Javier is a Spanish expat living in Vietnam. He moved to Ho Chi Minh City with his family to take up an executive position for an international company in 2006. Although he misses some of the foods from home and has found the local language challenging to learn, Javier and his family enjoy the quality of life in HCMC and find the local people very friendly.
Javier is also a freelance author for HCMC.com where he writes reviews of different locations he’s been to in this city.
Learn more about Vietnam in the Expat Arrivals Vietnam guide.
Q: Where are you originally from?
A: I am from Spain
Q: Where are you living now?
A: I am living in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Q: When did you move to Vietnam?
A: In 2006
Q: Did you move alone or with a spouse/family?
A: I moved here with my family.
Q: Why did you move to Vietnam; what do you do?
A: I came to Vietnam in 2006 as an executive for an international company. The expat package was quite good and a top notch relocation firm took care of the moving which was similar in many aspects to moving from one house to another within a European country.
Living in Vietnam
Q: What do you enjoy most about Ho Chi Minh City? How would you rate the quality of life compared to Spain?
A: I would say that quality of life here is very good. We live in a residential part of town which does not have much traffic and is a very family friendly location with schools, supermarkets and restaurants at a short distance. I definitely enjoy living here more than in Europe, the weather is certainly better over here but also the fact that our kids now speak English fluently is another positive consequence of living here.
Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about home?
A: Definitely the food such as the Spanish ham and chorizo but we have a nice group of Spanish friends here and somebody is always having us all over to taste a Spanish dish made with ingredients somebody carried over by plane.
Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life in Ho Chi Minh City? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock in Vietnam?
A: Not really as Vietnam is an easy country to live in and Vietnamese people are very friendly to foreigners. The most difficult part is learning the language. It is not essential for working in an international company because every staff member will speak English, you can decide not to learn it but you will definitely enjoy your stay here more if you can communicate with local people. I began learning it with the taxi drivers every day going back and forth to work.
Upon arrival, on my first day at work I was amazed at all the people eating breakfast on the sidewalks. Not because they were eating on the sidewalks but because they were all eating either hot noodle soups or other dishes which a European would never think of eating so early in the morning. The aromas you would encounter on the street as well as this huge breakfast activity definitely made you realize you were on another continent.
Many people who have not come to Vietnam (and me included when I arrived) automatically associate this country with the Vietnam War. Some think that there must be visible scars of this devastating conflict everywhere you go. This is far from true, Vietnamese people are mostly very young, I think over 80 percent of the population is under 30 years so they have no memories of those difficult times. I find it hard to believe there was such a series of long lasting conflicts here (the war with the Americans was only the most recent), with the terrible impact it had on the civilian population, when I move around the city. There is hardly any trace of this conflict and the country has been growing and moving forward in such a way that it is a vibrant and dynamic place to be living in.
Q: What’s the cost of living compared to home? What is cheap or expensive in particular?
A: Eating out or using a taxi are definitely much cheaper than in Europe as are most everyday expenses. However, international schools charge highly inflated fees which are okay as long as you are an expat and your company is footing the bill, if not, they are hard to keep up with and more expensive than the most exclusive schools in Europe. Medical insurance will also be a significant part of your yearly expenses and this insurance is necessary considering the high cost of medical care in international standard facilities.
Q: How would you rate the public transport in HCMC? What are the different options? Do you need to own a car?
A: I like driving around the city in my motorbike. Despite heavy development and construction everywhere, the city still has a definite charm that makes me feel alive and happy to be here rather than in a Western city. The traffic is chaotic and can be very dangerous at times but that is part of the deal.
What I don't like is the way most local people will drive, with total disregard towards others, especially those driving trucks or buses, they are a real danger to others. The rule seems to be that the smaller vehicle must let the bigger one pass or take the risk of being run over, it is extreme but you also realize that there is a certain order within the apparent chaos in city traffic.
Q: How would you rate the healthcare in HCMC? Have you had any particularly good/bad experiences with regards to doctors and hospitals? Are there any hospitals you would recommend?
A: You will find good medical care here and quite a few options. I would recommend the Centre Medical International (CMI) as they have good medical care and also distribute a part of their earnings to social projects involving local children in need.
Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in Vietnam? Are there any areas expats should avoid?
A: The main safety issue here is definitely avoiding getting hurt in the numerous road accidents. Besides traffic, Vietnam is a very safe country, safer than many other countries. There is a sharp rise though in petty theft (phone or camera snatching from a motorbike) but taking some precautionary measures can be enough most of the time.
