Life in Tokyo vs. Life in Saigon

I’m baaack!! Long time without a post here but I felt a little like an outsider since as most of you know I’m taking a hiatus from Tokyo life and living here in Saigon, Vietnam. But I have often had to explain why I moved to Vietnam if I loved Tokyo so much. Therefore, I thought I would put my explanation here for all of you who are curious about life in other Asian countries and considering leaving Tokyo for a bit.

The MAIN reason I am taking a break from Tokyo is I was afraid of Corporate Japan. I spent three years teaching English and two learning the Japanese langauge and culture and then I up and left! Why did I do this? The answer lies in the quality of life….

I had just finished my Japanese studies and was offered a job in a Japanese company where I would have been the only foreigner. I had established my relationship with this company by teaching the employees English at night. When they heard I graduated from the language program they offered me a job as translator / foreign liasion since they dealt with Spanish/English speakers very often.

However, I began thinking about what my life would be should I take it. I would have continued to pay my rent of $770 a month and worked 9am to 7pm everyday. I could just see myself getting on the crowded trains day in and day out and my main source of entertainment would have been drinking with my co-workers. Granted this would have been more fun than in the USA because I could practice Japanese and further integrate myself. I could see the years slipping away and moving up in the company would have been difficult due to my foreigner status , limited Japanese and the hierarchy of the Japanese system. This still appealed to me more than life in the USA which would have been buying a house, car, being in debt until 50 and joining the rat race. Also, the business environment is so much better in Asia and America better brace itself for a loss of even more jobs as Asian countries continue to join the WTO.

BUT, I took a vacation to Vietnam and found the country to be so much more relaxed and much different from what I had imagined. To me, Vietnam was not a war-torn country but rather a country starting anew with the excitement of a brand new economy and new businesses. I could see myself networking much easier and obtaining jobs that I choose instead of hoping employers would choose me. But without further delay, let’s do a compare and contrast:

Tokyo Life vs. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) Life

1. Working Environment

Winner: Vietnam

Vietnam has a relatively new economy and everyday new business are opening up. The elite of the city consist of young rich Vietnamese and ex-pats from MAJOR international companies such as BP, Nike, Unilever, etc. The ex-pat community is also very small so meeting the expats is not hard to do since most of them are very colorful and can be found at the local bars pounding beers just like the backpackers. If you want to meet the elite Vietnamese they will be at the local trendy bars which are wayyy too expensive for most of the population. They are starting businesses are out to have fun.

One can network at all the business / diplomatic events and secure themselves a job by attending said events. In Tokyo a membership to the American Chamber of Commerce costed around $650 and every event was about $150 and up. Here, to join most chambers costs less than $100 and events are rarely more than $20. Also, non-members can often attend said events for a cheap price. In Tokyo, the elite are definately in the stratus-sphere and it is very difficult for normal folk to come in contact with them.

If a young person has a business idea here it can be done much easier than in the developed countries and simply takes a little capital or connections with the young elite.

2. Social Life

Winner: Tie

One can explore one single block of Tokyo for three weeks. The sheer immensity of Tokyo cannot be beat and it has an excitement to it with all the blinking lights, beautiful people and fabulous clubs. For high-culture and Metropolitans, Tokyo is the winner. But, the price of this entertainment is horrible and a good night out can set you back $200 easily. For the top clubs it will top $400. But then again one can come in contact with the cream of society and simply watching the bar patrons is excitement enough.

Saigon on the other hand is very small and the best you can do for the club scene will be at the Sheraton bar which is mostly old, fat westerners with young beautiful Vietnamese girls. However, since it is small you will get to know literally everyone and every bar you enter will seem like a “Cheers” episode. I cannot walk more than one minute between entertainment spots without seeing at least 5 people I know. For some, Tokyo is just overwhelming and this community atmosphere appeals to them.

So if I want to be out for an amazing night and am on the hunt, Tokyo wins because everyone I meet will be a stranger and what happens that night will disappear into the immense annals of Tokyo nightlife. But in HCMC everyone knows you and your history. Must not go crazy at night because everyone will talk about you forever and the history never dies.

So to recap, which is more important for you? Having a small group of friends that you take on a huge megaopolis with, or having a small city of friends / acquaintances that you take on around 60 entertainment establishments with?

3. Quality of Life

Winner: Vietnam

Life in Tokyo unfortunately is not going out every night and being able to explore city blocks every week. Your wallet will be empty before you can bat an eye. Life is characterized by long working hours, long train rides and spending your hard earned dough on about 3 vacations a year.

In Vietnam you can take a trip to the beach or Spa every week. A round trip plane ticket to Nha Trang costs $70. Hotel; between $10-$400 but a nice room can be had for $20. Perhaps it is the warm weather that makes everyone so relaxed here. A smile will get you anywhere and is practically essential. Salaries for ex-pats are very high and I can actually save more money here than in Tokyo. Here I am among the rich but in Tokyo I am a pauper.

