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Expat Vietnam: 10 Tips for Living in Vietnam

By Betsy Burlingame

Summary: It's an exciting time to live in Vietnam - with more and more tall buildings crowding the city skylines and rural areas developing rapidly as well. Learning Vietnamese poses a major challenge for most expats, but Vietnam's warm, welcoming people make up for the challenge.

Expat Vietnam - 10 Tips for Living in Vietnam

Culture Shock in Vietnam

One expat described his experiences with culture shock in Vietnam, "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."

An expat in Vung Tao had some suggestions for newcomers, "people in this town are very conservative and most accept the diversity that expats bring to this town. However the older people seem to be less accepting of expats and if an expat is dressed differently or has pink hair for example they are almost disgusted. So if you don't stand out you will be fine in Vung Tau. Blending in is good." Another expat advised, "even after 10 years in Vietnam I still experience some kind of culture shock every day. A great help for people who want to come and live in Viet Nam is to study about Taoism, Confucianism, Communism and Buddhism. This will give a great idea on the culture."

Learning Vietnamese

"Vietnamese is incredibly difficult to learn. We have learned a few phrases, but if you pronounce even slightly incorrectly, the locals will have no idea what you are talking about. We feel it's not worth the effort to continue learning," confessed one expat in Vietnam. Another expressed similar difficulty learning Vietnamese, "I have tried and tried to learn Vietnamese. But they have 6 tones and I can't hear the different tones let alone replicate them. I know quite a few nouns and not much else but I get around nicely thanks."

"I practice Vietnamese everyday, but it's a very difficult language. Since it's 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 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)," explained an expat in Ho Chi Minh City.

The Vietnamese People

"I had dreaded going back to Vietnam, worried about how I would be treated by the people and government. What a shock when we were treated with respect and welcomed with open arms, kindness and understanding," said one former US Air Force serviceman.

"Vietnamese people can come across as very rude, but only if they don't speak english. They are embarassed to show themselves up. Otherwise, the locals who can speak english are very welcoming and will want you to stay in their country forever," explained one expat living in Ho Chi Minh City.

"Good luck learning Vietnamese. It was impossible for me. I went to a college in Dist.1 and attended 1hr classes every morning at 8am Mon through Fri. After 3 months I gave up. Perhaps speaking Japanese will help you. I speak Korean. That was very easy for me even though I'm a native American. In fact I could read Korean in 2 days. But Vietnamese...forget it. On the other hand if you can speak Vietnamese it will make your life much, much easier. You won't have to rely on (trust) others. Lying and cheating seem to be quite acceptable here," said another expat.

Can Foreigners Own Property in Vietnam?

According to the Vietnamese Embassy to the United States, "Private ownership of land is not permitted in Vietnam and the people hold all ownership rights with the State as the administrator. However, the laws of Vietnam allow ownership of a right to use land." Apparently, the laws that make it difficult or impossible for foreigners to purchase land use rights are changing. Nguyen Pham Muoi wrote an article in October 2013 for The Wall Street Journal entitled, Q&A: Why Vietnam Is Preparing to Open Its Property Sector. It discusses how the laws are changing and what that means for expats interested in purchasing property.

Schools in Vietnam

A parent with a child at Saigon South International School in Ho Chi Minh City said, "The facilities are the best in HCMC. The fields are large and the elementary playground is amazing. There is a swimming pool, 3 libraries, fitness room, two gyms (one is double gym) and three well maintained buildings. My kids can participate in sports, MUN, GIN and other clubs after school. Check out the school. It is definitely worth a visit. Phu My Hung is a great part of town where my family feels very safe and my older children can ride their bikes to school."

The British International School in Ho Chi Minh City, "the facilities at BIS are really impressive. I have children in both Primary and Secondary and they enjoy the facilities there - large indoor swimming pools, good size sports halls and outside play areas, with mini pools/sand pits/climbing frames in the Primary campuses. There is a full sized soccer pitch at the An Phu campuses that is really well maintained. The Secondary has great facilities with a theatre, drama studio, music rooms, ICT suites and art & design rooms. There are lots of extra-curricular activities and parents can sign up their children on-line which is useful."

Renaissance International School is a smaller, British International school. One parent describes it as, "the Board of the school have deliberately kept it as a 'family size' school. Although smaller than some of its competitors it has a wide range of facilities including an indoor swimming pool, children's splash pool, 230 seat theater, gymnasium and all-weather pitch. A wide range of extra-curricular activities are available including some provided by outside coaches and organisations."