To my knowledge you can go anywhere in the city without danger, of course, in some areas you might be the only foreigner and people might be surprised to see you but nothing bad should happen if you are there during the daytime.
Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in HCMC? What different options are available for expats?
A: There are many different options for housing such as villas or apartments. House rentals were very high until they dropped sharply last year. We actually re-negotiated our house rental and got a 30 percent decrease. It seems like there has been too many construction projects (mainly apartments) in the last years and a lot of speculation involving real estate. Now there is an abundance of sellers (or renters) in comparison with the current demand.
Q: Any areas/suburbs you’d recommend for expats to live in HCMC?
A: There are two main points where expats (especially with families) are concentrated: District 2 and District 7, each at opposite sides of the city. My favourite is definitely District 2, specifically the area called Thao Dien which is surrounded by a river and very close to the city centre but at the same time a world away.
Meeting people and making friends in HCMC
Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Is there any obvious discrimination against particular religions or women etc.?
A: Vietnam is very tolerant with foreigners and there is no discrimination against race or creed.
Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends? How did you go about meeting new people in HCMC?
A: You will meet a lot of people at your workplace, foreign and local. It is very easy to meet and then spend time out of working hours with foreigners since there are many affinities to be found. With locals it can be more challenging in the sense that they are less open to sharing their homes and families with strangers or foreign work colleagues and it also is the foreigner who is less open to this too.
This being said, the Vietnamese are extremely friendly and will always be happy to chat with you and get to know you better, you can strike up a conversation in many places, in and out of the office. From my observations, statistically, most foreigners prefer to keep to their own circles of foreign friends but this is a mistake as in my opinion, you should try to at least have one good friend who is local. This will lead you to know so much more about the country you are living in and after all, wouldn't it be a pity to leave Vietnam without having at least one good Vietnamese friend?
A good way to make friends is to practice sport and join existing teams for example playing football. There always is a group of French, or Spanish or German players, etc. that play regularly. If you are not into sports, you can also join a pool league if you prefer that environment, many bars play against each other in a city-wide pool championship. The same goes for darts.
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: Learn the language, even if you only can say your name, how old you are, how many children you have and where you are from, this is enough to have a friendly conversation that will make both you and the person you are talking to very happy. Do not live in an expat bubble and try to learn and share with locals as much as you can, your experience as an expat will be so much richer.
An example of having a good time and even having a feeling of belonging here is going to the basketball games of the local team the Saigon Heats. When they play at home against teams from Thailand, Indonesia, etc. you will be in the crowd with many other local fans, and everyone is shouting: Saigon! Saigon! You will have the opportunity to share food and drinks with people around you in a very friendly atmosphere
Working in Vietnam
Q: Did you have a problem getting a visa or work permit for Vietnam? Did you tackle the visa process yourself or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?
A: On arrival, you will need to have a visa, usually if you come to work, you would go for the long-term visas, a year. In 2014, this is virtually impossible (well, almost) and you have a maximum of three months available. You must immediately get a mission letter by your company, become registered for personal income tax with local authorities. The most demanding step is getting your work permit. The list of documents you must provide is quite extensive and this is something you should prepare before leaving if you want it to be as seamless as possible. A police certificate from your home country and your university diplomas must be duly stamped so it is better to gather them before you depart and be sure you have all the stamps required. This procedure took me over six months to complete as you need to do some procedures in person and with a busy schedule, it can take forever.
Q: What’s the economic climate like in HCMC? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job there? Which resources did you find most useful?
A: Definitely do your job hunting from back home before coming. You will see that it is not easy and that there is significant competition. Use social media like LinkedIn groups to see job postings and then carry on from there to the specialized agencies with online postings.
Q: How does the work culture differ from home? Do you have any tips for expats doing business in Vietnam?
A: Never lose your temper and keep smiling. Finding a way for both parties to agree without losing face is paramount to a successful negotiation.
Family and children
Q: Did your spouse or partner have problems adjusting to their new home? Do you think there are any specific challenges for a trailing spouse?
A: Not really but it is important that the spouse makes friends and has activities to make life fun and interesting.
Q: Did your children settle in easily? What were the biggest challenges for your children during the move?
A: They had to go to a school in English which was a language they did not know. However, this has been a great benefit for them.
Q: Is there any other advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals?
A: Travelling abroad and living in Vietnam can really broaden your vision of life and of others. If you keep an open mind, you will learn a lot about tolerance, respect and generosity, something you should also try to get your children to experience too.
► Interviewed February 2014