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  • Manuel Marcel Murrenhoff

8 Reasons for Becoming Expat in Emerging Countries (like Vietnam)

Updated: Nov 9, 2019

One week ago a colleague of mine asked me: ‘Why the heck are you going to Nairobi? Isn’t that even worse than Ho Chi Minh City? Are you never getting tired of ALL THIS?’


I cannot foresee the future, but at the moment, I experience the exact opposite. I have never felt more inspired, energized, and optimistic about the presence and the future after living in Ho Chi Minh City. If you ask brother Google, which are the best expat destinations, you will likely come across rankings from various organizations. Their lists are dominated by cities like Zurich, Oslo, or Vancouver. What do those cities all have in common? They are all in highly developed countries. Cities in emerging countries are found somewhere in the second half of the list. Their scores in the different categories are rather discouraging. In my opinion, these quality-of-living rankings are often quite one dimensional and can put off potential expats. Therefore it is important to interpret the data reflectively.


I strongly believe that expat destinations with the extra portion of adventure offer tremendous growth opportunities for personal, professional, and financial development. In the modern and highly globalized business world, international experience in emerging countries offers a great career differentiator. Opportunities naturally come along with risks. Working and living in underdeveloped or emerging countries comes with pitfalls and challenges. The same applies to highly developed countries. There is no one-fits-it-all approach to planning your global life and career. The key to a fulfilling international experience is awareness. Self-awareness about your own preferences and dreams as well as a solid understanding of the world and its global business dynamics. This blog post helps you build the required awareness by offering different perspectives on conventional recommendations. Find out the eight reasons why living and working in emerging countries like Vietnam might be the right fit for you.



Street Food in Saigon Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
One of my favorite ways to immerse myself in the local culture: Eating street food with friends.


1) It feels like a non-stop adventure.


“What makes expat life so addictive is that every boring or mundane activity you experience at home is, when you move to a foreign country, suddenly transformed into an exciting adventure. When abroad, boredom, routine, and ‘normal” cease to exist. And all that’s left is the thrill and challenge of uncertainty.”— Reannon Muth


Becoming expat is not only about working abroad. It is a much bigger and more exciting idea than that. It is about what we plan to do with our lives and how we want to spend our limited time on this planet. It deeply reflects and influences our approach to life and our lives’ vision and mission. Taking the risk and moving abroad is a life-changing decision. It trades the known for the unknown, the common for the uncommon, and the certain for the uncertain. Global (ad)ventures put us in a place where the magic of growth happens, and that is outside our well-protected nests, our cozily padded comfort zones.


Many of us live in a world that appears tediously predefined. We are born into a specific ethnicity, culture, and social class. The combination of these inter-depending factors seems to decide our place in this world. It appears to be our destiny. Our progress as a species is another important factor. The evolution of machinery and more recent technology are the main facilitators for our progress in the last three centuries.


As a consequence, much of our world is already known. There is no place left on our planet that has not been mapped and studied. In under twenty-four hours, we can travel from one point on earth to the complete opposite. We simply board a plane, eat, sleep, and wake up on the other side—12,000 hundred years earlier. A journey that would have been full of life-threatening situations, breathtaking discoveries, and challenging quests. But times have changed. Nowadays we experience adventures through Hollywood in-flight movies. Needless to say, this is a different intensity of adventure.


The internet enables the transmission of unbelievable amounts of information in real-time. It is technologically possible to find out exactly what is happening in this very moment on the other side of the planet. Someone with a sarcastic bent may conclude that our world has become ridiculously dull. But do not feel discouraged. Adventures are still out there waiting for those who want to pursue them. And the good news is that we do not necessarily have to become astronauts or risk our lives to experience these adventures. Being expat in emerging countries is like the Wild West in PG-13: a lot of action happens, but nobody has to die.


Living and working in the challenging environment of emerging countries will definitively satisfy your thirst for adventure.



Motorbiking in Vietnam
The adventure is waiting for you.


2) You experience a high level of inspiration, energy, and optimism.


