Studying and Living Abroad in Vietnam
A Worry-Free Guide
Article and photos by Whitney Cox
I went to Vietnam by accident. I was in my second year at university and planning on spending a semester abroad in the Netherlands. My school held a meeting for the next year’s abroad program and I, serendipitously, arrived at the wrong room. The photos passed around were not of wooden shoes and windmills, but of conical hats and pagodas. It took twenty minutes of talking to the recently returned students to convince me to apply, and within six months I was on a plane to Hanoi, Vietnam.
Before I left, acquaintances lectured me about land mines and guns; I was told to watch my wallet and never trust taxi drivers; I was warned about scenes of desperate poverty; I was to expect to be met with resentment for the physical and emotional effects of the war. It seemed that for many people, an understanding of Vietnam began and ended with their war that the United States was involved in from 1955-1975.
What I found in Vietnam was nothing even close the dire warnings I had received. Instead, I found a country in the throes of economic and social development and a populace looking towards the future. And while the country is an overload of new sights, sounds and smells, this is exciting rather than frightening.
There is a Vietnamese expression, không sao, which literally means "no stars," but is used colloquially to mean "no worries." I heard this phrase often when I was in Vietnam, and I only wish I had been so self-assured and worry-free before I left. With the right preparation, it’s possible to jump right into your experience abroad without any hesitation.
Vietnam may have a tragic history, but it is a forward-looking place and you are more likely to have conversations about pop music and iPhones than you are about war or colonialism. There was a population boom after the war, and over half of the population is under the age of 25. This generation has no memory of conflict or famines, but rather seems single-mindedly focused on progress.
The country has developed at a dizzying pace, though that’s not to say it has abandoned its traditions. Family values are strong in Vietnam, and piety is extended to relatives who have passed away. Most Vietnamese homes include an ancestor shrine, and pagodas are active with people lighting incense in the hopes of grabbing the attention of someone up above. A rich cultural heritage underlies the country’s development and will doubtlessly remain important to the Vietnamese way of life.
Boat ride to Perfume Pagoda in Vietnam.
A Tale of Two Cities: Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City
Nguyen Cao Ky, prime minister of South Vietnam’s military junta from 1965-1967, said that “After the 1954 Geneva international conference, Vietnam was divided into two parts. On paper, North and South Vietnam were twin countries born at the same moment.” This "twinship" led to divergent histories that have resulted in two very distinct halves within one country.
Almost anyone studying in Vietnam will find themselves in one of the country’s two main urban areas: Hanoi in the north or Ho Chi Minh City in the south. Both cities are densely populated and prosperous, but cultural differences are notable. In general, northerners are thought to be more formal and traditional, while southerners see themselves as more dynamic and progressive. Hanoi also feels more controlled, with bars being forcibly emptied by police every night, while in Ho Chi Minh City commerce seems to be king.
Why Study in Vietnam?
My study abroad group was made up of a diverse group majors, representing everything from Political Science to Architecture. Vietnam has something to teach everyone.
Learn what you can—as a rising power in Southeast Asia, Vietnam is a country to keep an eye on. To the United States government, Vietnam is an important trade partner and strategic political ally; to private business, Vietnam is an investment opportunity; to many more, the country is exploding as a travel destination. No matter where you intend to take your life, Vietnam is likely to show up on your radar.
Organizing Your Study Abroad Program
My study abroad program was run through my college, but if your school does not operate a program or exchange in Vietnam, there are plenty of companies that do. Ask your school’s study abroad office if there are any companies they work with, or check out the organizations in the side bar.
For students to wish to enrol in a degree program at a Vietnamese university, the Australian-owned RMIT University in Ho Chi Minh City offers courses in English and encourages international enrolments.
Vietnamese is not an easy language to pick up. With eight tones and eleven distinct vowel sounds, it is near impossible to learn it simply through immersion. If you hope to become conversational, you’ll probably need formal lessons to teach you how to hear the differences between sounds.
The weather differs between north and south Vietnam. The northern half of the country is considered ‘sub-tropical’ and has four distinct seasons. Temperatures can drop to near freezing in the winter (or even colder in the mountains) and can hit highs in the mid-90s (35C) in the summer. Rain is most frequent in the late summer an autumn: August through November.
The southern half of the country has a tropical climate, and you can expect temperatures to hover around 75-85F (25-30C) throughout the year. This area is subject to heavy rains from May to October, which usually occur in short bursts in the afternoons.
