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May 28, 2017

Living as an expat in Ho Chi Minh City

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Living as an expat in Ho Chi Minh City


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I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City in November of 2015; it is almost two years since I departed from my house in Havana, following the advice of a friend, who told me that this would be a nice place to learn web design and follow my dreams. When I told my friends that would travel to Vietnam, they told me I was nuts and started asking me why would I do such a crazy thing. However, I did not care, bought my ticket, and after the longest 36 hours of my life, arrived at Tan Son Nhat International Airport, from that moment my life changed 360º.

Even when I knew several Vietnamese people and they told me some stuff about the country, nobody is prepared enough for the unknown, and I was not the exception to the rule. Not only the language barrier (that is a topic for more than one article), the food, culture, everything was different from my previous experiences in other countries. I will admit, the first months were challenging, and I started having doubts if I made the right choice. After a few bumps, I managed to stabilize my daily life, I found some good friends, and everything started to change. Ho Chi Minh or as locals refer to Saigon (the old name of the city), is a fantastic city to live in and one that grows on me more and more every day. In saying that, no city is perfect and while there are many things I love, there is another bunch that I do not like. However, what is life, but a combination of love and hate, right?

Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) - Skyline

Vietnam has one of the most difficult languages in the world. With nine accent marks (diacritics) and different dialects between regions, is very unlikely that a tourist learns the language, even for expats that live in Vietnam for an extended period. If you want to give a good impression, learning a few words like "xin chào" (hello) will indicate your willingness to adapt to the Vietnamese culture; this small detail may look insignificant but for sure will improve your trip and residence experience. Below is a list of some useful words or phrases:

  • Hello - xin chào (sin chow!)

  • Goodbye - Tam Biet (tam biet)

  • Thank you - Cam on (kahm un)

  • You are welcome - Khong co' gi (khom go zee)

  • Yes - Vang (vung)

  • No - Khong (khome)

  • Excuse me/Sorry - Xin loi (seen loy)

  • Good - Tot (tote)

  • Bad - Khong tot (khome tote)

Vietnam is a long and thin country, meaning it has several different climate zones. The north is characterized by four distinct seasons, with cold winters (Jan-Feb), hot and humid summers (May-August), and pleasant, temperate springs and autumns. The central area suffers from the monsoon season between September and February, it undergoes long spells of torrential rain, while the summers are hot and dry. The South has three identifiable seasons, with the rainy season extending between June and November, the cold, dry period stretching between December and February, and the hot, arid months from March to May.

Ho Chi Minh City rainy season

The heat in Ho Chi Minh City can be brutal. Most days are well above 30ºC with high humidity. That is fine if you have a beach or lake to cool off. However, here it is just concrete, traffic and people; one of the nearest beaches to relax will be in Vung Tau (a small city 96km from Saigon, around 2 hours in a car), some Vietnamese and expats will go during the weekend, to cool off the stress of the week.

Vung Tau Beach

Most people will try to avoid going out during mid-day as much as possible; you will find every Saigonese wearing jackets or long shirts to cover from the sun. That applies especially to women; they will wear "vay chong nang" (anti-sun skirts), masks, jackets, sunglasses, and gloves, for the sake to protect their skin, it is almost like ninjas or vampires running from the sun. The good thing is that Ho Chi Minh has plenty of good cafes, restaurants, and places with air-con to escape from the heat.
Anti-sun vietnamese women cloth

If there is one word to describe riding a bike in Saigon, it is - mental. You are taking a risk every time you jump on your bike here, however with time you learn how to deal with it. Yes, the traffic is heavy, disorderly and polluted, but in my opinion, riding motorbikes is the most efficient way to get from one place to another. Any city with a population of over 8 million is going to have a pollution problem, and Ho Chi Minh City is no different. If you have to ride a bike to get to your destination makes it even worse. Sore throats and eyes are common if you do not wear the right protection while driving. That is why is very common to see everybody wearing pollution masks.

