I’m a Vietnamese American. I’ve been living in Vietnam for seven years now. And in that time, I’ve only come back to the States a total of four times. Each time was less than a month. In other words, I’ve been living in this country full-time, non-stop. And if you’re a Vietnamese American, old or young, first generation or second generation, I think you should live here too.
America is great, but Vietnam could be greater
I was born and raised in the United States. I studied American history, I graduated from an American university. All of my close friends are Americans who still live in America, but after two years out of university, I moved straight into the Mekong Delta to teach in the countryside at An Giang University. Three and a half years later, I moved up to Ho Chi Minh city. In that time, I’ve seen all the big brands slowly enter Vietnam from KFC to Starbucks to Lotteria and Circle K. And I’ve slowly witnessed the rise of Vietnamese brands like Trung Nguyen, Highlands, Kinh Do, Jasmine Rice, and more.
When I first came to Vietnam at the age of 5, this country was full of bicycles and xich lo’s. Jeans were a thing of the aristocracy and cars were rare. In 20 years, Vietnam’s landscape has changed significantly, along with the rest of Southeast Asia. Asia’s time has come.
On the other hand, since I left the States things appear to be deteriorating. It’s a country which I cherish deeply, whose people are open, sharing, spirited, and hard working. A country whose innovation still leads the world. It’s a place home to New York, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, the oil industry, the music industry, and more. But at the same time, it’s also home to the NSA, a waning economy, dangerously divisive politics, and a steady lack of morale. The USA is no longer the center of the world. And that is a good thing. The opportunities are across the world now.
The harsh reality of Vietnam’s top and bottom
Now, it’s not all flowers and lollipops in Vietnam. There’s a lot of reasons why it’s not Singapore, or more aptly compared, it’s not like South Korea. Vietnam, despite its enormous potential hasn’t lived up to it. In fact, it’s a running joke that “Vietnam is always in a state of great potential.” Even the World Bank came out with a gripping video on the more than 15 million people who still live in poverty in Vietnam that underlines Vietnam’s still-systemic issues. It’s not easy.
On an everyday level, Vietnamese people are not as educated, not as polite, not as open, and not as forward thinking as Westerners. On a political and legal level, some characterize it as a minefield. Economically, Vietnam has been struggling since 2008 and 2009 to get back on its growth spurt of the early 2000’s (although latest reports from government and international studies seem to be pointing to a renewed growth entering 2014). That’s the reality.
And on top of that, there’s the predicament of living here as an Overseas Vietnamese.
Advice for being a Viet Kieu in Vietnam
If you’re an Overseas Vietnamese not living in Vietnam, you’re bound to have preconceived notions about Vietnam, Vietnamese people, and what your place in this society is if you come here. It’s inevitable. We can’t help but have preconceived notions when we travel to a new place. But if I could give advice to any new Vietnamese Overseas hoping to live in Vietnam, this would be it: “Get off of your high seat in thinking that you know more than Vietnamese people or know Vietnam well or know how you can help. Stop bullshitting about what you’ve done and what you know. And sit down and listen to every single Vietnamese person you meet. I’m serious. Cut your own arrogance constantly. Don’t be chảnh.”
This is a fault I’ve seen in older Vietnamese Overseas, in younger ones, and in myself as well. And it never helps. Listening first, adapting, and responding to what the real needs and concerns of the people here is the only way. Prescribing solutions is great only if you truly know the diseases. And knowing the diseases is not something you can learn in 5 months or even a year. If you really want to make an impact, build a community, and grow Vietnam to the next level, you have to stick it out, be patient, listen, and keep going. Vietnamese people are complex (just like all people) and learning how to work with them and for them takes effort and lots of time. Don’t lose hope, don’t turn into a person who complains all the time, and develop empathy. And the irony is, the minute you start to understand how things work in Vietnam, things have already shifted, things change so fast.
And this fast change is exactly where you can place your hope. In fact, the setbacks of Vietnam are also where you can stake a lot of your hope for Vietnam. Despite all the harshness of politics, economics, and daily lives of Vietnam, it presents an exciting landscape for young Overseas Vietnamese looking for a challenge and older Overseas Vietnamese who want to make a big impact. Being educated and living abroad for so long, we have insight into where Vietnam could be and we bring a much needed unique perspective to Vietnam’s development.
Think about it, over $10 billion came back to Vietnam in 2013 in the form of remittances from abroad. What if all this money came in the form of human value? What if it came in the form of mentorship, trade, business deals, actual human resources, and more?