What to Bring (And What to Leave at Home)
In addition to climate-appropriate clothing, here are a few must-haves for your trip:
- Rubber flip flops (ideal footwear for tropical rain)
- Insect repellent and sunscreen
- Women should pick up an extra box or two of tampons (they can be found in some stores in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, but it’s easier just to bring your own)
- A good book (English language books are available, though the selection is limited and most are poor-quality photocopies of the originals)
Don’t over pack though! Here are a few items that you should leave behind:
- Expensive electronics. If you don’t absolutely need your smartphone, don’t pack it. The risk of losing it (see below) isn’t worth the fun of playing Angry Birds at the airport.
- Candy. Many people want to bring treats for the kids on the street, and while they enjoy a lollipop as much as any kid, they don’t necessarily have access to dentists. Stickers or pencils make better gifts.
An unfortunate by-product of rapid development and a steady stream of wealthy tourists is an increase in petty crime. Theft is not uncommon, and you should be wary of how you carry your valuables.
- Keep a photocopy of your passport somewhere safe
- Leave expensive electronics like iPods and laptops at home, if possible. If you must bring them, see if your accommodation has a safe where you can keep valuables when you go out.
- Consider a money belt or another hidden bag to carry your cash.
Scam artists are also widespread. Be sure to agree on the price before accepting a ride from a cyclo or motorbike taxi driver, and that you agree on the currency (a common scheme is to agree on a price and then, after the ride, learn that your driver was expecting $20 American dollars, not 20,000 Vietnam dong).
Violent crime is very uncommon in Vietnam, but students should be wary of your surroundings just as you would anywhere.
Coming from a Western country, the exchange rate will be extremely favorable, and the cost of living will be extremely low. A nice dinner out will usually run between US$6-$10, while a meal of street food can cost as little as $1. A motorbike taxi across Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City won’t cost more that $4.
Due to inexpensive room and board, my semester abroad was actually my cheapest semester of college, even including the airfare from New York.
Haggling over prices is a hallmark of the Vietnamese shopping experience. It may feel strange to argue with someone over what amounts to a few cents, but it is expected and you should give it a try (it’s also a good way to practice your Vietnamese!).
Not every price is negotiable though, and there is a time and a place to argue. A good rule of thumb is that if something has a price tag on it, the cost is fixed. Brick and mortar stores (as opposed to market stalls) usually have fixed prices.
For a foreigner to work in Vietnam, the employer needs to be able to prove to the government that your skill set is not available locally. This does limit the options of part-time work for students, who rarely have highly-developed professional skills.
It may be possible to earn some extra money in a hospitality position (where fluency in English can be considered an essential skill), but the most available opportunities are for under-the-table employment as a private English tutor. The best way to find short-term, private tutoring jobs is simply to ask around—locals and expats may have some leads for you.
Some unpaid internships and volunteering work may be available, and can be arranged before you arrive. Try searching the Idealist website, or contacting organizations operating in Vietnam to find them.
Within the towns and cities, taxis and xe oms (motorbike taxis) will get you anywhere you want to go. It might seem scary at first (especially once you take a look at the traffic in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi), but a bicycle is a great way to get around.
Traveling around Vietnam (and into its bordering countries) is easy and cheap. Buses and vans run to every major and minor destination in the country, and tickets are only a few dollars. Regional flights are also very affordable.
In addition to routine vaccinations (such as MMR or DPT vaccines), visitors to Vietnam should be vaccinated against Typhoid, and Hepatitis A. Risk for malaria is low in Vietnam, though it does exist. If you plan on spending time in the rural areas, you should consider preventative drugs like Malarone or Larium.
If your program is run by your university, your campus health center may be equipped to provide you with these vaccinations. If not, find a nearby clinic that specializes in travel medicine. The Center for Disease Control can help you find a location in the United States
If you are coming to Vietnam through a study abroad program, your visa will likely be organized for you, prior to arrival. If you plan on traveling around Southeast Asia, be sure to apply for a "Multiple Entry" visa. This will allow you to come back to Vietnam after leaving.
If you are arriving independent of a program, it is possible to enter the country as a tourist and then obtain a student visa after enrolment with a school.
Whitney Cox is currently a post-graduate student at the University of Canterbury (2012). The study abroad program she describes was operated through her undergraduate institution, Hobart and William Smith Colleges (from which she graduated in 2007).