It’s Report Card Time! Grading My First Three Months in Vietnam

As a true nerd, I always loved getting report cards as a kid. Some strange, twisted streak in me loved getting judged (and the inevitable praise that followed). Anything less than As were unacceptable. Even a B+ was the equivalent of an Asian F.

To set the record straight, there was no pressure from my parents. At all. Unlike most Asian parents, they barely glanced at my report card, happy enough in the knowledge that I was doing well. I just remember taking my report card to the local video arcade where you could cash in good grades for game tokens. Every three months, I was flush with brass tokens and ran rampant trying to set the high score in Galaga or Ms. Pacman.

Video game tokens. My main motivation for doing well in school, really.

As an adult, I still have that strange, twisted love of judging and being judged. Sometimes I’ll go on job interviews just for the fun of it and am always incredulous if I don’t get an offer.

I’m sorry. Did you say FIRED or HIRED?

But as an adult, report cards aren’t that much fun. Take the annual United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report. Every November or so, they commission an independent report to measure and assess the long-term progress of 187 countries and UN-recognized territories. Countries are assessed in three basic dimensions of human development: (1) a long and healthy life, (2) access to knowledge and (3) a decent standard of living. There are lots of indicators used including life expectancy, average years of education received in a life-time and gross national income per capita.

Because I recently moved to Vietnam, I checked out the statistics. Overall, Vietnam sits at 128 (out of 187), wedged between Tajikstan and Nicaragua. But it’s still 11 spaces above Cambodia, where I’ve spent the last 10 years. So it looks like I’m moving up in the world! (Yay, me!) Given my rate of migration, I should reach Norway, the number 1 country in the world to live in (for the 10th time in 11 years), by the time I’m, oh, about 154 years old.

Norway. I want to go to there.

But there were some surprises. Since 1980, the life expectancy of the average Vietnamese has increased by 20 years (!) to 75, beating out Thailand and the Philippines. And the adult literacy rate is a whopping 92.8%. But it’s not all roses. Thirteen percent of the population still live below the poverty line (calculated at USD 1.25 per day) and the rate of development is slower than other nations in East Asia / Pacific. It all made for an interesting read but the more I clicked on all the graphs and charts, and adjusted rankings for inequality, gender and poverty, the harder it was to understand for a simpleton like me.

Oooh. Pretty colors.

So, I’ve compiled my own Vietnam Country Profile with my own very scientifically chosen indicators. And instead of a rank, I’ll assign grades, like in school. Did I mention that this report is very scientific? So, without further ado and in no particular order…

Food: A+

In Cambodia, I had a housekeeper cum cook who was awesome. Over the years, we built up a repertoire of about 120 dishes. Each month, I’d make out a menu and when I got home, voila, the exact meal I wanted would be waiting for me. So I was a little worried about what I’d be eating in Vietnam. Left to my own devices, I’d be buried in spag bol and mangoes.

Best. Cook. Ever.

Lucky for me, Vietnamese food is awesome. Every third shop seems to be a restaurant, not to mention the mobile food carts serving up simple fare, cheap but delicious. My favorite lunch spot has an “Office Lunch” – a main, a soup, a veggie stir-fry with steamed rice and some fruit for USD 1.50.

A buck fifty. Six quarters.

When I’m in the mood for something more upscale, there’s always sweet and sour soup with shrimp, the sweetness coming from chunks of pineapple and the tartness coming from tamarind. A splurge at USD 2.

For another fifty cents, this could be yours!

Saigon traffic: D

With over 6 million inhabitants and almost 4 million motorbikes, it’s not a surprise that traffic is a constant problem. Lots of narrow and one-way roads don’t help. Neither does the incessant honking of horns. I can’t say that I’m too stressed about it yet, but wait until I finally get a job and have to be somewhere on time…

Parking your bike is a chore, as motorbike theft is commonplace. So parking requires finding a supervised lot. In my building, the parking guys shuffle the bikes around every night so finding your bike amongst hundreds of bikes that all look the same is a really fun (!) exercise I do every morning. I’ve tried everything – buying decals to stick on the front and back of my bike, adding on little flashy silvery things, all to no avail. In a final act of desperation, I ended up wrapping red ribbon around the mirrors. Yes, it looks sissy. But at least I can find it. Don’t hate.

Pre-Sissification

Standard of living: B

Compared to Cambodia, it’s refreshing to see people enjoying life instead of merely subsisting. Don’t get me wrong, I know that for many, especially in the countryside, life is tough, but at least in the city, there are lots of fashionably hip youngsters driving around on flash bikes and enjoying the many glitzy clubs about town.

When furnishing my apartment, I went to a couple of the most popular electronics shops. They didn’t even have any TVs smaller than 32” or not a flatscreen. Same for the computer shop. I actually had to pay for a licensed version of Windows. Sigh. I miss Cambodia where they just automatically installed pirated versions of everything for you including Photoshop and anything else you wanted for USD 2 per program. Those were the days.

