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Interview with Simone – An Australian expat living in Vietnam

Updated 8 Jan 2016
Australian expat Simone Maffescioni made the move to Ho Chi Minh City in 2013. Here she shares her extensive insight about life in Vietnam, and how it differs from what she experienced in Australia. For tips about making friends, settling in easier, and a whole host of other useful information, keep reading.

About Simone

Q: Where are you originally from? 
A: Australia
Q: Where are you living now? 
A: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Q: When did you move here? 
A: August 2013
Q: Did you move to HCMC alone or with a spouse/family? 
A: Alone
Q: Why did you move? 
A: I moved to Vietnam on a volunteer assignment with Australian Volunteers for International Development. My assignment was to coordinate a Speech Therapy training programme at a Vietnamese University of Medicine. I have finished my assignment now and am working privately as a Speech Pathologist through a business that has been set up with a colleague.  

Living in Vietnam

Q: What do you enjoy most about HCMC? How would you rate the quality of life compared to Australia? 
A: I have a fabulous quality of life in Ho Chi Minh City. Foremost, I love the Vietnamese people: they are so warm and welcoming and genuinely lovely people. Next, I love the food: it is delicious and cheap! But the home comfort food is also readily available (at a price) and there are hundreds of restaurants that home deliver to the central districts. Finally, I love the nightlife: there are so many fun bars and other places to go out at night and beer is really, really cheap. And when the hustle and bustle of the city becomes overwhelming, it’s easy to go away to the beach for a weekend. 
Q: What do you miss most about home? 
A: I used to miss sour cream and cheese, but now I know where to buy them (although I only buy it when it’s absolutely necessary). I just miss my friends and family; everything else necessary for a happy and comfortable life, I have here.
Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life here? 
A: Noise! I come from a country town in Australia and I am used to peace. The constant noise was the most difficult adjustment and for the first year I lived in a very noisy room that earplugs couldn’t drown out. The other major adjustment is the extra challenges to exercise, particularly in the central districts (I don't think it's as big an issue in the outer expat areas). Constant vigilance: I am used to it so much now but I am aware that when I am outside, I am constantly running situational awareness checks for potential dangers, particularly motorbikes.
Q: How would you rate the public transport in Ho Chi Minh City?
A: A motorbike is the quickest and most affordable means of travel. I use a “xe om” motorbike taxi to get around which I pay my driver per month (depending on how far I travel) and to rent your own motorbike is around the same price. Buses are very cheap but be careful that they often do not fully come to a stop for you to get on or off. Also, you will need to know which stop you are getting off.
Taxis are simple to catch from the central districts: you do not have to wait long for one to drive past. Vinasun and Mailinh taxis are the most reputable brands in HCMC. Many places have a representative for the major taxi companies who can help you to get a taxi and give you a slip with the taxi number so you can report any issues. They are reasonably affordable but travel in a car is slower as you can get stuck in traffic.  
Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Ho Chi Minh City?
A: I always use Family Medical Clinic. It has good services, good doctors but is more expensive than at home. If you have comprehensive health insurance, you will be fine. If not, it can be very expensive to go to the doctor. 
Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in Ho Chi Minh City? Are there any areas expats should avoid?
A: Generally, I think HCMC is a very safe city. I feel safer here than anywhere I have lived in Australia. The biggest safety concern is petty theft. You can take precautions to prevent yourself from being targeted. 
Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in the city? What different options are available for expats?
A: The standard of housing can vary, but you can secure a comfortable place to stay for a reasonable price. Many houses have one bathroom per bedroom which makes sharehousing much easier. 
Things to be aware of in the houses: many bathrooms are wet rooms with open showers, many kitchens have only basic equipment and microwaves/ovens are not common, cleaning services are usually provided. 
Q: Any areas/suburbs you’d recommend for expats to live in?
A: For the most comfortable housing (and likely more expensive), you can live in District 2 or District 7. These districts have many expats and Western conveniences. For the local (and cheaper) experience, you can stay in District 1, District 3 or Phu Nhuan which are all close to the city centre and you can find lots of hidden gems in terms of cafés and food places.

