Moving to Vietnam Guide
Vietnam is known for its gorgeous beaches – particularly Ha Long Bay. The country is also home to lush tropical forests, as well as expansive farmland, stunning river basins, and vibrant cities like Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and Da Nang.
Whether you’re travelling to Vietnam for a visit, or are considering a longer-term stay in the country to study, work, or live, it’s always a good idea to learn all you can about the region before you pack your bags – that way, you know what to expect when you arrive.
Whilst Vietnam might not be a large country in terms of width, it is 1650 kilometres long, with three distinct climactic regions spanning from North to South. Northern Vietnam, between October and December, is generally warm and sunny. After this period, winter weather sets in, temperatures drop, and the north is blanketed in mists that can last for several days.
The chill lessens in March and April, before unleashing summer temperatures of up to 40°C between May and August. However, whilst these hot temperatures may be appealing (with most areas averaging around 30°C), it is also the rainy season, resulting in incredible humidity. When it rains in Northern Vietnam, it pours, and expats should prepare to endure sticky summers and regular flooding.
The seasons shift a little in Southern Vietnam, with the dry season lasting from December to April, and torrential rains through the rest of the year until November. Most rainfall in Vietnam comes in unrelenting afternoon downpours, with the rest of the day remaining dry.
Flooding is a real issue during this period, specifically in the Mekong Delta. Annual temperatures in Southern Vietnam rarely fall below 20°C, with March, April, and May being the hottest months. The central highlands follow the same annual pattern, although temperatures tend to be cooler.
Central Vietnam completely plays by its own rules as the area is affected by the northeast monsoon. Around Nha Trang, the rainy season only lasts throughout November and December, whereas areas further north (Hue and Da Nang) have to endure monsoons from September to February.
Temperatures are at their highest (upper 30s) from June to August. The coastal stretches of this region experience a shorter rainy season, but extremely hot and dry summers. This area is also prone to feeling the full force of typhoons, with torrential rain and hurricane winds. In general, the typhoon season runs from August to November.
Culture in Vietnam
Confucianism is a system of behaviours and ethics that stress the obligations of people towards one another based upon their relationship. It is part of Vietnamese society and the tradition stresses duty, loyalty, honour, respect for age, respect for seniority, and sincerity.
The role of the family is extremely important in Vietnamese culture, as is the significance of hierarchy – everyone has a distinct place and it is important to recognise this fact, whether it’s in the home or workplace. It is not uncommon for three generations of one family to be living together under one roof and, by way of the Confucian tradition, the father is the head of the family and it is his responsibility to provide and make decisions.
Within Confucian tradition, it is believed that the spirit lives on when somebody passes away. Families will often worship their loved ones and, on the anniversary of a person’s death, families will hold special ceremonies in their memory.
The concept of saving face is understood in the Western world but, like many Asian nations, the notion of face is important to the Vietnamese people. You can either lose face, save face, or give face to another person, and the idea essentially boils down to a reflection of a person’s reputation, dignity, or prestige. The face ideology can also be applied to businesses.
For expats, it is important to choose your words and mannerisms wisely when conversing with Vietnamese people and understanding face is very important. Giving face is an act of kindness, such as complimenting somebody or celebrating their success. Being reprimanded, or accusing somebody, will lead to a loss of face.
Vietnamese society has a fair amount of public etiquette and expats should be mindful of the following:
- Shorts are only worn at the pool or the beach
- Never touch a member of the opposite sex
- Do not touch somebody’s head or shoulders
- Avoid public displays of affection
- Do not point with a finger
- Do not stand with your hands on your hips
- Do not fold your arms across your chest
- Pass items with both hands
- Never pass anything across someone’s head
Language in Vietnam
Vietnamese is by far the most commonly spoken language in the country. The language has many similarities with Chinese – they share much of the same vocabulary and, until the 13th century, written Vietnamese used Chinese characters. A number other languages are also spoken throughout the country – these include Tay, Cham, Murong, and Khmer.
