To Escape, Wander and Seek: Expats in Vietnam

By: Sivaraj Pragasm

As children, when we were asked what we wanted to be, living and working in a different country may not have been the first answer to come to mind.

But as the world was rapidly shrinking due to the evolution of communication technology, the concept of home got distorted for some of us.

For decades in Vietnam, It has been a two-way revolving door with emigrants swapping places with immigrants from across the planet, trading their metros for motorbikes, their first-world problems for knee-high floods and their burgers for banh mi.

So who are these people; how did they end up in Vietnam; and what’s their story?

The Story Back Home

Twenty-seven-year-old Mei Sutardjo had dedicated her life to teaching back home in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, and made the decision to leave for a variety of reasons, one of which was the lack of freedom as an opinionated female in a Muslim country.

“This came not only from society but also my family due to religious ideologies, and all its restrictions back home.” She yearned for the freedom to be able to do what she wanted without being judged or admonished, and after a chat with a friend based in Vietnam, she found a job specialising in education for toddlers and moved here in March this year.

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For 42-year-old Christopher Browning, it was a little more complicated. Struggling with personal issues back home in the United States, including a tumour in his eye, he resorted to a nomadic lifestyle and spent a few years living in different countries, including Japan. He then started up his own enterprise — as a business coach, primarily to motivate employers to bring out the best in their business.

The turning point came when, during a gathering with a bunch of friends, he was dared by one of them to visit Vietnam and get something started here.

He took up the dare, with a plan to stay for only about half a year. This was in 2012, and he’s not looked back since.

For 30-year-old Jan Stahlhacke, it was a matter of going with the flow. What started off as an internship at a small streetwear company in his hometown in Germany, turned into an epiphany during a trip to Vietnam in 2011 when he had a “hey, I could totally live here” moment. He found himself back in Vietnam the following year as a garment exporter with the same company, specialising in sourcing materials for its products.

“Vietnam was, and still is, a huge market for garment production and with low living and operation costs, it made a lot of economic sense to move here,” he said.

The Fish Out Of Water

Being a Muslim expat in Vietnam isn’t too easy when many Vietnamese dishes contain pork, but this didn’t deter Mei as she managed to find alternatives such as seafood and vegetarian dishes.

Her bigger challenge was dealing with locals who mistook her for a local.

“Coming from Indonesia, I can pass off as a local looks-wise and many times, I’ve gotten people speaking to me in Vietnamese and all I could do is give them a wide-eyed look, trying to get them to repeat in English. It never worked,” she said.

For Christopher, the Vietnamese work culture was very different from the West when he first moved here.

“People here were not as upfront with their opinions and feedback and they preferred playing it safe,” and this sometimes resulted in misunderstandings or unfulfilled expectations.

He also had a hard time with the language: “It’s one of the toughest languages in the world.”

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Communication issues also plagued Jan: “If I wanted to get something done, I had to first speak to my Vietnamese staff in English, who would then relay the message to the factory’s Vietnamese staff in Vietnamese, who would then relay the message to their boss in Chinese or Korean.

There was always that chance of something getting lost in translation along the way.”

However, one common denominator is shared between all of them: the traffic. “I don’t know if I can ever get used to crossing the roads here. It’s always a life-changing experience,” said Mei.

The Pull Factors

The freedom not to be dictated by a religious doctrine was a major pull factor for Mei. Proximity was another, as Saigon is just a three-hour flight away with both countries sharing a similar time zone and climate.

For Christopher, taking up a dare was one thing, but he has always had ‘a thing’ for Asia and he knew that Vietnam was developing really fast:

“It’s interesting when I heard that Vietnam is the land of opportunities, and I come from the land of opportunities — the USA!”

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This sentiment was also shared by Jan who saw the opportunity and now runs his own business, dealing with garment exports for various companies across the south of Vietnam.

Working Philosophies

While she is providing children with a solid foundation upon which to build their English language skills, Mei does not want that to take precedence over their native language.

“They do need English to survive in the real world when they grow up. However, I also have mixed feelings because I want them to master their own language first. I would like to see the Vietnamese language retain its dominance here,” she said.

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For Christopher, his impact as a consultant is more immediate: “The most important thing here is to ensure that employees get a sense of hope, that they feel valued for their contributions and that they realise their potential.”

He strongly feels that the younger Vietnamese are more goal-oriented, street-smart, with a clearer view of the world than their predecessors.

He also predicts that in five years’ time, Vietnam will be one of the most competitive countries in the region with a high proportion of English speakers ready to take on the world.

A Home away from Home (or Not)

However, not all of them see Vietnam as their home for the rest of their lives. Mei believes in going with the flow and might stay for another year or two before she considers her options.

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Christopher has set 2018 as the year to return home to the US to evolve his business — as a consultant in developing a cloud-based service application.

However, Jan has no plans to leave any time soon. He arrived here five years ago and feels he could stay another five years simply because he enjoys what he does. His only regret so far? Not mastering the Vietnamese language earlier.

Home, or a Stepping Stone?

Expats in most countries sometimes get viewed as opportunists who use the country as a stepping stone, only to further their careers elsewhere while some do stay behind, settle down and build a home.

However, there are equally as many locals who emigrate to other countries with the exact same agenda.

Christopher and Jan’s contributions to the business climate in Vietnam may be different, yet they both have their effects: Christopher is altering the general attitude of the workplace and Jan, as a small-business owner with Vietnamese employees, contributes directly to the economy.

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Mei’s lessons imparted into young minds will stay on for decades as they grow up to be the future leaders of the country.

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