I have never felt more inspired, energized, and optimistic about the presence and my future. Every time I swung myself on the motorbike or set foot in the metropolitan jungle of Ho Chi Minh City, it felt like someone injected a huge dose lust of life right into my heart and brain. Life is paradoxically fast-paced while maintaining its laid-back character. A characteristic that is said to be the unique charm of Southern Vietnam. Economic growth and societal developments change Vietnam, its cities, and people rapidly. Progress is fast, change inevitable, and the scope for action is huge. Emerging or developing countries do not earn their label for nothing. Things are happening right here right now. And you can be part of it. You can design, shape, and build your own future within that of the emerging world.


Caves in close to Danang, Central Vietnam.
Feel energized. Picture taken in a cave close to Danang, Central Vietnam.


3) A one-of-a-kind lifestyle.


Every time I dive into the chaos, I experience a multi-sensory adventure. From the glamorous and shiny Central Business District full of skyscrapers and rooftop bars to the old Saigonese architecture framing hectic local markets and basic food stalls just a couple of meters away from the bustling streets. The simplicity of life never felt more natural, compelling, and rewarding. Drinking sinh tố (smoothie), trà đá (iced tea) or nước ép (fresh fruit juice) after a long night out on the sidewalk, while a fresh summer breeze is blowing away the unbearable heat of the day, is an experience by itself.


Lifestyle Ho Chi Minh City Street Food
Typical Setup for Street Food with Friends in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Street Food at Night Market in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Street Food at Night Market in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The food is delicious and safe. I hope you do not mind the rats and roaches passing by from time to time.


My friends back home often ask me, ‘what is the biggest difference between living in Germany and living in Vietnam?’ While there are more differences than you can imagine, one particular distinction has caught my interest. Life is happening on the streets. Every day, every night – 24/7, non-stop. Most of the Western countries are located in temperate climate zones. Chilly temperatures force people to stay inside, united with their family or friends. Except during warm summers, life tends to happen inside well protected from the outside by thick walls, double isolated windows, and doors. In the warmer climates of many emerging countries, the definition between inside and outside is less rigid. The transition between those two environments is subtle and fluid. Senior women soliciting food from the entrance of their homes, men offering their mechanical services at the street corner or motorbike drivers taking a nap in a hammock or on their bike just one meter away from the hustle and bustle of Saigon’s concrete jungle.


Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam
It's siesta time in Saigon.

Aisles in Ho Chi Minh City / Saigon, Vietnam
Saigon's cityscape is characterized by small aisles. Their unique charme directly put a spell on me.

Street in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam)
Saigonese people always find a way.

Building in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam
Witnessing local life never gets boring in Saigon.


Street Food in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Describing the charme of Ho Chi Minh City is difficult. You have to experience it.

Whenever I leave my base camp for another expedition into this crazily-entertaining wilderness, I witness amusing, astonishing, thought stimulating, disturbing, or even disgusting scenes. While strolling through the parks of Saigon, I observe Confuciusm in its purest physical form: Dozens of Saigonese following a gymnastics routine in a clearly defined order. Taking a left at the corner, I nearly run into a young lady squatting on the side of the street, clearly not impressed at all by all the bikes around her. ‘Wait, what is she doing there…?’ She is vomiting. Her friend hands her a napkin. A quick refreshment and business as usual continues. I mind my own one and continue walking. I cross a local market and let myself be guided by the colorful impressions. Fresh fruits, raw meat in the midday sun, exotic fabrics, or living guinea pigs – nothing you cannot buy. Of cause I get lost. I sweat like a pig (not a guinea pig but those big fat pink pigs). ’Damn it, why am I a human fountain, and those locals do not even have the slightest sign of sweat on their face?’ I ask myself.


Meat Market Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Fancy some fresh meat from the local market?