4. Personal Development

Winner: Tokyo

To integrate into Japanese society can be very difficult at first. The language is really tough and not many people can speak English well. So to simply integrate into society will change a person so radically that upon returning home they will find themselves bowing to everyone they meet automatically even if they try not to. Also, the langauge is seen as so difficult that if you can speak even a little bit, you will command respect and be perceived as smart.

In Saigon most people can speak English and it’s very easy to become part of the community here. It is a little difficult to integrate into Vietnamese community since the language is also difficult but there are so many English speakers that you will feel more included than in Japan. Also, Vietnamese are not timid about approaching foreigners and will come up to you unlike in Japan.

So is there a better place to live? I think the answer that it’s all relative and based on perspectives. However, it is important to break out of our comfort zones and get out into the world. Unfortunately, not a lot of people do this and therefore it is no surprise that people hold the ideas of the community around them. It is much better to live in as many places with as many differing ideas as possible. It just depends on finding out what is really important in life and which location these goals can be achieved. Perspective is also an issue since everything is realtive or based in perspectives. There is no inherently better place to live if you follow me.

5 Comments so far

  1. Jase (unregistered) on May 23rd, 2005 @ 12:57 pm

    How does Vietnam compare to Thailand I wonder? I lived in Tokyo for 7 years and often visited Thailand (Bankok, Chang, Samui). I never, however made it to Viet. Sigh, Another regret :-}

  2. Elmateo (unregistered) on May 24th, 2005 @ 1:14 pm

    I haven’t yet been to Thailand but Bankok is by far the most popular place to get out for a while for ex-pats here in HCMC. From what I gather it is the Mecca of Southeast Asia as well as refuge for divorced male Brits escaping those “Ball-busting” wives back home. (Not my comment see related article on the Thai Sex Trade)

    But it seems that Thailand and Vietnam share many of the same characteristics only HCMC is not well developed yet and therefore is a well kept secret for those who want the quality of life found in Thailand in a non-touristy place. For some there are too many ex-pats in Thailand which ruins the peaceful life they were hoping for. This can still be found in Vietnam but as I mentioned we lack the “big city” excitement but can enjoy a peaceful life and escape to Bankok if they really want to party for a bit. Also, the plane tickets like in Europe are plummeting and now one can travel from HCMC to Bankok for only $75 and this price is constantly decreasing!! There was actually another limited time special to Singapore for only $25.

  3. Carl's Jr. (unregistered) on May 27th, 2005 @ 5:17 am

    I like your post and your breakdown, but in the main, I think the whole comparison is flawed. I have lived or traveled to all the major/famous international cities, and I’ve also been fortunate enough to experience my fair share of small towns and second tier cities. Comparing Tokyo to HCMC is like comparing New York City to Dallas. Sure they are both ‘cities’ with all the business/nightlife/etc. that cities are known for, but there simply is no comparison.

    While I disagree with your comparison, I do think it’s good that you realized you were possibly falling into a predictable rut in Tokyo. The question to ask yourself now is: would you rather fall into a rut in New York City, or in Dallas? I say this because, based on your descriptions of your situation, the only major difference since your move is that you 1)have more money to spend, 2)get to relax and speak more english, 3)get a great sense of control of your work life (albeit as a big fish in a tiny pond). These reasons alone don’t seem like a Great reason to stay there, unless you’ve lost the fire to compete. Otherwise, I’d say HCMC sounds more like a break, rather than a long term place for someone who is a ambitous/into challenges as you. I doubt HCMC will pose enough challenges to hold your attention. Just a guess…

  4. Elmateo (unregistered) on May 27th, 2005 @ 11:39 am

    Reply to Carl’s Jr.

    Your reply sounds suspiciously like something my dad would say. I’m half tempted to try and trace the post and see if it doesn’t originate from the Buckeye State. You’re suspect!! :)

    And like many of my dad’s statements yours also gave me something to think about. You are right in that sometimes there is no comparison. But I think that would be a better answer if we were having a chat and comparing cities over coffee with no plans of actually moving to these places. For me, a comparison is necessary (even though my original post was extremely simplififed) since it ultimately determines where I will live.

    Concerning the “rut.” It is possible to fall into this situation in any city, in any profession. However, I think it is important to ask yourself which location is it easiest to get out of. For example if I was in a town where the industry collapsed due to intl. trade should I stay there and try to get out of the rut or go to where there is work? The older generation was only able to look as far as neighboring towns. Slightly younger to other states. But it is just begining that people are now able to look across the world for adventageous locations,, a concept which the older generations cannot comprehend.

    The markets of Europe and America are already established and the competition is extremely difficult. The rich have made their wealth and this structure of wealthy vs. others is for the most part set in place. The business environment is simply booming here (look at China in the past 10 years) and Vietnam, once they join the WTO, will grow dramatically. The country is starting completely over and the market as well as who will grow wealthy and who will not is now being created.

