Why do so many expatriates love life in HCMC?
A few weeks back, terrifying news broke out about the 39 Vietnamese who died while suffocating in the back of a truck, in an attempt to seek a better life in the UK. This was a horrifying event and a poor awakening to the reality of many rural Vietnamese. This triggered my interest to find the answer as to “Why so many Vietnamese are still seeking to immigrate abroad?”
Research carried out together with experienced Vietnamese and foreign friends, from here and abroad, identified seven central motivational factors that drives those who believe that a better life is awaiting them elsewhere...
- Better income, work opportunities, and working conditions
- Improved education and health care systems
- Safety and security
- Preserved natural environments
- A better government
- …all leading to a Better Future.
I wrote this article humbly, knowing my own limitations, and whilst keeping aware that some issues may be rather sensitive to many. As a foreign resident and lover of Vietnam for the past 13 years, I seek to raise awareness from a migrant foreigner’s perspective and help locals open up to a fresh view on migration challenges and opportunities.
Some will ask “Who is he to discuss what he cannot understand, especially when he is not Vietnamese?” I am just a born migrant who spent his life around the globe as you can see below...
- Vietnam: HCMC - 13 years
- Ivory Coast: Abidjan - 12 years
- USA: Orlando, Palm Beach, Lafayette, Baton Rouge, Scottsdale, Seattle - 8 years
- France: Cannes, Marignane, Aix en Provence, Montpellier, Royan, Bourg en Bresse, Perpignan - 6 years
- Spain, Lanzarote, Barcelona - 3 years
- Australia: Melbourne, Sydney, Deniliquin, Sunshine Coast - 2 years
- Polynesia: Tahiti - 2 years
- Canada: Montreal - 10 months
- Netherland: Wageningen - 10 months
All in all, this amounts to 47 years of living abroad! I have lived on five continents in both the northern and southern hemisphere. And I have resided alongside Asians, Africans, Americans, Maoris and Europeans, some Bhuddist, others Christians or Muslims. I saw the rich and the poor, and experienced a variety of societies and systems with people of all colours and interests. Hopefully, this article enlightens some of those seeking asylum on the up-coming challenges that they will probably face if they effectively find a way out of Vietnam.
Throughout this article, I will be questioning several motivational factors to see if these are true or false, subjective or objective, or if these factors are even justified. The aim is to identify what gaps lie between each of these assumptions and the reality of how it may be, to see if life truly is better for Vietnamese who move abroad.
Better Future - SUBJECTIVE
There is a saying that goes ”the grass is much greener in our neighbour's garden” and this is SO not true. The colour of the grass is only dependent on the capacity to see that it is already green and the will to nurture your garden. The problem is that most people often prefer to look outward, as they dislike what they are and represent. People hope that over there, wherever else this may be, it is better.
As a foreigner with ample experience in Vietnam, I can honestly say that the future is much more promising here in Vietnam, both economically and socially speaking. The economic growth in Vietnam allows us to feel confident that so much remains to be done here while markets are most often saturated and limited in other western countries.
Many people are kept apart from their families for years whilst trying to become citizens in other countries. They work hard towards migrating the whole family, who will also eventually aim to gain citizenship. Those who are lucky get to reconnect to their families but this is still not a guarantee of a better life. Most end up living mediocre lives which is not exactly the definition of a “Better Future” is it?
Of course, it wouldn't be fair to say that all overseas Vietnamese stories don't get a happy ending. This is exactly what a lot of people strive to achieve and it is also where “the big American dream” mindset came from. As always, there is a brighter side to venturing out.
After the Vietnam war, many Vietnamese moved to the US, making them the largest foreign born population in the country. In fact, almost 80 percent of Vietnamese immigrants within USA were naturalized citizens in 2017. It was recorded that there were over 1.3 million Vietnamese currently residing in the US, making up 3 percent of the nation’s 44.5 million immigrants.
Image source: migrationpolicy.org
44 years ago, many of those who left Vietnam did indeed end up finding more opportunities in foreign countries. Many had successful lives and acquired wealth along the way. Most Vietnamese-born Americans had refugee parents who fled the country as boat people, encountering pirates while sailing through the dangerous South China sea. They set sail to refugee camps in Thailand, Hong Kong, Malaysia, or the Philippines and they would find themselves stuck in those camps for months, even years before immigrating to the US to find greener pastures. But the challenges did not end there. Immigrants then had to face the sudden change of environment, culture, language, and unfortunately, racism.
