Dealing with Cultural Shock in Vietnam

Cultural shock: what is it? Each foreigner that moves to a new country will experience that people act, talk and operate in a different way than your own culture has taught you. Even though the symptoms are similar, each foreigner will experience it on their own way.

The major issues that cause people the culture shock in Vietnam include:

  1. Language barrier
  2. Climate conditions
  3. Food culture
  4. Hygiene
  5. Traditions and Social behaviour
  6. Medical care
  7. Physical and natural environment
  8. Technology & Entertainment
  9. Housing

It all comes down to one’s ability to accept and adjust to their life in Vietnam. This depends mostly on how resilient one’s character is emotionally and physically to fight against the change. It is true that most of us can tolerate anything for a limited period of time: therefore, the ones who have a long term goal or have character that can adjust easily will have an easier transition period compared the ones who must make greatest personal, emotional and mental adjustments to live in Vietnam

The adjustment period can be divided into a four stage cycle:

  1. Excitement or Honeymoon Stage
  2. Withdrawal or Negotiation Stage
  3. Adjustment Stage
  4. Enthusiasm or Assimilation Stage

Excitement or Honeymoon Stage

When you first arrive in Vietnam, you are full of energy, excitement and adventurous spirit. You then announce to yourself “I can’t believe I’m finally in Vietnam,” and you will be fascinated and overwhelmingly impressed by all the “exotic” differences in culture you will encounter. This stage is often referred to as the “honeymoon” period. For some this stage will never happen, because they are already avoiding anything new.

Withdrawal or Negotiation Stage

Usually, after a couple of months or so, the excitement and adventurous spirit will fade away and you will start noticing unpleasant feelings of frustration and anger when you encounter strange situations that are normally offensive or unacceptable in your country. The first problem that most westerners come across is the language barrier that prevents one from communicating once easy daily tasks. After the following traffic safety, food safety, trust issues, different manners, quality of food and so on. One of the strong feelings is that you feel that someone is constantly trying to benefit from you wherever you go.

Instead of being able to figure out how one could avoid all this, they feel that they are “stuck” between cultures unable to move on. Small things like people’s behavior will create short temper, anxiety and depression towards other people. This will normally show in public with behavior to frequently criticize or mock the people and their culture. Depending on the individual, this stage can last for up to three to six months, or it may persist considerably longer for those who lack the capacity, faculties, and social support required to properly adjust.

In fact, the psychosocial adjustment required of Westerners is so enormous that people say that if one can survive the first 8 months in Vietnam, the transition will be easier from that point on. This depends on what type of an expat you are.  The spouses of executives reportedly suffer the greatest degree of anomie with consequent acute episodes of depression, anxiety, and even alcoholism, unless they find a group or an environment that can help them.

Adjustment Stage

Those who have managed to develop a sufficient social support system or find a community that helps them to adjust can move to adjustment state. In this state the individual begins to feel more settled-in and confident as life becomes considerably easier with routines, friends and newly required language skills that allow the individual to approach the old problems from a completely new angle. The individual will feel far less isolated thus giving him/her the ability to enjoy again the new challenges that this environment brings. This feeling of achievement and comfort returns when day-to-day things can be done without assistance. This stage of adjustment seems to last from several months for most, to up to two years for some.

Enthusiasm or Assimilation Stage

After some time living in the new environment one can call this new place “home”, because they have managed to build a new life around them creating the feeling of belonging. Everything that used to be hard and annoying tends to turn easy and familiar from taking a taxi to doing the shopping. Several characters you will start identifying as a part of your own culture. In this stage it is very common to feel a reverse culture shock when the new culture feels more familiar than your own culture.

Coping Strategies

There are several measures you can take to facilitate an easier transition through the second stage of a culture shock. For starters, it helps that a person is open to change and realistic that things are different from home. On this stage the mental preparation is the key to prepare one’s travel to a new culture.

Second, you can increase the likelihood of adjusting more quickly and easily by trying to establish a social support system as soon as possible with the local community or friends (preferably during the honeymoon period). Seek out other foreigners that share similar interests with you and use them as a buffer against the cultural shock stages. One of the easiest is to establish a friendship with an English-speaking Chinese colleague. Having an “insider” on your side, who can be there for you to interpret, explain, and even negotiate some of the more frustrating differences you are struggling with will go a very long way in easing your transition. In short, it helps to have a support group. The very last thing one should do is withdraw and isolate oneself from other people, even though this is what you may feel like doing.

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