Expat Advice: Culture Shock in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Ho Chi Mihn City, Vietnam
The culture is vibrant, and new. The cost of living is cheap, even in HCMC which is the viet equivalent to new York city. I actually stay in D7 which is close to Saigon South which is where most foreigners hide.
What is the name of the city or town that you are reporting on?
Ho Chi Minh City
Did you receive any cross-cultural training for your move abroad? If yes, was it before or after the move?
Nothing but reading about what I could find on the Internet.
Moving to Vietnam Soon?
If they speak another language in your new country, do you speak the language? If yes, did you learn the language before you moved or while abroad? If no, are you planning to learn the language?
I practice Vietnamese everyday, but it's a very difficult language. Since its tonal, it's tough to get a hang of speaking, Much easier to read and write, though depending on where the accent mark is, what looks like the same word can be 10 different things, Vietnamese are very friendly and like it when you try to speak w Their language, but I do find that their is still a tension between northern and southern dialects and people's. For foreigners, the northern dialect is easier because they pronounce everything including the last letter of each word, while in the south they tend to drop the final letter (like French)
Were you worried or concerned about culture shock before you moved abroad?
The first time I was worried because I am American and I thought that the people would hate me because of the war. I have yet to be North, only as far as Hue, and everyone has been very friendly (at least to my face).
How significant was the culture shock you experienced when you moved abroad?
The first shocking thing is the temperature difference in that I am not from the southern US, so I'm not used to hot all the time, it's hot, then hotter, then in the sun unbelievably hot. What is remarkable to me is how far viet women will go to not get a tan---it can be almost 100 degrees out, humid like a rain forest, and they will be wearing long pants, long sleeved shirt, a hat, and gloves! They want white skin, like usa white women want a nice tan...
Expats often talk about going through the "stages of culture shock." Examples include the honeymoon phase, the irritation-to-anger stage, the rejection of the culture stage, and the cultural adjustment phase. Do you feel like you went through these or any other stages as you settled into the new culture?
At first, you love the differences. You love that people notice you and pay extra attention. Then, after a couple months, you get tired of people staring and just want to blend in. That's hard to do when you are 6'3"(193cm). What's strangest is that when you are one-on-one with someone, they have a hard time looking you in the eye when they talk to you. As an American, I am used to looking someone in the eye and being very direct. Viets take this directness as rude or disrespectful, but in groups everyone will stare and if you are with a Vietnamese female and a group of male Viets are drinking, you will get what seems like friendliness, but find out later is rudeness. These negative experiences are not the norm, but they do occur, and it's best at night to be "on the ready", though you would be in much greater danger in parts of new York, Chicago or LA than in HCMC. There are no guns here and you are twice as big as the average male here. So, unless you do something really stupid or disrespectful, you will make it home any time of day. That was the irritated stage. I have always rejected the anti-feminist, male-superiority of Asian culture; it annoys me that females are treated as second class citizens and not allowed to do many things that males can. I have accepted some things, but doubt I will ever accept that having a son is better than a daughter.
What, if any, were some of the changes you noticed in yourself that might have been caused by culture shock? These might include things such as anger, depression, anxiety, increased eating or drinking, frustration, homesickness, etc.
As I stated above, I don't like to see women disrespected or treated badly. Unfortunately, often I am informed of rude comments when I get home with my fiancé rather than when they occur since she doesn't want me to make a scene (which I will since I am not bound by the Asian saving face routine). I got angry in public once, and everyone looks confused; a guy came over, I think to calm me down, and I almost punched him in the face. Definitely different than the USA. It's depressing how difficult it is to get a visa for a foreign girlfriend. Travel visa forget it. Fiancé visa can be done but it takes a lot of work, and there are all sorts of Asian wedding rituals that will make you feel silly to do, but if you love someone, you will do what will make their family happy. I do not like the way Vietnamese seem to flaunt what wealth they have, which reminds me of inner city American behavior. Similar to wearing the latest "air Jordan's". Having the latest iPhone seems to be a way to flaunt status. Since the iPhone emerges first in the USA each cycle, if you plan it right, and bribe the customs guys at Tan Son Nhat, you can make a pretty penny smuggling iPhones before their release in Vietnam. Even when they are released, they are much more expensive here. Btw, there are a lot of poor people here, but also some tremendously wealthy people too. I'm not sure if it's because the rich flaunt their wealth more, but I have walked in a bank and watched a normal looking couple bring in grocery bags full of money. Not sure where the money comes from, and don't want to ask, but it's the equivalent of several million dollars in USA. USA bankers would freak out if you tried to deposit that much cash, but here I guess no one cares? Or maybe they work for the government--not sure.....
What are some things you appreciate most about the new culture?
The culture is vibrant, and new. The cost of living is cheap, even in HCMC which is the viet equivalent to new York city. I actually stay in D7 which is close to Saigon South which is where most foreigners hide. Staying in Phu My Hung you could insulate yourself enough that you might forget you are in Vietnam all together. everyone speaks English there, and there are western restaurants everywhere.
What are the most challenging aspects of the new culture?
The traffic is a daunting when you are first exposed. The number one form or travel is motorbike (somewhere between a moped and a motorcycle) and everyone rides them except the ultra rich (cars--usually Mercedes) or students/ultrapoor(the bus---which I prefer actually). Taxis are a cheaper mode of transport, but the bus line is better since its so cheap. Its only drawback is that it stops at 7pm. Back to motorbikes: they put little kids between adults without helmets, and NO ONE follows traffic laws. Crossing the street is a new experience that most Westerners will find really frightening the first time, but you get used to it. Viets are very good at driving motorbikes since they have ridden them all their lives. You will be amazed at what can be transported on motorbike---tile, pigs, drywall, and the occassional refrigerator! Really amazing.
Did you "commit" any embarrassing or humorous cultural blunders? If you did and you'd like to share them, please do tell!
Cultural errors include: buying flowers for my girlfriend that are intended for dead (yellow daffodils are for the Buddhist lunar shrine, not to show your girl you love her---big faux pas). Not knowing that "good girls" cannot go to play pool (Bida) or sit and watch a band in a bar. Since most girls don't want to say "no" and make you lose face, they will go, but be really embarrassed. Once you are closer, she will give you an earful! Better to know these mistakes first.
Do you have any advice or thoughts about culture shock you would like to share?
Do your research first. Try. It to embarrass the residents----it's their country---you are the guest and NOT special. You do not deserve to be treated like a prince and given special status---so don't act like you are doing anyone a favor. Depending on where you are Viets will probably treat you better anyway, especially if you try and speak Vietnamese. Just be extra polite. It's an incredible experience enjoy yourself!
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