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.