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Vietnam expats overcome culture clashes with neighbors


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Despite initially running into problems with their neighbors at first, many Vietnam expats end up having positive experiences living in local neighborhoods after learning to appreciate different cultures and lifestyles.

Jefferson Saunders, 73, relocated to Ho Chi Minh City from the U.S. in 2016 after marrying a woman of Vietnamese heritage. Life in Vietnam has been undeniably comfortable, he said, but the adjustment hasn’t been without its difficulties.

Saunders at his house in HCMC’s Binh Thanh District. Photo courtesy of Saunders

Saunders at his house in HCMC’s Binh Thanh District. Photo courtesy of Saunders

At first, Saunders was frustrated by his neighbors littering, peeing in public around the neighborhood, or gathering, drinking, and singing loud Karaoke together through the night.

"Nobody in the neighborhood liked those people, I know that, as they did not respect themselves as well as others," he told VnExpress. "But nobody said anything to them either. Vietnamese people seem not to want to get involved in arguments."

A self-described straightforward person, Saunders said he complained directly to the neighbors in question, arguing that their lifestyles were unhealthy and disrespectful. But not everyone was open to the feedback.

Some threw their garbage into his garden in response, and some even defecated on his walls, according to Saunders. He then installed surveillance cameras around his house.

One of his neighbors got so mad when he complained that the two haven’t spoken in 6 years, he said.

"But I don’t care about that," Saunders said. "There will always be people who dislike you no matter what you do, and you have to accept that."

Alexander, an English teacher who moved from Canada to HCMC four years ago, said he also encountered issues with his neighbors when he first arrived.

Alexander (C) teaching at an English training center in HCMC’s District 3 on August 6, 2023. Photo courtesy of Alexander

Alexander (C) teaching at an English training center in HCMC’s District 3 on August 6, 2023. Photo courtesy of Alexander

He was confused when a neighbor of his called the police to accuse him of dropping his cigarette butts on their property. He was surprised on another occasion when another neighbor of his locked a chicken they were raising on their balcony, and its waste stunk up the neighborhood.

But as someone who had spent five years of his life in China – where people treated each other with the "a bad compromise is still better than a good lawsuit" attitude – prior to coming to Vietnam, Alexander did not respond in the manner Saunders did. He avoided arguments with his neighbors to maintain a peaceful atmosphere.

"I was uncomfortable facing those situations, but I always chose to minimize clashing with my neighbors," he said. "I have been comfortably living here for the past four years and have not considered moving."

Around 60% of expatriates living in Vietnam who participated in a 2019 survey by recruiting company Navigos said they experienced "culture shock" when they moved to Vietnam, which was mainly caused by the language barrier, differences between their expectations and the reality they went through, and the lack of understanding between themselves and local Vietnamese.

Research on foreigner culture shock in Vietnam published by the Asia Association of Computer-Assisted Language Learning’s international conference journal pointed out that local communities’ degree of welcoming and support played the most crucial role in deciding whether an expatriate in the country could feel at ease in their new, unfamiliar environment.

South Korean expat Bora Hyung, 40, a former communication manager at a five-star hotel in HCMC’s District 1, said she realized many differences between the way in which Vietnamese people live and that of her compatriots.

Dogs in the streets without supervision and men half-naked wandering outdoors are things that Hyung had never experienced before she came to Vietnam. Still, she felt fortunate that the discomfort caused by those unexpected encounters was only fleeting and she has been living comfortably without any serious discord with her neighbors.

In fact, she has always felt welcomed by her local neighbors and coworkers. Many among them willingly spent their time introducing her to good eateries, walking her to markets, or sharing their knowledge of the city with her.

This is also something she never experienced in South Korea, her home country, nor had she seen it in the United Arab Emirates, where she used to live before her relocation to Vietnam.

"I had almost no other human connections than my colleagues when I lived in the Middle East," she said. "That was partly because the majority of my neighbors at that time were immigrants from all over the world, who had many differences in cultures and lifestyles, which made it even harder to blend in with them."

According to Hyung, cultural differences in Vietnam were easier to overcome compared to those in other regions she had lived in. Overall, she said, she has it really good in this country.

Hyung is not the only one optimistic about experiences in Vietnam. Some 30% of respondents in the 2019 Navigos survey wanted to live and work in Vietnam long-term. Among them, half cited the interesting working culture and the country’s unique atmosphere as their motivation.

The survey’s figures made Vietnam the most-wanted country in Southeast Asian, leading Singapore and Thailand, where respectively only 24% and 17% of the participants wanted to live.

As long as foreigners can see their "annoying neighbors" in a more tolerant light, they may gradually realize how good, instead of problematic, local residents are, social analysts have said.

Saunders said he no longer cares too much about the discord he had with his neighbors in the beginning. Instead, he learnt to better appreciate the positive things about the people where he lived. He got on better with them as well, by giving them his home-grown fruits and vegetables as gifts.

The 39-year-old Lithuanian Arturas Balynas, an English teacher residing in the southern town of Bien Hoa, is another expatriate that has had a pleasant experience with life in Vietnam.

According to Balynas, there is a common pattern worth appreciating in his Vietnamese neighbors: how friendly and easygoing they are. And he has moved around four times since he arrived in the country four years ago, which means he has had more than quite a few neighbors.

"There was this one time when I told my neighbor that I was looking for cheaper accommodation when I was having a cup of tea with him," he recalled. "He immediately called my landlord and helped me to get VND1 million reduced from my monthly housing rent, even though I was not asking him to do me that favor."

"How Vietnamese people treated a foreigner neighbor like me with friendliness like that really surprised me."