Good laptop spots for remote workers
The best places to be productive while working remotely are cafes and tea shops. And luckily, urban Vietnam has a legendary cafe culture with venues to suit every taste.
Some individuals may prefer to work in almost complete silence, in which case they should seek out a “book cafe” meant especially for working and reading. Some examples for each of Vietnam's three main expat cities are:
- Saigon -- Rosaria Books and Coffee (6/3 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai), The Hidden Elephant (floor 2 @ 35 Phan Chu Trinh)
- Hanoi -- Tranquil Books and Coffee (5 Nguyen Quang Bich), RAND Moroc and Coffee (2B Tran Thanh Tong)
- Danang -- The Books Library and Coffee (12 Cao Thang), Click Coffee (2 Huynh Thuc Khang)
Note that the examples above are all popular and can get crowded. The quietest book cafes are in small alleys tucked away from the noisy traffic, so be ready to do a bit of searching at the address in most cases.
Others, especially those going through rough patches in terms of mental health, may prefer something a bit more lively but not really noisy. At one time, a Vietnamese coffee franchise like The Coffee House or Trung Nguyen Coffee would have met this criterion. In recent years, these large cafe chains have gotten much more popular in Vietnamese cities. So in 2020, the ideal places to go to experience this kind of livelier environment are smaller chains of milk tea shops. A few good ones are Lavida, Toocha, and Ryucha. There are also a ton of smaller ones with only one or two locations.
Everyone has a different type of environment that will maximize their productivity. Use the above tips as a jumping-off point, and do a bit of independent scouting to find a place that works for you.
Budget-Friendly & Peaceful Eating Spots
Eating out in a peaceful space can be difficult in Vietnam because the cities are so crowded. There are plenty of more exclusive establishments that offer the option, but they tend to be very expensive. So where to eat without experiencing sensory overload?
The answer can be summed up in one word: alleyways. Vietnamese cities are packed with complex networks of small alleys. Many expats assume the alleys are purely residential, but some of them contain restaurants or other businesses just as nice as what you’d encounter on a main street. Due to their secluded location, they are much quieter. They also tend to be less expensive.
By nature, these places are pretty hard to find. The reason most small alleyway restaurants are so quiet is because not many people know about them. Because of that, you’ll have to do some wandering to find yours. A good tip is to head to a place where you see a lot of people gather like a school, a large office building, or a local market. Then, start exploring the small alleyways leading off that street. You may just come up with a few diamonds in the rough. And if you do, you’ll feel like a professional-level nomad for finding something so well-hidden.
Most of these alleyway restaurants are small, family-owned establishments where no one speaks or writes English. If you are comfortable reading a Vietnamese menu, you’ll be fine. If you are not, you should take a few minutes to familiarize yourself with the Vietnamese names for your favorite restaurant dishes. A few popular ones to get at this type of place are:
- Mì xào bò/hải sản (Stir-fried noodles with vegetables and beef/seafood)
- Com chiên bò/hải sản (Fried rice with beef or seafood)
- Cánh gà chiên nước mắm (Chicken wings with sweet fish sauce)
- Rau muống xào tỏi (Stir-fried morning glory)
If you’re not the adventuring type, here are a few more well-known (and more expensive) alleyway restaurants in each city:
- Saigon -- Pho Ong Tay (17 Quoc Huong), Old Compass Cafe (63/11 Pasteur)
- Hanoi -- Hanoi Food Culture (60 Ngo Phat Loc), Nem Chua Ran Ba Gia (38 Hang Bong)
- Danang -- Tamarind Tree (10 An Thuong 31), Com Tay Cam Cung Dinh (K254 Hoang Dieu)
Networking tips for sensitive people
As an expat, meeting like-minded people can seem tough. After all, 99.9% of the people living around you are locals with very different mindsets (and linguistic capabilities). Luckily, the internet makes it easy for people with shared interests to connect.
Perhaps the best way to find like-minded individuals is by using Meetup.com, a site where group organizers can pay a small fee to list their public events. The site is not popular in the Vietnamese community, so it’s almost exclusively English-language events. And there’s so many events to choose from on there that you’re almost certain to find something that appeals to you. Check out a few meet-ups, and the least you’ll do is experience a bit more of your city’s expat culture. Best case scenario, you’ll find a new circle of friends who share your interests.
