Any expat living in Vietnam will agree that a lot of things change when you move here. In fact, your life is pretty much flipped on its head. From the obvious things like housing, the language barrier and quality of living, to the more complex issues that you may not even have thought of, like how you will get your child to school or yourself to the office. To what office? Where will you be working? And how will you replace those gorgeous Italian leather work shoes when their soles wear out on the knobbly sidewalks around your Vietnamese apartment?
The good news is that change is a positive thing. Even if some things that happen when you move to Vietnam seem disastrous, I can bet you there is a positive thread of gold in there somewhere. From the perspective of a young lady who moved to Ho Chi Minh City just over a year ago with $600 to her name and no university degree, I can advise you on two very clear things: firstly that an almost innumerable amount of things happen when you come to live in Vietnam, specifically Saigon, and secondly that when they’ve happened you’ll look back and be darn glad that they did.
You stop being short
I personally have never been short, per say, but I have been petite before. I was womanly, small, dwarfed by my brothers, average height...and now? Now I am a giraffe without the spots and the tail. I tower over everyone here, my bones are chunkier, clothes don’t fit and my feet are like flippers! Even the shortest of Westerners will feel average or tall here in Vietnam, and whether you find that positive or not is up to you. I personally find it funny, especially when I try to fit onto one of those tiny street stall stools.
Your money expenditure is like a backwards bell curve
When you first move to Vietnam you have no idea what a ‘dong’ even is, let alone the fact that the smallest valid monetary division here is VND 200. You have no idea what prices are reasonable or where you can buy most products, so at first you tend to dish out the dong far more lavishly than you do when you’re a bit more settled. In the first few weeks you’re a millionaire with a pauper’s bank account, but as time progresses you slowly learn to spend more wisely.
You leave all facebook groups
There is no expat group in all of Vietnam that does not suffer from an infestation of sarcastic, obnoxious twits, and for that they are becoming more of an area of harassment rather than a community. I’m not sure why, but the people who prowl those groups seem to be more interested in making everyone wish they’d never contributed to it rather than answering simple questions or voicing objective opinions. Either way, you will probably join many expat facebook groups when you move to Vietnam, and invariably leave them within a month or two.
You discover a love for wet wipes
Either this or you get used to being a human water fixture. The honest truth is that all year, rain or shine, winter or summer, Vietnam is like a sauna. It’s just so hot and sticky and if you don’t sweat like a pig then you seriously deserve a medal. In fact, someone should invent a ‘Sweatless Champion’ award for the least moist expat. Yuck. But the point is valid - I learned to love wet wipes when I moved here, because without them I would not be the fresh, clean lady I like to be.
You get a job
Vietnam is one of the few places in the world where it is 100% guaranteed that you will find a job. Ok, actually there is one condition - are you white?
Hundreds of schools and language centers operate around the country that all regularly hire a steady turnover of “native speakers” to help with pronunciation, and to bring their business credibility in the eyes of their students’ parents. The only issue is that many of these foreign “teachers” are in fact novices in the trade.
People move here to teach english as a way to make money fast before heading off on their travels, or as an easy, “low-hours high-pay” job to support a few years of mid-20s partying. Many “teachers” know more about their beer than their children or care more about their trip than the future they are dictating for their students. A lot of them aren’t even native English speakers - they just look right. Such is life!
There are many other opportunities for work here, however, and as one of the fastest developing economies in the globe Vietnam is the place for all budding entrepreneurs. If you want to come to a place with few rules, countless loopholes, catching enthusiasm and booming opportunity, get started in Vietnam.
Your concept of a “bathroom” is re-defined
So, you’re in Vietnam! Just to let you know, bathrooms are no longer tidy, white tiled boxes with a clean glass walled shower and a dry, flushable toilet... We in Vietnam feel no need to seperate toilet and shower, and your bathroom will now be perpetually moist.
Toilet paper is impractical, since moist toilet paper tends to be too mushy to be effective, so the delightful bidet is now your bottom’s best friend. And if you’re feeling extreme then why not make your bathroom even more irritating with a couple of huge plastic tubs full of dirty washing, or better yet invest in some rope to string up your clean shirts and trousers and let them drip all over your already slippery bathroom floor.
