What’s good and not so good about living in Vietnam for British expats will depend on who you talk to but the general sense is one of contentment.
Every year millions of foreigners come to visit Vietnam, from the UK, the US, Germany, Japan, Australia and elsewhere. Most spend their holiday exploring the landscapes, the culture and the people, choosing Vietnam as a destination because of its reputation as a now peaceful country with natural beauty and a long, sandy coastline.
Many foreigners, including not a few Brits, also come to Vietnam to live, considering it to be their second home for however long they stay. Most are happy with their choice and satisfied with their new life in Vietnam. They love the country’s landscapes and its people, and sampling and enjoying Vietnamese food is a major part of the experience.
Coming to a new country completely different to your home country in culture, language, and lifestyles can take a bit of getting used to. But any obstacles are easily overcome, and for the most part the country’s British expat community enjoys working and living in Vietnam. Although they don’t speak Vietnamese when they first arrive, they quickly become accustomed to their new lives with new people and a new culture.
Davide Greene has now been in Vietnam for 13 years and it didn’t really take him long to adapt to his new life. He has learned Vietnamese and “after so many years here I think I have a good appreciation of how things work (or don’t),” he said.
Like anywhere, especially in a large city, life can have its ups and downs but for him Hanoi is now home. David Bugler and Josh Kopecek, who have only been here for seven or eight months, also quickly felt at home and are now trying to master the Vietnamese language. “It takes some effort but is well worth it,” David said. Life in Vietnam, Josh believes, is incomparable with life at home.
For starters, he is working completely different hours and being paid much less, although the cost of living is a fraction of that at home. “Every aspect of daily life is different, and there are challenges that you would never have been able to foresee,” he said. “But life is comparatively easy here. There are certain things that I took for granted at home that take some getting used to here, such as the level of safety standards.”
They have all quickly integrated into life in Vietnam. Although they’ve only been here for several months, both David and Josh know where to buy food and how to bargain if the price isn’t right. In Western countries people often prefer to go to the supermarket but, in Vietnam, buying goods and food on the street is better because of convenience and better prices. Both have no trouble buying food on the street. David said that he and his wife usually go to the market and sometimes to the supermarket.
There is no need to bargain over the price of goods on the street because local people now know the two of them and give them a fair price. For Josh, he and his girlfriend hardly ever visit the supermarket because the quality of the goods is inferior and the prices are astronomical. “Usually we buy from people on the street, and we know what the price should be,” he said. “Bargaining is more difficult in the more ‘Western’ areas, as people want to charge you ‘tourist’ prices, so you have to convince them you’re more local.”
After working hard throughout the week it’s always good to get away and explore Vietnam. “On weekends I spend time with my wife, catch up with friends or row on West Lake,” David said. “I’ve been to Cat Ba, Mui Ne, Danang and, on a long weekend, up to Ha Giang - my favourite place in Vietnam.” Josh, meanwhile, has been all around Vietnam with his girlfriend and they like finding places to go trekking or walking.
What’s good and bad about living Vietnam often differs among expats and seems to very much depend on how long they’ve lived here. Relative newcomers David and Josh are both yet to encounter anything especially bad, while Davide has a bit of a different take having been here for more than a decade. David has a quite positive view about the country and the life here, even the traffic, which most would agree borders on atrocious.
“When I first came I thought nothing was bad - I was 100 per cent positive about everything, even the traffic,” he said. “After a little while, though, you don’t see everything quite so positively, but I’m still upbeat.” For Davide, the traffic is indeed one of the worst things about living in Hanoi, as well as the behaviour of taxi, car, and bus drivers, the dust and construction work, and the year-round humidity.
But Vietnam and Hanoi also have a lot of wonderful things. Davide likes Vietnamese people and the weather in autumn. David, meanwhile, is impressed by plenty of things, including street life and the people and the fact that every day brings something new. For Josh, the wonderful and surprising include festivals and celebrations, beautiful temples and ubiquitous lakes.
A common denominator on what’s good is Vietnamese food, especially street food. In recent years a number of luxurious Western restaurants have sprung up everywhere, serving foreigners and some Vietnamese people French toast, pasta and pizza, sushi, curry or kimchi.
But eating Vietnamese food provides a range of amazing tastes for foreigners. There are an almost never-ending array of dishes, from traditional food such as bun cha, pho, bun ca, or chao ca sold on the street, to food sold by peddlers such as trung vit lon, banh ran, bun oc, bun dau mam tom and mien cua tron. It’s often the case that street food is tastier than Vietnamese food found in restaurants.
“I love street food in Hanoi, especially pho and bun cha,” said Davide. “I feel that it is fresher and tastier than food found in sterile, air-conditioned restaurants around the city.” David likes banh da, bun cha, mien ca and, of course, pho. Josh can eat street food all the time and “it’s one of the best places in the world to eat on the street - the variety and tastes are amazing,” he said.
Vietnam and the UK
Vietnam and the UK already have a long-lasting relationship. As David points out, there are many Vietnamese people in London, where he lives. “Very near my flat there are at least 20 Vietnamese restaurants and there is a huge Vietnamese community in London,” he said. In Josh’s opinion, though, the relationship between the UK and Vietnam has become quite stagnant, with both countries being under the economic hammer and unable invest significant sums in developing ties. He’d like to see Vietnam encourage British involvement in the arts here, “but maybe that won’t get moving again for a few years,” he said.
In contrast, Davide believes in a better relationship between the two countries in the future. “With my company, Able Communications, since 2003 I have worked on a part-time basis for the British Council, the UK’s educational and cultural body, and I have seen the relationship and partnership between Vietnam and the UK grow and grow in a number of areas - education, the arts, and culture as well as business, and I am sure that this will continue in the years to come,” he said. “I certainly hope so.”
With a stable job in Vietnam and believing in its prospects, he said he has no plans to leave. “After four weeks travelling from south to north, in February and March 1999, I became fascinated with the country and its potential, so I decided to stay.”