Today we’re exploring some of the need-to-knows if you’re planning a move to Vietnam. My guest is Creighton Wong, an American who owns a digital marketing agency. In more normal times, he would be based not just in Vietnam but in other parts of the world too, as a digital nomad.
Creighton’s going to share his opinion and experiences with visas, Vietnam’s healthcare system, working in the country as a foreigner, finding places to live, and learning the language.
Creighton: The first thing that you will notice, when you come to Vietnam, is how narrow a lot of the homes are. I think, way back in the day, you were taxed on how big the front of your house was. So, everybody built these narrow houses, which were super long and super high, but the front of the house is small.
The other thing is that, typically, the bottom floor is going to double – for whatever it is, plus a garage. You’ll also find that, really, almost in all places, except for your nicer hotels, almost everything is marble tiled floor.
And then, I think the other big thing that will shock people is a lot of the bathrooms, because they’re not that big. Basically, the shower and the toilet are in the same spot.
Carlie: Hey there, it’s Carlie with the Expat Focus podcast. Today, we’re exploring some of the need-to-knows if you’re planning a move to Vietnam. My guest is Creighton Wong, an American who owns a digital marketing agency. In more normal times, he would be based not just in Vietnam, but in other parts of the world as well, as a digital nomad.
Creighton’s going to share his opinions and, at times, pretty amusing experiences with visas, Vietnam’s healthcare system, working in the country as a foreigner, finding places to live, and learning the language.
So, Creighton, how did you come to be living in Vietnam?
Creighton: Gosh, it was completely accidental and serendipitous at the same time. I knew that I had a passion and a love for being a world traveller and experiencing different cultures and different foods. And I wanted to dip my toe in the water to work remotely. And so, I got accepted into this programme called ‘Hacker Paradise’. You can look it up online.
What they do is: they set up workplaces and living spaces for people who would like to travel and work abroad. And so, that was a wonderful turn of events. And the first place that they were going was Chiang Mai, Thailand, which is exactly where I wanted to go. Because it was kind of the spot for—
Carlie: Yeah, for bloggers, for digital nomads, etc.
Creighton: Oh yeah. Yeah. I mean, I did end up living in Chiang Mai for about three months. The thing I loved about Chiang Mai, and the reason it was such a hotspot for expats, is there are so many expats there that you’re never really alone.
You’re always going to bump into somebody who’s got an interesting travel story. And my joke was that I never ate dinner alone. Even if I would go out to eat by myself, I’d always bump into somebody.
But anyway, getting back to your original question, ‘Hacker Paradise’ changed their itinerary. And so, they were going to go to Da Nang in Vietnam first, then Bali in Indonesia second, and Chiang Mai in Thailand third. And so, I was faced with a question of: do I just dive in, or do I wait for Chiang Mai?
I really made the decision, saying to myself, ‘Look, if you make an excuse not to go to Da Nang in Vietnam, there’s always going to be a reason not to go. Things come up. There’s always a birthday party here, an anniversary there, a thing to go to …’ And so, I just made the decision.
Carlie: So, you mentioned that Chiang Mai was, you know, on your bucket list. Was Vietnam up there as a destination, before you ended up in Vietnam?
Creighton: I wanted to explore through Southeast Asia, and Vietnam was definitely a destination that I wanted to check out. I guess, I didn’t realise how much I would end up, first of all, spending time here, and also, enjoying it. You know, like I said, it was a serendipitous surprise.
Carlie: So how long have you been in Vietnam now?
Creighton: I think it was a little over four years ago when I came to De Nang, and then I’ve been sort of off and on, because I’ve had to go back to the States for business. And so, yeah, I’ve been just jumping over the pond, except for this time, because I am not getting on an airplane anytime soon.
Carlie: I was going to say, how much has the COVID-19 crisis, for you as a digital nomad, really changed your plans?
Creighton: So, from a working standpoint, it hasn’t changed my day a whole heck of a lot, because I’m used to working at home and working in coffee shops and coworking spaces. It hasn’t really impacted me, from a daily routine standpoint. From a world traveller digital nomad standpoint, Vietnam’s borders are still closed.
I can’t fault the methodology of it, but certainly I have the itch. I definitely have the itch to get going and get exploring again. But right now, if we’re going to explore, it’s going to be within the borders. We’re not going to stray outside of the borders at all.