Since Vietnam was, for many years, a French colony, much of the population also speaks French, particularly people belonging to older generations. Meanwhile, due to the country’s ties with the Soviet bloc during the mid-20th century, Russian, German, Czech, and Polish are also commonly spoken.
In addition, English is becoming increasingly popular as a second language due mainly to business ties with western countries. In fact, learning English is often required in school and it is regularly used in higher education.
Transport in Vietnam
Many expats will notice that public transport is cheap in Vietnam, but often uncomfortable. Locals tend to navigate the roads on mopeds and bicycles, and often the streets are congested with bikes. The roads in Vietnam, in general, tend to be chaotic. Opting to hit the tarmac via your own mode of transport in Vietnam is not for the faint-hearted and should only be attempted by seasoned expats. Some expats often hire drivers to get them from A to B, and save on stress levels!
Buses are a popular option in Vietnam but, for tall Westerners, the compact seats that suit the build of Vietnamese people often leave many uncomfortable. However, many buses, particularly the services linking the major cities, are air-conditioned and much more comfortable than others.
Expats should be prepared that, if they are not travelling on an inner-city bus route, bus drivers tend to make up their own directions and drop passengers off at the most convenient crossroad. There are bus terminals, but these are often ignored to make the bus driver’s life easier, but not necessarily that of expats. If living in Vietnam, you will notice that bus stops are not defined areas, but people will linger and hail buses.
Although trains are a more expensive option in Vietnam compared to buses, they definitely equate to a better quality journey. The Reunification Express line in Vietnam, which runs from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh, is a 30-hour journey, with many stops in between. However, there are a number of other routes and train services. If you are heading overland on a long journey, make sure you book a sleeper carriage; you will find your journey much more pleasurable if you do.
Train tickets are sold at Vietnamese train stations. However, if you would like a seat in an air-conditioned carriage (highly recommended) there are a number of agents you can purchase these from. There are often re-sellers hanging around outside train stations in Vietnam. While this may be classed as dodgy in the Western world, this is normal practice in the country.
Prices from these re-sellers are often slashed as the departure time of the train gets nearer, so many expats can grab themselves a bargain. Most expats tend to purchase their train tickets three days in advance to avoid disappointment or a nightmare journey.
When you cast your eye into the chaotic roads of Vietnam you will be met with many mopeds and motorbikes; a vast majority of these will be popular motorcycle taxis. They are always available and a cheap mode of transport too. Expats can often negotiate prices with drivers, but it is best to settle on a fare before beginning the journey so that you are not met with a surprise at the end.
Western expats using motorcycle taxis will often be assumed as tourists and charged a higher fee. Don’t be fooled, stand your ground, and negotiate a fair price.
Healthcare in Vietnam
While people living in Vietnam tend to have an overall good quality of health, healthcare can be difficult to come by, particularly in rural areas. Government subsidies only cover around 20% of the expenses – this means that the majority of healthcare costs must be paid by individuals.
The Vietnamese government has been working to improve the healthcare system since the 1990s, and great progress has been made. A universal healthcare system, modelled after the one that’s currently in place in Thailand, is being developed and is expected to cover all residents with basic medical care.
Expats tend to steer clear of public hospitals in Vietnam as their standards do not match those of the Western world. Public hospitals receive little funding and are, therefore, poorly equipped. The further you head out of the cities, the worse the public healthcare services become and, in some remote areas, it doesn’t even exist.
In contrast, the standard of private facilities in Vietnam is second-to-none. Most of the doctors are overseas-educated Vietnamese citizens, or are doctors from Korea, Japan, France, or the USA. Therefore, the language barrier is not an issue in Vietnamese private hospitals, allowing expats to receive the correct care quickly.
