November 15 2006
-Where were you born?
I was born in Johannesburg, South Africa but lived in Stellenbosch, a university town just outside Cape Town, for most of my life.
-In which country and city are you living now?
I’m currently living in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, in Vietnam.
-Are you living alone or with your family?
At the moment I’m renting a house with a South African friend. We actually stayed in a flat together in South Africa while we were studying so we decided to come to Vietnam together.
-How long have you been living in Vietnam?
I’ve been here since April, so it’s been about eight months.
-What is your age?
I’m 23 years old.
-When did you come up with the idea of living in Vietnam?
Well, I had just finished studying BPhil (Bachelor in Philosophy) journalism at the University of Stellenbosch at the beginning of the year, when I had a choice to make – go into the media industry straight away and start looking for a job, or travel a bit and work abroad. I had a student loan to pay off and my brother was working in Vietnam at that stage, so I convinced my flatmate that we should head to Vietnam and try our luck here. It was a really spur-of-the-moment decision and in hindsight I think we might’ve planned it better if we had more time, but everything has worked out fine so far (touch wood).
-Was it hard to get a visa or a working permit?
The visa wasn’t really a problem, but trying to get a work permit is a tedious process with a lot of red tape involved as the conditions and process are constantly changing (I’m still in the process of getting one). One good tip, if you’re planning on working here, is to make sure you have notarised copies of all your important documents (degrees, certificates, etc.) before you arrive.
-Was it difficult for you to get medical insurance before you went there or when you first arrived?
Well, I’ve only been here for 8 months so I’ve still got my travel insurance that I bought with my plane ticket which covers me for a year. But I think most of the companies that offer work to expats also sort out the insurance process for you, which – if it’s anything like the work permit process – is probably also a long, drawn-out process. Contrary to popular belief, there are also some very good hospitals in HCM City, which cater to expats.
-How do you make your living in Vietnam? Do you have any type of income generated?
I’m teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL/TESOL) at two schools here in Ho Chi Minh City and also doing some freelance journalism when I get the time. The English centers I work for are both well-established and well-known in the city and offer good salaries to foreigners who have university degrees as well as teaching qualifications (TELF/TESOL/CELTA). I did a course back in South Africa before I arrived to get my certificate, so when we got to Vietnam we went around town dropping off our CVs at a lot of different English schools around town. We must have dropped them off at least 15 different schools before the callbacks for interviews started coming in about a week or two later. I think perhaps it’s easier to avoid this stress of waiting for a job if you can organize one before you leave your home country – something which never occurred to me! You can also get a job, with only one qualification (either a TEFL/TESOL or university degree), but it might prove more difficult.
-Do you speak Vietnamese and do you think it's important to speak the local language?
In my humble opinion, I think Vietnamese is probably one of the most difficult languages to learn as it’s a tonal language, with five or six different tones to each spelling of a word. The example often used is the word “Ma”, which can be “mother”, “ghost”, horse”, “graveyard” or even something else, depending on the pronunciation and tone. I know foreigners who have picked up the language within two years, but it would require lots of dedication and an ear for tones (I know other foreigners who have been here for 10 years and still can’t speak the language) to pull this off.
Regarding the customs in Vietnam, I’m still learning new ones every day myself, but I’ve found that living down in Saigon, the people are more liberalised in a Western sense, and more tolerant of foreign cultures, than in the nation’s capital Hanoi in the north of the country. Things like respect for your elders and teachers are still customs observed everywhere, however, as well as eating customs such as the proper use of chopsticks and table etiquette. There are also different titles used for different age groups which need to be learnt as, for example, addressing a person older than you by the wrong title can cause offence. Other customs are easily picked up once you get settled in the country, such as the heavy motorbike traffic and the road rules, or lack thereof! Vietnamese in general are a very friendly culture and tolerant of mistakes.
-Do you miss home and family sometimes?
Of course I miss my home, as it’s one of the most beautiful areas anywhere in the world. Obviously I miss my family and friends, but also the fresh air, clean rain and hot, African days. Another thing I miss a lot is the beautiful Atlantic Ocean and the wines and vineyards from my area. It’s possible to pick up some South African wines here but they are taxed at 100% and often marked up even further, so they can be quite expensive.
Recreational activities in Saigon itself are limited, and usually expats and foreigners travel to the seaside towns of Mui Ne and Nha Trang, or head up to the mountains of Dalat or faraway Sapa, to truly relax.