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In Saigon there are several taxi companies and the most common and reliable are Vinasun and Mai Linh (at least in my experience). I prefer using Uber or Grab; these options are cheaper and more convenient, you can book either cars or motorbikes. Sometimes communication can be a problem for foreign passengers when using Grab or Uber since drivers will call passengers once they receive the request for the ride, asking in Vietnamese the exact location where to pick up the passenger.Ho Chi Minh City traffic
Another thing that impressed me most about the Vietnamese is their ability to make use of the tiny space they have on their scooters. It is not uncommon to see a family of 4 hanging off a single bike. The Vietnamese are also kings at transporting goods on the back of a motorbike. It seems they are all going for the Guinness Record to see how much stuff they can fit on their bike in a single trip. I have seen stacks of boxes a couple of meters high, on the back of a bike.Vietnamese people driving motorbike

I´m not the guy with a perfect ancient Greek body type, barely 5.6 feet tall and 170lbs (I´m chubby, I know), with that in mind, for me will be easy to find clothes for my type of body, at least in western countries. That is not the case here; you will see almost every expat or tourist, like crazy ants looking and asking for XXL - XXXXL cloth and shoes. For Vietnamese people, most of the foreigners are giants (even more if you are Nordic or something similar), their body type is slim. Also, they eat very healthily and take care of their body as a temple (as explained above women are crazy about the sun and their skin).

In Vietnam, you can find big malls full of food and products, like almost every country, but also there is a huge amount of local market. The variety and freshness of the products (fruits, vegetables, grains, tofu, meat, and seafood) at these places are incredible. In my opinion, the best part of this place is the seafood section, where you can purchase eels, mussels, scallops, squid, prawns, and all kinds of fish. Most of the time this food will be alive, that way the customers can check the freshness of the product.

Vietnamese local food market

Vietnamese dishes consist of a lot of fresh ingredients like vegetables, herbs, and spices. There’s not much oil, and a lot of the meat is grilled or boiled keeping the food healthy. From street food stalls to 5 stars restaurants, Saigon is a place to satisfy all types of foodies. Nothing beats a tasty banh mi (pork, radish, carrot, coriander, chili, cucumber on a french roll) with a fresh sugar cane juice from a street food stall or a hot and rich bowl of Pho for lunch. Below you will find a list of Vietnamese food that you can find almost on every food place:

Banh mi - Vietnamese sandwich

Bánh mì (banh mi): It means bread, buy it also refers to a variety of sandwiches with meat, cucumber, chili, coriander, sauce, and pickled vegetables.

Pho - noddle soup with beef

Phở (pho): Noodle soup consisting of broth, rice noodles called bánh phở, a few herbs, and meat, primarily made with either beef or chicken.

Bun cha - pork with noddlesBún chả (bun cha): Is a dish of grilled fatty pork over a plate of white rice noodles and herbs with a side dish of dipping sauce.

Hu Tieu Nam Vang - Pork soup with meat

Hủ tiếu Nam Vang (Hu tieu Nam Vang): Soup made with pork bone and served with a variety of different types of noodles, pork, liver, shrimp, green onions, and cilantro.

Banh xeo - Savory fried pancake

Bánh xèo (banh xeo): Savory fried pancake made of rice flour, water, turmeric powder, stuffed with slivers of fatty pork, shrimp, green onion, and bean sprouts.

Op la - Sunny-side-up eggs with sausages and ham

Ốp la (op la): Sunny-side-up eggs, Vietnamese baguette, ham, onions, and different types of sausages.

Banh khot - vietnamese mini savory pancakes with shrimp

Bánh khọt (banh khot): Mini savory pancakes made with rice flour, coconut milk, turmeric powder, green onions, shrimp, and sweet fish sauce dressing.

Goi cuon - Non-fried spring rolls

Gỏi cuốn (goy coo-un): Fresh non-fried spring rolls, it is made with rice paper stuffed with rice noodles, pieces of pork, shrimp, basil, lettuce, and other aromatic herbs.

