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Life in Saigon: An American expat’s journey to Vietnam

Laura Nalin, originally from Pennsylvania, U.S., decided to move to Ho Chi Minh City after falling in love with Vietnam while on holiday in the country.

As well as documenting her adventures in her blog, Willful and Wildhearted, Laura shares with us her experiences of living abroad and reflects upon the ups and downs of expat life in this insightful interview.

US expat Laura Nalin looking at artwork in her adopted home of Vietnam US expat Laura Nalin looking at artwork in her adopted home of Vietnam


Why did you decide to move to Vietnam, and for how long have you lived abroad?

“The idea of relocating to Vietnam first struck me in 2014 after a two-week trip to the northern region. I had been living just outside of Seoul, South Korea at the time, and was hoping to move to Hanoi, Vietnam, by Spring 2015. Circumstances changed and I ended up staying in Korea for another year, then moving to New Zealand for nine months — I finally ended up in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 2017.

“While I’d been mainly interested in the prospect of living and working in Hanoi for several years, I ultimately chose Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon, as it is a perfect blend of east and western cultures. I’m super happy with the decision and feel blessed to live here.”

What does the term ‘wellness’ mean to you? And what are you doing, if anything, to achieve it?

“To me, wellness means self care in various forms. I’m always on a quest to achieve ultimate wellness, although I will admit it’s a process that isn’t always easy. I exercise on a regular basis, and I’m slowly learning to be patient enough to meditate and trying to be more conscious of my needs and wants; I am getting better at saying ‘no’ and enjoying my own company. I’m constantly trying to learn from my mistakes and start each day as a better person than I was the day prior.

“Another way I maintain sanity is through food. I’ve always had a knack for cooking and spending time making healthy, beautiful meals is something that brings a lot of calmness and joy into my days. Cooking while listening to music is honestly my favorite activity in the world. I’ve also lately become obsessed with learning how to brew the perfect kombucha at home, and I’d like to learn to make various flavors. To me, all of this ties into some semblance of wellness.”

Would you say you have a better or worse work-life balance since moving abroad?

“My work-life balance in Vietnam is far superior to when I was working in the U.S.. My current job doesn’t have many vacation days during the school year, which makes me feel a bit stir crazy, but I don’t feel as overwhelmed on a day-to-day basis like I once did. I don’t have a ton of teaching hours during the day and I have weekends off, which is a rarity in Vietnam — most people put in most of their hours on the weekends. Having the ‘normal’ two days off per week and functioning in a 9-to-5 position is better for my mental health as I am a creature of habit and love routine when it comes to a professional setting.”

US expat Laura Nalin outside a temple in her adopted home of Vietnam US expat Laura Nalin outside a temple in her adopted home of Vietnam


How comfortable do you feel about using the public health care system in Vietnam?

“In all honesty, I have never been to a public hospital here — I’ve paid extra for private care when necessary. From what I’ve heard from friends, the public hospitals are in relatively poor condition compared to what they’re used to. Since this is the case, I cannot say with certainty if I’m willing to trust the public system here, but I’m leaning more towards ‘no’.”

Do you know where to go to get primary care, how to access a specialist and how to pay for your treatment?

“There are websites detailing this information in English and, in addition, the expat community is pretty well-connected should I need to go on Facebook and ask any specific questions or get recommendations regarding specialists. There are plenty of specialists throughout town, many of them English-speaking, and that makes life a bit easier. I am pretty fortunate to not have had to see doctors too often whilst living abroad for the past five years.”

How does the quality of the health care system in Vietnam compare to the health care system in the US?

“As an American, I am always flabbergasted by the realization that the U.S. health care system really doesn’t have to be as expensive as it is. My father is a physician, so I don’t want to come off as offensive to any health care professional in the U.S., but the quality of care in comparison to other Western nations ranks at the very bottom, and yet my fellow countrymen pay top dollar for this sort of care. I am able to get prescription medication in Vietnam for next to nothing. Private appointments here are pretty expensive, though.

“Overall, the prices here are far lower than in the U.S., though I honestly cannot extrapolate on the quality from my own personal experience too much. With that said, I did have to get a health check for my business visa, and the doctors were incredibly blasé about the entire experience, not really checking into whether or not I had decent eyesight, etc. Although this could be reflective of the overall health care quality and system, I think it was more or less the staff trying to ‘get it over with’ so they could treat patients who required immediate medical support.”

Do you feel that mental health is better or less supported and recognised than at home?

“Many places throughout Asia do not recognize mental health as important or even as a reality. I see a therapist once a month here in Saigon, which is something that is pretty widely accepted within the expat community here. Unlike in South Korea where the cost of therapy is generally high, therapy in Vietnam isn’t terribly expensive — appointments run anywhere from $75 to $100 USD per one-hour session. For me, spending this type of money isn’t a big deal as it’s an investment in myself.

"Although mental health options are available here and the concept is openly discussed among expats, there is still a stigma surrounding it among some locals. From my experience, Vietnamese people are more accepting of mental health in comparison to South Koreans, though."

