Even though we keep on saying that Vietnam is a beautiful country with a lot to offer, it’s still a sad though not altogether surprising situation to see friends leave. Some of them were even “lifers” who seemed to be as part of the fabric of Vietnam as pate on banh mi. In such a rapidly developing country, it’s only normal to see rapid changes in the lives of people who live here. We’ll explore some reasons why expats leave Vietnam – it’s not just minor annoyances either, or the generic “it’s time to leave”, or the all too real “expat burn out”. These are practical things that will make some people leave; and if you’ve lived here long enough some of these will probably hit a bit harder.
Not Enough (or Appropriate) Research
Look before you leap, goes the old adage, and in the same way, it’s important to do your research before moving to a new country. Vietnam is no different. While it’s true that this country is has a lot to offer, it’s also equally true that this place is not for everyone. Expats who don’t take the time to learn about the culture and customs before moving here often find themselves feeling out of place.
If you’re thinking about moving to Vietnam, try to visit here for a few weeks and live in an AirBnB or a serviced apartment, rather than staying in a hotel. Try to do “normal” things like going to the market, taking public transportation, and eating at local restaurants. This will give you a much better sense of what it’s actually like to live here.
Or at the very least, read! That’s why we’re making this website and filling it up real information that’s going to be useful for both travelers and would-be expats alike.
Vietnamese is a tonal language, which means that the meaning of words can change depending on the way they are pronounced. This can make learning the language quite difficult for foreigners, which can lead to frustration and isolation. Additionally, few people here speak English fluently (which is ironic because most young people who move here are invariably English teachers). If you don’t speak the language, it can get pretty isolated pretty quickly.
If you’re not planning on learning Vietnamese, life will still be possible here, but it will be more difficult. You’ll likely find yourself living in a bit of a bubble (both literally and figuratively) and won’t be able to fully experience all that Vietnam has to offer.
If you’re thinking about moving here, and want to make the most of what the country has to offer, we recommend taking a Vietnamese language course. Doesn’t have to be intensive or in-depth, but a bit of Tieng Viet can help you avoid paying the foreigner tax. Speaking of which…
Another thing which is currently a big part of the “foreigner tax” is the difficulty of obtaining a visa (or a work permit). If you’re a more traditional expat with a package that includes relocation, school fees, and an otherwise full ride from your employer, then this is probably one of those Vietnam things which can be unfamiliar to you. However, if you’re one of the many foreigners who are just “winging it”, then you’ll know how painful this can be.
The visa process can be confusing and time-consuming, and it’s not always guaranteed that your application will be approved. This can be frustrating for expats who are trying to establish themselves in Vietnam, on their own terms. This includes many (most?) English teachers, as well as freelance workers, digital nomads, or those running their own business.
While it is possible to obtain a visa and work permit as a freelancer or entrepreneur, the process can be difficult, and the approval rate is not 100%. If you’re thinking about moving to Vietnam and want to freelance or run your own business, we recommend doing your research ahead of time and consulting with a professional who can help you navigate the process.
The government can, and frequently do, complete 180s on regulations, including visa requirements, so it would be to your interest to work with a professional team who work how to work around whatever the current situation is.
Vietnam may be cheaper than many Western countries, but the cost of living can still be surprisingly high, especially in big cities like Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. Doubly so if you intend to “make the most” of your time here and do a bit of traveling.
Having a diet that mostly consists of Western food can also drive up your costs. While you can find a bowl of pho for as little as 1USD, if you want some variety in your diet and eat out every day, you should expect to spend at least 10 to 15USD per day on food. In a similar way, the booze budget can easily rack up. It’s not easy to keep track of how much you’re drinking when you’re already loaded up on balloons and 1USD Saigon Reds (or 10USD craft beers).
Of course, as foreigner, on average, you’ll be making quite a lot of cash. But this is only big in Vietnam. You’ll be hard pressed for retirement if you intend to fly back home every year, and still keep a party and travel lifestyle here in Asia. I know some people who pull in upwards of 3000USD a month, yet still somehow manage to spend that all before the next paycheck.
If you’re serious about starting a savings and investment account read thisExpat Personal Finance: Can you answer these questions?
Live overseas long enough and you’ll know just how difficult it is to maintain a long distance relationship, or even just a normal same-city relationship. But it’s not just the physical distance that can be a problem – it’s also the cultural differences.