Com tam suon nuong - Partially broken rice topped with variety of meat dishes

Cơm tấm sườn nướng (com tam suon noon): Combination of rice (which is often broken rice, which is partially broken grains of rice that occur in the milling process), topped with a variety of meat dishes, the most common is a pork chop. Is accompanied by fish sauce dressing, cucumber pickles, green onion, chili, and chili to garnish.

Bun rieu - Noddle crab soup

Bún riêu (bun rieu): Noodle soup, with a crab base stock and tomatoes. This dish includes soft rice noodles, golden fried tofu, meatballs, chunks of pork, and a slab of rich crab and shrimp paste.

If you think that westerns love beer more than anyone, you should come to Vietnam! You will spot people sitting on little stools at makeshift street bars, all over Saigon – every single day of the week. A great place to grab an icy cold beer in Ho Chi Minh City is one of the many beer gardens within the city. These locations will have a combination of snacks or finger food menus with a variety of beer types, that will make your day. Always full of people or company parties celebrating for almost any reason, these types of hubs have an atmosphere full of cheers - Mot, Hai, Ba, YOOOO!!!!! (1, 2, 3, DRINK!!!!!) - traditional Vietnamese Cheers, back and forward of waiters and music, are the perfect hub to gather with your friend and have fun.

Saigon is a coffee lover's paradise; you can find a coffee shop almost on every street, alley, and corner. These places are one of the best options to meet with your friends, work on personal projects or even meet a client. Not only because of the decoration, the excellent quality of the product but also is the quiet atmosphere and also the incredible free high-speed wi-fi (every coffee shop has free internet, something that is not even seen in western countries). You can find commercial brands like Starbucks, but there are more alternative (and cheaper) options with the same or even higher quality and experience. 

Vietnamese coffee maker from coffe-shop

During the last decades, Vietnam has experienced a wave of political, cultural, and commercial changes, becoming one of the world's premier destinations for business process outsourcing. Today it is very common to see many people and startup companies from different parts of the world come to Vietnam looking for opportunities and following their dreams. A mix of reasonable living expenses (in comparison with western countries.), the ready availability of experienced developers and designers, is a potent combination for success in the tech and digital marketing industry.

Vietnam is a fusion of Eastern and Western cultures and business practices with its own flavors. As a Western expat coming to Vietnam without any experience dealing with other Asian cultures, it took me quite some time to learn and adapt to the country's social, cultural, and business interactions.

Etiquette in a negotiation is always a good start (this is worldwide), in Vietnam are several traditions and procedures that will help you impress in a certain way your clients if you do it:

  • The Vietnamese shake hands both when greeting and when saying goodbye. Shake with both hands, and bow your head slightly to show respect. Bow to the elderly who do not extend their hand. Vietnamese women are more inclined to bow their heads slightly than to shake hands.

  • When greeting someone, say “xin chao + given name + title. The Vietnamese are delighted if a Westerner can correctly say “xin chao” (Vietnamese is a tonal language, “xin chao” can have six different meanings, only one of which is "Hello").

  • Business cards are a natural opening to business meetings; you should hand it to all those attending the meeting. Give the business card holding it with two hands and the information in the direction of the person who is receiving it.

Business card hand-over etiquette

Enough about foods and crazy traffic, I will share with you a bit about my work here. I was working as a Production Director in the film industry in Cuba, but when I came here I wanted to explore new things and challenge myself with something completely different: website design. Recently we had an article covering Website design service in Vietnam but let me share some of my personal experience and views on the subject based on my own experience. Most of the business owners in Vietnam views websites more as an expense rather than a long-term investment that can benefit them. It is always a challenge to explain to the clients why in 2017 having an online presence is imperative if you want to generate brand awareness and connect with the target audience, regardless if it is a startup or a big company. The best way to convince them is to present a detailed case of a study where you can illustrate with numbers and easy-to-understand facts the benefits and upcoming opportunities for their business if they revamp or create a website. When doing the pitch try not to use technical language (only if necessary), the majority of the decision-makers are not well versed in these terms, explaining the concept or result will be more efficient (e.g. Responsive website design - website design that works on all devices).