The official currency in Vietnam is the Vietnamese Dong (VND) however, expats should be aware that US Dollars are accepted throughout the country and many prices are displayed in dollars as opposed to the dong. There are six dong notes in circulation: VND 500,000; 200,000; 100,000; 50,000; 20,000 and VND 10,000. There are 5,000, 2,000, 1,000, 500, and 200 VND coins.
Expats in Vietnam will find that the banking infrastructure is modern and straightforward, with the staff in banks very helpful when it comes to setting up an account. Many expats choose to set up an account with one of the many international banks available in Vietnam but, whatever account you choose, internet banking comes as standard most of the time.
To open a bank account in Vietnam expats will need to provide their passport and a copy of their employment contract. Accounts can be opened with an initial deposit and this will vary from bank to bank. On the odd occasion, some banks may require a letter from your landlord to prove you are renting a property in Vietnam. However, most will just ask for a permanent home address and work address. Expats are also able to choose whether their account will be in in Vietnamese Dong or US Dollars.
ATMs are commonplace in Vietnam, aside from in the more rural areas. If visiting these smaller towns, it is advised that expats carry cash on them in case there are no ATMs. Furthermore, carrying cash is normal in Vietnam, due to the country having a cash-based economy. Debit cards are accepted pretty much anywhere, whereas credit cards can only be used in large hotels and retail outlets.
There are five levels of education in Vietnam. These are preschool, primary school, secondary school, high school, and higher education. A child’s formal education generally lasts for twelve years, beginning with primary school at the age of six and finishing with three years of high school. For most students in basic education, classes are held on a half-day basis.
Expat parents tend not to send their children to public schools in Vietnam. The teaching methods adopted can be quite alien to foreign students who are used to innovative learning environments and active class debates. However, there are a number of schools in Ho Chi Minh that are breaking away from tradition and trialling American-style methods. Despite this advancement, classes are taught in Vietnamese, and this would be difficult for expat children.
In addition to public schools, there are numerous private schools, as well as semi-public and people-founded establishments – all are monitored by the government. Despite their availability, international schools are very much considered the best options for expats moving to Vietnam. Although they are a relatively modern phenomenon in the developing country, they appear to fill a gap in the market as Vietnam’s expat population is growing rapidly.
For parents wanting their child to attend an international school, it is best to get in touch up to a year in advance. The places at the most popular schools go quickly and many have entrance exams that your child will need to prepare for. Fees vary from school to school and often increase with the age of the child. Therefore, it is best for parents to do extensive research before moving to Vietnam.
Vietnam Food & Drink
You may think you have tried Vietnamese food at restaurants in your home country, but nothing will prepare your palette for the fresh and flavourful food in the country itself. Rice and noodles make up the basis of most meals, but it is the fresh produce, pastes, herbs, and sauces that pack meals full of taste.
You cannot move in Vietnam without stumbling across a street vendor selling pho. Pho is a simple staple in Vietnam consisting of a salty broth laden with meat or fish and served with fresh rice noodles. It is cheap and widely available and Pho Thin, a restaurant in Hanoi, is a favourite haunt for pho lovers.
Another famous Vietnamese dish is nem, sometimes referred to as cha gio, cha nem, or nem ran. Combinations of pork, shrimp, crab, noodles, and vegetables are rolled in rice paper and eaten fresh or deep fried. Often they are served with a peanut sauce, which is as tasty as it sounds.
Expats in Vietnam who cannot handle spice will be pleased to know that meals are all about flavour as opposed to heat. Fish sauce and shrimp pastes make up grounds for the majority of sauces and broths. Other popular flavours include coriander, lemongrass, ginger, saffron, and mint.
The place to get your hands on the most authentic Vietnamese food is at the vast street kitchens dotted around cities and towns. These can often be carts in the street or a number of plastic chairs around open flames. However, if you would like to dine formally, there are a million and one cafes and restaurants.