Stuck in one of the super narrow aisles, a scarf catches my attention. I want to buy it. ‘Where is the vendor?’ Left, right? No sign at all. With broken Vietnamese and a hefty foreigner, I translate my question to the nearest local. She points right in front of me, straight into the stall. ‘Thanks, really helpful…’ I think to myself, while my desperation and stress level rises. ‘Wait! Didn’t something just move in there?’ I get a little bit closer. ‘Are that two tiny feet in the chaos of fabrics? I bend over and get even closer. Indeed, they are. Somebody is sleeping in a tiny, tiny hole in the middle of the stall. Perfect camouflage. Mimicry at its best! Darwin would have gone crazy from the excitement of this ultimate level of evolution.


I clear my throat cautiously. Nothing. ‘Chi oi!’[1] I call out a little bit louder. Again nothing. ‘Chi oi!!’… A short twitching of the toes and then… nothing… ‘Chi oi!!!!’ It feels like I am shouting across the whole market. Nobody from the people around me seems to care, though. In Vietnam, everything is louder than back home. Finally, the feet move more. They vanish into the hole. Seconds later, something comes out of the hole. It is a head!… A body follows. The middle-aged lady is wearing a pajama-like costume. A medical mask covers half her face. Those things which doctors wear during surgery. I ask for the price. She quotes a ridiculous price. ‘Bravo, you anchor. I can anchor as well.’ I go in with a counteroffer 30% the original price. After a tough negotiation, we end up with 50% of the first quote. ‘Great, I have a new scarf as a present for my mum.’ I tell myself and move on. Outside the market, a group of Vietnamese men is sitting around a big speaker. It’s karaoke time! That translates into Vietnamese amateur singer giving their best on the microphone. Cheesy lyrics, acoustic bombardment for the whole street and lots of beer and hard liquor around noon time.


Welcome to the mixology of Saigon! A refreshing cocktail with a tropical note and complemented with a never diminishing scent of unpredictability. A mélange that challenges you by its strong character and rewards you with a natural high, which I never experienced anywhere else. If it is too strong, you are too weak!


A mechanic sleeping on the side walk in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
A mechanic sleeping on the side walk.


4) A career differentiator.


Globalization is like technological progress: we can fear it, we can fight it, we can try to run away from it, but we can never stop it. Globalization is the irrefutable future of our planet. Globalization is one of the major disruptions of our century that is already reshaping the world we live in.


As with everything in life, globalization undoubtedly has its downsides, dangers, and difficulties. Neglecting this challenge will leave individuals without important skill sets and soon without a job, while organizations face possible disruption and bankruptcy. How organizations and individuals embrace, the challenge globalization puts on them already affects their success. The degree of this distinction will not decrease but keep on growing.


The global economic focus moves slowly but steadily eastwards. China and India already make up 36 percent of the world’s population[2], and India’s GDP just overtook that of France. In the decade following the financial crisis in 2008, the US economy grew around ten percent while China’s economy doubled 2. Chances are high that China will surpass the United States as the world’s leading power within the next thirty years.


This is no reason to bury your head in the sand but rather a motivation to acknowledge the opportunities of the new world you live in. You can only benefit from accepting the challenge of globalization as a chance to unleash the best version of yourself.


Influential organizations from both the private and public sectors are already acting globally and expending their reach in foreign markets and geographies. Naturally, this creates a demand for culturally sensitive experts and leaders with adequate skill sets both in foreign countries and at home. Have a look at any big institution’s top management; you’ll find around 25 executive board members have spent parts of their careers abroad[3].


Emerging countries often show rapid growth rates and attract foreign investments. From the perspective of international life and career seekers, this offers tremendous opportunities to leave a mark in challenging environments.


In my opinion, you can categorize expat destinations in two categories:


1. High-tech Destinations

2. Implementation Destinations


High-tech destinations are prominent hubs for technological and technical progress. Those countries and cities are home to leading companies within their field and usually highly developed. In case you are not already living and working in the epicenter of advancement for the field of your chosen career, spending part of your career in those nuclei of progress will benefit your development tremendously. A proven track record in those environments proves that you can maneuver successfully in highly sophisticated environments. Those vary across the globe, depending on the sector of interest. For the technology sector, the place to be is Silicon Valley in San Francisco. New York, London, Frankfurt, Zurich, Hong Kong, and Singapore are the hubs when it comes to banking and professional services. Germany is a good destination to improve your track record in engineering or the chemical industry. Japan, Germany, and South Korea are good addresses when it comes to the automotive industry. South Korea is also leading in high-tech manufacturing closely followed by China. Switzerland, the United States, and Germany are home to the most important pharmaceutical companies. This list can be continued endlessly. A track record in those countries, e.g., formal education or work experience, provides you with clear differentiation in the market.