Carlie: Would you say that COVID has really illustrated, I suppose, some of the starkest differences between the United States and where you are in Vietnam? Or are there other really big differences between the two countries for you?
Creighton: I mean, it’s almost night and day when we talk about the government responding, because I think they also realised, very honestly, that they did not have the healthcare infrastructure in Vietnam to be able to deal with a massive outbreak and that a lot of people would have died. And so, when we talk about Vietnam being shut down … It was shut down right after the Tet holiday.
Tet holiday is Vietnamese New Year’s. It coincides with the Chinese New Year’s, and it was early this year. It was in January. And so, you know, I had these great ideas of getting back in the pool and swimming. I had made about six trips to the pool.
I was getting into my rhythm, and then boom, the pools just shut down for three months, because they shut down the schools and they shut down the public places like that. And soon thereafter, non-essential businesses were shut down too. But the people were by and large compliant with it, because they understood that this is just a sacrifice for the greater good.
The other thing, too, is … For example, we had one of our renters here travel to Dubai and back, and there was some intense tracking involved in that. So, they tested her and asked her questions when she was at the border. But then there was a follow-up, and they sent health officials over to our place to interview her and run a temperature check and just check on her. So they were very, very diligent and very, very on top of things.
Carlie: I want to get back to the healthcare aspect of Vietnam, because in this episode today, we’re talking about elements for other expats that might be looking at a move to Vietnam, obviously not right now, but possibly in the future.
And I wanted to jump into some practicalities. To start with, talking about visas … I’m guessing you’re an American passport holder, so what visa did you come to Vietnam on? And what are you there on today to be able to live and work in the country?
Creighton: I came here on a tourist visa. A tourist visa is very easy to get, except for now. Under normal circumstances, it’s very easy. They have a thing that’s also called ‘visa on arrival’. You basically do all the paperwork, and you get a letter from the government, and then you get off the airplane and you show this visa on arrival, and everything is stamped and taken care of at the airport.
And you can get everywhere from a one-month in and out visa to … I think the maximum is a one-year visa, but I have to do border runs every 90 days. So, rewind to a couple of months ago. And so, I’m married now. And my tourist visa that I got right before getting married was expiring. And I went down to the immigration to say, ‘Hey, look, I want to turn this into a marriage visa.’
At the time, I would do border runs to Cambodia, or jump on an airplane and go up to Bangkok for a weekend. But those avenues were closed. The lady is sitting there looking at me, and she’s like, ‘Well, you already have a visa.’ And I was like, ‘I know, I want a marriage visa.’ And she’s like, ‘Well, you have to leave the country and come back.’ I said, ‘I’m not leaving the country.’
Carlie: How is it possible?
Creighton: I mean, the moment I step out of Vietnam, you guys aren’t going to let me back in. And even if you do let me back, you’re going to put me into a two-week quarantine. (By the way, that was another thing for anybody that was entering at the time.) And I’m not getting back in.
And, by the way, you guys have about three months to figure this out for all the people that have been hanging out in your country. And I don’t want to be on an airplane, and you don’t want me on an airplane. Can we work this out? And the answer was no.
So, fortunately, over the years, I’ve made some friends. And one guy works in – that’s his job – he works in visas. And what we were able to do – now, this is because I’m married to a Vietnamese woman – I was able to get a temporary residency card out here.
And that was the only way that I could do it, without physically leaving the country, because at that point, my two options were … Well, I’m grateful that that was an option, because I could do it and everything was above board and legal.
The other thing was to just let the visa expire and just hide here until … Right? It was, like, do it this way and then just beg for forgiveness later. Because I’m like, ‘I’m not getting on an airplane, and nobody’s going to let me in except for the United States.’ And the last thing I want to do is spend 18 hours on an airplane.
Carlie: Yeah, absolutely. Definitely not in this current climate. I’m curious, you mentioned about knowing people and how that worked in your favour. We interviewed Steve McGinnis on this podcast about working as an expat in Asia, and he said they have a very different attitude towards, for example, bribes and doing favours in Asia.
Whereas in the West, we see that as incredibly unethical and illegal behaviour, in Asia, it kind of flies. And that’s how you get things done in some circumstances. Have you had experience of that dealing with administration in Vietnam?
