Vietnam survival guide or how to assimilate to the life in Vietnam

No one has ever said “I love living in Vietnam”. No one has ever said “I hate living in Vietnam” either. The majority of the expats who have assimilated into this country “accept” living here and those who haven’t, leave.

The cognitive process of assimilation in Vietnam could be broken down into three stages, as follows:

  • “Beauty to beast stage” (0 – 6 months): From a person with a lovely soul you turn into a nasty savage. This period brings the worst in you, in fact it brings up the personality traits you never thought were part of your character.
  • “Digestion stage” (6 – 12 months): You are digesting. While digesting, you are becoming more accepting and tolerating. Your expectations and standards have decreased dramatically. You have stopped caring; you have started assimilating.
  • “Acceptance stage” (over 12 months): You have accepted the life in Vietnam and now believe that it is normal too. You have assimilated. Congratulations!

I have collated the following fourteen tips that should serve as a guide on how to survive the first two stages and achieve the ultimate state of acceptance of life in Vietnam. The list is not exhaustive and more tips are welcome!

  1. Don’t have expectations. If you don’t expect anything, no matter what you get, it will be a bonus.
  2. Lower your standards on everything and everyone. That way nothing and no-one will ever disappoint.
  3. Change your wardrobe – “the cheaper, the better”. Recommended colour – grey. Only grey can absorb the dirt and dust and yet retain its original colour.
  4. Keep your belongings with you at all times, or give them to the charity instead as the pickpockets will take over their ownership.
  5. Beat the traffic by becoming a fume hoover on a motorbike or “fail” the traffic by using taxis.
  6. If you are not used to smiling, learn to smile. Most of the communication with the locals is done through smiling. So keep smiling. If you are English, get yourself a good dentist first.
  7. Learn how not to take No for an answer or accept No as the answer you’ll get.
  8. Learn to be patient. An estimated time for something that takes five minutes to resolve in the western world is approximately two hours in Vietnam.
  9. Get an appartment with a washing machine and do your washing yourself or risk losing half of your clothes and the other half being damaged.
  10. Learn to haggle effectively or you’ll end up paying almost western prices for non-western quality services and goods.
  11. Find yourself Vietnamese friends – you will need their Vietnamese language skills at some point. On this note, if your aim is to sort out a certain problem in an efficient manner, don’t involve your Vietnamese friend in helping you do so. They have a talent to turn a small problem into a big one…sigh.
  12. Learn to ignore the locals on the street or practise “no, thank you” as you’ll have to say it over a hundred times a day.
  13. Learn to use the correct words for describing certain services. For example, the response you give when someone asks how good the massage place was, is “clean”. In Vietnam, clean means good. Learn the meanings of these words and use them accordingly.
  14. Teach yourself to make the “small talk” or learn to drink heavily – with most expats you either small talk or booze. If you are not a fan of either, stay at home and read books or write blogs.

Happy Vietnam living, folks!


Vietnam in the eyes … of male expat guys

In my previous blog I wrote about my perspective on Vietnam. Based on the (fruitful) conversations I’ve had with some expat guys I’ve met in Ho Chi Minh over the last few months, I’d like to give an overview on how I understand their perception on life in the Nam.

Smiley people

The people in Vietnam are lovely, they really are. They always have smiles on their faces, unlike the miserable people you meet in London, Paris or certain Eastern European cities. I sometimes wonder what tragedy has caused their faces to turn so sour. The Vietnamese smile constantly; when they screw up on something that really matters to you and your face goes red, they smile, say “sorry” and keep smiling – “don’t lose your face, don’t lose your face…”. Such lovely smiley people, aren’t they just?!

“Free” country

Despite the fact that Vietnam is a communist country, you feel free. You can pretty much even piss and shit in the middle of the street in Ho Chi Minh – literally. The other day while I was on a bike, I noticed an elderly “lady” taking her pants off and squatting in a park (not sure whether she was doing number 1 or number 2).

You can smoke in most public places and while doing most activities, including driving a car or riding a motorbike. The Vietnamese lungs have an endless capacity – they are capable of hoovering the road fumes while simultaneously inhaling cigarette smoke. So efficient!

I should also mention that you can drink and eat anywhere in public places, and there is no need to take the rubbish with you afterwards.