Another great thing you can apply to your bathroom is packing it full of bulky plastic furniture or miscellaneous things that are vaguely associated with washing. My own boyfriend has an excellent obsession with washing our dishes in our bathroom since it’s the only private tap we have, stacking the dishes on a fantastically ugly blue rack of plastic shelves in one corner, and leaving vast piles of manky shirts soaking in soapy water while he goes to work.
You learn to squat
Whether you’re putting something into your body or passing something out of it, squatting will become a large part of your digestive life. From sitting on a tiny street stool as you slurp your hu tieu or sip on your ca phe, to bending your knees as you prepare to relieve yourself. Squat toilets are rampant in Vietnam, though the more expensive you live the less knee bending you will have to subject yourself to.
You become increasingly textured
Anyone who isn’t already scarred and scuffed should prepare themselves for a complete body transformation when they move to Vietnam. As soon as you step into the busy streets of Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi, or onto one of the dusty highways that join these two cardinal points together, you will begin that slow process of erosion that we residents all come to know very well. Your skin will be bronzed (unless you cover it) and you’ll be increasingly scuffed. One famous texture that most Saigon expats will know well comes with the introduction to motor riding. The “Saigon Kiss”, a welt from your motorbike’s exhaust, can be found on most expat legs across the city.
You get used to being confused
When you move to Vietnam you will absolutely, one-hundred percent never live through a whole day without misunderstanding something. Even if you spend the day with your foreigner mates, speaking to people in your native language, you’ll probably still meet with some situation or another that confuses you. Why? Because this country make no sense. It’s almost as if people look at a process and ask themselves 3 questions:
- Does it need to work? - Does it need to be efficient? - Does it need to be cheap?
And then disregard every answer they thought of and go ahead with making something completely and utterly bizarre. And you know what? It’s great. Simply because life becomes so hilariously strange that everything is turned upside down and you feel like you’re walking on your ears. And then you laugh, because it’s reality.
You replace your iPhone and your wallet
If you’ve managed to hold onto your valuables so far then you have two options - either buy a leotard and become a superhero, or lock them up somewhere dark and hidden because if you haven’t lost them yet then you will soon. Very soon. It’s science, particularly in Saigon.
The city is not a dangerous one for real, organised crime, but petty theft is rife and even if you’re being careful it’s easy to be stolen from. My friend once had her phone ripped out of her hand by a man in a flower shop, who then sprinted onto the street and hopped on a moped. She thought she’d be ok since she was inside! But...no.
Luckily second-hand goods aren’t so expensive here and we’ve taken the time to find a great option for replacing your stuff, which you can read about here. But ideally, just don’t lose things. A good rule of thumb is look around you before you take your phone out, don’t put stuff in back trouser pockets, lock everything up if you’re not standing within a meter of it, and don’t wear expensive jewelry on the street.
You eat every illogical part of a chicken and forget that ‘breast’ exists
I go to the market every day and they either breed breastless chickens in Vietnam or they scoff it all themselves beforehand because I swear to you - there is never even one piece of succulent chicken breast meat. Feet? Yep. Heads? Gosh, they’re first on the table! Wings, and thighs? Mmmmm getting a bit mainstream there but ok, we stock them.
Chicken stomachs are a favourite around here, and apparently that part of the bird which, given its all too close association with poo, would be my ABSOLUTE last choice.
You invest in cats
Either this or you just start talking about investing in cats, yes feline animals, because you become convinced that you will be forever alone. This one applies mainly to Vietnam’s female expats, and though I will admit I don’t see many cats in Ho Chi Minh City I do hear many impending cat women complaining about male expats’ obsession with Vietnamese girls. Why do so many foreign men in Vietnam swear against Westerner-Westerner relationships? What’s their problem huh?
Well whatever the issue is, something’s gotta give. Either Vietnam will be swamped with an influx of compensatory cats in the next 5 to 10 years or all our women will move to South America to find themselves a beautiful bronzed hispanic. But wait ladies, what about Vietnamese suiters?