China vs Vietnam – Notes From Someone Who Lived in Both

The Grayed Wall – Photo Taken Using Cutting Edge Technology from 2001

I recently wrote a few guest articles for LTL Flexi Classes (an online language school with a focus on – you guessed it – flexible classes). There were 3 guest posts in total – 2 were very specific to Vietnam, but I did take time to write 1 post about something that’s close to my heart: China. Having spent all my 20’s and early 30s in the Mainland, I was lucky enough to participate in what was (is?) perhaps the single biggest economic experiment in human history. China will always have a special place in my heart. But as I got older and (questionably) more mature, that rosy view of life in China also got more nuanced and I started to accept that the country isn’t perfect. It never was. No country is perfect. I’d now like to take some more time and take a closer look at the idea of “China vs Vietnam” – and compare them across a range of factors that make this an easy decision.

China vs Vietnam

Stolen from LTL Flexiclasses – The best online school for Asian Languages

Before continuing though, would be good to have a look through those 3 articles on LTL, or at least just that one China post which I’ve written in very broad strokes, and very manicured language:

I would also like to re-emphasise what I wrote on that China article:

We’ll only be considering the differences that exist now – not what may or may not happen in the future as both countries continue to develop.

Covid vs General Governance

Credits: Facebook Shanghai Expats Group

So, China vs Vietnam? Where do we even begin? It’s such a big, complex topic, and whatever I write down, I’m sure there will be at least one person somewhere who’ll take exception with it. That’s fine. This is just my opinion, based on my limited personal experience. I suppose the target reader would be anyone who’s currently living in China, and is looking for “a way out”. Or perhaps, even those people who are already out, but looking for “another chance”.

As I write this, there are approximately 30 million people on the Mainland who are living through various levels of state-enforced lockdowns – mostly in Shanghai where people are now being treated like zoo animals, but also in other cities, most notably in the capital, Beijing, where students have started to have semi-organised protests which are scarily very reminiscent of the “35th of March”.

Voices of April – Shanghai Covid Lockdown

Having lived through the worst of the lockdowns here in Vietnam, one thing that the Vietnamese government has over their counterparts in China is the capacity to practically (if not publicly) recognise when their earlier decisions didn’t work out as planned, and then course-correct accordingly. This includes everything from sourcing foreign vaccines, easing up on covid restrictions and accepting the fact that zero-covid is untenable, and of course, making the difficult choices when it comes to saving the economy (and everyone’s mental health) vs the potential death count from vulnerable sectors.

That’s not to say that the Vietnamese are perfect – not by a long shot. But, in my opinion, they are better at making decisions quickly, and then changing those decisions when needed, rather than being stubborn and holding on to a particular line regardless of how much data is staring them in the face.

Personal Freedoms vs Public Interest

Credits: NPR

I’m going to paint a picture for you, and I want you to tell me if this sounds like something you’d like to have, in exchange for personal economic gain:

You wake up in the morning, and the first thing you do is reach for your phone to check WeChat/Weibo/TikTok. As you scroll through your timeline, you see that a friend of yours has been arrested for “picking fights and provoking trouble” after they made a joke about the president on social media. Another friend has been “invited for tea” by the local police after they dared to question why their neighbourhood was suddenly flooded with covid cases, when there had been no new infections in months.

Would you want that version of reality? Because 1.5 billion people have that right now.

From the Great Firewall, to the social credit system, to the constant surveillance (both human and electronic), it’s not hard to see why many people feel like they’re living in a Orwellian nightmare. But, it’s also hard to argue the other way. When you’re an authoritarian regime trying to control the equivalent of 15 Vietnams, you’ll have to use technology to your advantage.

And it’s not just the government that’s using technology to control and surveil their citizens – businesses are in on the game too. For example, if you use a service like Alipay or WeChat Pay, the government can track every single purchase you make. And, as we all know, data is power.

He likes beating up old people… allegedly

So, what’s the cost of all this control? Well, for one, it’s pretty much impossible to have any kind of privacy. The government wants to know when you’re pregnant. The government doesn’t want you to expose fake kung fu masters. Are you Muslim? The CCP wants to know what you had for breakfast. And, they can (and have) use that information against you. But, on the other hand, you can pretty much guarantee that you’ll always have a job. And, if you’re a good little worker bee, you’ll be rewarded with things like bonuses, promotions and other perks. All in the interest of Social Harmony, I suppose.