While the living standard is pretty decent here (I even found the equivalent of a Costco the other day. Score!) it does come with a price tag. I blew through almost 7 Gs in two weeks getting everything set up. But safe to say, I’ve never had it better with new everything in my apartment. Now if only I could find a Bed, Bath and Beyond…

Do they have BB & B in Norway?

The serendipity of unexpected sights: A

One of the things I just love about Vietnam is not knowing what I’ll see around the next corner. Sometimes it’s a cart loaded up with flowering cactuses for sale or walking through the park where a dozen old men have brought their finest songbirds out for a morning concert. Or this woman who had a mobile aquarium set up. (Funny story about this photo. Apparently, Vietnamese are very superstitious about anyone photographing their shop if they haven’t sold anything for the day. So this photo actually cost me USD 1, after buying two weird looking fishes before she’d let me take her photo.)

How awesome is this?

The bureaucracy of getting set up: C-

It takes a lot of paperwork to move to Vietnam. There’s the driving license (which either requires attending driver’s ed class or getting your driver’s license translated and notarized and a scary driving test). Then your landlord has to register you with the local police. Then there are visa extensions and motorbike registrations necessitating multiple trips to various offices around town. To get a work permit requires a police clearance from your home country. And the list goes on… I feel as if entire weeks have been eaten up getting everything set up.

Crazy deals: A

Remember that I said it was kind of expensive to live in Ho Chi Minh? Well, every now and then, it’s offset by some crazy deal that seems too good to believe. The day after I arrived, a local friend set me up with 3G wireless for my phone. The rate for unlimited data usage? USD 2.

Then there are the tennis courts that are five minutes away. Back in Cambodia, you had to choose between USD 12 per hour per person at one of the ritzy international hotels around town or USD 2 an hour on the unsurfaced, concrete local courts. In Saigon, an hour of tennis on nicely surfaced courts, with balls and a ballboy thrown in for good measure? USD 3.

Don’t even get me started on the crazy term deposit rates the banks give on Vietnamese currency accounts. Last year it was 16%. This year it’s only 12%. If only I had USD 100,000, I’d be livin’ large on the interest alone. Sigh.

12% interest p.a. Beat that, Bank of America!

Things to do: B

Not quite up to the standards of Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur, Saigon still has lots going on. There are trendy restaurants to try, fashion shows to watch and even international artists pop through every now and then. Even the Heat has come to town. No Lebron James because it was actually the Saigon Heat, Vietnam’s first pro basketball club. Fans were rowdy. Cheerleaders were cute. Basketball is so new that every person got a rule sheet. If it weren’t for the height differential between the local and foreign talent, I’d have almost thought I was back in the US…

I love it when adults play “Keep Away”…

But all in all, my move here has been overwhelmingly positive. I love spending hours just exploring the city and new-to-me places. Tonight, I’m heading up to Nha Trang, Vietnam’s premier beach town where I hope to stay in the #1 rated hotel, eat fresh seafood til I puke, snorkel around one of the national marine parks and take a trip to Vietnam’s version of Disneyland.

How about you? What’s the best and worst thing about where you live?

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19 thoughts on “It’s Report Card Time! Grading My First Three Months in Vietnam

  1. Fay G

    James

    You have always been nerdy so no need to rub it in each time……
    Why don’t you live on Eat Street all your life? I am craving the sweet and sour soup with the chunks of pineapple and tartness from the tamarind.
    Great reading as usual. You with so much time on your hands…….. Hey, want to read about that other part in your life…. you know what……
    Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  2. Ryan maull

    Xin chao anh jimmy!… i luv the report card Halarious!. hey you went to Chuckie Cheese too as a kid? i miss that place lol!!!…

    Reply
  3. Louise FitzGerald

    We are now back in Australia, and the bureaucracy is almost as bad as HCMC. We took the best part of a day getting Medicare cards, which have not yet arrived in the mail, so I keep telling the children to wrap up lest they catch a cold and need a doc. Another good part of a day spent sorting out the bank accounts, with cards still not arrived in the post. We have yet to get mobile phones and Internet sorted as it was just too hard when we went in to do it and the young sales exec was too pushy, so we left with nothing… I think Australia should get a C- too.

    Reply
  4. [email protected]

    First of all: “Sometimes I’ll go on job interviews just for the fun of it…”

    Now that’s just plain SICK. Seriously Dude, get a grip. 😉

    And… “Thirteen percent of the population still live below the poverty line (calculated at USD 1.25 per day) ”

    Gosh, I didn’t realize that – by paying my xe om 80,000 dong to whiz me (thru your “D” rated death-wish Saigon traffic) to and fro school each day – I’m single-handedly lifting him up out of poverty (and on the days I go round trip twice – well into the heady heights of middle class!)

    And I can whole-heartedly 2nd the “A” for “unexpected sights” (or as I like to dub them “Only in Asia” moments) Indeed, check out my next TravelnLass post – the start of a whole new “Only In Asia” series – the first one entitled: “Only In Asia: Well, Gosh. A Present for MEEE???” (hint: it involves a entire bag full of XL UNDERWEAR!) ‘Nuf said. 😉

    All-in-all, a most delightful “Report Card”, nicely upbeat (for g-knows some would give traffic an F+ at best – though not me, I actually marvel at the incredible synchronization of it – it’s more like a dance than a perpetual stream of traffic snarls – well o.k. but for the death-wish angle aspect of it.)

