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What it’s like to live and work in Vietnam

Vietnam has embraced a modified form of capitalism since 1986, creating opportunities for adventurous expats keen to experience a new culture
Living Working Illo Vietnam 1200 X 675 1

Vietnam has emerged as an economic and technology powerhouse, particularly over the past decade. Expats are moving to Vietnam to help empower local talent to compete regionally and internationally.

As well as exciting roles in business and technology, teaching remains a popular occupation. 

Barry Butler, a teacher who divides his time between Vietnam and the UK, says the country “has a fast-developing economy, but it is a strictly Leninist state in which private enterprise is certainly tolerated, but is closely regulated.”

What to know before you move to Vietnam

According to Ministry of Labour data from April 2021, around 101,550 expats live permanently in Vietnam, out of a population of 98.2 million. Most expats live in the major cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, which was known as Saigon when it was the South Vietnamese capital before post-war reunification. They are also found in major centres such as Danang, Da Lat, Nha Trang and Vung Tau.

Foreigners need work permits to work for more than three months in Vietnam. To obtain a work permit, you need to be in good health, qualified for your role, and have no criminal record. Work permits are valid for two years and are not renewable. If an employer wants to retain a foreign worker for longer than two years, the application process is restarted. “A good employer will have good relations with the government offices involved, so things can go smoothly,” says Butler.

To bring spouses and children to Vietnam, employees with work permits, embassy staff, foreign investors, students, journalists and representatives of foreign companies with a Vietnamese presence can apply for dependent visas, known as TT visas. These are valid for 12 months. There are no visas for unmarried partners – a valid marriage certificate is required for the TT visa. 

Vietnam does not recognise same-sex marriage or civil partnerships. Same-sex partners will need separate work visas issued by their employers. Although Vietnam has not legalised same-sex marriage, a law passed in 2015 recognises the right for same-sex couples to have a relationship.

A good employer will have good relations with the government offices involved, so things can go smoothly

Butler does not recommend landing in Vietnam without a job offer if you want to stay longer than three months. “It is unwise to assume that you can turn up with a visitor visa and then imagine you can slide into an under-the-radar job with impunity – it is not unknown, of course, but it never ends well,” he says.

“Only the worst sort of employer would be involved [in such practices] and that very fact brings an array of undesirable possible outcomes, such as being unpaid, sacking at a moment’s notice and shoddy accommodation.”

One big attraction of Vietnam is the weather. While the wet season generally lasts from April until October, average temperatures tend to remain above 20 degrees Celsius throughout the year, with cooler weather in the scenic mountain regions and pleasant coastal breezes bringing the mercury down in areas such as Ha Long Bay. 

What to expect of work life in Vietnam

The average annual salary for expats is around $90,000. In comparison, the average annual salary for Vietnamese nationals is about $2,100. A relatively low cost of living means most expats can live comfortably, even in major cities where rents tend to be higher. There is a progressive rate of tax in Vietnam, starting at 5% for low income earners, up to 35% for people earning at least 80 million Vietnamese dong per month. 

According to Vietnamese law, public and private sector workers cannot work more than eight hours a day, with weekly working hours capped at 48 hours. Typically, the working day starts between 7 am and 8:30 am and finishes between 4 pm and 6 pm Monday to Friday. On Saturdays, the working day generally ends at midday and most workers have Sunday off. Lunchtime is usually between midday and 1:30 pm and many businesses close during this time.

Probation periods of six, 30, 60 or 180 days are legal, provided all parties have agreed to it in the employment contract.

Vietnamese business culture and work customs: all you need to know

Working in Vietnam combines politeness, punctuality and respect with high importance placed on socialising with business contacts and associates. Exchanging small gifts and bilingual business cards is appreciated, regardless of the language used in the meeting. 

Greeting with a handshake and slight bow is usual. Not all women shake hands – when meeting a woman, she will offer her hand if she is comfortable with shaking hands. If not, a slight bow is respectful. “The Vietnamese are very honest and expect you to be too,” says Butler. 

It is unwise to assume that you can turn up with a visitor visa and then imagine you can slide into an under-the-radar job with impunity

Long lunches and dinners often involve alcohol and informal conversation about family, hobbies and interests. It is wise to prepare a toast in advance of a working lunch or dinner, ideally to honour the head of the team with whom you are doing business. 

Within workplaces, it is important to be on time and respect older colleagues. Personal trust among teams and colleagues is valued; socialising is essential to building strong workplace relationships. It is not uncommon for companies to have budgets that fund team meals or sporting activities.

Formal work attire, such as suits, is more common in the north of Vietnam. However, shirt sleeves without ties are acceptable, particularly during the warmer months. Work attire is more casual in certain industries, such as software development, where staff often wear jeans and T-shirts to work. 

Vietnamese social customs

Vietnam is a friendly, welcoming country where politeness and respect are highly valued in social and business settings. Handshakes and head bows are common greetings, especially when meeting someone for the first time.

In general, conservative attire is appreciated, especially if you are visiting a temple or meeting older people. Covering the knees and shoulders is appropriate and overt displays of affection beyond holding hands should be saved for behind closed doors. 

If you visit someone at their home, it is good manners to bring a small gift, such as flowers or confectionery. Remove your shoes and wait to be seated. At the table, put your chopsticks down when you are talking and between mouthfuls. It is fine to lift your bowl to your face and slurping is not rude. Never leave chopsticks standing vertically in your bowl at the end of a meal as this signifies death. If you are offered tea or alcohol, you should accept, even if you only take a few sips.