Creighton: Yeah, absolutely. I’ll give you two stories on that. One is: I did a border run over to Cambodia, and quite frankly, it was probably a racket. I could’ve probably just done the whole thing myself and gone through it. It would have probably taken about an hour or an hour and a half to get to do the loop and everything.
But the hustle is, you know, a guy comes up, and he’s like, ‘Oh, I can push you through faster, blah, blah, blah.’ And it’s $5 here and $10 there. And the next thing you know, I’m out 50 bucks, which was fine, because I was able to do that border run and the entire process in like 15 minutes. If you want it done, you’ve got to put in a little money.
Carlie: It’s like fast-tracking through the airport.
Creighton: You know what? It was pretty much like that. And then, there’s just other places, where if you want this piece of paperwork signed and you want that piece of paperwork retroactive, there’s a dollar amount that’s attached to it.
Oh, I’ll tell you this story. So, my first time through Vietnam, I thought incorrectly that I had gotten a 60-day visa. So, I knew I was going to be there for at least about 35 days, which is obviously more than a 30-day visa, so I thought I had a 60-day visa. I was incorrect on that front.
So, I didn’t find out until I was trying to leave Vietnam. And they’re like, ‘Do you know you’ve overstayed your visa?’ And I’m like, ‘I’ve got a 60-day visa.’ And they’re like, ‘No, you don’t, you’ve got a 30-day.’ And so, I’m stuck.
These guys take my passport. I don’t even know where they’re going. And I’m like, ‘Ah, he’s got my passport. Can I have it back?’ I’m trying to figure it out. I’m calling my travel agent, trying to be like, ‘What do I do at this point?’ And then I just kind of figured it out.
And I was like, ‘You know what, these guys are going to make me sweat it out a little bit.’ Fortunately, the airline rep that processed me came and helped speed things along. Because I was also running late for my flight. And I knew what the deal was.
I said, ‘Look, there’s nothing going on here, because if you really want to penalise me, you want me to leave the country. So just tell me what the fine is.’ And quite frankly, the fine probably never made it up to the government. It was probably split between all the cops at the airport, and they probably had a nice evening buying a lot of beers.
But I knew what the deal was. I was like, ‘All right, I’m going to have to pay you money. So just tell me how much money.’ And of course, I’m trying to hide the big bills, so that they don’t think that I have a lot of money on me, that I’m just a poor traveller.
Carlie: You’ve got a residency visa now. I’m guessing that means no more visa runs?
Creighton: Yeah. It ends up being much cheaper in the long run. So, it’s a three-year temporary residency, and I do not have to do any visa runs.
Carlie: Are there any restrictions being on a residency visa in Vietnam, or do you essentially have all the same rights as a citizen?
Creighton: I haven’t tested it, so don’t take my word for this, but I don’t believe that I have full citizenship rights. I do think that there’d still be an issue if I were to leave the country and try to get back in. And I do think that there are certain issues with government programmes, for example, certain insurance programmes that I’m not available for.
Carlie: Can you get healthcare, or the local, I suppose, public healthcare, in Vietnam?
Creighton: You know, I’ll be honest with you. I haven’t really tried. The reason I haven’t is that, coming from the US, just walking in off the street … Everything is so much less expensive over here that you start to understand why people do medical tourism.
So, I’ll give you a couple stories here. When I was in Chiang Mai, I found this very highly recommended and reputable clinic. And I went over there. I hadn’t had a check-up in a long time. And they’re like, ‘Well, which tests do you want me to run?’ And I was like, ‘Well, how much for all of them?’
And I think it came out as something like $70 USD to run every single test under the book that they could run on a blood and a urine sample. And I was like, ‘Oh, run them all.’ And everything was fine.
Recently, I just got a check-up here in Vietnam, and it was about the same amount. Once upon a time, my wife was having problems with her upper spine. It was really tired, and it was really sore. And finally, I was like, ‘Hey, look, we’ve got to go get this thing checked out.’
Well, we go, and we ended up at a really nice hospital. I’m thinking that she’s getting x-rays. She ended up getting an MRI. So now I’m freaking out, because in the United States, an MRI can cost, depending on where you go, anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000. And then, probably, multiply that up if you come off the street, because that’s the negotiated rate.
Well, we go to the clinic and meet the doctor. Then they got us a cab and came over to the bigger hospital with us. She got an MRI, got in the cab with us, went back to the little clinic, and drugs … The whole entire thing costs like $150.
