Vietnam: Life in HCMC

At the age of 27, Lee-Lon Wong had built a stable and promising career path as a barrister in his hometown of Auckland. But he still felt deeply that "something was missing". He couldn't explain what it was exactly, but he decided to leave it all behind to follow "the call of Asia" from his heart. His targeted destination was China or Taiwan but he dropped by Vietnam as a first stop on the journey. Time flies, he's now been there  six years. He spoke with local journalist Nguyễn Lệ Diễm about his new life.

 Why did you choose to stay in Vietnam?

 I don’t think there was just one reason. I travelled to Hội An and Hà Nội before getting to Hồ Chí Minh City (HCMC) and I had unexpected professional development opportunities that extended my stay. Then Covid came and I had an opportunity to work at the New Zealand Consulate. All this, along with the fact that I have truly enjoyed Vietnam, Vietnamese culture and life, means that my first year in the country has quickly turned into six. Honestly, it still hasn’t gotten old.

 How did that job opportunity come to you?

 I was managing a language centre just before Covid hit in 2020. At the time I was thinking of leaving Vietnam for China or Taiwan, as one of my goals in coming to Asia originally was to learn Chinese. However Covid arrived, travel shut down and I had to change plans. The timing was very fortunate in that a job at the New Zealand Consulate came up just at that time, so I applied for it, thinking my legal experience would give me an advantage.


Lee-Lon Wong : happy in his work /photo Nguyễn Lệ Diễm

It's been a  a new and interesting experience ?

 Transferring to the Consulate was a big professional step and had a huge reward. It has introduced me to the fascinating world of international affairs, trade development and the nuts and bolts of the New Zealand-Vietnam bilateral relationship. Besides, it also allowed me to better stay in touch and understand the local New Zealand community, and deepen my awareness of the activities and challenges of New Zealand companies working in Vietnam. We also had some pretty serious consular cases during Covid time that I will never forget, and I had the chance to meet the New Zealand Prime Minister in November on her trade visit to Vietnam! You don’t get to do that in every career.

 All of these experiences have reaffirmed to me that Vietnam and Asia more broadly are important and will remain so in future. Developing a deeper understanding, finding good partners and building relationships in this region are important for New Zealand people, businesses and government. There are already many New Zealanders here at all levels doing outstanding work, creating linkages and opportunities for the benefit of New Zealand, Vietnam and the wider region.

 Its great to know that there are more and more New Zealanders interested in Vietnam. As one of them, did you find any particular difficulties when you started a new life here?

 Learning Vietnamese was by far the biggest challenge. It is a really difficult language! I thought having a grounding in Mandarin (another tonal language) might help, but it really didn’t. Also many locals don’t slow down their speaking for foreigners, or simply ignore foreigners trying to speak Vietnamese. I’m not sure why this is, but it’s a very common experience for Vietnamese language learners and adds to the frustration of learning, and I know many people who tried to learn and gave up. At times, progress was truly painful.

 That said, many friends, colleagues and teachers supported me with encouragement (and correction). I am hugely grateful to each of them, and it has definitely been worth it. I am still not as good as I want to be, but the progress I’ve made so far is satisfying.

 Is it one of the reasons that has kept you in HCMC for such a long time?

 It’s hard to describe the exact reasons, but here are a few.

 New Zealand is a very quiet place. The whole country has five million people, which is about half of HCMC, and Auckland, our biggest city, only has 1.5 million people. So it’s extremely quiet, and it’s also very far away from the rest of the world. Vietnam is the opposite – there are so many people, so much noise and energy, and it’s right in the heart of Asia, with China, Taiwan, Japan and Korea to the north, Cambodia,Thailand and Laos to the West, the Philippines to the East, and Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia to the south.

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam's sprawling southern metropolis, once named Saigon./ photo Flickr CC Martijn Roos

 Despite the difficulties, I became a bit obsessed with studying Vietnamese and learning the culture. I even created a few podcast episodes to capture what I learnt about Vietnamese language and studying it.

