From the moment new expats arrive, whether full-fledged adults or young and fresh out of college, they have to navigate a host of new and often bewildering challenges while adjusting to life in Ho Chi Minh City. Story by Ruben Luong, photos by Romain Garrigue & Vinh Dao
There are tell-tale signs of a newly-arrived expat, like someone who hangs on for dear life with both hands on the back of a motorbike, or who opts for chopsticks to eat rice even when the surrounding locals eat it with a fork and spoon.
It is ultimately a matter of preference, but it can also be the first awkward rite of passage into expat life, in which everything in chaotic Ho Chi Minh City feels unfamiliar.
Hot, crowded and noisy, it’s a city not for the faint-hearted. But it is also not an uncommon story to hear an expat arrive for a brief, temporary period and end up staying for several years or more.
For better or for worse, there are arrivals going through the motions of expat life whether they are prepared or not. Somewhere down the line comes the decision to accept Ho Chi Minh City through thick and thin, or ultimately, to find a change of scenery.
The Game of Life
Dining amongst themselves, new expats Warren Cammack, 34, Edwina Hughston, 35, and their two-year-old daughter Madeleine look like the perfect family on a Monday evening at The Loop in District 2.
The family arrived in Ho Chi Minh City three months ago on a Friday evening from Sydney, Australia.
“The first thing we did was literally get off the plane and we went to find a hospital and obstetrician,” Hughston says. The following Monday, they had an appointment at Hanh Phuc Hospital. In two months’ time, the couple would be expecting their second baby girl. “By the time this edition of the magazine comes out, there will be another addition to the family,” Cammack says.
The family packed up their lives in Sydney while Hughston was on two-year maternity leave and after Cammack accepted an optional two-year placement at VIB bank working on innovation strategy.
“It has been the most stressful time ever moving countries, trying to find a house, having a baby, starting a new job … all the things bundled together in a two-month block. It’s been very hard,” Cammack says, pausing. “Yeah, it’s been very hard.”
Cammack and Hughston had a temporary stay at the Vista in District 2 where their family began to adjust to Ho Chi Minh City life but also began to search for a more permanent home.
Renting an apartment is relatively easy here for single expats content with group living, but searching for a suitable family home in the city is a different matter. In fact, Cammack and Hughston’s relocation agent showed them 22 homes in one day.
“Finding a house has been very different,” Hughston says. “The lease negotiation process for us took a month because everyone needed to be part of it and change different things. There were so many people involved.”
“We found one place. It unfortunately went and the next place we found it took so long that I kept thinking, ‘Are we going to have somewhere to live’?”
Finally, by mid-August the family settled on a newly-built, four-bedroom home in District 2. They moved in last month, three days before their baby was expected to be due, so the timing was down to the wire.
“Some of the places we saw were very, um, elaborate,” she says, chuckling. “Lots of different wallpapers and sparkly things,” Cammack comments. “There’s an apartment we looked at that had a giant karaoke room and things like that.”
Another major priority was finding a good school for Madeleine. They looked at three schools but decided on the Australian International School. “They teach Vietnamese culture even at their age and I thought that was important for children so they’re not in a bubble full of expats,” Hughston says.
While Madeleine attends school, Cammack is busy adapting to Ho Chi Minh City’s work life. “People work half-day Saturday or full-day Saturday as well so you really get one day a week off. The hours are very long,” he says. “It’s a Vietnamese-owned bank but my boss is Western so his expectation is that things move at Western speed, but when you deal with bureaucracy as well it’s very difficult.”
“But there’s a healthy attention there and I think it’s possible to make things move more quickly. I think it will take more time to get people used to that kind of speed. It’s exciting. Vietnamese people are very entrepreneurial, creative, so you just have to work it out, how you harness that and make it work. I think it’s going to be an interesting two years,” he says.
We are young
While long-term expat couples like Cammack and Hughston are concerned with finding stability in Ho Chi Minh City, another demographic in the expat spectrum is the peripatetic Millennials who live a freer, more adventurous lifestyle in Ho Chi Minh City.
Popular arrivals are of course young foreigners working as temporary English teachers to fulfill the city’s high demand for instructors at major English centres and public schools.
Bright-eyed young couple Libby LeCorgne, 23, and Andrew Kochanski, 22, arrived in Ho Chi Minh City only last month after graduating a few months before from Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee.
“Up until this point life has been really easy, parents hold your hand and then you’re in college and that’s kind of a transition but you’re not really on your own and you’re not really ready. I wasn’t ready to figure things out as well,” LeCorgne says.