Vietnam is the world’s second-largest producer of coffee and it is a staple drink for the majority of the population. Do not search for a cappuccino or latte; coffee is simply served with condensed milk. For those who enjoy a tipple, fresh beer is produced daily in Vietnam. It is served perfectly chilled in the majority of local bars; just ask for bia hoi. Handily, it is not very alcoholic, but very refreshing.
Vietnam Crime & Safety
You may be tempted by one of the tasty morsels above, but food in Vietnam is not always safe and can upset the sensitive stomachs of new expats. The standard of food safety in restaurants in Vietnam is generally spot on, but when dabbling in street food, expats should tread carefully. Street food vendors do not have to abide by any legal standards and, if the food isn’t cooked properly, food poisoning can be a big issue.
In terms of crime, Vietnam is a peaceful destination for foreigners and the majority of fears are weather-related. Poverty is very prevalent in Vietnam, and petty crime is a problem in some urban areas. Pickpockets are rife in cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, so expats should make sure they do not walk alone at night, and keep valuables out of sight as much as possible.
Illegal drugs are becoming increasingly available in Vietnam and are often tampered with. Many foreigners have taken fatal overdoses or been caught in possession and arrested. For anyone caught carrying drugs in Vietnam, even the smallest amount, could face the death penalty. Vietnam has a no-tolerance policy when it comes to drugs, which means the streets are a safer place.
Expats who are new to Vietnam should be cautious of scammers. Often, citizens pose as charity workers, conning visitors out of money. Furthermore, taxi drivers and restaurants can often try and charge unknowing expats extra, so always keep an eye on the meter, or the prices on the menu.
Natural disasters, particularly on the eastern coastal regions of Vietnam, can be very problematic between May and November. Tropical cyclones can be brutal, and it is best for expats to prepare for and monitor approaching storms via the National Centre for Hydro-Meteorological Forecasting, or Japan Meteorological Agency websites.
Places to Visit in Vietnam
Vietnam is a country of contrast. From the buzzing city hubs and tourist-rich destinations to ancient sites and villages with incredible history. Whether you are an expat in Vietnam, or are travelling the country, the destinations below should be added to any itinerary to experience the different aspects of Vietnam.
Mystical My Son is a site rich with the ruins of Hindu temples that were built between the 4th and 14th centuries. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and due to its location at the foot of Cat’s Tooth Mountain, surrounded by jungle, My Son is an enchanting place to visit.
Located in southwestern Vietnam, the Mekong Delta is adorned with colourful floating markets, quaint villages, bird sanctuaries, rice paddies, and sugar cane groves. The Mekong Delta is an agricultural region made fertile by the maze of canals and streams fed by the Mekong River, earning the area the nickname ‘Rice Basket’. The labyrinth of rivers and swamps stretches from the Gulf of Thailand to Ho Chi Minh. Without the opulent rice, orchards, and fish farms of the Mekong, a third of Vietnamese produce would cease to exist.
With a history dating back 2,000 years to the Champa Kingdom, Hoi An is a beautiful historic city in South Central Vietnam. The architecture is unbelievable, and the destination is the epicentre for traditional culture. The Old Town in Hoi An is a warren of winding lanes and it is so small that visitors can walk around it easily. The alleys are brimming with striking old architecture and wooden houses, with small shops tucked into the smallest of places.
Ha Long Bay
Imagine a vast expanse of emerald waters, with the horizon decorated with prehistoric limestone islands topped with rainforests, and you have Ha Long Bay. Found in northeast Vietnam, the coastline is like that of a fantasy film and it is a popular destination for scuba diving, kayaking, and sailing. Frankly, Ha Long Bay is the beach everybody dreams of visiting and, for many travellers, it is top of the itinerary.
You cannot go to Vietnam without visiting the capital, Hanoi. The streets are chaotic and noisy, with scooters zipping past rows of cars. At the heart of Hanoi is its Old Quarter. Despite bombings during the Vietnam War, the historic French colonial and Asian architecture have remained intact. Other prominent sites include the Grand Opera House, the Presidential Palace, and Saint Joseph Cathedral.