    Oh and P.S. Now just where did you say that COSTCO wannabe is???
    [email protected] recently posted..Newbie EFL Teaching: A Rollercoaster of Highs ‘n LowsMy Profile

    Reply
    1. James Post author

      Hey Dyanne:

      1) I’ve been contacted for a position of professional blogger / copywriter so may have another interview soon! Wonder how that’ll go?

      2) Yowza! 80,000 is a lotsa! Yeah, he’s probably putting his kids through college on your dime. LOL.

      3) When is underwear EVER an acceptable gift? Can’t wait to read all about it!

      4) The Costco-like place is called Metro. I think there are a few locations but the one closest to me is about 1km across the Saigon Bridge. Locals must have a membership but foreigners can get a day pass by presenting their passport. Happy shopping!
      James recently posted..Pho — It’s What’s For DinnerMy Profile

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  5. Huy Tran

    Love the read again! Thanks for the info! As for the bureaucracy of getting set up, do you have a list of where to go to get those things done? That’s what I’ll need!

    Reply
  6. Mike Montross

    The Best and Worst? Hmmm. Well, yesterday they planned to resurface and restripe the parking lot of our 24 building apartment complex. Prior to “Day One”, we (along with all others in the first 16 buildings) were asked to move our vehicle(s) into “available” parking spaces in eight of the buildings NOT being surfaced on “Day One”. Any vehicle not moved, would be moved at car owners expense…well, some 20 plus vehicles DID NOT read the notice and had their cars towed to the nearest parking lot that is not on the apartment complex (they’ll be sorry). Because it took SOOO long to move all these wayward cars, the Resurfacing Co did not have time to completely resurface the parking area and have it ready when most returned home from work. So, the remaining part of our complex looked like a zoo. Cars double parked – I thought we were in New York City! We had to park up a hill the equivalent of two city blocks away. (My Worst Thing..since I’m disabled and did not want to repeat a serious fall from April.)

    Some of the Greatest Things (My Brown Paper Packages Tied Up with String) is finally after almost 25 years of marriage, living alone with my husband under the same roof. Yes, it’s been close to six months and we’re really having “fun” together. It’s not like “little kids” playing house, yet in some ways we are like innocent children that have had to be so quiet …finally coming out of our “shell”. We don’t yell or scream but there ARE bursts of laughter at/with each other. We love to read the Bible together, study together, take walks together (although I walk exceedingly slower), but my husband is patient with me; and he’ll take my hand, look into my eyes and say “Boy, I’m so glad we finally had this time alone together.”

    Reply
    1. James Post author

      What a great story! Sounds like you guys are making the most of your “alone time”.

      The Vietnamese are always shocked to find that I live alone. Used to living in huge family groups with multiple people sharing a room, at first, they look at me with pity, “It must be so lonely to live alone”! But I know that deep down inside, they’re wondering what the independence must feel like…
      James recently posted..Vietnamese Food On The Cheap — A Photo EssayMy Profile

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  7. Helen

    I wanna be able to write like you . . . as I read about your experiences, I think, “hey, I’ve seen that, I’ve eaten that!”. But when I tell the story, it’s so very boring. You have a gift for gab and writing, dear brother.

    Reply
  8. Mac Hediger

    Very instructive report. As for us, we have just been to some very exotic cantons in Switzerland with our motorhome (brand-new Hymer, with Fiat engine), even spent a day with truly traditional Swiss people, all in their traditional costumes, at a Yodel Festival in Canton Bern (yodel of course, Alpine horns, throwing the Swiss flags, cortege and all…)
    The best in Switzerland : its gorgeous landscape and flowers at this time of the year (in Engadine, St Moritz for ex.)
    The worst : its many regulations (“Verboten” written everywhere you go), but for the foreigners maybe you just ignore these as you are supposed to not understand German!!!

    Reply
    1. James Post author

      Switzerland in summer! You are so lucky. I guess the rice fields here when lush and green are pretty, but nothing like the soaring mountains and lakes of Switzerland. (sad face).

      Hmmm. Yodeling. How did you enjoy that? I’d think it’d get annoying after a couple of minutes, no?
      James recently posted..Vietnamese Food On The Cheap — A Photo EssayMy Profile

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  9. Drake

    Hey James,

    you are right vietnamese food is indeed awesome. And it is very healthy as well. Actually I lost some weight after switching to asian type cooking in the past and there are tousands of recipes from which one can choose.

    Reply
    1. James Post author

      Thanks, Drake. I’m definitely trying to work my way through all the different dishes I can find. You hardly ever see any overweight Vietnamese. I’m not sure how much of that is due to the cuisine, portion size or exercise everyone gets. Once I find out their secret, I’ll be sure to let you in on it!
      James recently posted..The Birdmen of SaigonMy Profile

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