So she and Kochanski came to Vietnam through an English teaching program to obtain their TESOL certification as a way to travel and potentially save money. “The longer you’re in America, the longer you’re there after college. You get settled and you start accumulating things in places and, I don’t know, I thought it’d be harder to up-and-leave in a year if we didn’t do it right away,” LeCorgne says.
One of their essential tasks after finishing their TESOL program was buying a motorbike. The couple had their eye on a Honda Wave but it quickly sold, so instead opted to purchase a red-and-white Kawasaki Neo Max motorbike for VND 5 million. The side of their motorbike reads ‘style of model life’.
Kochanski, the main driver at first, didn’t have anyone to teach him how to handle the gears. He also says one of the things that had kept him up at night the first week of driving was his brakes, which were faulty. It was a matter of trial and error.
“We explored all the different districts and canals. We also did a little bit of District 5 but we were both kinda tired and it was raining and it was our first week of driving the moto,” LeCorgne says.
“We couldn’t stop yelling at each other. I would get snappy at her on the bike,” Kochanski adds. “The bike kept stalling so it wasn’t the best experience.”
Of course, every new expat has something to say about the traffic. “The traffic is a challenge, but at this point it’s so novel and exciting, you’re not complaining,” he says. “And sometimes it’s hilarious. We saw a moto guy push a bicyclist with his left leg. I don’t think they knew each other.”
Now mobile, they are embracing the culture, becoming acquainted with the language and trying hard to interact with many locals they’ve met through their English teaching classes. With its six tone variations, newcomers find the language interesting but can otherwise be intimidated by it, creating a language barrier.
“Sometimes it’s hard because the more authentic you get the less you can communicate with locals,” Kochanski says. “So there’s always a balance you need to strike. Sometimes it’s hard having a real conversation about politics or ethics or something and with our Vietnamese friends the conversation only goes so far.”
Another priority for them is also getting to know the cuisine through the knowledge of the locals. “We purposefully didn’t read the guidebooks until we got here and we didn’t do much research about the specific places to go because we just wanted to come in with an open mind and see what it was all about. Having no preconceived notions or standards has been helpful,” LeCorgne says.
During their third week in the city, they had already begun to understand the extent of available cuisine. “The best picture was our back-to-back meals … a seven-course French meal and then we ate dog cooked three different ways with our Vietnamese friends the next day,” Kochanski says.
Good morning, Vietnam?
But once every expat starts to get a feel for the city and clears their respective hurdles, whether having to shop for a home, start a new job or have a baby like Cammack and Hughston, or buy a motorbike, overcome the language barrier and embrace street food like LeCorgne and Kochanski, is the hard part finally over?
“I think Australians in general are pretty relaxed,” Hughston says. “But not always. Seriously, there will be days where I kind of get to the point [that] it takes so long to do anything here. I think it’s hard sometimes when getting in a taxi and telling them where to go and thinking they understand but realising that they don’t, so that’s tough. It’s the little things, like you go to look for something you need and you don’t know where to get [it].”
“I’m sure we’ll get fed up with the big city living after a while but I grew up in a small college town so I always knew the city was something I’d like and I’d settle for something in between,” Kochanski says. “And I’ll get claustrophobic and the pollution is annoying, but I’ve already embraced the surgical mask.”
And yet despite the frustration or hard times, the city can also prove to be unpredictable in charming or endearing ways.
“A woman I’d met once, I got stranded in a massive downpour and she drove past us in a taxi, saw us, drove back and picked us up,” Hughston says. “We’d only met her once for 20 minutes and she recognised us and came back for us. It was things like that, having a community like that, we’ve never had that back home. It was really nice to experience something like that.”
Ultimately, Cammack and Hughston have high hopes for their two-year stay.
“I think we’ve gone through that whole transition. I think for most people that takes four to six weeks so we’re feeling more comfortable and know what we’re doing and can start enjoying it rather than feelng like we’re still in limbo,” Hughston says.
LeCorgne and Kochanski, in the meantime, have moved into a new apartment and began working, and expect to stay in Vietnam for a year.
“Something that really bothered me the other day was someone asked me, ‘How do you like Ho Chi Minh City’? I said, ‘I love it, I have no complaints’. He was like, ‘Just give it time’,” LeCorgne says. “But you know, I want to continue to be enamoured with the city. I don’t want to have the expectation that the city will get worse over time.”