Earning a Living in Vietnam

4 Aug

Last week, I was offered a job at a Vietnamese television production company. As I work in TV at home, I was obviously thrilled by this prospect. I hadn’t considered that there may be alternative ways to earn a living in Vietnam, other than teaching English, and was hopeful that this would open up new doors for me. Upon receiving the good news, I was very excited to accept the offer. It almost seemed too good to be true…

Then came the bad news:

‘First we need to talk to you about money…’ the production manager had said, in a leveling manner that made my heart sink a little.

Aware that the average wage in Vietnam is reported to be $185 per month (that’s around 120 English pounds) I wasn’t looking forward to the conversation regarding salary.


Explaining that all of their current staff are Vietnamese, the PM tried to soften the blow of their pending offer by padding it out with lots of explanation about pay rates in Vietnam. They made it clear that their proposal was very much a compromise – I was being presented a greatly inflated rate as a Westerner with native English speaking skills.

$300 (approx. 190 pounds) per month to work 8.30 – 5.30, 6 days a week.

That was the offer. Genuinely, it was a generous one when you consider that it is probably almost twice as much as some of their current staff. But, I couldn’t afford to accept a job that would equate to working for around $1.50 per hour (that’s around 90 pence); no matter how interesting it would sound on my CV.

This experience caused great reflection on my part about the huge pay divides between Westerners (working for Western companies or working here as native English teachers) and local Vietnamese. As I had been offered a job at a Vietnamese company, the offer was reflective of their salary budgets for the local workers. Thus, the reason why Westerners are generally not employed by local companies. Ever.

Native English teachers in Vietnam are paid a minimum wage of $20 per hour. It is no secret that foreign teachers are paid generously, earning up to ten times that of Vietnamese teachers. As the country becomes increasingly globalized, English is in huge demand and work is plentiful for foreign teachers with a face that fits. By this, I essentially mean a Caucasian face. I have seen numerous job adverts in Vietnam which state in no uncertain terms that the applicant must be of ‘European appearance’. 9 times out of 10 you are asked to submit a photograph along with your application. In fact, when offered my current teaching job, the employer was not shy about admitting they ‘liked my appearance.’ I don’t think they meant my outfit.

When I consider that I am working alongside teachers who are being paid up to 10 times less than me for their time, it makes me feel a little uncomfortable. In fairness, it’s not just my white face, I am a native English speaker which is a specialist skill in this country. Nevertheless, there is just something that doesn’t feel right about the set up. It is also a concern that this obvious pay divide strengthens the preconceptions that Vietnamese have about ‘rich foreigners’ and leads to a lot of resentment from Vietnamese teachers towards foreign teachers. In fact, I fear it leads to resentment from locals towards foreigners in general.


Even the best paid jobs in Vietnam still barely cover what a Westerner will pay for rent here. Workers in the finance and insurance industries have the highest average salary, at around $260 per month. Admittedly these are averages,and CEO’s of some Vietnamese companies are reported to earn around $900, but this is barely even representative of a minority of the workforce and is a very unusual salary to earn. Interestingly, large pay divides can also be found within these companies and while the CEO earns this respectable wage, administration staff in the same company will often be paid around $100-125 per month.

These low averages raise questions about how the local people afford to live. I am at a loss to understand how they fund their brand new Vespas and smart clothes. What I am perhaps not grasping, is the extent of the hugely inflated prices that we, as foreigners, pay for everything.


This ‘foreigner tax’ is one of my main gripes about living in Vietnam (and most who visit the country, I suspect). Westerners are charged grossly increased prices for most things here including food, taxi fares and accommodation. While I can’t help feeling cheated knowing that I have been a victim of severely hiked prices, considering the huge pay gap between Westerners and locals does soften the blow somewhat. Despite this blatant over charging, the cost of living to pay ratio still sits well in our favour. You can rent a nice room in an apartment for 200 dollars per month and a bowl of delicious street food will set you back two dollars, where it might cost a local one dollar.

Another consideration is that most young Vietnamese will stay in the family home long after they are married and have children of their own so, in actual fact, living expenses are fairly low. In no way am I advocating the huge gap in salaries, as I’m sure that living with 10 people in one home isn’t an ideal situation, just trying to get my head around it. Low living costs combined with largely deflated prices obviously serves to make living on these low wages feasible. Unfortunately feasible does not always equal comfortable.

Perhaps I am giving it too much thought. Society here has always been more focused on family than material goods. Vietnam was recently voted the second happiest country on the planet while the UK came in 41st, so something must be working. It only goes to prove that money doesn’t buy happiness.