For many couples, these differences can be overcome with time and patience. But for others, they can become too much to handle. And when you factor in things like work commitments, family obligations, and different social circles, it can be tough to find enough common ground to make things work.
We’ve seen it happen time and again – a couple moves to Vietnam, they’re madly in love with each other, but after a few years (or even just months), they start to grow apart and eventually drift apart. It’s not always because they don’t love each other anymore – it’s just that the circumstances make it very difficult for them to stay together. Either one of them leaves, or both of them leave. It’s just a fact of life.
Work Options (or the Lack of it)
One of the more lowkey complaints expats have about working in Vietnam is the lack of flexibility in the workplace – or perhaps a better way to describe it would be variety. An oversized proportion of foreigners living in Vietnam would fall under the category of “teacher”. Some might be teaching English, some might be teaching at an international school. Some might be high qualified career teachers, while others might just be taking any old job to pay the bills.
The thing is, there are few readily available jobs for foreigners to do in Vietnam that allow for a good balance of work and life – at least, not the type of work that pays a reasonable salary.
This leaves many foreigners feeling “stuck” in their jobs. This is slowly changing as the economy and society modernizes, but for now, the easiest and most direct way for a foreigner to make a good living in Vietnam is still to teach English.
Of course, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing – teaching can be a very rewarding experience, and many foreigners who come to Vietnam to teach end up staying for much longer than they ever anticipated. However, it’s important to be aware that variety of work will be quite limited, and you may find yourself feeling a bit trapped if teaching isn’t what you want to do with your life.
Air pollution is becoming a major problem in Vietnam, especially in big cities like Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. Though not quite yet at the apocalyptic levels of Beijing or Delhi, the air quality in these cities is still quite bad, and it’s only getting worse.
This is caused by a variety of factors – construction, traffic, industry. You name it. And while the government is starting to take steps to address the problem, it’s going to be a long and slow process. In the meantime, expats living in Vietnam will have to deal with the effects of air pollution on a regular basis.
This might not seem like a big deal, but for those with respiratory problems (or even just allergies), it can be a real nuisance. And for those who are health-conscious, it can be quite alarming to see how bad the air quality is just by looking up. And speaking of health…
While there are some good hospitals and clinics in Vietnam, the healthcare system as a whole is not up to Western standards. This can be a problem for expats who require specialist medical care or those with chronic health conditions.
Sure, it’s very affordable compared to Western prices, but the hard truth is that the quality of care at public hospitals leaves much to be desired. With such a large population to serve, and a lack of qualified medical professionals to service them, it’s simply not possible for the government to provide everyone with a high standard of care. Other countries in the region like Thailand and the Philippines will have, arguably, a more accessible medical system for the average foreigner.
This is slowly changing as private hospitals and international clinics become more common, but it’s still a bit of a gamble to go without quality medical insurance. And, let’s not pretend we haven’t seen those GoFundMe pages for foreigners who have been left stranded by Vietnam’s healthcare system.
Shit happens, and sometimes, it’s medical shit. Be prepared for shit.
While this will only affect a part of the expat community (namely those with kids), it’s definitely a big one. Quality kids education might be free back home for most Europeans, or even affordable for some people in the US – but a quick look at the tuition rates at international schools can quickly make you think twice about raising a family overseas.
Most kids who go to these schools either come from very wealthy families, or their parents have a full expat package which includes tuition. Most of us won’t be as lucky. And for the parents who have school age kids, they’ll have to decide whether they want to uproot their lives and move back home, or pay through the nose for a decent education.
There are some cheaper schools around, but the quality of education is often not as good. So it’s really a Catch 22 for many families. And it’s one of the main reasons why we see a lot of families leaving Vietnam after a few years – or make the sad decision of having the kids go away and the parents still stay. Ok, so it’s more Sophie’s Choice than Catch 22, but you get the idea.
Life is interesting. Life abroad is even more interesting. But then life always moves forward, and sometimes, that means moving on from Vietnam. These are just some of the everyday reasons why we’ve seen expats leave Vietnam over the years.
For those of us who are still here, we might still have these same pressures but just have to make the best of it and hope that things will eventually get better. Because, at the end of the day, Vietnam is still our home (more than our home country!). And no matter how hard it might be sometimes, there’s no place like home.
Are there are other interesting situations that have forced you or your friends to move away? Share them in the comments section.