Finally, while the Vietnamese law requires you to hold a Vietnamese driving license when riding a motorbike in Vietnam, the rental shops don’t. Not sure who is in violation of the law, the rental shops or the renters?! If you cause an accident and don’t have a driving license, well, I guess you are in trouble. So don’t ride (and make the rental shops go bust), don’t cause an accident or get yourself a Vietnamese driving license!

Ps: I believe there is a Facebook group for expats only living in Vietnam (no Vietnamese are allowed to join this group) that’s dedicated to sharing interesting (read disturbing) anecdotes and photos from a daily life in Vietnam – worth checking out.

Girls, girls, girls

From being able to get zero girls for months and sometimes years in the western world, foreign guys can have a different (Vietnamese) girl every night in Vietnam. Mr Don Juan Casanova would be proud.

Vietnamese girls, just like most Asian girls, have beautiful silky hair and amazing smooth skin (no sarcasm here). They are small, slim and petite – they are pocket-sized, and hence practical. They are usually very nice too and sit quietly and obediently in a corner at all times on a night out. No leash required.

If you are a foreign male, you are handsome

If you are an ugly or mediocre looking male in the eyes of western girls, the female Vietnamese eyes will “see” you handsome. There should be a scientific research conducted on this – I sometimes think that my eyes don’t quite see what the eyes of the Vietnamese chicks do.  Or maybe just our definition of “handsome” differs. Who knows…

I’ve also heard from my male friends that the Vietnamese females have interesting synonyms for the word “good-looking”, which include white skin, colourful eyes, light hair, tall, etc.

From nobody to somebody

If you have failed in the western world, it’s very likely you’ll make it in Vietnam. If you were average or below average in the west and / or are not particularly gifted or talented, the chances are that you may become a super star in Vietnam. Have you ever heard of “FILTH” (failed in London tried Hong Kong)?

Luxurious life is affordable

You can afford a “luxurious” life on a regular “expat” salary. You can live in an apartment with an outdoor swimming pool and a gym. You can afford to drink fine liquor at fancy rooftop bars every night. You can also afford to pursue expensive hobbies, such as tennis or keeping multiple Vietnamese female gold-diggers.


If you are a proper guy (i.e. a guy that loves meat), Vietnam is the country for you. It’s almost impossible to find vegetarian dishes in local restaurants so you don’t have to worry about not getting your daily dose of protein (pork, beef, dogs).

If you are vegetarian, you can get yourself a cook for the cost of VND 2mil per month (approximately $90) + the ingredients. Just make sure that you thoroughly explain to your cook what your “western” food allergies and intolerances are; the cooks in Vietnam don’t usually speak good English and don’t understand the concept of “western” food allergies or intolerances. So good luck!

Stunning countryside

The countryside in Vietnam is beautiful; the serenity, the calmness, the honking out of the blue … the pigs and the cows on the road … the dirt and the litter everywhere…


The Vietnamese are innovative aka the multipurpose of motorbikes

The Vietnamese are super innovative, particularly when it comes to the use of motorbikes. Their bike does not provide just a means of transportation for themselves but also for their pets and oversized items of groceries. I’ve seen fifteen pigs travelling on a motorbike (read tied to a motorbike) with a Vietnamese guy. I’ve also seen a man riding their bike together with twenty 20-litre bottles of water.

A bike is big enough to transport the entire family (husband, wife and two kids) from a point A to a point B. If you want to try it, this is how it’s done: you sit one kid on a chair in front of you and your second child will sit between you and your wife. I would recommend you only try this if your wife is pocket-sized. I’ve mentioned before that Vietnamese girls are practical, remember?


Coffee culture

The coffee culture in Vietnam is massive. I absolutely adore Vietnamese coffee and am obsessed with the combination of black coffee with condensed milk. If you haven’t tried it, you haven’t lived. I also think that’s where the Vietnamese culture starts, and also ends.


The game of haggling

While at a market, the price you are told for the item in question is usually substantially overstated. I’d say that the real price is normally half of the asking price. So you have three choices: you choose not to bargain and that way you help the sellers meet their daily earnings target faster (they are the winner) or you bargain to the point where you pay the “real price” (you are the winner) or you meet them in the middle (everyone is the winner). The Vietnamese love the haggling game – you should play too!


