-Where were you born?
I was born in Canton, Ohio, USA around the time the first man walked on the moon.
-In which country and city are you living now?
Vietnam - Saigon - HCMC
-Are you living alone or with your family?
I'm here with my wife and our mini, black and tan dachshund.
-How long have you been living in Vietnam?
So far, I've been living here since August 1, 2009.
-What is your age?
I turned 40 five days after I moved here.
-When did you come up with the idea of living in Vietnam?
My wife and I were living/working in Cairo, Egypt last year. We were traveling through Southeast Asia and attended the Search-Associates job fair in Bangkok. We really didn't think much would come of it, but I walked away with an offer from Saigon South International School.
-Was it hard to get a visa or a work permit?
Visa? No. The school took care of it. We sent our passports to the Vietnamese embassy in D.C. and they sent them back with 3-month, multi-entry visas. Work permit? What work permit? That's a little more complicated. According to the school, we needed to get copies of our degrees and a police background check. We had to have these notarized. Then we had to have the notarization certified by the County Clerk. Then we had to have them certified by the state level Department of State. Lastly, we had to send them to the Vietnamese embassy to have them translated and certified again. That's where the problem happened. The embassy never returned them. So, I've been here, working without a work permit. I guess this is not uncommon. When we go to the states this summer we'll try the process again and see if it works out better this time around. If is works out how it's supposed to, we'll get a residence card and a 3-6 month, multi-entry visa.
-Was it difficult for you to get medical insurance before you went there or when you first arrived?
The school provided medical insurance through TieCare.
-How do you make your living in Vietnam? Do you have any type of income generated?
Currently, I am working as the school wide speech-language pathologist. Next year, I won't be at this school. I'll be working privately in the community. It turns out that I'm the only SLP in the city. There isn't even a term for it in Vietnamese.
-Do you speak Vietnamese and do you think it's important to speak the local language?
I've been taking Vietnamese lessons for about six months. I've studied other languages before and I've become at least proficient at some. Up until a couple of years ago, I spoke Russian pretty well. I lived in Russia for two years and had to learn the language to survive as a lot of my friends there didn't speak English. Before that I had studied French and German. I thought that they were somewhat difficult, but Russian was in a difficulty league beyond them. Then I studied Arabic in Egypt. Arabic makes Russian look easy, but Vietnamese makes Arabic look easy. No matter how accurately I try to pronounce the words, only my Vietnamese teacher seems to be able to understand me. The easiest part of the language is that the alphabet is Roman. So, at least I can read signs and menus as long as they contain words in my current vocabulary set.
In general, I think it's important for anyone living in as an expat to at least make a reasonable effort to learn the local language. It is one of the most visible ways to show respect for that country's culture. Unless you make the leap from expat to immigrant, you'll always be a guest in whichever country you're living in. I've found that it's best to be a gracious guest.
Having said that, practically, it will take a very large commitment to learn Vietnamese. You can survive in the expat circles, the backpacker areas, and at most of the restaurants without it. Even the Vietnamese understand how difficult it is and I've heard them say that, unless you're planning on spending more than three years here, you shouldn't try too hard if at all.
-Do you miss home and family sometimes?
Sure. However, with modern technology (Skype, email, Facebook, etc.), it lessens the absence. Plus, since I'm on a teacher's schedule, I usually spend at least a month every summer visiting family and friends in the states. Absence makes the heart grow fonder and all that.
-Do you have other plans for the future?
One year at a time. I'll see how next year goes with the private work. If things are good, then we'll stay another year. If not, then we'll probably try to hit another job fair and see what happens. I do have plans to keep exploring this region of the world. Flights in Southeast Asia are very reasonable. So far I've visited Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Mayanmar, and the Philippines. Next year I hope to make it to Nepal, China and maybe, just maybe Bhutan.
-What about housing, have you bought, or are you renting a home? How much do you pay for it?
Right now the school is providing housing; they're renting an apartment for us. We currnetly live in District 7, in a neighborhood called Phu My Hung. I guess it's a Taiwanese company that has a 50-year lease to turn the area into the next Singapore. They're well on their way. It's a big expat neighborhood, but few western expats. Most of the expats are Korean or Taiwanese.
Next year, my wife will be working at a different school. Their monthly allowance is $850 USD for housing. Hopefully we'll be able to find something suitable in District 3 for that amount. We'd like to be close to her job.
-What is the cost of living in Vietnam?
It varies widely. If you eat locally (pho, banh mi and spring rolls) it's ridiculously cheap, around $2 USD. Shopping is about the same. Electronics tend to be a little more expensive here than in Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur and the quality isn't so hot. Especially imported items from China. The Vietnamese try to avoid anything imported from China; especially food. They don't trust that it's safe.