Facebook groups are another big one. The expat communities in Vietnam’s big cities have created groups for all major topics. You’ll be able to find a group in your city for food, one for shopping, one for athletic activities… you get the picture. The point is, there’s a group to appeal to everyone. And in most of those groups, there is a contingent of people looking to do the same thing as you: socialize with like-minded people. Try joining one of the groups and asking whether anyone would like to grab a drink or go for a jog.
For more one-on-one friendships, Tinder is actually a good idea. In Vietnam, Tinder is used just as much as a friend-finding tool as a dating app. It’s a good way to search for locals who you have fun talking to, and maybe form connections that you’ll be able to rely on in the future.
Exploring Vietnam for cautious/sensitive people
Luckily, Vietnamese people tend to be very supportive of foreigners trying new things. Seeing a Westerner making an effort to embrace Vietnamese culture by attempting to speak the language or trying new food is enough to make a local’s day. Keep in mind that the laughs or smiles you’ll likely get when you do so are out of happiness, not ridicule.
Surprisingly, you’ll find that people in the less Westernized parts of the city are often more supportive. In the touristy/expat-dominated parts of Vietnamese cities, like districts 1 and 2 of Saigon or the Old Quarter and Hoan Kiem areas of Hanoi, locals are not used to seeing foreigners wander out of their comfort zone and so might look upon it with confusion. In outlying areas like districts 9 and 10, locals have less defined expectations of foreign behavior and are more supportive of whatever you want to do.
Of course, it’s nice to sometimes try new things with other expats who are just as new to them as you are. A few good ways to make expat friends and find English-language events are discussed in the section above. Instead of finding groups that center around activities you’re familiar with, though, check out some that deal with things you’ve always wanted to try.
Common pitfalls experienced
I’m not going to sugar-coat it: the expat communities in Saigon and Hanoi tend to be more toxic than in most countries. A lot of expats in Vietnam complain about it. Vietnam’s expat forums have an unusually high amount of bullying and xenophobia, and I’ve noticed expats do not smile and nod to each other when they pass by each other on the street as often as in most countries. It’s hard to explain why, but it may be due to factors like a scarcity of public gathering places in Vietnamese cities or a lower cultural value placed on the creation of an aesthetically pleasing environment. In any case, all expats in Vietnam should try to avoid succumbing to that unfriendly mindset. Make an effort to surround yourself with happy, interesting individuals. Decorate your living space with plants or paintings. Minimize your bad habits. And when you pass another expat, shoot them a smile or at least a nod.
Another common pitfall for expats in Vietnam is false friends. Learning English is seen as a great path to advancement in Vietnam, especially by the younger generation. This leads to a lot of locals forming friendships with expats not because they actually care about them, but instead just to learn English. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing as long as both parties know what they’re getting into, but it can be devastating and ultimately very lonely for those who aren’t as aware. This is especially true for expats struggling with mental health, because they need to find fulfilling friendships.
Along the same lines as the “false friends” point above, many Vietnamese females in the dating scene will date a Westerner explicitly for free English lessons and/or because they believe Western men will buy them nice things. Avoid these gold-digging relationships unless you decide that’s what you really want.
Medical Options for Nomads in Vietnam
Most expats don’t realize how quick and inexpensive it is to get reliable medical care here. Unfortunately, the method (described below) requires a high degree of Vietnamese language skills, so you’ll probably need to enlist the help of a local friend. Otherwise, you’ll have to go to an expat-friendly healthcare provider like FV or Victoria Healthcare, which charge high prices and often provide shoddy care.
Since public hospitals in Vietnam do not pay very well, many doctors run businesses out of their houses before and after work. These home clinics are usually highly specialized, meaning there will probably be an ENT doctor near you, and an eye doctor, and a skin doctor, etc. The businesses are small but usually quite popular, which means you should always show up well before closing time to make sure you’re seen. The service at these places is usually good, and the bill you’ll get at the end is lower than it would be at a hospital.
Pharmacies are also numerous in Vietnamese cities, and the medication inside is extremely cheap. Most pharmacists speak basic English and can help you pick the right medicine for a minor malady, but you should only take heavier-duty drugs if recommended by a doctor.
Unfortunately, Vietnam is still a bit behind in terms of cutting-edge medical technology. If you need a delicate procedure done, we’d recommend you fly to another country with the capability to carry it out properly.
