Many foreigners stay long-term in Vietnam

Interesting times

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When he first came to Vietnam in 2006, Mr. John Smith, a student from UK, planned to stay about six months and travel around the country. That he would still be here more than a decade later never crossed his mind. With a good standard of living, career possibilities, and a family, Vietnam has become his second home and like many expats he can’t see a day when he would ever want to leave.

Interesting times

With a history and culture spanning thousands of years, Vietnam is an appealing place for Westerners looking to discover the East or simply find something different. As the country has developed rapidly in recent years, Vietnam boasts a combination of the old and the new compared to China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Thailand, which have developed for a longer period, been industrialized, and more resemble Western countries, many expats agree.

Some fell in love with Vietnam at first sight, as happened to Rodion Fedorov from Russia, who studied Vietnam at the University of Saint Petersburg. When he came here in 2008 he was impressed by its nice weather, beautiful landscapes, great food, warm smiles, and beautiful women.

Similarly, Mr. Smith added that every corner in Vietnam can tell you something, such as old houses in Hanoi combining French architecture and Vietnamese living in the past, happy old people doing morning exercises in gardens and parks, and street food stalls open until midnight. “After 12 years in Vietnam, every day I still discover something new,” he said.

Keen on living abroad to gain new experiences, they researched different countries before deciding on Vietnam and then moved their whole family to the country.

The friendly, relaxing and positive spirit of Vietnamese people is another magnet encouraging expats to stay. Mr. Fedorov noticed soon after arriving that nearly every street is alive with people shopping or eating in a happy atmosphere. This positive energy changed him and made him happy and keen to stay long term.

Vietnamese are friendlier than people in most other countries, expats find. Strangers smile at them on the street and involve them in toasts at “bia hoi” and beer clubs even though they don’t know any English. Local friends, meanwhile, invite them their home to eat, take care of them when they hang out together, and give them a hand when problems arise.

Like many foreign men, Mr. Boulo was a little startled when Vietnamese men placed their hand on his knee and when people bluntly asked about his income and marriage status, which are considered personal matters in the West. But he quickly found it was just people wanting to be friendly. “I like it. It makes me feel comfortable and close to them. In Europe, people are very careful about not being too close to people they don’t really know,” he said. “It takes time to ‘get’ it.”

Opportunities abound

Most expats find it easy to get a job and live well. Thanks to its economic growth and globalization efforts over recent years, Vietnam offers good job opportunities and different types of work.

As teachers, Mr. Boulo in science and economics and Ms. Boulo in primary school, they secured jobs at the French International School before coming to Vietnam and their kids also have a good study environment as the school. 

Vietnam has also taught Mr. Fedorov many things. After finishing his studies in the country he returned to Russia. Unemployment in his home country is now problem, however, and finding a good job proved problematic. So, back to Vietnam it was, where he worked as a freelance consultant on foreign investment projects before getting a job as a technical documentation engineer at Power Machines, a Russian investment project at the Long Phu 1 thermal power plant in the Mekong Delta’s Soc Trang province. “I had to go through a lot of interviews and tests,” he said. “But thanks to my time in Vietnam and my understanding of its working environment and culture and ability to speak the language, the job came my way.” 

Relaxing life

Together with a good job, the comfortable life they have in Vietnam is what keeps many expats here

The Expat Insider 2017 survey determined that Vietnam had the lowest cost of living for expats among 15 other countries, including Mexico, Thailand, and Spain. Rents in cities such as Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and Da Nang can be as low as $200-500 for a nice room in a shared house or a one-bedroom apartment, depending on the location. It’s much cheaper than the rent on a place of a similar size in Europe or Australia. Food is also very cheap, at just a few dollars for a hearty meal. “We take our kids to restaurants every week,” Mr. Buolo said. “In Europe, we can only do it once a month because it’s so expensive.” 

Along with food and accommodation, many other things in Vietnam are cheap and convenient. Shops and food are open until 9 or 10pm everywhere and they can park their motorbike on the sidewalk and get what they need for a few dollars. In Europe, meanwhile, shops can close at 6pm or soon after and everything on the shelves is more expensive.

Entertainment, such the cinema and art and music shows, as well as travel, which is important to many, are also much cheaper here. Most expats have seen more of Vietnam than they have of their home country.

After spending a long time in Vietnam, many expats experience “reverse culture shock” when they return home and find they miss Vietnam. “I felt like a tourist when I got back Russia,” Mr. Fedorov said. “When a light bulb broke, I had to ask my mother where to buy a new one, whereas in Vietnam I know exactly where to go. I now feel more Vietnamese than Western.” 

Trials & tribulations

There are, of course, issues to be faced when living in a foreign country and this is true of Vietnam. 

Few people speak good English, and expats must speak Vietnamese if they hope to meet a lot of local people. The language, though, is extremely difficult. “It’s easy to be misunderstood when speaking Vietnamese, because you have to pronounce the tone correctly,” Mr. Buolo said. “After living here for eight years, my Vietnamese is still pretty basic. After saying ‘Hello’ and asking someone their name and where they work, the conversation then comes to a halt. I really want to be able to speak more Vietnamese so I know what’s being said.” 

Another difficulty for expats is complicated administration formalities such as work permits and working visas and the procedures for doing business or marrying a Vietnamese citizen. In many cases these things require an intermediary be engaged at a great cost, according to Mr. Fedorov.

In addition, as Vietnam is developing quickly and life becomes busier, traffic jams, air pollution, and noise pollution can make some days quite stressful and force a re-think about staying into the future.

While it’s good to pick up Western brands and stay abreast of global trends, many expats worry that Vietnam is losing its national character. “Even a city like Paris doesn’t have as many tall buildings as Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City,” Mr. Buolo said. “We preserve and protect old things from the past, and I hope Vietnam will also do this.” 

Agreeing, Mr. Fedorov said that the influence of globalization and integration is unavoidable and helps with development, but Vietnam needs to retain the national character that many foreigners fall in love with.

Le Diem

VN Economic Times

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