On the other hand, Vietnam is still, relatively speaking, a very free society. So free, I would argue, that we take our freedom for granted. My Vietnamese friends and colleagues can openly discuss politics, and what they dislike about the government. They do this in public, within earshot of anyone who would care to listen. They haven’t been arrested (yet). People can pretty much worship whichever god they want. And most importantly, for good or ill, Vietnamese people have access to social media are exposed to information and events outside of the Vietnamese bubble. You can actually have a nuanced conversation with Vietnamese people about various local and international social issues, without having to make sure you both follow the party line.

Just one of thousands of Catholic Churches in Vietnam

Of course, there are limits to what you can say and do. It still is an authoritarian state. But, as far as I know, Zalo is still pretty much a free for all. And, in general, I feel like people here have a lot more personal freedoms than their counterparts in China. And, while the government does censor the internet, they’re not as heavy-handed about it as the Chinese government. It’s almost as if the Vietnamese government sees their citizens as self actualised adults, rather than children who need to be controlled.

Almost like the government doesn’t have to defend the hurt feelings of the Vietnamese people. Gasp!

Economic Opportunities and Quality of Life


In China, the opportunities for economic advancement are pretty much limitless. If you’re willing to put in the hard work, there’s a good chance you’ll be rewarded with a high-paying job and a life of luxury. And, if you’re not, you can still probably find a job that will pay the bills. But, it’s worth noting that, in China, the gap between rich and poor is getting pretty huge. So, if you’re not part of the upper echelon of society, you might find yourself struggling to make ends meet.

Still, the fact that over the last 40 years, the CCP has been able to lift over 800 million people out of extreme poverty is nothing short of a miracle. I was lucky enough to participate in this experiment and see things up close, and in person. There’s a lot of hard work, grit and determination in Chinese society, that much is certain. Private enterprise and capitalism has never been so pure as that version found in Communist China.

Credits: Daily Mail (read that article, it’s like UP but with Chinese characteristics)

Forced evictions notwithstanding, the quality of life in Chinese cities is pretty good. The same never apologise, one-track mind that hasn’t worked for Covid was the same driving force in China’s economic development. Want a new subway? We’ll build it in two years. New airport? We’ll build 10 of them next year. And, for the most part, they will actually get built on time and within budget. I respect that part of the Chinese system – again, forced evictions notwithstanding.

Just be a good worker bee, and ride the wave with the CCP.

In Vietnam, the opportunities for economic advancement are still there, but honestly, it’s a bit disorganised when compared to the Mainland. Though, I suppose, that’s where the opportunity lies. Vietnam is about the size of Guangzhou, and has the same potential for growth. If not more. And if everything goes up in flames, at the very least, we can still enjoy cheap drinks.

For those with an entrepreneurial spirit, there’s a lot of opportunity in Vietnam. Sure, the subway in Saigon still doesn’t work even after 10 years, but the economy is still moving forward. While Vietnam will never present as big an economic opportunity as China, companies are starting to catch on to the potential that lies here.


China or Vietnam? Neither! That’s actually Indonesia.

Like I said, there’s no perfect country – but you can definitely find a country that’s perfect for you. At least for the time being. And, while I think China and Vietnam both have their pros and cons, I ultimately think that Vietnam is the better country. We won’t know what the future has to offer. Maybe social credit scores, and CCTV systems will catch on. Maybe the government starts feeling like it wants to throw it’s weight around.

If you like money above all else, move to China and play by the rules.

But for the time being, Vietnam has more personal freedoms, and arguably a much better quality of life. Definitely more easily accessible adventure. And you don’t really need to sacrifice economic opportunities either.

Of course, your mileage may vary. And, if you’re not happy with your current situation in China, or Vietnam (or whatever country you’re in right now), remember that you can always move. 1500 words on some blog won’t be enough to explore all the nuance and complexity of life in either country (or just living abroad, in general) but I hope it’s given you something to think about.

If you’re another ex-China expat in HCMC, do drop me a note! Would love to meet up and compare notes.


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