Life in Vietnam – life of contrast


The life in Vietnam is a life of contrast, easy yet difficult at the same time. I am a blonde girl from Europe who has lived in the best cities in the world, including The Old Smoke and The Big Apple. I have been living in Ho Chi Minh City for a few months now I am not an English teacher. The fact I am not an English teacher is important – English teachers comprise 90% of the total expat population in Vietnam; they are those who write about their amazing life in Vietnam.

I want to give a different perspective on living in Vietnam, a perspective of an expat with decent education, a reasonably successful career and a lot of life and travel experience.

Corruption vs. freedom

Corruption in Vietnam is high. It’s also the corruption that makes this country a country of “freedom”, as my friends say. You can basically do whatever. If you get caught, just make sure you have enough cash in your pocket or “I am not dealing with you and I am not supporting corruption” attitude. Both work.

Socialism in “socialist” Vietnam

We all know that most European countries, Australia and New Zealand are socialist, despite the fact that none of them have the word “socialist” in their names. The official name for Vietnam is the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The only thing I see as socialist in this country is the high tax rates and so called social taxes. I sometimes feel that Vietnam doesn’t quite understand the meaning of the word “socialist” and use it incorrectly in lieu of the word “capitalist”. I am sure this is just a genuine mistake.

The Vietnamese who don’t have jobs or don’t know how to make money, live in poverty while the Vietnamese who have jobs, pay taxes. The lucky Vietnamese, who know how to make money without having jobs, live in luxury and pay no taxes. I don’t blame them. You get nothing in return from the government – no health care, no education, no pension. Very socialist indeed.


Beautiful scenery vs. poor quality of air and water

Vietnam is stunning, I mean Ha Long Bay, Sapa, Hoi An or Da Lat are out of this world – unbelievable! I wish I could say the same about the air I breathe and the water I use for my daily hygiene.  I am sure I don’t have to mention that you can’t drink tap water – well, you can but then good luck to you afterwards!

Ho Chi Minh City is extremely polluted, dirty and dusty. I sometimes feel like a fume hoover – gotta love the fumes. I really regret bringing my nice clothes (or rather clothes that used to be nice) to this country. My white dresses are getting grey and my beautiful beige designer handbag is becoming brown.

The water in Vietnam is of such low quality that even my body hates to shower in it. My hair is constantly on strike, looking sad all the time.


Transportation – personal drivers (or bike riders) or get your own bike

There is no real public transportation here which means that you get to have a personal driver or bike rider (as bikes are the most efficient means of transportation in Vietnam) every day, i.e. Uber or Grab (Vietnamese Uber). Sounds amazing, right? Well, it’s not as great as you think. Most drivers / bike riders never turn up when they say they will, they get lost or what gets me the most is when the application says they are one minute away and ten minutes later you find them sitting in a coffee shop round the corner drinking coffee. At 7.55 am, when you are in a rush to get to work. Still sounds amazing? I didn’t think so…

I am one of those that doesn’t need the “luxury” of having their own driver / bike rider. I decided to get myself a bike. If you’ve ever been to Vietnam, you would know that riding a bike in a city like Ho Chi Minh is like trying to commit suicide. Being alert all the time is key in such traffic chaos. There are no rules on the road and as such, checking both mirrors, keeping your eyes in front of and behind you, ideally simultaneously, is how your survive.  You never know who will appear out of the blue trying to get into your “lane” (read “the almost non-existent space between you and the bike in front of you” – there is no such concept as a “lane” in Vietnam). The majority of bikers ride the “happy go lucky” style. When you finally think “phew, I am safe”, suddenly you see a bike coming towards you on a one way road. Take a guess who is riding their bike the right direction.

When I first rode my bike to work, the journey took 30 minutes. Now I ride the Vietnamese way and it never takes me more than 15 minutes. The quickest way is to ride on the pavement or the opposite direction, in order to overtake all cars and bikes in front of you and to also avoid the chaos at traffic lights. I learn fast.


Accommodation or “what clothes am I missing this time?”

You get to live in serviced apartments where you get all the cleaning and washing done. Omg – sooo great! Right, yes, it would be perfect if you got all your clothes back or in the state they had been before the maid took them away. You sometimes find that your white t-shirt has turned into a pink one (not sure why the maid thinks I prefer pink over white) and from time to time you discover extra clothes in your washing basket too, e.g. another girl’s knickers, boys pants, someone else’s socks. Lucky me.