Carlie: That’s insanely cheap.
Creighton: It really, really is. And the thing, too, is we can speak Vietnamese, or at least maybe not the brand names of the medications that you take, but the actual scientific names. There’s a pharmacy on every corner here.
I met a family, not too long ago – we were having Mexican food in the heart of Saigon, and I heard them speaking English. I was having a chat with them for a little bit, and they were out here because the husband was getting some form of treatment that was either unavailable or unaffordable in the United States. So medical tourism is definitely a thing.
Carlie: And Creighton, looking at your bio, I notice you’re a former competitive paratriathlete, and you happen to be missing a right leg. So, I’m curious, when it comes to more specialist services, such as something like a prosthetic, how is that in Vietnam? And have you had any experience navigating those kinds of services and support in the country?
Creighton: No, this is where I am 1000% American, because the prosthetic units that I wear are from Össur, and I’ve got a great relationship with them and they take great care of me. They’re just a wonderful, wonderful company. And my prosthetist is over in the US, and he’s the only one that I’ll trust to build me what I need.
So, we talked about how wonderful that the pricing is here. The ugly part is … I met a gentleman who had his leg blown off in the Vietnam war, and I think he had supported the Americans. And so, he was able to fly over to America. They gave him a prosthetic leg, and he came back. He hasn’t changed that prosthetic leg since the 1970s.
He’s got the technology that I was wearing when I was a child. I don’t see that many amputees on prosthetic legs. What I do see is amputees being pushed around in wheelchairs. Okay. So that sort of availability and access to modern technology, it really doesn’t exist out here.
Because of the disparity in the dollar, it’s so unaffordable to the average Vietnamese citizen, that the only way they can get anything is with the blessing of the government, and the government’s just simply not paying for those sorts of things.
When I took my wife to the hospital, it was a really nice hospital. I walked in, and I was like, ‘This is as nice as any hospital that I’ve ever been in in the United States.’ Unfortunately, we’ve run around and gone to many hospitals throughout my time here, for various different reasons. And, quite frankly, they’re not up to par.
The facilities are old and dirty, and they’re overrun. The Vietnamese government would have what you would term as universal healthcare, but the standard of that healthcare isn’t really all that high.
So, for example, my wife’s grandfather was out here, and he got really sick a year ago, and he was in the hospital. They gave him baseline care, but we were responsible for continuing to pay for and bring in necessities, like food and diapers, and those sorts of things. Because it simply just wasn’t covered.
Carlie: It’s a different standard of universal healthcare to what you might have, you know, where I’m from in Australia, or where I’m living in France.
Creighton: Yeah. I know that there’s a call for universal healthcare, especially in the United States. It’s not as simple as saying, ‘Hey, we want universal healthcare.’ It’s like, ‘No, we’ve got to really think this out and make sure that we have a well-thought-out baseline level of care that’s accessible to everybody and affordable to everybody.’
Carlie: I want to move on to finding work as a foreigner in Vietnam. Obviously, you’ve come to Vietnam and you have your own business. What industries do foreigners that you meet in Vietnam typically work in, if they are working locally?
Creighton: The number one local business that people come to Vietnam for – or, quite frankly, anywhere, especially in Asia – is to teach English. So, there are a lot of English teachers out here. There continues to be a high demand for that, because a lot of the young kids want to learn English, because English is their ticket to levelling up their life and their lifestyle from a financial standpoint.
Carlie: What’s the pay like if you’re teaching English in Vietnam, compared to in other countries in Asia? Is it competitive, or is it not the best place to be looking to earn good money as a foreigner?
Creighton: Well, I think, as an English teacher, you can make a decent living for Vietnam. But maybe you’re not going to be saving up tons and tons of money, if your plan is to go back to a developed country, where the cost of living is significantly higher. But you can definitely come here, get paid, and live a wonderful life out here. Because, I mean, things are just cheaper, especially if you eat locally.
Carlie: I can imagine. And where do people generally look for work, as foreigners in Vietnam? Are there Facebook groups or particular websites that are known among the English-speaking community?
Creighton: Yeah. Oh boy, it’s a massive group. They call it the mean group, because these guys flame each other all the time, but there’s a Facebook group called … I can’t remember if it’s Expats in Vietnam or if it’s specifically expats in Ho Chi Minh.
