Barbara Adam talks to eight very different expatriates about their lives here in Ho Chi Minh City. Photos by Romain Garrigue.
THE PANEL OF EXPATS
Marta Bartosz, Polish
Occupation in Vietnam: Dance instructor
Occupation before Vietnam: Dance instructor at Salsateka dance school
Family situation: Single
Mara Calibara, Filippino
Occupation in Vietnam: Advertising creative
Occupation before Vietnam: Child
Family situation: Engaged
John Gardner, New Zealander
Occupation in Vietnam: General Director, Caravelle Hotel
Occupation before Vietnam: Hotel General Manager, IHG China
Family situation: Married
Jason Kucherawy, Canadian
Occupation in Vietnam: Owner of Saigon Craft Beer Tours
Occupation before Vietnam: Tour company owner
Family situation: Married with two kids
Jade Bernie, Australian
Occupation in Vietnam: Hairdresser
Occupation before Vietnam: Hairdresser at Hair by Elizabeth Jade
Family situation: Single
Jonny Edbrooke, British
Occupation in Vietnam: Director of AsiaLIFE Media
Occupation before Vietnam: Creative Director
Family situation: Married with two kids
Julio Gomez, Mexican
Occupation in Vietnam: Chef de Cuisine
Occupation before Vietnam: Head chef at Tomatito
Family situation: In a relationship
Michael Ling, Malaysian
Occupation in Vietnam: Visiting lecturer, urban and regional planner, architect and interior designer
Occupation before Vietnam: Urban and regional planner, architect and interior designer
Family situation: Married with one kid
Expats end up in Vietnam for various reasons. Some accept a posting here in a bid to further their careers, some come to Vietnam for a career break, some trail a loved one and some arrive purely by chance.
The one thing everyone has in common is that once they arrive, they’re faced with the challenge of creating a lifestyle for themselves. What that lifestyle looks like varies as widely as the styles of Vietnamese motorbike helmets.
This month we meet some of the non-Vietnamese people who call Vietnam home … for now. They are your neighbours, and these are their stories.
Our panel of expats ended up in Vietnam in a variety of ways. Marta and Jade both came here for a holiday and worked out a way to make the vacation a little more permanent, and slightly more lucrative.
“I had been on holidays in Ho Chi Minh City to visit my mum who lives here and fell in love with the easy lifestyle and saw the potential business opportunities,” Jade said. Hair by Jade Elizabeth is now one of the most popular hairdressing services in town for expats, especially women wanting blonde hair.
Mara and Jason “trailed” others. Jason’s teacher wife got a two-year contract at the Canadian International School, and he and his two kids came along to experience living in a foreign country.
Mara, meanwhile, arrived in Vietnam as a child, and stayed to complete her education. She now works in advertising and is a part-time DJ.
John and Julio both came to Vietnam to further their careers, John as the general manager of the historic Caravelle Hotel, and Julio as head chef at the new “sexy” tapas restaurant Tomatito.
Jonny, the publisher of AsiaLIFE magazine, may have the most random story of our panel. He arrived in Vietnam in 1995 on a seven-day contract to create a design for a state-run newspaper called World Affairs Weekly. “While I was assured by the Swiss company that hired me that it was a simple job, I discovered on arrival that there was almost zero design equipment that could handle the job,” he said. “In the end I stayed with that company in Hanoi for four years.” And he’s still here, in Vietnam.
Best Part Of Life In Ho Chi Minh City
Most of our expats point to the lower cost of living in Vietnam compared to their home country as one of the great benefits of their Ho Chi Minh City life.
“My wife and I make a lot less money here in Vietnam, but the overall cost of living is lower than in Canada, so we can actually do a lot more — dining out, travel, entertainment, it’s all much easier to these things,” said Jason.
For Jason, the lower cost of living in Saigon also meant he could take a bit of a career break, paying others to run his businesses in Canada so he could spend more time with his young sons.
Others named the sheer vibrancy of life in Saigon as the main attraction.
“Experiencing the massive changes that have occurred in this city over the past 11 years, our great circle of friends from many nationalities, working with a great local and expat team in the hotel and enjoying the many activities that happen within the city,” said hotelier John.
Dance teacher Marta, meanwhile, loves the feeling of “always being on vacation”.
For Mara and Michael, it’s the Vietnamese people themselves that is her favourite thing about living in Vietnam. “They always look out for you and help make life easy one way or another, and very welcoming to their country,” Mara said. “As expats, I feel we’re very spoiled here. So it’s good to always try and give something in return.”
