Ho Chi Minh City, and an estimated 3 million motorbikes. It would seem that all of these motorbikes are always on the road, specifically the part of the road you are trying to cross.
Traffic in Ho Chi Minh City is legendary, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a travelogue or guidebook that doesn’t mention the solid walls of motorbikes that stream through the city streets like schools of tuna. Crossing the street can be a daunting task to new arrivals, especially when someone explains that the trick to street crossing is simply stepping into the road under the assumption that people will drive around you. Swell.
Once you have gotten the hang of crossing the street, its time to learn how to drive. Learning the mechanics of the scooter is easy enough, but learning to navigate streets that seem to be a vacuum for road rules can be difficult.
The best advice I ever received about driving in Vietnam was simply not to worry about anything but what is immediately in front of you, and to let the people behind you worry about reacting to your breaking or merging. It was explained to me as an illustration of Confucianism—everyone helps each other to ensure harmony on the roads.
When it Rains, it Pours
There’s a quote from Forrest Gump, part of his narration when he describes what it was like to be in Vietnam:
“One day it started raining, and it didn't quit for four months. We been through every kind of rain there is. Little bitty stingin' rain... and big ol' fat rain. Rain that flew in sideways. And sometimes rain even seemed to come straight up from underneath.”
Whoever wrote the script for that movie most certainly spent some time in Vietnam.
Rainy season was one of the things I was most anxious about when I moved to Vietnam. My expectations of rainy season were that one day it would go from being hot and humid to being hot and humid and raining non-stop. I was convinced that I was going to spend four months sitting in my room; cursing the rain as I drove to work, sheathed in a vinyl poncho to protect myself from the rain; sitting at work; and then cursing the rain as I drove back home.
In reality, it doesn’t rain all the time. Sure it rains, downpours even, every day from May to October, but it’s not raining all day—usually only for a couple hours in the afternoon. It also cools the city down significantly. There is nothing better than leaving work and driving into the dusky cool Saigon afternoon, puddles in the gutters but the sky clear.
Some expats rent pricey rooms in one of the Western-style apartment buildings, but many more rent out Vietnamese houses with other foreigners as roommates. It’s also possible to find single apartments in houses that have been sectioned off by floor.
The easiest way to find a place to live in Ho Chi Minh City is to go there and book a room in a cheap guesthouse for a few weeks while you check out local properties. Look on the Internet, but also ask around the expats you meet—you never know who’s looking for a roommate.
Vietnamese houses are tall and narrow and generally without windows except in the front, and maybe in the back or on one of the sides. Don’t mind the wrought iron bars across your window—those are to keep burglars out and are standard in every house. Break-ins and robberies are unfortunately common in Ho Chi Minh City, and you should make use of any locks provided and keep windows locked tight when you are out or asleep.
Working in Vietnam
Most foreigners are in Vietnam to teach English. The hours are short and flexible, the pay is good and your co-workers quickly turn into friends. To land a teaching job, you need a college degree and/or an ESL teaching qualification like CELTA or TEFL.
I chose not to work in education, specifically because I lack to patience to teach anyone the reasoning behind pronunciations like "through," "tough," and "thorough." Fortunately, there are options available to non-teachers.
Foreigners can legally work in Vietnam if they can demonstrate a skill that is not available in the Vietnamese workforce. As a result, many expats (myself included) cash in on English fluency and work in hospitality, sales, marketing, or journalism.
Unless you have highly developed and desirable professional skills, it will be difficult to arrange employment from outside of the country. You can, however, enter the country on a tourist visa and have your immigration status changed once you find a job. Your employer should take care of the new visa.
Cost of Living
At the beginning of 2012, the exchange rate between the United Sates and Vietnam was $1 to 20,000 Vietnamese dong (VND)—it only takes $50 to become a millionaire. Sure, being a millionaire in VND doesn’t exactly earn you a private jet or a beach house, but it is enough to live on very comfortably.
On an averagely extravagant Saturday, with lunch out, dinner out, a new shirt and drinks and karaoke, I would spend about US$15. My rent was only $175/month, and that was only a small fraction of my income. Of course, the savings don’t add up to much when you transfer it back to American dollars.
A Last Bit of Advice
If you decide to move to Vietnam for a few months, or years, arrive with an open mind and an abundance of patience. There is little that will work out exactly how you expected it to, but the misadventures and frustrations that go along with learning the ropes of a new culture and country are all part of the fun.
For More Information
Best Sites to Find Expat jobs
Vietnam Works: Best place to find non-teaching jobs for foreigners.
Craigslist: Can often find small gigs for English speakers as well as jobs.
Learn 4 Good: Posts teaching opportunities in Vietnam.
Best Sites to Find Housing
Expat Vietnam Classifieds
Living in Vietnam: Shows available properties in condos and apartment buildings—for expats with a substantial accommodation budget.