I think, if you do a basic Google search, there are agencies that will place you for English-speaking businesses. Having said that, if you really want to make good money and have a low cost of living by being out here, anywhere in Southeast Asia, you can do the freelancer route. Although, you’ve got to hustle for your own business, so that’s not appealing to some people.
Or the other way is you go and get a job where people are okay and comfortable with you working remotely. And so, you just become a remote worker for hire.
Carlie: I want to move on to finding a place to live in Vietnam. I’m curious how you went about finding where you’re living, and what the differences are between a typical home that you will have in Vietnam compared to in Western countries.
Creighton: So, if anybody’s coming here for the first time, what I would suggest, if you know somebody over here, is to talk to them about the different areas and where to live. There are actually districts where there are more expats hanging out. In Ho Chi Minh City, where I am, it is all locals.
I get super excited if I see somebody that I think can speak English, because there are days where I go through life and, with the exception of my wife, I can’t communicate with a single solitary person. And so, I would say, just lock in a place for about a week, just so that you can get your bearings, and then go explore, and figure out where you want to live and where the amenities are that you want.
And finding places is super simple. You can just go to regular places, like hotels and Agoda.com. We’ve got hotels that are as little as $9 a day. So, at $9 a day, you can sort of figure out where you want to be.
Carlie: And why do you need to live in a house, when you can afford to live full-time in a hotel?
Creighton: Yeah. Well, houses are nice, because they tend to be bigger and have a kitchen, if you’re going to be around long enough to do some of your own cooking.
Carlie: This is true. Practical things.
Creighton: Yeah. We’ve found places on Airbnb, ranging anywhere from $13 a night to up to $100+.
So, it just depends on what your budget is and what experience you’re going for. There are a lot of these luxury condominiums, where you can rent out the condominium for about $1,500 a month, and they come with a full-blown gym and swimming pool, and probably even a rooftop bar that you can access. So, that’s a really, really nice way to go.
Do you want to be in the heart of the city, where all the action is? If you do, I strongly suggest you get [accommodation] on a floor that’s higher up, so that you can be a little bit further away from all the street noise and all the traffic noise. Or do you want something with a little bit of a slower pace, out in the suburbs? It really depends on what you want, but the experience can be found, whatever your comfort level is.
Carlie: You mentioned these $1,500 a month condos. How do they compare to renting from a private landlord and going through a local real estate agent? Or is that not how it works there?
Creighton: No, you can. My wife goes down that route, and she’ll talk to the agents and stuff like that. For me, just between Airbnb and the aforementioned booking sites, I’ve been able to find places without too much work or too much of a problem.
Carlie: What’s a typical Vietnamese home like?
Creighton: They are different. The first thing that you will notice, when you come to Vietnam, is how narrow a lot of the homes are. And the reason that they’re so narrow, I think, is that, way back in the day, you were taxed on how big the front of your house was. So, everybody built these narrow houses, which were super long and super high, but the front of the house is small. So, the first thing you’ll notice is that the width of the house isn’t very big.
The other thing is that, typically, the bottom floor is going to double – for whatever it is, plus a garage. You’ll also find that, really, almost in all places, except for your nicer hotels … Because of the humidity out here, almost everything is marble tiled floor, because it dries faster. The problem, for me, is that it’s incredibly slippery. And so, don’t spill any water on it. But yeah, you won’t find a heck of a lot of carpet here.
And then, I think the other big thing that will shock people is a lot of the bathrooms, because they’re not that big. Basically, the shower and the toilet are in the same spot. So, whenever you take a shower, the whole bathroom gets wet.
Carlie: Kind of like a bathroom on a boat or something.
Creighton: Yeah, pretty much, exactly. And so, that’s a different thing. I kind of joke with all the US COVID stuff, where people were hoarding toilet paper. Getting toilet paper here is not a problem, because most people use the little bum gun to wash themselves. But yeah, the units are typically smaller out here.
But again, we’ve found places that are really large and nice to live in. You can find whatever experience you want.
Carlie: It sounds like there’s a lot of variety there.
Carlie: And when you are renting, do certain things come as standard? I know I was surprised when we started looking for rentals in France, that it’s not necessarily the case that there’ll always be a kitchen installed. For some rentals, you have to put in your own kitchen, for example.