    Since this is on tokyo metroblogs lets use Japan as an example of the wealthy retaining their riches and keeping the middle class “middle class.” The group that now control the wealth of Japan have done so for centuries. Names like Mitsubishi, Asahi, Sumitomo, Fujiwara, ect. are actually families who’s names can be found far back in the history books. Mitsubishi for one built much of the war machinery for Imperial Japan and what happened after American occupation? They simply switched to other industries and continue their huge influence over affairs in Japan. The same goes with America although through new industries and opportunity many more have made mountains of wealth. But the majority of the population simply work for these oligarchs. It’s true that many can become wealthy if they reach the top posts especially in corporations but for the most part, the old families or “old money” still hold incredible sway especially in Japan.

    So I asked myself, where in the world is it most probable that I could start my own business if I choose and make contacts with the leaders of tomorrow while still young and not have to scratch and claw my way up until I’m around 45 – 50 years old? The answer lies in which countries have shaken the system and are starting anew. In Vietnam everything is new and if you ask most investment strategists, Vietnam holds very little risk when starting new businesses because there simply isn’t much competition. Also, which economy is most likely to grow by leaps and bounds? Also Vietnam.

    I did think much about your comment “the fire to compete.” Well, I asked myself which arena would be the most likely in which I would win and win quickly. So I don’t like to think of it as big pond or small pond but simply in which pond I can catch the most fish. And the Vietnam pond is going to grow tremendously so I’m catching fish while it’s still small in the form of contacts with the future leaders of this place. And if we continue with this metaphor, the fishermen in the States and Japan have huge nets on trawlers while I, still being young, have to make do with a paddleboat and one fishing pole. Much better to compete with others in paddle boats in small pond with a lot of fish and wait until this pond joins all the others through the canal of WTO by which time I will know all the other fishermen in the Vietnam pond. Ok, this has gotten ridiculous.

    Further, living here has exposed me to so much I would otherwise not have experienced. Since HCMC is small and I work in an esteemed club I can meet very easily the top heads of many international companies, diplomats and so on. In the west it would just be a hello and then goodbye. Here, I drink beers and dance with these people’s wives. During happy hour or at business events, I learn how these companies actually work, what is going on behind the scenes, and how companies actually do business. I can now answer questions about politics concerning oil reserves in remote islands that affect international affairs. What is ment by treaties concerning “joint exploration” of an oil rich area and what is most likely to happen. I learn how they bend rules and what they actually tell the public. If I decide I want to move to Europe, I can speak directly with Counsel generals and sometimes Ambassadors of various European countries on how to best obtain a visa or passport. Also, if I’m drinking with these people they get to know me and we become like friends since we are all ex-pats in a very tight ex-pat community. Also, the generation gap is not as pronounced as it is in the west so I do not feel it odd to be partying with a 60 year old and look at them just as I would any other peer.

    Further, this experience works for me in other ways such as giving me a sense of freedom. I know know how to live, work and adapt (or how to get the info) in any country I choose. Most people are stuck in one location, or country since they simply do not know how to leave if the environment happened to be better somewhere else. It is best not to be bound by national borders, nationality, culture and language. Here I learn how to make contacts, who to talk with to get what I want, and how to navigate bureaucracy. This information is gold.

    To illustrate this point, after graduation when I wanted to work abroad I asked three people.

    1. The head of a large company.
    – I asked how soon could I possibly sent abroad if I worked for them. He said it’s most likely not possible until I learned the business and then maybe after 5 years or so they might send me somewhere.

    2. My university study abroad coordinator.
    – She said I could apply for a teaching program in another country but it is very competitive.

    3. Various contacts
    – They simply said it was too difficult.

    Yet, I did it by myself without the support of some institution. The knowledge is there and anything can be done, it’s simply finding the door that is key. So if I want to work in some appealing company, I can simply meet the head of the organization here, make friends and find out the shortest path to a possible position.

    What really appeals to me here is the contacts I’m making for the future. These people will be the next leaders of Vietnam and have their own business. So in the future if I’m in some other country in a trade related business, I already will have constructed a way in. Also, the experience of having lived here, and having a contact list will be extremely valuable in the very near future. Most people around the world have the wrong image of Vietnam but just give them 5 short years and they will be amazed at what happens to this country and how is grows economically. There already is much hype about China and for good reason. One would also be wise to consider China’s neighbors and most savvy investors adopt the China plus one strategy which is simply to not put all one’s eggs in the China basket.

  5. Robert (unregistered) on August 15th, 2005 @ 11:48 am

    Long ago lived in a semi-peaceful Saigon; I’m more your father’s age, interested in what he’d care about: what are your living conditions like in HCMC. Traffic still outrageous? Any French colony? What are your haunts? My son having beeen an attorney in Tokyo, I’m guessing you didn’t get much for $750 there. What do you get for what you pay at present? Very interesting (and unique) blog. R.H.

Terms of use | Privacy Policy | Content: Creative Commons | Site and Design © 2009 | Metroblogging ® and Metblogs ® are registered trademarks of Bode Media, Inc.