Dress code and the “white” privilege

What I love about going out in Vietnam is that you can go to fancy bars wearing whatever – if you’ve been to a lido during the day, you can turn up at a bar wearing your bikini and sarong. Apparently, there is a dress code in fancy bars. I only found out recently when I was out with my Vietnamese girlfriend and we both wore flip flops. Guess who got in with no problems?!

Cheap services or you get what you pay for

One thing that’s amazing about Vietnam is that the services are cheap, that is, if you actually get any. Most of my work dresses require dry cleaning. The first (and last) time I’ve had my dresses dry cleaned in Vietnam, I called the dry cleaning service company three times a day to ensure they didn’t lose any of my stuff and that I wanted my Lululemon carry-on bag back. Guess what – the Lululemon bag didn’t turn up with my dresses. I did get it in the end – three days later, after chasing them five times a day every day.

With regard to the quality of the service, the dresses still had stains on them but smelt like they’ve been kept in a perfumery all day. I got what I paid for – perfumed dresses that haven’t been cleaned. Result: I don’t get my dresses dry cleaned anymore; I wear them dirty.

Shopping – asking vs. getting what you want

The people in Vietnam speak broken, little or no English, which means that it’s super challenging to get exactly what you want. However, for the same reason, after failing to be delivered what you asked for a couple of times, you somehow magically get what you have ordered in the first place. Out of desperation, they suddenly become enlightened and “understand” everything you say … or maybe they just give up, unable to respond, and let you have it your way. They give you what you want, you let them live. Simple.


Nice people vs. not so nice me

Everyone always says how nice the people in Vietnam are. Ok, maybe they are. I also thought I was always nice to people and treated them with respect. Until I moved to Vietnam – every day someone annoys me, every day something irritates me. I raise my voice, I shout, I swear. This is what Vietnam has made me become – a bitch.


Lifestyle of the poor and the rich

Vietnam is a country where the average salary is approximately $200 – $300 per month. It is also a country of extremely rich people. And the rich like western stuff and western stuff is expensive. For the rich, western means good, cool, “in”. The below are just two examples of the differences between the lives of the poor and the rich.


The poor get their daily dose of exercise through labour work. The rich, on the other hand, just like the westerners, go to the gym. Gym membership fees in Vietnam are comparable to those in cities like London or New York. The concept of “gym” is western and western is expensive (see above). The rich girls love going to the gym too. I see them at my gym all the time, mostly occupying the machines I want to use while typing on their phone. They do go to the gym though – they like to be seen at the gym, they love to tell their friends they go to the gym. Aren’t they cool?!

Eating / drinking

An ordinary Vietnamese folk is happy they can buy a coffee for $1 twice a week. The rich, on the other hand, love visiting expensive restaurants and bars on a regular basis. There is this “fine” bar in Ho Chi Minh which is particularly popular amongst the rich Vietnamese. It’s a bar where a glass of wine costs VND300-400k (approximately $14-$20) – ouch. The wine menu offers two choices for red by glass (cab sav and merlot from Australia) and two choices for white by glass (chardonnay – who drinks chardonnay?! from Chile and chardonnay from Australia). If you are a wine lover, you must be thinking “what the …”. After you order a glass of white from such an impressive wine menu, the wine comes in a water glass (a glass that looks a bit like a wine glass but in the west it is actually used for serving water) or a glass for red wine at best. Well, the Vietnamese love this place – it’s super expensive, aka it’s great and the wine is divine. No comment…


Easy yet not so easy work life

It’s Vietnam. Vietnam is in Asia. Those who have lived / worked in Asia know what it’s like. Vietnam is no different. The work is easy, the work environment not so much.

Top people – bosses vs. leaders

Vietnam is all about hierarchy. I see the juniors looking up to the top people in my firm, worshiping them. The top people are the bosses; they are the ones that set the rules. Having started at the bottom over 20 years ago, they’ve made it to the top (in a work environment with no competition) – impressive.

In the western world, the qualities I’ve observed in the best leaders would be described by adjectives such as charismatic, approachable, personal yet professional, etc. I don’t see these traits in Vietnam.