Creighton: I mean, again, I think this goes back to … When you’re searching on the websites, and even talking to the host, you need to be very clear about what it is you want, and ask those questions. The guys that service, they’re usually very much on the ball, and they’ll get back to you with that.
But yeah, there are places where there’s no kitchen, but instead just a hot pad. For some, hot pads are more than enough for what they need. Whereas for others, it’s really not enough. And so, you do have to be very clear about what it is you want.
I would also caution to always check out the place to make sure that things are exactly what they are. I would do this anywhere, not just in Vietnam. For example, we ran into a place, not too long ago …
We were actually homeless for a little while, because our neighbours were putting an addition onto their home. And we were like, ‘We’ve got to get out of here. We can’t work here, because it’s a construction zone.’
We went into this one place, and it looked like a great deal. It was in the heart of district one. All the boxes were checked. And then, we get in there, and it’s a non-smoking place, and somebody has been in there, and somebody has been smoking.
And so, fortunately, we had only booked that for, I think, two or three nights. And we’re like, ‘Yep, we’re out of here. We’re not going to stick around here.’ We loved the location, but we didn’t love the place.
Carlie: Is smoking inside a lot more common in Vietnam?
Creighton: Not so much inside, but smoking is definitely much more prevalent out here. You need to remember, too, that I come from Oakland, California, and California has made it very difficult for smokers to smoke in any sort of indoor or public space. And, as a non-smoker, I appreciate that very much.
But out here, for example, there are four to five coffee shops on every single block. You literally can’t go 20 metres without seeing a new coffee shop. But what we look for, because I work out of coffee shops quite a bit … We stay away from the open air coffee shops, partly because I need air- conditioning – it’s too darn hot out here in Vietnam – but also because most of the open air coffee shops are smoker friendly. And I also don’t want to be anywhere near that.
Carlie: I find that really jarring here in France, too. In Australia, it’s much less common to have public areas, like restaurants and cafes and parks, where smoking is still a thing. But here, even undercover at a tram stop, someone will just light up. And I’ll be thinking, That is so inconsiderate. But what are you going to do?
Creighton: Yeah. There are a lot of things out here that are culturally different, and, at some point, I had to learn that I’m in their country and not going to change it.
Carlie: Creighton, you mentioned sometimes looking for other English-speakers and being really happy when you found them. How is your Vietnamese?
Creighton: It’s poor. I try, you know? I think it’s one of those things, where if my intelligence were based on my ability to pick up a foreign language, I would be on the far, far left side of the curve, for sure.
But Chinese was really difficult for me to pick up, and there are like four tones in Chinese. And I think the Vietnamese have around 11 tones. And, quite frankly, I can’t hear the difference in the tones. And so, I struggle.
I’m really excited when I can actually pick up a word. When my wife and her family are talking and it’s like, ‘Wait, hold on. I know that word. I know that word. I’m excited here. Let me jump in!’ And never mind the tonalities. Then the speed that they talk, too, is a challenge.
Carlie: How do most foreigners go about learning the language? Are Vietnamese courses often offered? Or is it more one-on-one tutoring, or trying to learn through families?
Creighton: I think that for most people – not me, but most people – if they’re hanging around enough here, they are going to be able to start picking things up. I had a friend of mine who came out for our wedding last year, and in one week, she picked up more Vietnamese than I had picked up in three years.
So, some people just naturally pick it up, and being immersed in it is super helpful. Here’s a little, little tip: (not right now, but pre-COVID) you could go down to the park, and there would be a lot of people there trying to learn English. There would be, on any given day, anywhere from three to five guys there, and they would just sit on a park bench and, for an hour, talk English with any of the Vietnamese there.
You would see them, and after a while, they would be like the Pied Piper. There would be this group of anywhere from eight to 12 Vietnamese, just listening to this guy talk English. Because they’re just trying to soak it in and learn and understand English. Well, guess what? If you go do that and just start talking English, well, you’re going to end up talking English and Vietnamese. And so, you can kind of teach each other.
Carlie: So, it’s pretty easy to find a tandem partner if you really want to learn?
Creighton: Yeah, because the thing to remember is that English is the higher commodity, right? Because it’s more rare. Everybody speaks Vietnamese, but only a small portion of people speak English.
So, if you’ve got English, then people want you. And so, if people want you, then you’re going to be able to find people that you can teach a little bit of English, if they teach you a little bit of Vietnamese. I think it’s super easy to find that dynamic.