As you may have guessed, the concept of branding is something very new to Vietnamese business owners. In fact, most businesses do not give enough attention (if any) to their branding (logo, typography, website) and the protection of their brands. In fact, it's common to see businesses copy each other's brand identity and business model here. This perception has a heavyweight when making decisions, like most of the entrepreneurs in Vietnam, they will try to get the "best deal" (in this case, the cheapest deal). Don´t get me wrong if you are a startup company with a very tight budget, is good to use more economical solutions like templates and website builders. However, if you want to promote your brand, reach a specific target audience, sell your products or services and stand out from the other competitors in the same industry, you should go for a custom design.

While template design is faster to implement and has a lower cost than a custom design; it is not an exclusive design, usually not optimized to attract search engines, and probably will have hidden costs. On the other hand, custom website design can provide you with a unique tailor-fit concept that enhances your brand, if planned carefully, a custom build project can be extended easily in the future with new designs and features, once you sign the contract you will not have to pay any additional fees. The downside is that it will take longer to complete and the cost will be several times more expensive.

As a service provider, you must understand the needs of your client and advise the best course of action that benefits both parties. Showcasing and explaining the pros and cons of both options will result in a fluid negotiation. Also, will help you to understand what kind of client you are dealing with based on their choice and requirements, helping you to decide if to proceed or reject the project. You must understand that some customers can be harmful to you, because of their poor business ethic. For more information on the content above you can read these articles:

Custom web design

Once you get the project, before signing the contract you should make every point clear, arrange a meeting for this purpose is the best course of action. Start with an overview, and later go point by point discussing every detail. Determine parameters like what the client should provide, how many revisions the project will have, and what includes. In the case you are doing a web design or branding, you should let them know how the feedbacks will work (very often some clients extend this process, making a project longer than usual will take), give them a guideline of how do you prefer this feedback (issue, image, and specific notes). Try to avoid the use of email for this, is always better a face to face meeting, where you go through all the designs and detect every issue with the client, that way you also will be able to get their feedback directly and discuss it.

The most important quality in negotiation with Vietnamese is patience; they like to think a lot about where they are going to invest their money. Any display of anger is interpreted as a sign of personal weakness, making the negotiations harder, even receiving a cold and stony response. Being open and honest, explaining clearly any foreseeable problems is better for the sake of the negotiation. If the Vietnamese party later thinks that you were devious or that you have hidden something, they will stonewall further negotiations. Spell out terms verbally, even when a written proposal or translation has been provided, to minimize future misunderstandings. If necessary, explain your company's point of view and needs. Think of the initial negotiations as an educational process. The posture of the Vietnamese counterparts may not indicate their level of interest, a positive attitude of the Vietnamese client may be merely a polite courtesy to the visitor and should not be taken to indicate the level of interest.

As business decisions are not usually made during an initial meeting, it is often beneficial to send a written proposal well before the meeting if an immediate response is required. Prompt response to emails and proposals from business associates in Vietnam indicates professionalism, commitment, and an interest in the market. However, you may find that the Vietnamese company may not reciprocate.

Business meeting with potential client

I hope this article has been helpful for the people planning to travel to Vietnam and visit Saigon, whether for pleasure, business or pure curiosity, also for those who have been a little longer in town, there is always something new to learn. Regardless of the problems that you may find this city, its warm people, its food, its culture, surpass all the negative, as long as you have an open mind to see the small details of the day by day that make beautiful Ho Chi Minh City.


About the author


Ivan Lamothe

Ivan Lamothe is a website and graphic designer, coming from a film making and visual arts background from the Fine Arts Academy “San Alejandro”, takes great pride in the work he delivers and always strives to create great experiences and real connections through the filter of design. As NILEAD´s Art Director and Project Manager Ivan is involved in the entire process of creating a website, from the first meeting with the customers and incubating the initial concepts to the entire design process, development and launch.

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