 For example, the food is wonderful (mì Quảng is my favourite noodle dish), and anything that involves rolling something (barbecued pork, rice pancakes, meatballs, etc.) in fresh rice noodles with herbs, cucumber in rice paper is wonderful. There’s a legendary chicken pho place in District 3 near my apartment, that sings to my Hainanese ancestors. I wish I enjoyed seafood as it looks amazingly fresh and my Vietnamese friends seem to enjoy all the crab, shrimp and snails so much!

I also get some of the best of HCMC’s coffee and café culture. The small boutique cafes, each with their own flavour and character are my favourite places to go for an afternoon to work, or just enjoy the view. I’ve also found there are lots of fascinating similarities with my own Chinese heritage, and lots of differences. It makes Vietnam feel both like home and a new land.

 And what are your favourite places outside of HCMC?

 In September-October this year, I went to Hà Giang by motorbike for the first time. By then, I’d travelled through the Mekong Delta, been to Central Vietnam several times, visited Hà Nội  and Hạ Long Bay, and so I thought I had a pretty good picture of Vietnam. Also being from New Zealand, and having travelled through parts of Canada and America, I’m used to seeing really big, beautiful mountains. But Hà Giang totally blew my mind.

 It is hard to overstate the sheer size and beauty of the mountains and valleys of northern Vietnam. I had never encountered it before, and I took photos that I will keep forever (Google willing). Sometimes it took me hours to go just a few kilometres along a road as I kept stopping to take photos. I even drove parts of the Hà Giang loop twice because I didn’t want to miss the alternative route. I’m hoping to go again next year with some friends just to reabsorb more of the stunning landscape. It’s still fresh in my mind a couple of months on.

Ha Giang, Vietnam's spectacular northern province / photo Hệ Trần Văn Flickr CC

 Will you get back home to NZ for Christmas? Im also curious about the differences of Christmas between Vietnam and New Zealand.

 My boss (the Consul-General) and I usually take turns to go back to New Zealand for Christmas, as Consulate policy means one of us always has to be in HCMC for any consular emergencies. This year it’s his turn, so I won’t be going back this Christmas.

 Compared to other countries with deep Christmas traditions, Christmas in Vietnam tends to be more like Halloween or Valentine's Day in New Zealand – mainly a commercial event and an excuse for a party. There are positives to celebrating Christmas this way – it’s more relaxed and about getting together and having a good time, but without the social pressure of a traditional family-based festive event. Christmas in countries like New Zealand can be a bit more like Tet (Lunar New Year Festival) in Vietnam. It’s fun, but a bit stressful for those doing all the cleaning, cooking and shopping.

 Thats true. You really understand us. Just one more question, have you found the something missing when you left?

 One quote I found early on in Vietnam, attributed to Nguyễn An Ninh, a famous Vietnam political activist from the 1920s, resonated with me. In a newspaper article, he counseled people to “flee their father’s house”, to take time to explore the world outside their family, society and country, so that they might discover and bring back what they find. I keep that quote on my phone and look at it whenever I find myself wondering what I am doing.

Lee Lon at the NZ Consulate in HCMC /photo Nguyễn Lệ Diễm

 One thing I have come to understand is that from a New Zealand perspective, it is critical that we deepen our understanding of Asia. More than half of the world’s population lives in Asia, and this population is attaining higher levels of wealth, education and global influence. And the regional politics are tense - for obvious reasons.

 In this context, Vietnam and New Zealand face surprisingly similar geopolitical challenges. Both are “small” countries (relative to their neighbours), highly trade-dependent, very exposed to climate change and, like it or not, deeply influenced by developments in Asia, especially with China. Therefore, for the Vietnam and New Zealand governments and businesses to move forward, we must build new bridges, imaginatively rethink our partnerships in the region, and stay optimistic about the future.

We can only succeed from a foundation of deep understanding about the peoples and the cultures here, and their politics and economics – the list of things we need to better understand goes on.


Banner Image : HCMC billboards .David McKelvey Flickr CC

Asia Media Centre