Fishing by the lake - a nice way to earn a living

Fishing by the lake – there are worse ways to earn a living

Report by Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs
Thanh Nien News
Happy Planet Index, New Economics Foundation


10 Responses to “Earning a Living in Vietnam”

  1. Every Day Adventures in Asia June 18, 2013 at 4:14 pm #

    Here’s to the happiness quotient! Grappling with pay and cost of living differences can frustrating but also understandable.

    My first real job in India was with a local company for a local salary for an amount that the government now no longer permits employers to pay foreigners as it is considered too little. I found HCMC very cheap – even at inflated foreigner prices – yet little places in the Mekong Delta catering solely to tourists could be relatively expensive.

    However my benchmark is Mumbai – quite an expensive city where multiple realities and economies co-exist. As you settle in, may find more access to something closer to ‘local’ market prices.

    • siobhanambersmith June 19, 2013 at 5:23 pm #

      Thanks for commenting – it’s always good to hear opinions from people living. working or travelling in Asia! Vietnam is still cheap, even with the overcharging. And you’re right about starting to find more places where things are closer to ‘local’ prices. I don’t mind paying a bit more as all things considered, it is still a very affordable lifestyle!

      Interesting to hear about Mumbai – I didn’t realize it would be an expensive place to live. I imagine that there are many different standards of life in a city like that. As there is in any city to a certain extent, I suppose.

      Hope everything is going well for you in India.

  2. Emily Lockhart June 25, 2013 at 8:49 pm #

    Hi Siobhan,
    I just wanted to leave a note to say how much I enjoy reading your blog. I am leaving to travel SE Asia on the 28th of July and will be following a similar path to you: starting in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines before doing Japan, S Korea and onto Australia – well that is the plan as it stands. Reading about your experiences has been a brilliant way of getting excited about my trip – not that my excitement needs much persuasion but it has been great reading all the same. I love that your blogs are so reflective. I always think that Asia is a place that really makes you think a lot. Hope you are still having a great time.
    Emily (Rachael’s friend)

    • siobhanambersmith June 26, 2013 at 10:21 am #

      Hi Emily!

      Thank you so much for the lovely comment, I really appreciate it. Your trip sounds fantastic – I would love to go to Japan. I am considering heading over to Australia myself but I have kind of settled in to life in Hanoi so I’m not sure if I’m quite ready to leave yet!

      You are right – Asia is definitely a place that makes you think! It can be quite difficult travelling here at times but there are always plenty of great things to remind you why you are here. You will have a brilliant time. How long are you planning on travelling for? Please feel free to get in touch if you come to Hanoi. If i’m still here, I’d be more than happy to show you around!

      Thanks again for the comment.

      Siobhan x

  3. MusicalSeoul June 28, 2013 at 5:23 am #

    I find this interesting. Since I am planning on teaching in Korea next year I know that it is similar to this. I don’t think it is as big as a pay gap, but I know that westerners do earn more than the regular teachers. Luckily, Koreans enjoy being considered some of the nicest people in the world so even if they do resent you, you may never know.

    • Siobhan Smith July 8, 2013 at 8:48 am #

      Hey, thanks for the comment. Where are you going to be teaching in South Korea? I have a friend teaching there at the moment and he loves it. The pay gap in Vietnam is huge, it really is. Perhaps I am paranoid about there being resentment because it is something I feel so aware of. But I do feel it’s an issue here unfortunately…

  4. gina4star July 8, 2013 at 3:51 pm #

    This is so interesting, especially where you say about having “the face”. I don’t teach anymore, but I did when I first came to Mexico. In one of my jobs I was paid a salary double that of one of my colleagues (which was still relatively measly to be honest). She was bilingual, having grown up and spending many years in the states. So she didn’t just “speak English” she was actually bilingual, which is a really important difference. But she was Mexican, so she didn’t have the “face” and as a result was paid half of what I was paid even though she had more experience than me, and we did the same thing. So unfair. Apart from teaching it’s hard to find well paid jobs here too…

    • siobhanambersmith July 11, 2013 at 6:30 am #

      Thanks for commenting Gina! I find it so interesting as well. I couldn’t believe the huge differences in pay here! I can’t help but feel a little guilty about it. While, as a foreigner I pay more for a lot of things, the standard of living is very cheap in comparison to the pay.

      Very interesting that it is similar in Mexico…


  5. Karran Bonner August 7, 2013 at 8:05 am #

    This is amazing Siobhan (thought I best use your Sunday name since it’s your blog). Keep up the inspiring posts…love reading them and learning more about the culture of where you are living! Karran

    • overdueadventure August 8, 2013 at 8:35 am #

      Thank you for the lovely comment Karran.


      (Sunday name city….)

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