August 2010
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Adapting to Life in Vietnam

Life on the Mekong

I get asked every now and then how hard it was for me to adapt to living in Vietnam.  Personally, I think I had it much easier than most expatriates.  I speak the language and I have relatives in Saigon who were more than happy to help me with any issues I might have had.  It was nice to be able to show up in Vietnam knowing that I had a place to stay and a person that would take care of my daily meals.

Unlike most expats, I am not the adventurous type…far from it actually.  I have always been quite conservative and never enjoyed traveling much.  I really admire people that have the courage to move to another a country without any real previous experience with the people or the culture.  Most of the expats I’ve met fall into this category.  They arrive and stay at one of the cheap mini hotels in District 1 and then start looking for employment.  Many find quick work at the multitude of English Schools throughout Vietnam and gradually settle into a more permanent living arrangement…while simultaneously trying to learn about the culture and society in which they live.

I’m sure the first few months are very exciting and stressful for many of these expats.  I don’t know if I would have had the guts to attempt something like this without the benefit of all the advantages I had previously mentioned.  Before I  settled on coming to Vietnam, I had briefly flirted with the idea of going to China instead, but once I considered all the complications I would face living there, not to mention the fact that most Chinese people don’t seem to like the Vietnamese much…choosing  to come to Vietnam was a no brainer.

When moving to another country there are a few common things that everyone has to adapt to, mainly the weather, the food, the traffic, and the cultural differences.  I think most expats, by their very nature and openness in embracing the idea living in another country, won’t have too much difficulty adjusting to life in Vietnam.   From my personal perspective, I think it’s far easier for an American to live in Vietnam than for a Vietnamese person to adjust to life in America.

First of all, you can almost always find someone that can speak rudimentary English no matter where you are in Vietnam, whereas it wouldn’t be the same case for a non-English speaking Vietnamese person in the U.S.  That’s why many Vietnamese that come to the U.S. choose to live in areas with large Vietnamese communities like California and Texas.  The people in Vietnam are very tolerant and curious of foreigners.  As many expats will attest to, it’s not uncommon for the locals to come up to foreigners and start up simple conversations with them just to practice their English.  Of course not all foreigners that come to Vietnam speak English, but if you do then it should be pretty easy to get around most places by yourself.  On the other hand, if you don’t speak English (or perhaps Spanish) while traveling in the U.S., it’s can be very difficult to get around or to find someone to help you with problems.

Secondly, most Americans have probably eaten Vietnamese food before coming to Vietnam, so aside from sanitary concerns, most of us should have no problem finding a plethora of stuff to eat over here.  Finding good, cheap and healthy food in Vietnam is very easy!!  If you come from a low income family in the U.S., fresh fruits and vegetables are probably rare luxuries, but in Vietnam even the poor can eat fairly healthy.  Many fruits and vegetables are very very cheap over here and even if some people can’t afford to buy them, neighbors and family will often share fruits or vegetables from their trees/gardens with one another.  When people snack over here, they mainly snack on fresh fruits, as opposed to most Americans (me included) who can’t live without their chips, cookies and candy.

This looks better than it tastes!

In the States, I probably only ate Vietnamese food 2-3 times a week.  Now that I am eating it almost daily I mainly crave the unhealthy fast foods that I indulged in while living in the U.S.  Luckily there are a few places that sell decent burgers and pizza here in Saigon, although I have yet to discover anyplace with good fried chicken (there will be a future post on this subject).  Most locals don’t care for Western food at all.  They think it’s bland and way overpriced.  I’ve tried inviting a few of my relatives out to eat foods from other countries, but other than Chinese food, they seem content to just eat Vietnamese food 24/7.

For me, the toughest thing to adjust to in Vietnam is the hot, humid weather.  I come from Texas, and the Vietnam heat has nothing on Texas during the summer months.  However, we have central AC in Texas and when we do brave the outdoors it is usually inside the comforts of an air-conditioned car.  In Vietnam, most homes don’t have AC of any kind and if they do it’s a small wall unit that only cools a single room.  Most of the smaller businesses and restaurants in Vietnam also use the same wall mounted AC units to keep their stores cool.  And since the main mode of transportation in Vietnam is the ubiquitous motorbike, there really isn’t any hiding from the heat once you’re outside, unless you are wealthy enough to buy a car….and as I mentioned in one of my prior posts, owning and driving a car in Vietnam comes with its own set of hassles (crowded streets, parking, etc.) so often people that own cars will still prefer to use a motorbike for most outings.