Implementation destinations are quite different. In those countries, not the development of cutting-edge solutions is the ultimate goal but the implementation of the same. With the change of perspective, a different skill set is required and built while acting in those markets. Technical leadership is not necessarily decisive anymore. Instead, the comprehension of varying market requirements for products and solutions becomes increasingly important. This often includes a bottom-up approach, which frequently requires the down-engineering and down-scaling of existing solutions to fit the local conditions and budgets. Technological leadership does not automatically translate into sales in those markets. Living and working in those emerging markets is like an ethnographic investigation as close to the pulse of the markets at it can get. It teaches you new perspectives on how things are being handled, and problems can be solved.


Additionally, participating in those markets teaches you to cope with far-from optimal conditions. Disrupted supply chains, unstable internet connectivity, corruption, or harsh weather conditions can lead to total failure of solutions that work perfectly in the pleasing conditions of highly-developed countries. Uber does not work in areas with bad connectivity, delicious chocolate melts in warm climates without a reliable cold supply chain and highly sophisticated electrical components malfunction in the rough environments of the Sahara just to name a few.

A promising career comprises of successful roles in both worlds. In case you are born in a highly sophisticated environment, make sure to gain experience in markets with less convenient conditions. If you are coming from an underdeveloped or emerging country, gain experience in the technological epicenter of your chosen sector. In that case, one way to get exposure is through formal education. Scholarships can help in case of insufficient funds. Another way is to being sent abroad for training or helping out in projects. In that case, your lower overhead cost can help you to put a foot in the doorstep in advanced countries. If you leave an impact and do your networking, the same door might even open up for you to step through.


Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) at night, Vietnam
Saigon at night.


5) Quality of Living is highly subjective.


I experienced this in my own life. Before moving to Vietnam, I lived in St. Gallen, a small town in proximity to Zurich. Zurich always ranks in the top 3 of the most quality of living indices[4]: Paradise on earth. While Switzerland indeed is one of the most beautiful countries, I experienced life as unexciting. I was missing the adventure, the uncertainty, the unfamiliarity, the challenges in everyday life, and the exoticness. While I lived in the United States and even more intense in Vietnam, I experienced an incredible level of motivation, inspiration, and joy of life. I tried new things, experimented, failed, got burned, and stood up again. I pursued private projects aside from work, self-educated myself, and learned new skills.



Quality of Living World Map
Quality of Living World Map (see Vietnam as well as Kenya in red with scores around 80)

The map above shows the quality of life index. Quality of life rankings include the following parameters, among others:


  • Personal safety

  • Recreation

  • Housing

  • Economic environment

  • Consumer good availability

  • Public services and transport

  • Political and social environment

  • Natural environment

  • Socio-cultural environment

  • School and education

  • Medical and health considerations


I strongly believe the perception of the quality of living is highly subjective. It depends on your personality and your stage in life. If you are adventurous and thrill-seeking, you perceive electricity cuts, traffic chaos, or higher precautions when it comes to personal safety as part of the whole rewarding package. In case you do not enjoy the chaos in total, each and every disturbance causes you stress and feeds your negative impression. Your life situation also makes a huge impact. When you are single, you might want action, get to know people, and so forth. You will not waste any thought on international schools, family-friendly infrastructure, health care quality, or traffic safety. On the other hand, when you already in a later stage of life and maybe relocate with your family, those topics become increasingly important.