A parent with a child at United Nations International School Hanoi said, "We have been very happy with the school and has been one of the highlights living in Hanoi. However, there is a waiting list and it can be difficult to be accepted. UNIS does give priority to diplomats and UN, but if you are with an NGO or private business, apply early."

Read more parent reviews of International Schools in Vietnam.

Obtaining a Labor Permit in Vietnam

"Foreigners working on a permanent basis for a Vietnamese business, organization or individual or for a business with foreign investment in Vietnam are obliged to fulfill all the conditions and must have a Labor Permit," explained a law firm in Vietnam. Applicants must provide a number of items such as a criminal check record from their last place of residence, a medical certificate, five color photos with a bare head (no hat) and a few other items.

Where to Retire in Vietnam

If you're moving to Vietnam for work, your destination city has already been chosen. Retirees have the opportunity to explore Vietnam and find the place that's just right for them. One expat retiree in Hanoi chimed in with his choice, "I personally prefer Hanoi over HCMC in many ways. I think the people in Hanoi are much nicer/genuinely friendly and much less materialistic than people in HCMC. I also feel much safer in Hanoi than in HCMC. Plus I think Hanoi is more interesting than HCMC. Just my opinion based on quite a bit of time in both cities since 2004." Another expat in Hanoi suggested, "carefully consider a house in terms of traffic, play space for children, industrial noise and air pollution. If there is mildew on the walls, it will probably return. Look for established apartments with gardens, close to work and shops, accessible but quiet, on the same side of town as airport, with trees and parks. Can you avoid using a car every time you want to pick up something at the shop? How easy will it be for guests to find your house? Ask at the local international school for good neighborhoods to begin your search." An expat who moved to Hanoi said, "Hanoi is very small and there are only a few areas where most expats live. You can live in town but then the noise can be a factor. Most kindergardens and schools are out of the centre. There are a few real estate companies and they generally have very good networks. I would recommend picking two or three and just spending time driving around to see what is on offer. You should never tell them your real budget and ask around to see what others are paying. You will probably change houses at some time during your stay and will know better the second time. Land is expensive and housing can be too. You can find more local style housing for $500-700 a month but really you need to think about paying around $1000-1200 for something decent. The Embassy type housing goes for $1800-3500 and most good quality apartments will be $2500-3500. The most expensive place I have heard of is around $10,000 a month."

"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," advised an expat in Ho Chi Minh City.

"Nha Trang, Vung Tau, Phu Quoc (island) or Con Dao (island) are seaside cities. You may spend your leisure / retiree time here. Cost of living in Vietnam is low enough to budget of people (total 1000$/person/month including 2-3 stars accommodation + food and drink + leisure time and travel 1 times / month to other place). At your at 56, you may teach some language classes in Vietnam," suggested one expat. Another said, "this is my 61st country to visit or live in. Plan on staying here for quite sometime. Indeed I'm visiting w/ landlords now trying to land permanent digs. Had really intended on settling in Thailand. But came here first and fell in love w/ Nha Trang and the people here. First, spent some time in HCMC, but far too big and crowded for me."

One expat offered a tremendous overview of various destinations in Vietnam. She described Nha Trang by saying, "It [Nha Trang] is a big town with nice beaches. A great place to relax – although I prefer Mui Ne. If you are into scuba diving, stay here five or more days. If not, a couple of days should be enough. If traveling North your next stop should be Hoi An. If traveling South, you can go straight to Saigon, or stop in Mui Ne. You can get there on a bus." She went on to talk about Mui Ne by saying, "It [Muine] is another beach destination. Tourism is developing fast in the area. I enjoyed it much more than Nha Trang. Stay two or three days, relax on the beach, do an excursion, and keep traveling. From here you should go to Saigon, if traveling south." Another place she recommended was Phu Quoc Island. She said, "this island south of Cambodia is like paradise on earth. Although tourism is developing fast, it is still unspoiled. Crystal clear waters, long beaches, hassle free, … a great place to chill out. Stay here around four days (longer if you can). If you come here at the end of your travel you will appreciate it more. My favorite destination in Vietnam (and in the world probably)."

Crime in Vietnam

One expat in Vietnam said, "The biggest risk you'll have is from snatch and grab thieves. They can be aggressive, but rarely confrontational. They want to grab what you have and get out of there. That's why one should use common sense here, especially when carrying/looking at iPods, cameras and cell phones. Don't wander around while looking at them. Put yourself in a position where someone can't just ride up on a motorbike and grab your belongings." Another added, "Vietnam is one of safest countries in the world, I think. Guns are prohibited here. Thieves and robbery do exit. Just keep your eyes on your luggage and avoid some places at night. You will be fine."

