Zoe Osborne delves into expat life in Ho Chi Minh City in a bid to uncover the secret to expat happiness. Photo by Romain Garrigue.
There are many reasons people choose to relocate to another country. Some leave for work, for family or for love, and many of us are simply drawn to the thrill of a brand new adventure. But most have no idea what life is really like in the expat community until they find themselves amongst it, embracing the hilarity and rolling with the punches.
This is particularly true of life in Vietnam – no matter what you thought you’d find, the reality of living in this wonderful, crazy place will be another thing all together. There are challenges that everyone shares, local and expat alike. In InterNations’ 2017 Quality of Life Index, Vietnam did not rate for leisure options, travel and transport, health and safety, and if you’d lived here long enough you may understand why.
But Vietnam was 9th on the list for personal happiness. No matter how hard we may find it to adjust to such a different way of life and the limits of a developing economy, this country is an amazing place.
Young mother and music-lover, Lucy Howson, moved to Saigon on impulse over five years ago. For her, relocating was an adventure and an opportunity to break free from what had become a depressing, hard life in the UK.
“I came on a one way ticket after meeting a Viet Kieu couple while travelling in Europe,” she says. “I’d been living in London for a time… [and] I was pretty done with the crappy weather and cold, hard faces of the people on the underground.”
Years later and Lucy is still here, now happily married with a bubbly daughter and on the brink of an exciting career move. She is struck by how much she has changed.
“I always tell people that I did my actual growing up in Saigon,” she says. “ I feel more at home here [now] than I ever did in the land where I was born.”
According to Saigon-based Clinical Psychologist, Dr Astrid Matarrita-Chichilla, this is not uncommon among the expat community. Being an expat offers a unique opportunity to remove yourself from the people and situations that influence you back home, and really embrace personal growth.
”Back home”, there is a social tendency to preserve and keep intact the status quo of things. That is why everytime you go home nothing changes,” she explains.
A huge part of this lies in the interesting new people and experiences you are exposed to when you live as an expat. Most expats in Vietnam are lucky in the lifestyle they are able to afford. The cost of living in Vietnam is estimated to be nearly 60% cheaper than living in Australia and the UK, and 55% cheaper than living in America, and it is not difficult to find highly paid work here as an expat.
Another long-term HCMC-expat, Shannon Brown, came to the country in late 2014 on the advice of a friend, drawn to the promise of “coconuts and mangos every day”. She stayed for just over three years, hooked on the vibrancy of life in her new city and the opportunities it offered.
“I was quite fortunate… in Vietnam,” she says. “I was able to afford a motorbike, consistent yoga, rock climbing and massage… and I was blessed with a huge group of friends. People who were from so many places around the world, speaking so many languages, doing so many creative things.”
“I ended up staying because there were just so many opportunities to teach and to train and to write,” she continues. “I wouldn’t have been able to do [this] in a more expensive economy.”
Vietnam’s many work and entrepreneurial opportunities have also been key for Singaporean expat Kyaw Tay Zar, who came to the country seven and a half years ago on a quick trip and ended up extending it indefinitely.
“I wanted to get back into startup scene and Vietnam is the perfect place for it. So I decided to go ahead and quit my job, and moved here,” he says. “While running your own firm is way harder than working for someone, it’s something I immensely enjoy. I realised during my [trip] in Vietnam that I wasn’t having a burnout because of workload, but because I hated working a corporate job.”
After years of entrepreneurship, consultancy and freelancing, Kyaw is now considering his next move as a part of Ho Chi Minh City’s exciting, dynamic business sector. According to him, this city is becoming a bit of a “melting pot” for the region’s startup scene.
In fact, Vietnam as a whole is becoming a well-known hotspot for startups and corporate giants alike, favoured for its cheap labour and tech-savvy workforce. South Korea’s Samsung Electronics Co Ltd moved its factories from China to Vietnam in 2013 and has just pledged to further increase its investment in the country.
But while there are many undeniable positives to living in Saigon there are also plenty of challenges. Perhaps the biggest of these is isolation. Everything is transient in the expat world – friends come and go, jobs are short-term, and it can also be difficult to make friends in the first place.
“Even the most independent person can start to feel the need for more meaningful contact,” says Dr Astrid. “This is a city with a very active out and about scene, a lot of networking. But…. you can know hundreds of people without feeling connected to any of them.”
On the flipside, if you come with family or a fixed bubble of friends, it can be very easy to stick to that bubble.
“You end up relying too much on them, isolating your family in a bubble basically and this can lead to conflict fairly quick,” Dr Astrid explains.
Without a rich support network in their new home, expats can find it difficult to work through issues that they could otherwise turn to friends or family for help with. Some of the most common issues that Dr Astrid sees in her practise are anxiety, depression and affair recovery. According to her, these issues are exacerbated in the expat world because treatment and support is far harder to access.
“When people live in their own country, they usually have more access to a solid stable support network. This allows people to cope with their issues by reaching out to family and close friends constantly,” she explains. “As an expat, your support network is reduced significantly and loneliness or isolation is like pouring gasoline on the fire.”
For Lucy, the greatest challenge in her expat life so far has been going through pregnancy in a city where there are few mum and baby groups, or other emotional support networks for young mothers.
“[But] I’m lucky that I have had good friends who have supported me when I needed them, even if a few of those have been distant or just online,” she says. “[My husband] Liem has helped me through most of my challenges.”
Emotional support networks or facilities in general are not common in Ho Chi Minh City. Shannon used to run one of the city’s few depression and anxiety support groups, which will be returning later this year.
“There are problems that come along with being so far away from home and not knowing the law and not having a group of people on your side,” she says.
But mental health aside, many expats simply find themselves becoming disenchanted with their new life. Over time it can be easy to forget the things you once loved about Vietnam and get stuck on the negatives.
“One common thing I see for expats from the Western Hemisphere is that they can’t easily find clothes and shoes that fit… another thing is for pet lovers. Vietnam isn’t exactly pet friendly,” says Kyaw.
“Feeling constantly under strain to communicate [is common],” Shannon adds. “[And] getting frustrated when values and norms don’t match up, especially when it comes to health and safety and definitely losing friends along the way, having people move is kind of a constant part of your life.”
Shannon found that the key to staying positive was to remember why she fell in love with Vietnam in the first place. For Lucy, it’s the human connection she finds in Vietnam.
“The sunsets, smiles and humble gestures experienced daily here compared to the cold, grey, societally disconnected realities of home really help my attitude remain positive,” she says.
But for Kyaw, staying positive is a choice. You can choose to be happy wherever you are, it’s all about how you view the world around you.
“Learn to acknowledge, embrace and accept differences in cultures, traditions and ways of life. The world is a diverse place,” he says. “And don’t keep yourself to a bubble. You’re an average of the five people you spend most time with [so] cut toxic, whiny, close-minded people out of your life.”
In fact having worked with expats for a number of years, Dr Astrid suggests that the issue is almost completely internal. She suggests five things that expats can do to keep a positive frame of mind:
1. Become aware of what your issues are and come up with an action plan for them.
2. Eat clean, exercise frequently. People underestimate the importance of a healthy body.
3. Put real effort into making real friends and cultivating positive relationships.
4. Accept the things you can’t control and focus on what you CAN control and change.
5. Set yourself an intention for your time here – give your life here some purpose.
No matter why you came to Vietnam or what challenges you face as an expat living in this country, the fact remains that you are here. Vietnam is a fascinating place with a rich culture, incredible freedom and friendly, generous people, and if you choose to enjoy it, you will!