Expats are more prone to mental health issues because their support network and familiar things are often absent in their new home. What advice would you give for maintaining good mental health while living abroad?

“This is something that I’ve struggled with in recent years and it’s an ongoing process. I’m not too sure about the situation in Hanoi, but I think Ho Chi Minh City can be particularly difficult if you’re someone who struggles with mental health as it’s an incredibly overwhelming environment. It’s loud, dirty, chaotic and the party culture here is unlike anywhere I’ve ever experienced - this city often feels completely lawless.

“In general, I don’t have all the right answers as I’m still unsure about finding a balance myself, but I think it’s paramount that individuals living abroad don’t push themselves too much. Don’t stretch yourself out too thin and remember to surround yourself with people who are going to be in your corner. I’m extremely fortunate to have a handful of friends here in Saigon that I can instill all my trust in, and some pretty incredible friends I can say the same about that I met while living in New Zealand and South Korea. Not to mention my friends back home who I can always reach out to when the going gets tough.

“Living abroad long-term can be especially difficult because not only have I had to adapt to three different cultures whilst traveling for months at a time in between, I’ve missed out on some pretty important events back home. Being absent from weddings, funerals and births has made me feel less significant, which is a pretty challenging emotion to grapple with.

“In sum, I think my biggest piece of advice to other expats is to stay in touch with your loved ones back home, carve out time for yourself on a regular basis and understand that you’re not alone. Living abroad can certainly feel isolating and it’s important to be able to vent your emotions to those around you without feeling judged. Remember that many people also feel like you’re feeling and it’s okay not to always feel okay.”

How would you describe the role of the expat community for people settling into the new culture?

“I think this depends on one’s characteristics as it varies. I’ve generally found that expats usually tend to hang out together, and I’m not really sure why that is. However, in both South Korea and Vietnam there were always a few local people who would spend time with us on a regular basis. There are definitely people living here in Saigon who prefer to spend their time with locals rather than expats. I would say that personally, I find Vietnamese locals quite easy to approach, and many younger people are generally well-exposed to Western culture, so it’s easy to hang out with them.

“As far as finding fellow expat friends, I was fortunate enough to land my job through a friend last year and the company I work for employs over 100 expats. Last year there was a makeshift bar in the parking lot next to our building, which made it easy to socialise. The bar shut down over the summer, which is probably for the benefit of everyone’s wallets and livers.”

US expat Laura Nalin raising her arms while rowing on a lake in her adopted home of Vietnam US expat Laura Nalin raising her arms while rowing on a lake in her adopted home of Vietnam


What would you say is the best part of international life in Vietnam?

“I think what I love most about this country is how diverse it is. Vietnam is a long, narrow nation, and there are so many different types of terrain and scenic options that stretch from north to south. Although Saigon isn’t the prettiest city in the entire world, it’s still easy to travel to nearby beach towns. Plane rides to central or northern Vietnam are super cheap as well!"

What was the worst part, or the biggest initial challenge about moving abroad?

“The answer to this question has evolved over the past five years of living abroad. I initially felt overwhelmed by cultural differences, and I found it extremely difficult to acclimate to South Korea. As time has passed, I’ve found myself missing family and friends back home more and more.

“I grew up in Pennsylvania and moved to Chicago, Illinois, when I turned 18 - both of these areas get super cold during the winter. It’s been an adjustment getting used to being surrounded by palm trees and extreme heat during the holiday season, which might be where the homesickness stems from. Either way, everyone’s experience is different, but I think eventually life abroad becomes business as usual in most cases.”

How easy or difficult is it to maintain a healthy diet in Vietnam?

“I have been a vegetarian for more than 20 years, so I cook most of my meals, which is more expensive than buying street food. While I do find it easy to eat healthy here, it is far more expensive than other countries I’ve lived in. In the past, I’d order things like quinoa and hemp seeds for U.S. prices on a website called iHerb.com. It’s next to impossible to get imported things shipped to Vietnam for a reasonable price, but I either pay for the extra shipping or purchase what I want in the imported groceries stores.

“At the end of the day, I am spending a little more money but it allows me to be creative with my meals, which is worth it to me.”

Describe the role of exercise in Vietnam and how it differs from your home country

“I work out here just as I would back at home. I have a small gym in my apartment building that I use on a regular basis, and I run outside a few times a week. I used to do kickboxing classes here for several months, which was super empowering and something I’d like to continue when I eventually move back to the U.S..

“Just like back home, the price of a gym membership here varies — some can be quite expensive. Overall, I wouldn’t say there’s much of a difference.”

By highlighting the benefits and challenges of living in such a diverse and beautiful country, Laura’s experiences of expat life in Vietnam offer insights into what living there is truly like. In an honest review of life abroad, her experiences will surely resonate with those in similar situations, whether a new expat, a seasoned one, or a soon-to-be expat.

Learn more about relocating to Vietnam in our comprehensive Destination Guide.

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