By Dennis Khng
Culture shock and the language barrier are by far the most common issues expats working in Vietnam have to grapple with.
Filipino Jeffrey Manahan, hospitality consultant and food and beverage director at The First Steakhouse restaurant, emphasizes that flexibility, open-mindedness, patience, determination, and a positive can-do attitude are needed to have a successful career in Vietnam.
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He should know. He has been in Vietnam for 17 years, met and married his Filipina wife here and has successfully developed a career in food and beverage.
He recalls: “When I first arrived in 2003 there were not that many expatriates working in Ho Chi Minh City and so not much English was spoken. I figured I had to learn simple Vietnamese to survive, to live and get around the city.
“I saw on TV there were many children’s programmes on learning Vietnamese and I decided to quickly learn simple Vietnamese that way.”
In 2003 language was the biggest barrier for him and many other expatriates, and in 2019 it still is. A survey by recruitment firm Navigos in August found language to be the largest barrier for expats in Vietnam. It contributes to culture shock and also prevents career advancement.
As many as 60 percent of foreign respondents, who are working in Vietnam, experience culture shock, according to the survey. The top three causes leading to their culture shock are language barrier, which accounts for 29 percent, the contrast between expectation and reality 27 percent and lack of understanding 18 percent.
When expatriates, having secured a job in this fast developing economy, first arrive, the mad transportation experience is a big challenge. With so many motorbikes plying the roads – and even sidewalks in the big cities of Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi – coupled with an increasing number of cars, getting around is quite an issue.
Manahan took the bull by the horns, or the motorbike by the handlebars as it were.
“I learnt how to ride a manual motorbike in two weeks when I first came so that it would be easier for me to get around, and I chose that option as my Vietnamese friends told me it would be easier to then ride semi-automatic and automatic motorbikes later on.
“Back in 2003, half of the lanes were occupied by bicycles and half by cars and motorbikes. So it was easier to learn how to ride a motorbike then, but it was really out of necessity. There were not that many taxis.
“When I first arrived I found Vietnamese very willing to learn and work. But when it came to lunch time, they would go find their favorite spot in the kitchen to sleep. Nothing could disturb them, not even a business call. So I learned to live with and respect that.”
Another cosmopolitan expatriate is Dutchman Peter Gobbels. The ex-army and -navy man, who spent three years in South America, moved to Ho Chi Minh City in April 2019 after having visited it a few times before.
He and his Vietnamese wife decided to sell off his transport business in the Netherlands and move back to her home country. He had experience as an English teacher, and after researching the industry in Ho Chi Minh City, he set up an English language centre.
He says: “There are so many English language centres in Ho Chi Minh City and there is much competition. But the teaching standards are inconsistent, even low. Reading and writing standards are OK, but the speaking and listening comprehension abilities of students here are low.”
“Lessons should also not be too long as I find Vietnamese students, especially the younger ones, lose concentration faster than Dutch children.”
So cultural awareness, unsurprisingly, is an important factor in having a successful work experience in Vietnam, especially since it is still relatively new in opening its doors to international business, as compared to places like Hong Kong or Singapore.
Gobbels says: “The economy is growing rapidly and there are many jobs.” But he thinks companies give priority to Vietnamese graduates, which is understandable since they speak the language and know the culture better.
But all kinds of businesses are developing fast and though language is an obstacle for foreigners in getting jobs, there are a lot of opportunities to do your own business in Ho Chi Minh City or other parts of Vietnam, he said.
“You just have to be open to finding out what those opportunities are. You should come here, and research what to do by actually talking to as many people here as possible [like] foreigners who have their own businesses and Vietnamese.”
A recent HSBC survey found that average salary for expats working in Vietnam is $78,750 per year, slightly higher than the global mean of $75,966.
There are about 83,500 expats in the country, according to the Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs.
Manahan warns: “In a fast-developing economy like Vietnam, not everything is clear and in black and white and you have to understand that. Be patient, resourceful and keep on trying. Even though I have been here for 17 years and have seen a lot of developments, I think there are still many openings. You have to strike while the iron is hot, and it is still hot.”