What is it like living in Vietnam?

Renting an apartment or house is the most common living arrangement for expats, particularly with short work permits and limitations on foreigners owning property. Expat renters need to register with the public security office of their local ward or commune. 

In Hanoi, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the city centre is $400 per month, but can be up to $900, depending on location and facilities. Many expats will find utility bills cheap, with residents generally paying less than $100 per month for electricity, water, heating and cooling.

The cost of living is generally lower than Europe or the US. Mobile phone plans can cost as little as $5 per month. Fresh fruit and vegetables can be bought cheaply at markets, street stalls, supermarkets and smaller grocery stores. Average grocery prices include $1.40 for one litre of milk, $0.72 for a loaf of bread, and $1.30 for a dozen eggs.

Major cities are well served for English language cinemas, TV channels, theatres and radio stations. The average price of a cinema ticket is $3.43. Local cultural experiences, such as traditional water puppet shows and temples, transcend language barriers and provide great insights into the country for expats and visitors. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City have opera houses and there is a vibrant art gallery scene in both cities. 

Shopping is popular in Vietnam with plenty of familiar brands available, especially for lovers of fashion. When shopping, haggling is expected by many vendors, but keep it friendly, rather than aggressive. If the seller is not prepared to move on the price, either pay or walk away.

“Street vendors hawk their wares and may approach you and ask you to look at what they have,” says Butler. “They are not persistent, [and if you are not interested] a polite no will generally suffice.”

Active expats can take advantage of cheap gym memberships – expect to pay around $30 a month – and sporting clubs and facilities are generally affordable. Water sports are popular in coastal areas and there are golf clubs near Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Golf resorts in popular tourist destinations, such as Haiphong and Danang, are becoming more widespread. 

For transport, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City have cheap, popular bus services. Intra-city train systems are under construction in both cities. Countrywide trains are a cost-effective way to travel between different cities. 

While there are more cars on the roads than ever thanks to a growing middle class, motorbikes remain the preferred form of private transport. Taxis and motorcycle taxis are cheap and plentiful. In Hanoi, the cyclo (cycle taxis) remain an iconic and affordable way to get around.

“Transport is very cheap – I use the buses a lot, but the most versatile services are Grab and GoViet motorbike taxis,” says Butler. “They are cheap, highly recommended and work from an app in the same way as Uber.” 

Eating out in Vietnam

Fans of Vietnamese food are spoilt for choice with affordable restaurants and great street food, as well as high-end options and good bars. Beer is popular and can cost as little as $1 per can, and it is easy to find eateries where a meal for two costs around $20. The French influence in Vietnam means French restaurants, bakeries and patisseries are of a high standard.

As Vietnam has opened up to international trade and tourism, global cuisines, as well as familiar food chains, are common, especially in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Meat and seafood are popular, but good vegetarian and vegan options are becoming more commonplace.

“There is an array of cuisines available, but in my opinion, not much need to drift away from the delicious local food,” says Butler. “My go-to comfort food is cháo, which is rice porridge flavoured as you wish.”

Is living in Vietnam safe?

Crime rates across Vietnam are relatively low, although drug-related crimes and prostitution have increased over recent decades. Homicide rates are low, although the most recent figures are from 2011, when the murder rate was 1.5 per 100,000 people.

Buying or selling illegal drugs is ill-advised. As well as the health risks, it is not uncommon for dealers to report users to the police and drug-related offences attract harsh penalties, including long prison terms and the death penalty.

Female prostitutes tend to approach men in cheap hotels or on the street from motorbikes. As well as the legal and moral implications of getting involved in prostitution, AIDS is a serious public health issue in Vietnam.

Like most major cities and tourist destinations, it is wise to be aware of pickpockets and bag-snatchers, especially in bars and while out at night. 

Vietnam is generally safe for women, although metered taxis are advisable at night, rather than cyclos, unmetered taxis or walking. However, like many countries, taboos surrounding sex mean that reporting of crimes such as street harassment and sexual assault may be artificially low. 

Travelling by road can be risky in Vietnam. According to 2016 World Health Organization figures, there were 26.4 road fatalities per 100,000 people, with 8,417 reported road deaths and 374,550 serious injuries. 

“The roads are busy and may seem difficult to negotiate, but remarkably, they can be crossed by simply making sure you are visible and walking confidently and constantly to the other side – drivers will aim to miss you,” says Butler. 

Censorship in Vietnam

Vietnam does not have a free media, despite Article 25 of the constitution guaranteeing freedom of expression. The country ranks at 174 out of 180 countries on the RSF Free Press Index – the single party state keeps a tight control over most forms of media and is the world’s third largest jailer of journalists, particularly independent reporters and bloggers. Crimes such as “anti-state propaganda” and “activities aimed at overthrowing the government” can attract prison sentences of up to 20 years.

While Facebook is a popular source of information with 64 million users in Vietnam, the ruling Communist Party keeps a close watch on online activity. Facebook and Google have been asked by the government to remove content.

However, journalists subvert the authorities by writing about Vietnam from other countries, using pseudonyms, and issuing joint statements to highlight press freedom concerns. “Books from the west are generally available and often translated into Vietnamese,” says Butler. “But there are notable exceptions, such as Orwell’s 1984.”

While government restrictions on media and life in general may be unfamiliar to new expats, Butler says Vietnamese people generally support the government. “During the pandemic, government restrictions were accepted and adhered to rigorously because people said the government was doing what was necessary to keep them safe.”

You can read more from our Working Around the World series here. 

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