Carlie: And how much Vietnamese do you need to get by day to day?
Creighton: I have developed an entire behavioural pattern to be able to go into foreign countries and get away with not being able to speak the language.
Carlie: Shame on you.
Creighton: And, by the way, this was before cell phones. I used to just be able to get away with a smile and just sort of pointing with a fake marionette, and people figure out what you want. And it also was a lot of trust to just give over the money, for example, when trying to buy something. And I knew generally what it would cost, and you trust the people to be honest and give you the exact change back, and that sort of thing.
But, in today’s world, it’s stupid easy, right? Because for $5 out here, I think, you can get a data card for your phone, and you insert that into your phone, and between Google translate and Google search, you can pretty much communicate anything you want.
So, yeah, instead of trying to play charades and explain that you need toilet paper, you can actually just type in ‘toilet paper’ to Google and show them a picture of it. And the store will show you where to go and buy toilet paper.
Carlie: Do the Vietnamese take offense if you don’t try to speak their language, or are they pretty fine?
Creighton: I think it’s like everywhere. If you’re going to give it the good old college try, people are really thankful, and they enjoy that you’re trying – especially when you’re messing up, because they get a good laugh out of it, as well. But for the most part, most of the people out here have been very open and generous in trying to help make it work.
You’ve got to keep in mind, too, that in some of the more touristy areas, there are more English-speaking locals available. I am literally in the heart of a place where there’s nothing but locals. And, I mean, I can barely talk to my neighbours sometimes. I just point thumbs up and smile. We’re good.
Carlie: Finally, Creighton, I just wanted to get your thoughts on your move, initially, to Vietnam. Based on your experiences, is there anything that you would have done differently?
Creighton: Boy, I don’t know if I would’ve necessarily done anything differently, because my transition was super slow over here. I just kept bouncing back and forth from the States for a couple of years. Like I said, I originally came over here through a group called ‘Hacker Paradise’, and that was a wonderful, wonderful experience.
We had our leader, who would plan all these cool events, so I didn’t actually have to do any other research, or any of the planning, to go and visit places, like the Standing Buddha or Hoi An lantern festivals, or there’s an island down there that we went to. Those things were all taken care of for me. And that really helped, because that freed me up to do more work.
And then, number two – and maybe call this good or bad – I had an instant network of people who didn’t know anybody else out there. And so, we had a Flack channel, and we’d be like, ‘Hey, I’m going out to dinner. If anybody else wants to go out to dinner, meet me down in the lobby at six o’clock.’
And so, you never ate alone. You always had somebody that you could share the experience with. And so, I also had an instant social network.
Carlie: You had an instant support network around you when you moved.
Creighton: Yeah. But having gone through this several times and having lived in different places, like Chiang Mai and Bali, what I would say is: for most people, it sounds really romantic to come out here and do the digital nomad thing and the work and the travel. But the first thing is: it’s work and it’s not a vacation. Number two: you have to find ways to ground yourself.
A friend of mine, Pauline … We would talk a lot, and we always would say, ‘There are challenges still. It’s not a vacation.’ And so, it’s very important, whenever you move to a new place, to ground yourself. And what I mean by that is … It could be a routine. If you do yoga all the time, or you pound weights all the time, or you go for runs all the time, the first thing you need to do is: get in here and get your fitness regime back on board. That’s probably something that I could’ve and should’ve done a better job at.
It could be the person or people you’re traveling with. They can ground you, because when things go a little sideways, you always have that safe place. And so that, to me, is something that is really important for anybody who is thinking about doing work and travel. Find ways to ground yourself, to anchor yourself, so that you’re not just floating out there. Because when you’re just sort of floating through the wind, it can be a little bit difficult.
And taking care of your mental health is definitely a thing, especially when you’re in a foreign place with foreign people, foreign lands, foreign cultures, etc. – when everything is not normal to you. What’s the one thing that you can grasp to keep you calm inside the chaos?
Carlie: That’s it for this episode. If you have questions for Creighton or want to share your own experience of expat life in Vietnam, head over to expatfocus.com. At the bottom of our homepage, you’ll find links to our Facebook groups.
Be sure to check out our other episodes. We interview expats, and experts, on all aspects of life abroad. If you like what we do, please leave us a review on your favourite podcast app, and I’ll catch you next time.