Being an Expat

We’re a bit late with the post this week as we spent last week in Saigon. What a change it’s been since last year: massive construction on Nguyen Hue, new buildings, and new faces as some familiar ones have moved on. Saigon is definitely a city in flux–the growing pains are evident trying to navigate around District 1 or District 2–and it seems like it will be that way for awhile as the metro takes shape.

Anecdotally, if an expat in Vietnam makes it to two years in Vietnam then s/he either stays for the long haul or heads to a different place. Thus, there is a staggered mass exodus every two years—which means that the expat community that is present today was largely not around five or more years ago.

In many ways, being an expat in Vietnam is about survival: who can outlast, adapt, and add value in ways that locals and foreign companies will appreciate and are willing to pay for. At the same time, the decision to invest more into Vietnam can be difficult (especially for expat entrepreneurs). Another way to look at it is how integrated should one be in Vietnamese society?

While there are benefits (business rights, visa, and so on) that come with a local spouse anywhere, whatever costs savings by living in a developing nation are wiped out if one is sending his/her child to a quality private school. So there are other considerations for entrepreneurs attempting to integrate into Vietnam beyond learning Vietnamese and moving into a fringe/edge business—especially for older expats. Indeed, it can be hard to change over from a lifestyle business to a scalable business model.

Finding the right balance in Vietnam can be challenging for many people. For example, there is the uninhibited nightlife in Saigon, and there are the midnight curfews in Hanoi. Business meetings can last from two to three hours and even longer if the booze is flowing and the bonds are strengthening. Where does the line for business and personal relationships end? Sometimes, it can be hard to distinguish whether it’s a friend or a business associate who is picking up the check–and sometimes it’s both.

There is a small town feel here—less so than Vientiane or Phnom Penh—but it’s not uncommon to run into the same circle of people in various establishments or at least to meet people who know the same ones that you do. For expats who want to be successful here and in Southeast Asia, Vietnam should be a long term plan. There is no doubt that Saigon, Da Nang (Hoi An included) and Hanoi attract different kinds of expats. But too often, a segment of expats seem to fall into a cycle of complacency, vices, and distractions. Out of those three cities, it’s perhaps easiest to lose a sense of self in the sprawling metropolis of Saigon; the loneliness of being an expat can contribute to a less-than-healthy lifestyle as well.

For certain, mistakes will be made both in business and social settings in a new environment and setting—no one is perfect. The key is to learn from mistakes and to not repeat them again. Even when some people have reached their wits end after being here for years, other opportunities have popped up which have compelled them to stay—but it’s only because they’ve tried and failed previously that they were noticed–and had the reputation to be suitable for a new project. But what drives people to “leave Vietnam for a third time?” Or to stay in Vietnam for years and never learn the language beyond a basic level?

The real opportunity here is to create and shape markets. Vietnam is still in “tree growing” mode. Sure, one day there will be a harvest—but it takes time, money, and other resources to educate consumers, stakeholders, and to build/create a marketplace. To that end, Vietnam needs more entrepreneurial talent, more STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) talent that knows what it takes to bring a product to the global market, and more people who are interested in Vietnam from a cultural point of view instead of a bia hoi/bia om focus. But, how to attract such talent?

For starters, lower the risk of coming to Vietnam and doing business here (corporate governance), lower the barriers to raising capital here for startups (beyond incorporating in Singapore and keeping a local team here), and promote finding ways to leverage local talent to create products and services that can be differentiated.

Another major pitfall for expats is to adopt local ways of thinking and doing things. It’s very easy to complain and to succumb to some of the craziness that permeates interactions in the workplace and beyond. Staying rooted, being patient, and remaining steadfast during negotiations are valuable qualities to have ample supplies of. However, also knowing when to quit due to wasting time, the expectation of charity, or unprofessional expat or local counterparts can save many headaches for everyone involved. It’s definitely easier said than done and is a skill that takes time to develop.

Above all, expats should find that their tolerance for healthy and smart risks will have increased after living/working in Asia. Whether it’s riding a motorbike to/from work in the middle of crazy traffic patterns, or dating someone from another culture, or seizing a new opportunity, each experience will help shape confidence and character in future situations.

Living and working in a new country is a risk itself—why stop there? Vietnam is not perfect—no country is. But finding the good in situations and people is more of the result of attitude instead of focusing on all the current problems. Part of the trouble is that the more things change, the more they stay the same—especially here, just with fewer expats that you know. In that sense, finding what’s right about Vietnam can be harder than usual. If you’re in a city that you don’t like, then move somewhere else. If you’ve tried a few cities and still aren’t happy then move to another country. This place isn’t for everyone and staying true to oneself and being ethical/moral seems to be a challenge for many, including westerners. Nothing worthwhile is easy.

For those that stay in this part of the world, have a strong sense of self, and see opportunities, “if a whole country is blind and you have one eye, then you can be king.”


1 reply
  1. Blake Nichols
    Blake Nichols says:

    I absolutely agree with you about the attractiveness and tendency to go down the slippery slope of vices due to the culturally alienating and difficult situations that some of us encounter as we chase business opportunities abroad (away from home). Perhaps we are crazy or we like the challenge, but there is something that draws us to places like Vietnam (at least for 2 years, haha). This is a good post. Thanks.

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