Both Vietnam and Kenya (my next expat destination) are ranked in the lower third of any quality of the living index. I never cared if I came across dozens of rats when going through the alley of my apartment or while enjoying a fresh smoothie in the night markets of Saigon. I found the chaos of thousands of noisy motorbikes exhilarating. There are always several perspectives on one and the same situation. I simply decided to choose one that fits my open-minded and adventurous personality.


The key to identifying suitable expat destinations is self-awareness. Putting the quality of living indices into perspective helps to identify the aspects that make life for you truly enjoyable and rewarding.



6) You gain new perspectives on life.


“The stranger sees only what he knows.”—African Proverb


We are all highly influenced by our cultural and social backgrounds. In early childhood, we mostly inherit our belief and value systems from our parents. In later childhood, the influence of society increases when we spend more time in school and with friends. Starting in adolescence, we often begin to (partly) question what we have learned during earlier stages of our lives. In combination with our own individuality as a unique set of billions of genetic building blocks, our lives become a highly complex construct. As a consequence, everyone has their own perception of reality.


That is why “the truth” is often so difficult to find. Truth often has many dimensions because we all see the world through different “contacts” and “glasses.” Depending on the glasses we are wearing, we filter and interpret the impressions life brings to us differently. Knowing the general differences between the glasses we all wear provides us with orientation, and we can adapt our behavior and communication accordingly. Nevertheless, each glass is an individual piece and filters the incoming light in a slightly different way.


It is the same with our behavior. We are influenced by our cultural and social background, and on top of that, we develop our very own perception of the world. As T. Hoobyar summarizes precisely, “We all live in our self-created minds. Our unique reality is a result of our individual biology and the influence of our individual—mostly random—a personal history. Understanding we all live in and operate from a personal model of reality is the key to making our lives serve us better.”


The development of our “contacts” and “glasses” happens mostly on the subconscious level. Most people never question their perspective of life and rather get in conflicts with others that have different perspectives. I am pretty sure you can remember those unnecessary political discussions on family gatherings between uncle and grandpa, which the only outcome were bad vibes.


There are not many opportunities to challenge your perspective of life as effectively as moving to a country and culture that differs greatly from your home. The environment, the people, and the culture – everything is different. You get a taste of the other realities out there. That is a true mind- and heart-opening experience, which will enrich your life forever.


“To effectively communicate, we must realize that we are all different in the way that we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others.” 

Anthony Robbins


7) People are welcoming and friendly.


You feeling comfortable in your new home has less to do with its level of convenience and familiarity. It is mostly determined by your experience with other people. The beautiful thing about many emerging countries is that their people are very open towards foreigners. They are curious, want to get to know you and your culture and welcome you with open arms. I would never have enjoyed Vietnam the way I did, if I would not have been able to connect with the locals. Being forced to just limit your contacts to other expats takes away from the experience. Actually, I double checked before accepting the offer to relocate to Kenya if the Kenyans like to mingle with foreigners. For somebody like me who comes without a family and likes to socialize this is the most important aspect.


Vietnamese Women's Day in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam)
Vietnamese Women's Day in the office.


8) You benefit from a low cost of living.


There is a correlation between the low quality of living rankings and low living costs. If you can embrace the challenging environment of developing countries, you can benefit financially. In case you are on an international assignment with a work contract in your (high income) home country, you massively boost your purchasing power. You can live an enjoyable life and still save and invest considerably more on the side. It is a similar case when you own a business or if your freelancing services mostly focus on clients in your home country.


I hope these 7 reasons have opened your mind to living and working in emerging countries like Vietnam and helped you to put things into perspective. Give it a shot – you won’t regret it!



Boat Tour in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam
Discover the beauty of the Mekong Delta.

Hoi An, Central Vietnam
Hoi An, Central Vietnam

NOTES

[1] That is how you call for attention from the sellers. In this case a woman, a couple of years older than me.


[2] Worldometers: http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/ (2019, August 10).


[3] PwC and Cranfield University School of Management: Measuring the Value of International

Assignments, p. 10. Retrieved from: https://www.pwc.fi/fi/palvelut/tiedostot/pwc_measuring_the_value.pdf (2019, August 10)


[4] E.g. Mercer, Internations,

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