My first couple of months in Saigon, I rarely turned on the AC.  It was hot, but I really wanted to acclimate myself to the local weather and try to live like the locals.  I figured if I never got used to the heat I would never want to venture outside the comforts of my room.  That was ok for January-March, but when April and May came around, going without AC wasn’t an option.  The heat was unbearable.  It’s not the dry Texas heat that I am used to either….the humidity in Vietnam in conjunction with all the dust and dirt flying around conspires to clog all the pores on your body which in turn doesn’t allow the heat to escape from your skin and makes being outside VERY uncomfortable.  During those months, whenever I didn’t have to be outside, I was in my air-conditioned room.  My monthly electrical bill shot up from 700,000 Dong ($37) to almost 2 Million Dong ($100); which is more than an entire month’s rent for some of my friends over here.  The weather has cooled down quite a bit since June when the rainy season came about.  I can now sleep without the AC unit on at night; however I still turn it on for a few hours during the daytime.

Ponchos are normal rain attire

As I write this post, we are currently at the height of the rainy season in Vietnam which usually lasts from May to November in the south.  According to the locals, there has been much less rain this year than the previous rainy seasons so flooding hasn’t been as bad as usual.  But the lack of rain has also forced city officials to implement rotating power cuts to most districts (aside from District 1, 7 and Phu Nhuan) around once a week because the lower rainfalls causes the hydropower plants (which provides over 50% of the power in Vietnam) to run at reduced capacity.  It’s just one more thing you have to get used to when you live in Vietnam.  What I really dreaded about the rainy season was walking/driving around flooded the streets, but it hasn’t been as bad as I had imagined.  The thing I hate the most about the rain is how dirty everything gets;  some of the smaller streets become extremely muddy and as a result very hazardous to drive on.  I have to remind myself to wear only dark color clothing after it rains because the splatter of dirty water from the streets will stain your clothes when driving around on motorbikes.

Going back to the heat and humidity for a second, I just want to add that I recommend getting a good face and body wash if you’re planning on staying in Vietnam for awhile.  During my first few months in the country, I developed some weird white bumps on my forearms which would only appear whenever I spent a prolonged period of time outside.  I don’t know if it was a mild allergic reaction to something in the air or just because my pores were so clogged from all the dirt and dust, but the bumps would disappear after I took a shower but would always reappear once I went back outside.  My sister in The States was kind enough to mail me a care package in March in which she included a few facial scrubs with microbeads.  I’ve never used these scrubs before back in the U.S., but they are a godsend in Vietnam.  The scrubs not only worked wonders in removing the dirt caked into my face from driving around Saigon, but also permanently got rid of the bumps on my arms.  Biore Strips are also a must for clearing up the pores in your face.  I see a lot of adults over here that have bad facial acne which I believe is the result of all the trapped dirt and oil beneath their skin.

My palm after my last accident

I’ve already mentioned the traffic in Saigon (see: Xin Loi…my bad) in a few of my earlier entries so I’m not going to regurgitate any of that stuff in this post.  However, I would like to note that I my motorbike driving skills has improved a lot in the past 4 months….since my last accident.  I realize now that I was probably driving way too fast and reckless my first couple of months especially in consideration of how little experience I’ve had on a motorbike.  I drive more carefully now and am much more aware of my surroundings.  Getting into 3 accidents in a short period of time will certainly dampen most anyone’s bravado.

I think that covers most of the biggest issues I’ve had over here.  My experience in adapting to this often strange and sometimes frustrating country is probably a bit different than most of my fellow expats.  I’m certain that the road I took was much easier than for most, especially when you consider that I also haven’t had to deal with Visa issues since I qualified for a 5 year Visa Exemption (see: How to get a 5 Year Visa Exemption) and/or employment issues (yet).  Culturally, I also was able to adapt quite quickly since I knew somewhat the things I should expect from my short trip to Vietnam in 2002.  Sometimes, my delicate American sensibilities are still offended when people shove me to cut in line or someone is picking their nose in the middle of a conversation, etc. but I remind myself that I am a guest in this country and it is my job to adjust to the people around me and not vice versa.

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