Today, many of them still strive to return home, as their hearts are still rooted in Vietnam. This is mainly due to the fact that these Vietnamese had to migrate because it was their only choice at the time. It was a time when finding jobs abroad was a lot easier and the requirements were not as challenging as they are today.
Better Disposable Income and Working Opportunities - FALSE
Yes, income is often higher abroad, at least in most developed countries, but we must re-evaluate by accounting for the cost of living in common migration destinations. Did you know that California, Texas, London, Toronto, Tokyo, Seoul, Melbourne, and Sydney rank at the top of the list of the most expensive places to reside in the world? They also rank very well in the list of favoured destinations for Vietnamese to be expatriates.
Let's not forget the additional expenses incurred while living abroad. Everything is expensive, especially for daily commodities, so calculate how much discretionary income you may be left with after your everyday expenses such as groceries, rent, utilities, transport, etc. Many Vietnamese immigrants have reported facing financial challenges for a variety of reasons.
It is common for Vietnamese immigrants to experience difficulty in landing a position/role of the same calibre and status of which they could work at within Vietnam, especially when applying for managerial positions. He/she will often not succeed in their job application due to language barriers, cultural and ethnic differences, or simply because their Vietnamese degree or work experience is not valued as sufficient or considered invalid.
How much better can any one be with VND 30,000,000 (1200 Euros) per month in Berlin or Paris for example? With that budget (minimum income) you could probably rent a small studio (25 square meters) over 2 hours away from the city center. You would have to commute long distances to work via bus, train or metro and be subject to the daily stress and strain of rush hour. Your budget may allow you to eat out in a restaurant with a loved one or friends only once or twice a month, if you are lucky. As for rice, bread, vegetables, fruits, internet, utilities, plus local and national taxes, VAT and PIT, it would be a hell of a lot more expensive abroad.
Unfortunately, residents in America and Europe need to own their own car, as commuting would prove to be more costly and winters are just too cold to ride around town on your bike. You would need to factor in gas and maintenance to support such a large ticket necessity. On the other hand, you may enjoy more affordable schools and you may even have free healthcare in some places in Europe, but if you reside in America, healthcare is an expensive benefit. Without medical insurance, which is a cost in itself, healthcare may be something you simply cannot afford.
Last but not the least, as an expatriate and a breadwinner, your family back in Vietnam will often expect you to send some dividends of your hard earned cash. To do so, you would really need to learn to restrain yourself and count your pennies - is that the “better life” that most expect in the first place?
Better Education Opportunities - NOT ALWAYS JUSTIFIED
In reality, primary schools are not really about what your children may learn, academically speaking. It is more about social development, playing together, and having constructive social interactions with friends and teachers, and an avenue for childcare. To this extent, many would sense that Vietnamese teachers are more suitable simply because they are some of the most kind, playful, joyful, carrying, diligent, and patient people you will meet. Vietnamese women tend to value family and children above all else and their maternal instincts are clearly evident in the way they care for and develop relationships with their students.
At a secondary level, most western technical or educational systems provide decent opportunities, but if you were based in San Antonio - Texas, you'll be surprised to find that 50% of the adult population is at the lowest two literacy levels, lacking the skills required to graduate from high school. There are other important differences at the secondary level worth mentioning too. This includes the value of "disciplinary systems” and “respect” for teachers; a concept extremely different in the west compared to Asian countries.
Generally, western teenagers are more "wild" and more "experimental" than those in Vietnam. Many, especially those who live among minorities, are exposed to social peer pressure, galavanting with friends, often partying whilst underage drinking and smoking pot - something considered the norm. After four years abroad, most Vietnamese parents report that their well behaved child has become so ”westernised” that they cannot expect them to care for them when they get old anymore - a virtue not present in the western world.
At a tertiary level, educational systems in western countries are still often better than in Vietnam. But the question is can you afford it? And if you can, is it worth paying so much for the privilege? If parents spend up to VND 2.2 Billion (100,000 USD) for their child to earn a foreign bachelor degree in Australia, for example, can this be paid back with the average VND 11,000,000 per month salary when the child finishes his/her education?
Sure, foreign education gives you an edge. Your communication skills will come into play as a convenience and your education will develop a better understanding of multiracial concepts and work ethics, but is this enough to justify the distance and monetary value that you'll be sacrificing when these days, all or most things can be learned online and for free? The next important question is, would the current educational system be suited for the future job market? This remains to be seen. But when you consider the current and up-coming technologies, this becomes highly questionable.
