There’s always been that expat who chooses a place based solely on how cool and validated it makes them feel. They could’ve gone to France or Poland or even Turkey, but that just wasn’t “foreign” enough. Basically they needed to get away from (fellow) white people. They need to feel like they’re beating their own path in the jungle and no one else will have Facebook photos like they do. They need to come back to tell everyone about how many crazy things they’ve seen and how much they’ve learned and how you wouldn’t believe it, but people there actually eat duck fetuses and live with their grandmothers and have never had Taco Bell.
These are the types that generally trade Vietnam in for a suit and stock options down the road.
Let’s just get this one out of the way.
You’ll find him on a red stool on Bùi Viện promptly at 6pm. If you’ve missed him then, he’s probably getting hammered at T&R, hitting on chicks at Lush on ladies’ night, or, and he says he does it to be ironic, pounding down red wine at OMG. He’s a nice guy, but he’s 27 now. He moved out of his parents’ house and went to community college for a year or so, but quickly realized he just wasn’t ready to make any big life decisions. Now he’s killing time, and his only important decision is between Saigon Đỏ or Saigon Xanh.
Then there’s the expat who wanted to do something different — something commendable, something ballsy — with daddy’s money. They’re similar to the look-how-exotic-my-life-is expat, but they don’t shop at street-side markets, and please, don’t suggest you go to any restaurants that force them to use those little squares of thin paper as “napkins” and take their toothpicks out of a communal jar on a table where dozens of grubby hands have rendered them unusable. Often this type manages to recreate their home life as much as possible, and the only Vietnamese they manage to know is “đi đi.”
When you reach 50-years old and you look back at your accomplishments and you see a pile of booze, ex-lovers, and a cubicle, sometimes the only answer is ‘Nam. In a strange turn of events, this country symbolizes hope and a new beginning to many, regardless of nationality. It handles the crises that even a new Jag or a 19-year-old girlfriend can’t touch, and it doesn’t cost nearly as much or require you to stay fit. A few turn into sexpats, a few more turn into lifers, but the rest make a pretty penny, have a good story for their next OKCupid date, and hopefully boat it back home a little more centered and self-actualized.
In today’s economic climate, some expats become expats because it’s the lesser of two evils: sit at home being a waitress with a psychology degree or go make a buck across the pond and do something cool while you’re at it. They probably threw a dart at a map (or their resumes at the Internet), and they wound up here. They don’t want to be here, they don’t not want to be here, it just is what it is. They’ll play out their year contract and see what happens. Maybe their expat days are over, maybe they’ll turn into a lifer, who knows? They definitely got something out of the year, though, even if it was just a love of sticky rice, VPop, and a sweet tan.
Within this category, you generally have two camps: the one that’s always been and always will be a do-gooder and the one who had a personality stroke and is looking to make some changes. The former isn’t that remarkable: she’s always been into charity work, drinks a lot of soy milk, and there just so happens to be a ton of NGO opportunities this side of the China Seas. The other half was on track to be a tobacco lobbyist and make six figures straight outta graduating from NYU, but one morning she woke up crying, didn’t go into work that day, and claims ghosting on her corporate life is the best move she ever made. Which one is more commendable? It’s hard to tell.
When it comes to dollar bills (or euros or pounds), there are few markets left in the world that are as unsaturated as Vietnam. Whether it’s teaching or fashion design or real estate, there are voids in the market and profits to be made. Locals are scrambling to gobble up as much capitalism as possible, and there’s space for at least a few thousand more KFCs. Aside from that, the best phở you’ll ever taste will cost you just over a dollar, the best bánh mì you’ll ever have will be half that, and for the cost of a couple weeks’ worth of lattes, a maid will come with your apartment. In other words, it’s a utopia for poor men and entrepreneurs alike, and it’s not a bad resume boost to boot.
Odds are you’ve probably run into him more than once. He came here five years ago on a three-month contract to teach English and now he’s fluent in Vietnamese, part-owner of a British-Vietnamese fusion restaurant on some prime real estate in Nha Trang, and his Vietnamese wife is four months pregnant. He screams in Vietnamese while he watches Manchester United down at his local bar on the canal, smells curiously of nước mắm, and pulls his shirt up above his belly when he gets too warm. He got sucked in, and let it serve you as a warning: this country is a vacuum, and unless you’re willing to swim upstream and take a few bribes, you’re never going to get out.