In Saigon, my favourite past time is just relaxing at home or heading down to the backpacker district of Pham Ngu Lao to meet friends for a drink. HCM City is a gastronome’s heaven, with a number of excellent restaurants as well as coffee shops. Prices range from dead cheap to the more exclusive and the cuisine is truly global, so they cater to all tastes. There are also a number of parks dotted around the city to exercise and relax in, and a walk around town offers a glimpse at the unique Vietnamese architecture as well as remnants of the French colonial architecture which is still on display in the form of beautiful, redecorated French villas around the city. Dam Sen Water Park is also a favourite amongst locals and foreigners who have children. The seaside town of Vung Tau is also less than two hours away by hydrofoil down the Saigon River, but it’s often crowded at the weekends.
-Do you have other plans for the future?
I’m heading back to South Africa for Christmas in December and then coming back here to try my luck for another year in which I hopefully will not get run over in the mad traffic! I plan to work a bit less and travel around VN and the neighbouring countries of Laos and Cambodia a bit, perhaps writing some more as well. The Vietnamese Lunar New Year in February (Tet) is a great time to travel around a bit for two weeks.
-What about housing, have you bought, or are you renting a home? How much do you pay for it?
We rent a reasonably house in Tan Binh District (the city is divided into a number of different neighbourhoods or “districts”), which is quite a few kilometers from the centre of town, for $600/month. We live quite comfortably as we have a two-story house with three bedrooms, three bathrooms, a study, garden, big living room, dining room and kitchen as well as the option of ADSL Internet and cable TV.
There are cheap rooms for rent in the backpacker area of Pham Ngu Lao for between $5-15/night, and apartments in the centrally located districts (D1 or D3) will range between $250-$750/month. I’d guess a two-story, two-bedroom/bathroom, kitchen, living room, furbished apartment in D1 could put you back between $400 and $600.
-What is the cost of living in Vietnam?
The cost of living can be very cheap if you live and eat like a local, which I tend to do, yet if you plan on living “the expat lifestyle” - wining and dining around town every weekend and buying imported goodies from home at the gourmet shops, it can be quite pricey. Essentials are cheap, such as bread ($0.50), milk ($1), beer ($0.5 = can) and cheap roadside eateries can fill your stomach with the local specialties of rice noodle soup (Pho) or other rice dishes for less than a dollar. These are rough estimates, but I guess if you lived like a local you could comfortably and easily get by on about $5-10 a day.
-What do you think about the Vietnamese people?
As I said, in general the locals are very friendly and, being a foreigner, it takes a while getting used to the stares coming your way as you walk down the street. You get the odd exception, as with most places in the world, where you are seen as the invader and “harbinger of evil times,” but this is probably due to resentment left over from the American/Vietnam war. One thing which is a bit strange but generally accepted by locals and foreigners alike is that there is two prices for everything: one for Vietnamese and a higher one for foreigners. Expats can always expect to pay more (price tags are quite rare) so be prepared to bargain for the price you want! Also, if you are planning to get a motorcycle, be careful as any foreigner who causes a motorcycle accident is in danger of getting beaten up by angry locals! Sometimes mob law rules in Vietnam, but don’t take it personally, as it can just as easily happen to locals and expats alike.
-What are the positive and negative aspects of living in Vietnam?
The natural beauty of the countryside is a definite plus, with a number of Unesco World Heritage sites in Vietnam, as well as the friendly disposition of the locals. The food is awesome and living can be cheap. Perhaps one of the only negative things about living in Ho Chi Minh City is the traffic and terrible air and water pollution. The traffic can be overwhelming (the motorbikes look like schools of fish during rush hour and require some practice getting use to).
When first moving here, I’d recommend hiring a motorbike taxi driver to take you around town until you feel comfortable enough to hire your own motorbike. The humidity, heat and incessant rainfall can also be bothersome, especially in the rainy season when it rains daily. The water from tap is not that clean and bottled water is essential to survive! Yet, I think the positives definitely outweigh the negatives.
-Do you have any tips for our readers about living in Vietnam?
Be prepared for change, especially if you’re from a Western culture and haven’t lived in Southeast Asia before. The weather, language and culture can be difficult to adjust to at first, but be tolerant and embrace all the differences just as visitors embrace your culture when they visit. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” is a cliché, but a true one, when it comes to Vietnam.
-Do you have any favorite Web sites or blogs about Vietnam?
Obviously I’d say my own blog, Backwater Views, is good for learning about what’s going on in Saigon from my own perspective, but there are also a number of other good expat blogs, which can be found at expat-blog, which deal with a range of topics such as the food, culture and the architecture of Vietnam. A good expat magazine which is freely distributed in Ho Chi Minh City is Asialife (previously SaigonInsideOut magazine) and has a number of articles and directories to help make your stay more comfortable and easier.