Better Healthcare - RARELY JUSTIFIED
If you compare Vietnam’s healthcare system with those in France, South Korea, and America then yes, it is so much better abroad. The issue in the USA, however is always whether or not you can afford it. Being treated well within the American healthcare system usually comes hand-in-hand with the burden of a costly private insurance plan so it’s not exactly “so much better” there once you have considered the cost of good health care treatments. While we all understand its value when needed, fortunately, only a few of us will ever need such advanced modern treatments and facilities for a complex operation.
It’s not always so easy to get quality modern healthcare for advanced surgeries in Vietnam but Vietnamese healthcare has made lots of progress in the last ten years and it continues to improve. In fact, there are already some operations such as the endoscopic surgery technique of Doctor Tran Ngoc Luong, being practiced in Vietnam that foreigners from all over the world seek to learn and study from. Doctor Luong is the first surgeon in the world to do thyroid endoscopic surgery with the patient not having to be reminded by a long scar on their neck because this technique is done by cutting between the neck and armpit without having to use robots. Other areas where foreign doctors travel to learn from Vietnamese doctors include endoscopic procedures in obstetrics and cardiology.
Better Safety and Security - FALSE
Unfortunately, racism still exists within many communities across the globe. How would you feel if you heard that your 12 year old daughter is being bullied because she was stereotyped as a “bad Chinese” every single day - even when she is not Chinese? From listening to so many first hand accounts of experiences abroad, you and your children may always be reminded that you are something else, a minority. To them, you and your children are simply “different” and “yellow”.
How safe would you feel living in a place where shootouts in schools or public places, depression, and suicide rates are well above those of Vietnam? How would you feel living in France where more cars are being burned to the ground every year than in any other country and where weekly riots down the main streets of the city centers are the norm?
Children are always exercising their misguided liberal ”western” freedom, and their parents are too busy working double shifts just to get by. Truth is, petty crimes are common in most of the world but the actual risk of being robbed or getting mugged are much greater abroad than here in good old safe Vietnam.
Better Environment - TRUE
Respect for the environment is often better in well off countries. If you ever see westerners eating in our restaurants or hanging around on our beaches, you may notice how most of them pack away their dishes and pick up their trash. And water in most first world countries is usually well maintained and drinkable straight from the tap! Oh what a luxury.
Fresh air is more common as most of their populations consider their carbon footprint to be lower and more environmentally friendly. Carbon emissions from factories are regulated and modern public transport networks keeps traffic - and subsequent air pollution - to a minimum. Not to mention the access and availability of eco-friendly automobiles. In mainland China, major cities such as Shanghai have banned regular motorbikes and enforce the sole use of electric powered scooters. This is greatly improved the air quality in a short number of years.
The garbage collection and processes are also more sustainable, efficient, and some even find ways to turn these into renewable energy. Natural parks and forests are also well protected, and all of that results in better overall air quality. Australia and Japan, for example, spend millions on enforcing strict recycling laws, and through the education system, children are taught from a young age the strict importance of recycling waste, saving water, and sustainability.
Many complain about the traffic in Vietnam. The endless sea of mopeds, fumes, and honking horns. The truth is that traffic is just as bad if not worse in larger foreign cities. You can get jammed during peak hours in Los Angeles, stuck in a standstill for hours at a time - something we rarely get in HCMC. Traffic is often equally as painful in Hong Kong and the CBD area of Sydney. This is a reality that people who have never been in other parts of the world do not realize.
Better Government - RELATIVE
Many local Vietnamese assume that France is a democracy and has a better government rule, but when you look at it from an economical perspective, we can’t really say that the French government is any better than Vietnam’s. “Better” is always subjective but for what it's worth, here in Vietnam, the people have hope even though a lot still remains to be done. Local Vietnamese love entrepreneurship and are always seeking opportunities and their survival and success is only possible due to the stability that the Vietnamese government has delivered for the past 20+ years.
If you want better roads, schools and health care, think of how much this equates to the government’s capacity to raise taxes. Better infrastructures often means greater taxes. As an expatriate, you’ll get even more heavily taxed because you are in a foreign country. In highly developed social societies such as Sweden or Denmark up to 70% of your total income would be taxed! And do you realize that VAT which is 7-10% in Vietnam is at least double in all of the EU? Would you really enjoy feeling like you are ”working for the government” because they get a huge chunk of your hard earned salary?
Opening your own business anywhere outside of Vietnam usually means that you can expect extortionate rental and utility fees, not to mention the high cost of multiple licenses required to start up and continue running your own business. Although strict with its rules and regulations, Vietnam is a nation that welcomes and encourages business startups, with rental and management fees, as well as licensing and labour costs much lower than those enforced within other countries.