Vietnam is Changing Rapidly

"I love this place. The people are just wonderful, the food is amazing, everything is super cheap, there is a dynamism about the place and it is great to be a part of a country that is growing rapidly," said one expat in Ho Chi Minh.

An American, who did three US Air Force tours in Vietnam and married a Vietnamese woman, recently returned to Vietnam. He said, "I had not been back to Vietnam since the war. I left after the treaty was signed. I was shocked that things in the city had changed so much. When I left, the tallest building was one of the downtown hotels (about 10 stories) and when I returned, there were buildings reaching to the sky all over the city. Huge changes in the structural landscape, modern buildings everywhere. I could not recognize anything. It was like a new world opening up. One that I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams. Enough to say, if you have not been to Ho Chi Minh City in 40 years like me, be prepared for a wonderful experience. And if you are going back into the jungle like we did, be prepared for change. The village I stayed in had one other house built of brick when we had one built for my wife's father 15 years ago. When we went back in February (my first time there) every family was housed in their own brick house, no more thatch roof homes (although some are still standing in a few areas) and most have electricity, T.V. and other appliances."

Medical Care in Vietnam

"International health clinics in Ho Chi Minh City can provide adequate medical care for emergencies and minor illnesses or injuries, although chronic care or serious surgeries may require medical evacuation to Bangkok or Singapore. Some of these facilities may have ambulances with specialized staff and equipment, such as the FV hospital. International clinics and hospitals may have direct billing agreements with foreign insurance companies, although expatriates are advised to contact their insurance provider before traveling to Vietnam to ensure they will be covered. Expatriates are advised to bring their own prescription medications as they may not be available in Ho Chi Minh City. These medications should be carried in one's hand-luggage whenever possible and be accompanied with a copy of one's prescription," explained one expat in Vietnam.

Join our Vietnam Expat Forum

Visit our Vietnam Forum and talk with other expats who can offer you insight and tips about living in Vietnam.

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About the Author

Betsy Burlingame Betsy Burlingame is the Founder of Expat Exchange. She launched Expat Exchange in 1997 as her Master's thesis project at NYU. Some of Betsy's more popular articles include 6 Best Places to Live in Costa Rica, 12 Things to Know Before Moving to The Dominican Republic and 7 Tips for Obtaining Residence in Italy. Betsy loves to travel and spend time with her family. Connect with Betsy on LinkedIn.

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Comments about this Article

ralphnhatrang
Apr 2, 2014 03:17

On learning Vietnamese: As one person wrote, it has "6 tones and I can't hear the different tones let alone replicate them." This is accurate. If we have not already learnt a tonal language before reaching around 45 years of age, it is impossible to hear the tones correctly, and because we can't hear the correctly, we cannot replicate them accurately. Most southern and central Vietnamese accents do not use all six tones, and have fewer sound combinations than in the north, which may make it easier for some expats to speak southern and central accents. But it may also make it harder to read and write Vietnamese, depending on individual abilitly However, this should not put you off trying to learn as much Vietnamese as possible. Vietnamese will appreciate your efforts in trying, and the more you do learn, the more doors you will find opening for you. Should you be wondering if I speak Vietnamese, yes, I speak, read and write it well. Ralph

guest
Nov 24, 2016 05:00

With reference to the Culture Shock In Vietnam Article. Asians are not "anti feminist-male superiority'. Traditionally they have different roles in society, the daughters will become part of someone elses family when they marry, the sons stay in the family home or close by and are responsible for parental care when the parents become old. In addition a son has the responsibility to make 'offerings on important anniversaries and on anniversary of parents death. I too was ignorant of culture even after many years here. unfortunately Westerners tend to make judgements from a position of innocent ignorance of thousand year old culture. perhaps its best to do a little research before rushing to print, best regards, FUMO

murraymansfield
Mar 17, 2017 18:15

Great article Betsy, years on! I'd love to ask you a few questions but dont want to elaborate just yet incase you dont ever receive this. My wife and nearly 2 year old are moving from UK to Australia and want to spend 4-5 months teaching/leaving in Vietnam so have lots to find out. Please do let me know if you have time to answer some questions or give advice, further to the above!

First Published: Jan 16, 2014

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