How I Learned to Navigate Work and Everyday Life in Vietnamese Culture


From pastry chef in the Midwest to English teacher in Vietnam, Sarah gives us a glimpse of what it is like working in a culture that is drastically different from her own. Another story from our Working Abroad collection, tune in as she recounts her adventure riding motorbikes to being a respected worker in a socialist society. At the very least, step into the rich world of Vietnamese culture.

1) What made you decide to leave home and work in Haiphong, Vietnam?

I thought it would be a good idea to go someplace where I could challenge myself and really push myself out of the box.

2) What was the most surprising thing about Vietnam?

It’s very young. There are a ton of babies, children, and young adults that are often married. It was a good surprise to see people really tethered to their families and communities, which was something I got a little jealous of.

3) How is Vietnamese society different than the United States?

It is a monoculture and I was physically different. You walk down the street and visually as a western person you are so different than Vietnamese people which isn’t good or bad; it’s the dynamic.

Another big factor is the language barrier. It was very real. You take everything you do on a regular basis like food, transportation, and entertainment and make it lengthier because it’s a big learning curve as far as the local language goes.

4)  What about their work culture? As a Westerner, what about your experience was different?

Professionalism was a lot different. I feel as if I’m used to defending myself in the US from direct comments whereas folks in Vietnam tend to avoid a direct address.

You don’t call attention to things that would make somebody feel embarrassed. If there is a mistake, you’d cover it yourself. It’s more respectful and nonconfrontational but the ineffectiveness of that is you don’t address things. 

5) What are some things you liked about working there?

As much as there were very traditional values of men and women anybody that was an able-bodied person could get up and go to work and was valued the same, at least in the working-class world, regardless of gender.  

Another thing, they are hustlers. It’s like 6 or 7 in the morning and people are already on the side of the road hustling. It’s very liberal there in regards to starting your own business. No impediment, permit, or licenses just take what you have and earn your own dong [dollar].

6) Let’s talk about fashion. How did the women dress?

The women were gorgeous. They always had on heels and fitted sheath dresses with jackets. Local teachers would look so womanly and powerful.

7)  Is it a step up from what we do here?

Heck yes. The women always looked so cute. They had a combination of Vietnamese cool with a carry-over of French woman minimalist done vibe.

8) Do you have a go-to or favorite store?

Yes. Elise and Nam & Co were great for finding things cute and professional.

Also, they have great pajama stores, if you are into crazy, mishmash prints. They are so comfortable, too!

9) Tell us about some of you other favorites. Favorite pastime?

Learning to ride a motorbike in traffic. It taught me how to take up space and gracefully be assertive without killing yourself.

10) Favorite dish?

Bun cha—white noodles with sauce, pork balls, and lettuce.

11) Do you miss anything from there?

I miss the fresh fruit. You could find women on the corner or at the market with the freshest fruit.

12) Overall, how was your experience in Vietnam?

It was fulfilling; I felt like I was doing something really positive. I just wish I spoke more Vietnamese. I’m actually moving back soon.