Basically, if you eat like a local and live in a less expat neighborhood, it's extremely cheap to live here by western standards. If you eat at the expat int'l restaurants and shop at the higher end grocery stores (Annam, Citimart, Veggies, etc.) then you'll spend a lot more; probably closer to what you would in North America.
-What do you think about the Vietnamese?
I've found that, in a lot of 'developing countries', if you even go just a little out of your way to say hello to and smile at the people in your neighborhood, you'll kind of become the 'adopted foreigner'. The people will really look out for you and help you with things and you probably won't be seen as 'that stuck up, rich foreigner who won't talk to anyone'. The Vietnamese that I've come into contact with are very friendly and welcoming and like most people from developing countries, very proud of their culture and heritage. Just showing some interest in celebrating their holidays and eating their food will go a long way. They also don't fall all over themselves to try to sell you every piece of junk that happens to be in their store (I'm talking outside of the backpacker area). There is bargaining, but they're fine to let you leave and hold strong to their final price even if it still might be too high. In a way, it's kind of refreshing. They're not usually overly in-your-face friendly, but they're very welcoming and nice if you approach them or reach out.
I've been asked by a lot of people in the states if I run into any problems in Vietnam because I'm American. Although I understand the reason for this question (there was a war less than a generation ago after all), I find this to be extremely self centered. I've run into French people in Vietnam and Dutch people in Indonesia. I've never heard anyone ask them the same questions about their presence and their respective former colonies. Their countries were in the region raping and pillaging and colonizing for a long enough time that the "American War" is a just a blip in the timeline. Along the same lines, there's also the fact that China had controlled and dominated the country for about a 1000 years. I wonder if anyone asks them if they run into any problems. I've heard Vietnamese voice more concerns and negativity about the Chinese than any other nationality.
Having said all of this, there is one caveat. It's probably not specific to Vietnam, but to most of Southeast Asia; the taxi drivers. Even the locals will warn you about taxis. They say that the drivers will try to take advantage of you because you're a foreigner. They try to take very long, roundabout routes to get to places in order to run up the meter. Plus, there are only two reliable taxi companies in the expat circles here (Mai Linh and Vinasum). However (just to add some balance), I was in a taxi once and the driver felt so bad about how long it took to get somewhere that he tried to only charge me half of what the meter read. I paid the full fare.
-What are the positive and negative aspects of living in Vietnam?
Positive: Vietnam is very cool. There is so much to see and do in the entire country; beaches, mountains, nature, cool cities with a lot of character. The people are friendly and the cost of living is very inexpensive. It's a developing country still. Saigon and Hanoi still haven't hit that generic mega-city status like Bangkok, Manila or Jakarta yet. They still feel like small cities in a lot of ways. The cheap regional travel is a double plus. Air Asia flies direct from HCMC to Bangkok, KL, Phuket and Jakarta for less than $50USD a ticket. Amazing.
Negative: The government doesn't seem to be interested in making things easier for expats or foreigners doing business here, but, then again, they are communist. Doesn't paranoia and secrecy come naturally to them?
The traffic blows. The newly discovered disposable income of many middle class Vietnamese means that there are about 5 million motorcycles and scooters clogging the roads. The traffic laws only seem to apply to the 4-wheeled vehicles. Motorcycles will drive down the wrong way, just turn in the middle of the street, or drive down sidewalks (a.k.a. motorcycle parking). They'll just cut in front of cars, making the cars stop and slowing down the rest of traffic. Watching drivers at an intersection and you instantly realize that there is is no right-of-way. If you see a spot that you can fit into, you jump in it. I think that it goes along with the whole 'no standing in line' mentality. I'm definitely not one of those westerners who thinks that the line/queue is sacrosanct, but there are times and situations when it makes life easier and at least gives the appearance of 'civilization'.
-Do you have any tips for our readers about living in Vietnam?
I think the easiest way to live and work here would be to find a company or business that will sponsor your visa and work permit. Or, if you're married, a company that will at least sponsor one of you. Of course, there are a lot of people here who don't seem to have any trouble making a good living 'under the table'. In a lot of ways, it's easier. The government here loves to tax everything and anything. I thought the U.S. was bad. In most of the world, expat teachers are given at least two years of tax-free status. Not here. Even a settling-in allowance has to be justified and you have to get a special 'read receipt' in order to get re-imbursed. Big pain in the butt.
-Do you have any favorite Web sites or blogs about Vietnam?
There are a lot of blogs for Vietnam listed on http://www.saigonnezumi.com/bloggers-in-vietnam
I started a blog for family and friends in the states so I wouldn't have to spend every weekend on the phone telling the same stories over and over again. It's developed into more of a picture blog of our travels. Which reminds me, I have to update it.