Mental Health Options for Remote Workers
As an expat in culture as foreign as Vietnam, it’s perfectly normal to struggle with mental health. The trouble with finding motivation, making friends or feeling like a productive part of the community are all symptoms of mental health issues. A dependence on drugs including alcohol is a giveaway, too. Luckily, there are lots of things expats can do to improve their mental health.
Everyone can use a good therapist. Even people who are mentally healthy benefit from having one. Being able to get all your thoughts and feelings out on the table and have a certified professional help you sort them out is huge.
Most expats in Vietnam don’t realize how easy it is to obtain therapy. It will cost as little as $13 per hour for a therapist who was born in Vietnam but certified abroad. For therapists in that range, look at Giang Vu Counselling Psychotherapy. For a native English-speaking therapist, be prepared to pay at least $70 per hour. If you’re interested, check out the International Center for Cognitive Development. For more options, look over these more comprehensive indexes of therapy services in the Saigon area and therapy services in the Hanoi area.
The three cornerstones of a healthy lifestyle are diet, exercise, and sleep. They are all linked to chemicals in your brain that keep you feeling happy.
Diet is probably the toughest of these three for expats in Vietnam because healthy fast food is hard to come by. If you wander into the local market, though, you’ll find lots of fresh, healthy produce and sustainably-raised meats. Protip: the Vietnamese dish gỏi gà (chicken salad) is an affordable and tremendously healthy meal and is easy to find by the side of the street.
Urban Vietnam tends to be far from walking paths and forests for outdoor sports, but it still has lots of exercise opportunities. There are lots of parks, athletic centers, and calisthenics areas spread about the city. Take advantage of them at least a few times per week.
Sleep is probably the most often overlooked part of a healthy lifestyle. If you’re not getting enough sleep each night, your body will not have the fuel it needs to operate and it hardly matters what you do to stay healthy during the day. A good amount of sleep is 6-9 hours, depending on an individual’s body chemistry.
Get help for substance abuse
If you’re a regular user of narcotics or alcohol, you should deal with it immediately. Even if you would not classify yourself as an addict, no dependency whatsoever is ideal. If you can cut out any substances on your own, go that route. There are also expat AA meetings in Vietnam’s big cities. Check out this listing of all Alcoholics Anonymous chapters in Vietnam. NA is not yet in Vietnam, but there are NA Skype meetings available to anyone in the world.
Fitness Options for Nomads
For expats, not all exercise environments feel like safe, supportive places. Most expats want to find somewhere where the equipment is well-maintained and where they will not constantly be receiving stares for being the only non-Vietnamese there.
The best solution for this conundrum is the facilities inside expat-friendly apartment buildings. The membership prices are usually pretty steep if you don’t actually live in the building, but it may be worth it. The weight machines, swimming pools, yoga gyms, and athletics areas often found in the apartments are kept in at least relatively good shape, and you won’t be the only foreigner using them. The apartments also tend to have staff that speaks fairly good English or who can get a supervisor that does.
There are tons of these “expat-friendly” apartments in the most popular expat districts: Districts 1, 2, 3, 7, and Binh Thanh. You can generally tell if an apartment is expat-friendly if the name of the complex is composed of English or otherwise non-Vietnamese words.
Vietnamese society is a warm and welcoming one, but it doesn’t value privacy or solitude as much as Western cultures do. For example, a prime spot for a new park might be deemed the large island in the middle of a busy intersection. Part of the reason it’s difficult to find a quiet space is out of necessity -- Vietnam’s urban population density is at 9000 people/km²! Part of it is cultural, though; “silence is golden” is a totally foreign concept to most Vietnamese. Because of this, you’ll have to work harder to find peaceful spaces where you can really hear your thoughts. Try searching in the expat-heavy parts of Districts 2 or District 7, especially to find serene outdoor spaces.
Be aware that Vietnamese culture doesn’t place much value on surrounding yourself with aesthetic beauty. Painting your walls a nice color or having soothing paintings to hang on those walls aren’t highly valued things Vietnamese would think of, and so you should take aesthetic decoration into your own hands in spaces you spend a lot of time in (e.g. your home). Its impact on psychological well-being is often overlooked.
Lastly, a note about Vietnamese macho culture. It is very unhealthy, encouraging activities like heavy substance abuse, physical altercation, and ignoring those relying on you. It’s a great idea to have some local male friends because it’s important to feel immersed in local society. But even though stereotypical Vietnamese male activities like drinking and playing cards at a streetside cafe until all hours are a good way to bond with people around here, they’re simply not healthy for most.