Worst Part of Life in Ho Chi Minh City
But it’s not all sunshine and skittles. The traffic, the heat and the pollution are the number one bugbears for our panel.
“The pollution levels these days are beyond belief, and don’t think it’s going to get any better,” said Jonny.
Some have quite personal gripes, such Marta, who misses easy access to Polish food.
Interestingly, both of the expats who came to Ho Chi Minh City to further their careers say their social life grew from the connections made at work.
“Working as general of the Caravelle for so many years there’s a natural social life that goes with the job and from there I built up a large circle of really great and supporting friends,” John said.
Mara, who arrived in Vietnam a staggering 22 years ago, said her social circle has changed dramatically over the years.
“First I met my friends at my school, ISHCMC,” she said. “Then, after high school and throughout my 20s I met a lot of people through my college and work networks, events and bars. Every year my general circle of friends would change because people left all the time. Now, for the last four to five years I’ve been with the same circle, who I all met at Broma. Best friends ever since.”
Others have built their social life on the great leveler, alcohol.
“My social life revolves around going to pubs,” AsiaLIFE’s Jonny said.
For Jason, a craft beer enthusiast who arrived in Ho Chi Minh City just as the local craft beer scene was taking off, beer was the basis of his social life, and the company he set up here.
“John Pemberton of Heart of Darkness Craft Brewery was my entry point into the craft beer community and through him I met just about everyone else making great beer,” he said. “It’s a small community and everyone knows just about everyone else. I’m also very chatty and despite being warned not to at a very young age, I talk to strangers. My wife parachuted into a large community of Canadian teachers so between us we made a lot of friends very quickly.”
Living in another country is a great opportunity to learn about another culture, and learning the language can offer some amazing insights into a culture.
But it seems Vietnamese is just too great a challenge for most of our panel.
While some have the basics down, and can direct a taxi driver and order a beer, others regret their lack of ability.
“It’s an extremely difficult language to learn and my daily life doesn’t require it,” said Jason. “Most of my Vietnamese friends speak English really well, so instead of struggling with learning Vietnamese, we just have fun together conversing in English.”
Mara is perhaps the most fluent in Vietnamese, although she doesn’t consider herself as such. “I can understand it well,” she said. “But can’t speak fluently.”
Social media was named as the best resource by most of our expat panel.
Jade said the Female Expats in Ho Chi Minh City Facebook page was her go-to place whenever she has a question about life in Saigon.
For Jason and Jonny, it’s still all about the beer.
“From the tight community that’s built a livelihood around making and selling it (craft beer), to the affable people who congregate in the best bars and restaurants that serve it, on top of it being an excellent social lubricant, craft beer has given me a lot of enjoyment,” Jason said.
Jonny, meanwhile, said he has always found networking at pubs to be a great resource. “Sheridan’s Irish Bar, in its day, gave me more business and more friends than any other bar I’ve been to.” Sadly, Sheridan’s closed down several years ago, and Jonny said he hasn’t found the same pub camaraderie since.
With our panel of experts generally happy with their life in Vietnam, how long do people plan to stay?
This proved to be a tricky question for some, including our own Jonny. “If I made plans I would never be here,” he said.
Marta, Jade, Mara and Julio all say they have no firm exit strategy from Vietnam.
“I don’t see it as `short term’ kind of place,” said Jade. “I live with my mum, I have my business and life is easy. Why move?”
“I like to plan for the future but the agenda is always changing so will see what happens,” Julio said.
Mara said she and her fiance plan to leave Vietnam for one or two years after they’re married, but they could very well end up back here for good.
Jonny has no plans to leave, but his kids are keen to live in the UK, while John said he and his wife want to return home some day, but not for another five years or so.
Jason, meanwhile, has already left. He and his wife had always planned to stay in Vietnam for the duration of her two-year teaching contract. The family has relocated back to Canada, but that doesn’t mean they’re gone for good.
“My plan is to return to Vietnam once a year to reconnect with my friends and business partner here and try the new craft beers that appear as the scene grows and new breweries open,” Jason said. “I feel like I can’t NOT come back to Vietnam. I’m leaving a piece of my heart here.”
And that is the thing about Vietnam. It really takes hold of your heart.
One thing is for certain. A sure-fire way to strike up a conversation with an expat in Vietnam is to ask them “why are you here?”
Give it a try. You could make a new friend.