In many developed countries outside of Vietnam, corruption is commonplace. Corruption in Western societies is usually disguised under a variety of names such as political campaign donations or lobbying activities. Most Western countries also have their own off-shore haven where people can avoid paying taxes, and corruption payments or bribes are constantly exchanging hands under the radar.
Now, discussions regarding governments are complicated and hugely subjective. So let's just say that each of us may have different perspectives, and you are all entitled to them. I will leave it at that.
The “Illusion of Life” in a virtual world
Have you ever heard of living double lives? No, this is nothing shady but many of us live a false projection of our lives on social media when compared to what is reality. Our social media ”face” is often different from how life truly is. This is neither healthy or makes life any easier. It becomes a standard of living now, an illusion of a greater and grander life. Something we unnecessarily stress ourselves to achieve.
New immigrants are naturally proud of having achieved “freedom”. They post often on Facebook and flaunt their new lives to their friends, families, and followers. Their digital connections look up to them, envy them. Families insist that you share often about all the “great news” and what it’s like to live in such a modern place but they also assume that you’re earning so much and live an amazing, happy, and fulfilling life.
This is the bright side of the coin, the other side shows that material gains do not shed light on what is truly within you. You’re living in a foreign nation and you’ve learned to live with your loneliness and sadness too often, it has become the norm. You are now integrated into this new society where people are most often sad themselves, you are behaving just as them. You think you have become one of them, a better version of what you could ever have been back in Vietnam. And then you wake up one day not recognizing who you see in the mirror. You must be thankful for all you have, send only the good news, and money when you can, and you're ”all good” now. But is this the reality?
You talk about good food and post beautiful photos but the fact is that your palate and love of home food has you craving and yearning for a slice of home. Your favourite ingredients and dishes are not readily available and you may have to adapt to local food and this may not always be as healthy as what you want or need. And we're just talking about food here. What about how hard it really is to make ends meet and how lonely it gets in new and strange environments?
Millions of Vietnamese share the same dream, strive for the same holy grail - to live in Canada, France, USA, Australia, Japan, anywhere else outside of Vietnam. If all migrants began sharing how challenging it really is to move to a new country, a place where you have no friends, no understanding of the language, traditions or culture, many might reconsider the challenge of emigrating and leaving the comfort of their home and loved ones.
Okay, so I acknowledge the problems here in Vietnam, like the traffic, corruption, and the seemingly “poor” environment but it does have a lot of charms. Western countries have slums and seemingly “poor” places too. Maybe they are just not as exposed as what you see here but once you get there, you will see that not everything in the movies or on social media is true.
The grass may look greener on the other side but in reality, there’s more to what you see on the surface. Just like your own backyard, it has roots and weeds too. These are the things that you have to consider before heading out to a different country to seek greener pastures.
Why do so Many Expats Love Life in HCMC?
Life as an expat here is something many enjoy. We are pleased and fortunate to experience a vibrant city like no other. The rush, the colours, the noise, the palpable energy, the food! This is Saigon, the Pearl of the Orient. It has always been known to be a great place to be. There is nothing like it elsewhere, at least economically speaking. An exotic eldorado.
A city where its people have beautiful souls, are gentle, fiercely respectful, and always loyal. A place where when you smile, they smile back. A place where we can dress the way we want without feeling the weight of looks or judgement. This is a place of emotional freedom where we all live well without racism or religious conflict. A place where we can always find support when need be. A country where hope of a better future is rooted in its genes, its history. A young population that is eager, talented, and hard working.
HCMC is a land of opportunities and it is the place to be. Many expats from around the world come to live in HCMC because life is great, and cheap! Let's not forget to mention the food here rocks and the tropical fruits are amazing! People are generally friendly and respectful. Life is good and we can lead a good life with a lot less. Besides, the sun shines all year long, isn’t that lovely?
When it comes to safety, I am definitely safe in Saigon, as long as I am careful when passing through some places after 11 pm. The rest of the time, you’ll be fine. Rarely have I heard, in my 13 years here, that someone I know got his bike stolen, or lost his car or got a broken window. There is theft like everywhere else on this planet, but here, no one bears arms except for the police.
Having gone through all of these factors, as an immigrant who has lived in almost all corners of the globe for so many years, I, along with thousands of other expats are left to wonder, ”Why are so many Vietnamese keen to immigrate to the countries we escaped ourselves?”