The hope and potential of Vietnam and it’s overseas peoples
Despite all of the above, Vietnam still needs you. No, not despite all of the above, but because of all the above. Vietnam is now pulling itself out of an economic slump and things are visibly getting better. One of the things that compels me most lately is this new wave of branding in Vietnam, aptly titled Neue Vietnam. If you drive around Saigon (I’m happy to call it Ho Chi Minh city as well) or Hanoi these days, you’ll slowly start to see a new wave of very fashionable cafe’s, restaurants, and shops. I’m not sure where it’s coming from. Maybe it’s the returning Vietnamese who studied abroad, or a new enlightened class of merchants who have global ambitions, but it’s clear that we’re seeing a new wave or business. An Overseas Vietnamese would be remiss to miss this opportunity. And if one report is true, that Vietnam’s middle class will double by 2020, now is the time to jump into Vietnam. In fact, there are already many Overseas Vietnamese here who are making an impact and making money, don’t be late.
A final list of advice
This isn’t just a call to arms to Vietnamese Americans but all Vietnamese overseas across the world. It just so happens that I’m an American and its hits home for me. But I’d like to leave you a parting list of advice that, if you do end up coming here, will give you a much more wholesome long-term experience.
- Make Vietnamese friends: Don’t just hang out with expats. Vietnamese people will give you perspective and plant seeds of appreciation for Vietnamese society. This will allow you to stay here long-term and happy. They will show you the cool things you wouldn’t know about by hanging out with expats or Googling, and they’ll even show you yummy restaurants and cool services.
- Make friends with people who have been here for a very long time: It’s nice to hang out with people who have just arrived, just like you, but it’s the people who’ve been here for years that know what it takes. They have staying power. A person who has reached the two or three year point is at a crossroads. They are usually asking “Can I handle it here much longer? Or can I make a real life here?” Learn from the one’s that have answered those questions and stayed longer.
- Listen, listen, listen: I cannot emphasize this more. This is the number one thing you need to survive and make a real impact here.
- See the best parts about Vietnam while being realistic: Yes, Vietnam sucks in a lot of ways (so does every country, by the way). But you will need to learn to appreciate those really cool things about Vietnam, like drinking and eating on the street, or the joy of riding a motorbike, or whatever fits you. At the same time, you need to balance this with realism.
- Don’t be another complainer: It’s easy to fall from realism into complaining. Don’t do it. Nobody likes a complainer and it will also make you blind to how Vietnam truly is. Too many people project their own psychoses onto Vietnam. That’s uncalled for. Be critical without getting miffed.
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- Travel around the region for perspective on Vietnam’s place in Southeast Asia and Asia: Most Overseas Vietnamese fall into the trap of constantly comparing Vietnam to their Western hometowns. Guess what? It’s not America. It’s not Germany. It’s not France. It’s not England. It’s Southeast Asia. Look at Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Philippines, and others in the area. Then look at how it measures up to greater Asia, with China, Japan, Taiwan in the mix.
- Become fluent in Vietnamese: this will take a long time, but even showing that you have learned something will pay off exponentially. It is a passageway into the culture and will earn the respect of your Vietnamese peers. In some ways, a person’s level of language can be an indicator of their level of understanding of Vietnamese people. At the same time, there are a lot of people who’ve been over 20 years and don’t know much Vietnamese. What’s your style?
- Get involved: There’s so many programs, groups, and organizations hanging out in Vietnam. Get involved, see what people are up to, and contribute. This is the only way to learn, it’s the only way to understand how things work, and it’s the only way to see how you fit in.
GOOD LUCK! I wish you all the best. If you do decide to come out to live in Vietnam, send me an email and I’m happy to grab a coffee with you.
This post is dedicated to Sieng Tran, an Overseas Vietnamese investor and entrepreneur who has been working in Vietnam for years. He had a cool Facebook status update this weekend.
P.S. On a personal note, living in Vietnam has been one of my most transformative and meaningful periods of my life. Teaching in the countryside to young university students made me so happy sometimes that it made me cry. And there were also some really fun inspiring moments, like when Vietnam was winning soccer games during the regional Tiger Cup and everybody “đi bão”. To see a country shift and change through the eyes of a foreigner is a privilege. Being in close contact with Vietnamese people who have so much hope for their own personal and country’s future is awesome.