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The people, culture and climate

Vietnam is a contrast of cultures.

Past meets present, as ancient beliefs and traditions sit alongside 21st century economic growth; and East meets West where contemporary office buildings and colonial architecture mingle with time-honoured temples and sacred monuments.

There are bound to be a number of adjustments to make when an expat used to Western culture moves to Vietnam. Generally speaking, the Vietnamese are a warm, friendly people with a positive outlook. Moving away from the market vendors and the touts of the more touristic areas allows for a better understanding of the country and its people.

Like being a newcomer in any country, understanding the personal safety risks will make for a happier and trouble-free time. Petty theft is common in urban areas, so it is best to keep valuables well out of sight or somewhere secure and be aware that it is possible to be pickpocketed just about anywhere. It is paramount to understand that anyone found to have even a small amount of drugs in their possession is liable to severe punishment, even the death sentence, and that illegal drugs have been found to be much stronger than in Western countries, in some cases, causing fatalities. Scam artists are also common, so beware of people asking for bogus charity donations, for example, or overcharging taxi drivers who can become aggressive when you challenge the fare (insist they use the meter). The general message is to use common sense and use intuition; if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Religious influences are strong in Vietnamese culture and these permeate into all areas of life including social, family, and business relationships. There is no one official belief system but a large number of the population identify with Buddhism, which brings with it the principles of living a considered and purposeful way of life. Confucianism is less of a religion and more of a philosophy but it has great influence on the way communities and the business environment are structured. Christianity plays a small part — brought to the country by the Portuguese, French, and Spanish in the 16th Century, there are still Catholic communities and beautifully preserved churches. Two new religions, Cao Dai and Hoa Hao, became popular in the 20th century. The former is a blend of many beliefs, including the teachings of Jesus and Confucius amongst a whole host of others, and the latter is a Buddhist belief system. Taoism brings a sense of harmony and a reluctance to raise confrontation to the boardroom and other business relationships.

For those seeking to move to Vietnam with their children, there is a good level of education to be found there. The state system is effective, with literacy rates in Vietnam around 97.3% in 2016 for those aged 15-50. In the more developed, urban areas the level of tuition is good, but students are expected to be strongly self-motivated. Education is naturally largely delivered in Vietnamese but there are an increasing number of private, international schools for English speakers and these tend to have long waiting lists. The advice is to get the application process rolling as soon as possible to avoid disappointment. The system runs from preschool at 3 to tertiary at 18 and beyond.

There is no particular dress code to adhere to, but it would be decent to consider modesty when entering a sacred area or building. For example, attention should be given to the amount of skin on show: shorts and a skimpy vest are unlikely to be suitable, for example, but it is best to judge the local way of doing things and err on the side of caution if necessary. Two major concerns are the sun and parasites (the latter particularly in rural areas) so to avoid burning and insect bites, there may be times when covering up is the best option. Decent walking shoes are a must when out of town.

With a little skill, experience and common sense, the transport systems in Vietnam don’t need to be a barrier to getting around. Many Vietnamese use two wheels: either by cycle or motorbike. This can be stressful and dangerous, especially in congested areas, but much more fun away from the traffic in more rural areas. Driving in Vietnam is notoriously difficult with a high mortality rate — rules of the road are rarely followed and the roads are crowded. You will also need to acquire a driving permit, so needless to say, most expats choose to avoid this mode of transport, especially when parking in inner city areas can also be a problem. Use your wits when using taxis and make sure the driver uses the meter to avoid disputes. For travelling longer distances, most inter-city buses have air conditioning and there is a railway that runs from Hanoi in the north to Ho Chi Minh City in the south, serving the towns along the coast on the way. If time is of the essence, there is a good domestic flight service within the country and it takes just two hours to get from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City by air.

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