Meeting people and making friends

Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? 
A: The locals are incredibly tolerant and welcoming of foreigners. The Vietnamese people are very lovely, friendly and helpful to foreigners (particularly if you are respectful to them). There isn’t any obvious discrimination, but locals may charge a higher price when selling things to foreigners. 
Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends in Ho Chi Minh City? How did you go about meeting new people? 
A: It was difficult for me to meet people in my first six months of living in HCMC. I gradually made friends through participating in many networking events such as my home country's Chamber of Commerce (AusCham), Network Girls and ladies’ dinners. As a volunteer, I also found the network of volunteers through conjoint programs was a great way of developing social circles.
Q: Have you made friends with locals or do you mix mainly with other expats? What advice would you give to new expats looking to make friends? Any social/expat groups you can recommend?
A: I have both local and expat friends. The benefit of having local friends is that they are living in Vietnam for a long time, they provide insight into the culture and customs, they help you to navigate the systems and learn the language. The benefit of having expat friends is for debriefing on the tough days and having ‘normal’ conversations in your native language. The downside to expat friendships is that people are so transient, it is difficult to say ‘goodbye’ so often. 
Participate in networking events and Facebook groups, such as:
- Sign up to your Chamber of Commerce (Most countries have their own chamber with events) 
- Networking Groups: Network girls, ladies’ dinner, 
- InterNations
- Facebook: Expats and locals in HCMC; Female expats and locals in HCMC, + many more

Working in Vietnam

Q: Did you have a problem getting a visa or work permit? 
A: Yes, it is a nightmare! My work permit took five months to come through – but speaking with others, I was lucky to receive it at all and six months is the usual turnaround time for a work permit. It was arranged through the organisation that I worked at. My organisation also arranges my visas most of the time but sometimes I just have to get myself a tourist visa as the processes often don’t work or don’t work out in time. 
Q: What’s the economic climate like in the city? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job there? Which resources did you find most useful?
A: I think there are many opportunities for work in HCMC but ‘who you know’ is incredibly useful. Most work opportunities are gained from a ‘friend of a friend’. Otherwise, English teaching work is readily available. You can study the English teaching certificate in HCMC and the organisation will often provide work opportunities upon completion. There are also job search engines such as Craigslist and Vietnamworks. 
Q: How does the work culture differ from home? Do you have any tips for expats doing business in HCMC?
A: The work culture is quite different from the West. There is a strong hierarchical system and much respect is given to seniors without question. Vietnamese people in general are very hardworking and often put in very long hours (although often with a 2 hour lunch break to account for an after lunch nap). 
Tips: Reduce your expectations otherwise you will be constantly frustrated and eventually bitter. Relationships! Successful business is produced not in the office or over a meeting table but more likely over coffee, lunch or many beers (particularly for men). Respect! Show respect to your seniors even if you may disagree with some of their ideas; once you have developed the relationship and trust, they may be open to hearing your ideas. Also respect the way things are done here. Many foreigners think the way of the West is the best and only way but it is not always the case: some things don’t transfer from the Western to the Vietnamese context. 

Family and children

Q: What are the schools like, any particular suggestions? 
A: There are a number of International Schools (particularly in Districts 2 and 7) to choose from. Many of the schools are not well set up for catering to children with special needs. There is a lack of Early Intervention services for children with special needs but there are specialists that provide private services within the city. This new business has been established to help address the need for specialist services: International Center for Cognitive Development.

And finally…

Q: Is there any other advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals?
A: Try to learn the language! It is really difficult but it is also incredibly rewarding. Speaking Vietnamese has helped me to immerse myself within the culture and has positive impacts on my overall experience of living in Vietnam. Vietnamese people are so appreciative of foreigners’ attempts to learn about their language and culture and will be happy to help you to improve (after they finish laughing at your errors!)

► Interviewed January 2016

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