Hard vs. smart working

The Vietnamese can spend long hours in the office, they work hard. Hard doesn’t always mean smart. Do I need to elaborate on this point?

Expats and the Vietnamese work environment

I have heard on numerous occasions that most expats may feel isolated when they start working in Vietnam. The Vietnamese, albeit reasonably friendly, are by no means inclusive. They can be shy at times and lack confidence due to their consciousness about their English skills, or rather their fear of communicating in English.

One of my expat colleagues believes that the guys in the office feel intimidated by a “hot blonde”. This one makes me laugh. Lol…


Vietnamese companies strive for “well-rounded” employees

One of my firm’s requirements for new graduates is for them to be “well-rounded”. I agree, well-rounded employees are big assets to employers for various reasons. There is one little snag – the Vietnamese interpretation of the phrase “well-rounded” somewhat differs from that in the western world. In Vietnam, “well-rounded” means to be able to hold a conversation in English, or in other words, to have a good command of English. Right…


Education – learning to know is more important than learning to think

The Vietnamese study hard and they have to sit exams all the time. They learn so much and they know so much, they learn so many facts by heart. The Vietnamese learn to know, they don’t learn to think or to form opinions.

For the parents in Vietnam it is important that their children learn English, and I agree. If you speak English, you have a better chance to do well in such a global world. The parents are also very fussy when choosing the right English school for their kids – they only want native English speakers. Paradoxically, in practice non-native white teachers are preferred over native non-white teachers. Confusing.


It’s all about the family

Asia, including Vietnam, always promotes family as the core of society. Most European countries think likewise, but are far less aggressive about the promotion.

For Vietnamese men, the family concept and children are extremely important. Men love their family life and children. In fact, they love the family life and kids so much that one family may not always be enough for them; sometimes they also father children outside of their marriage. Understandably, the family life can get a bit tough for the Vietnamese men at times and they seek comfort in young Vietnamese female companions. Bless them…


Dating – without contrast

Being white, blonde and reasonably attractive means I am unapproachable. That’s what my Vietnamese colleagues and friends who have lived overseas for an extended period of time say. What a shame as I do like Asian boys, in fact I find them super attractive. My current boyfriend is actually ABC (read American born Chinese). If you are a European female, you are probably thinking “what a terrible combination”. Anyway, he is the hottest boyfriend I’ve ever had. I sometimes think to myself how much time I’ve wasted dating all these Europeans, Kiwis, Ozzies, Latinos…

Let’s get back to the Vietnamese guys. Fact: the Vietnamese, both males and females, are not the best looking people in Asia, nothing like the Koreans or the Chinese you see in Taiwan. You do occasionally meet reasonably looking Vietnamese boys – the problem is that they are not that exciting (read boring) and / or don’t speak English. Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on who is reading this blog, I am one of those girls that needs intellectual or physical stimulation most of the time. With Vietnamese guys, any kind of stimulation will only happen when pigs get wings.

Foreign guys dating in Vietnam

Foreign guys like Asian girls and Asian girls like foreign guys. Win – win!

I see a lot of foreign 50+ year old men holding hands with 18 year old Vietnamese girls – gross. I also see relatively good looking youngish foreign guys holding hands with Vietnamese chicks – much better.

It’s common knowledge that foreign guys have it easy in Asia. The same is true in Vietnam. You are foreign and foreign means western; western is expensive. Expensive is associated with rich. I’ve written about this in my previous paragraph – see the pattern?!

Foreign girls dating in Vietnam

I’ve read a number of blogs written by some western girls on how being a “white girl” in Asia sucks. Specifically, they write about dating in Asia (or rather the absence thereof), including Vietnam; they complain about the western boys going for Asian girls and the Asian boys going for Asian girls. No one is interested in them. Poor gals you’d think. Wait until you see photos of some of them. I mean, I am not a shallow person but I am sure that most guys have certain standards. Even in the western world, guys wouldn’t be interested to date an ugly fat girl. Or would they?


This is Vietnam in my eyes. I am not a princess but my wardrobe just doesn’t fit into this world. Do I regret coming to Vietnam? I do not – living here makes me realise how amazing the “boring” western world is.

Finally, do I want to stay in Vietnam long-term? Definitely not.