Expats in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) The Story of The Facebook Group

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Wall poster at the expats in Ho Chi Minh City event

Expats in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

This article is a joint collaboration between InSeAsia.com and AsiaLIFE. It was published simultaneously on both websites and of course in the print version of AsiaLIFE magazine.

Ask any of the  expats in Ho Chi Minh City which social media site they use to keep in touch with what’s happening and the chances are you will keep getting the same answer.

The Facebook group Expats in Ho Chi Minh City has been the go-to place for many of the city’s thousands of expats since it started operations back in 2007.

The group is the largest of its type in the whole of Vietnam, and the third-largest in Southeast Asia. The current 72,000 membership base is an impressive number from a group that started from humble beginnings. In fact, stating the number of followers of this group proves to be immensely difficult as it rises so rapidly; the numbers change on a daily basis.

It seems that the group has reached a tipping point in social media growth, where numbers simply keep increasing. The site is vibrant, with members adding many posts each day; the key to great social media engagement.

We met up with Swede, Tom Holgersson, the owner, and Kyaw Tay Zar, known as Sam, who hails originally from Myanmar. Sam is one of the administrators who manages to keep the Expats in Ho Chi Minh City Facebook page ticking over.

the men behind expats in Ho Chi Minh City
Tom, with admins Sam and Valentin.

Expats in Ho Chi Minh City: the Early Years

The group was founded by Tom when he moved here in 2007. He began working for the Swedish government’s business development agency “The Swedish Trade Council” known today as Business Sweden. Tom had previously studied at the Vietnam National University in Hanoi and had done research for his Master’s thesis in Vietnam. However, Saigon was a new experience for him. He soon made friends among the expats in Ho Chi Minh City wanting to contact people in similar circumstances.

It all began as a meetup group where people could get together and chat over a drink. In Tom’s own words, “I still remember the first meeting at a small restaurant on Hai Ba Trung Street. I think it was called the Lion Bar. At the first meetup we were around 20-30 expats from Australia, USA, Korea, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines and a few other countries. Even a few local Vietnamese asked if they could join and sure, they were welcome to participate as well.”

Tom met Sam when he joined the group in 2011. Sam had just arrived in town and used the site for information about everyday problems faced by expats in Ho Chi Minh City. He soon became an active member of the group, taking part in debates and helping Tom out with some of the day to day running. In fact Sam designed the distinctive Facebook page cover. Although from a marketing background he runs a design agency with a team of designers.

The group would meet at different restaurants in the city to talk about the challenges of being an expat. The usual subjects were often repeated: language difficulties; currency, traffic; adapting to local business practices, to name but a few. In those early days the group sometimes went on excursions outside the city. Of the initial group, only a few have remained in the city. Such is the way of expat life. People get assigned to different posts, want further challenges and new experiences. However, the Facebook group has continued to grow. In fact, over the weeks that the article was put together a further 3,500 joined.

Controlling the Trolls

Any group on Facebook will get its fair share of “trolls”, people who sow discord on the Internet by starting quarrels or upsetting people, and Expats In Ho Chi Minh City is no different. A great example of this being somebody posting a photo of a snake they had found, someone else replied that it might be a particular venomous variety and urged caution. What transpired was a lengthy exchange that seemed to get more negative as it progressed. What began as a discussion about which specific snake of a certain genus this one was, quickly turned to unhelpful, disparaging remarks towards the person that was innocently trying to help.

In fact, it is constantly surprising that this phenomenon hasn’t become a lot worse than it already is. What’s more, the negativity that some people show towards their adopted country is often surprising. This is usually born out of frustration. We all love Saigon and generally stay upbeat about daily life here. However, most of us can live anywhere if we’ve made it work here. If we all chose to up sticks and move tomorrow there is little stopping us. However, if you are on a long contract in your job this might not be a possibility. Small gripes can turn into big issues and some people naturally adopt a negative attitude in their daily lives.

The time of week appears to affect the mood of posters. Fridays tend to see more aggressive posts. One can but surmise that towards the end of the working week stress levels get higher. Issues about relationships, especially between foreigners and locals, tend to get highly emotional responses.

Expat life goes through a cycle. When first you move to a country it is like a honeymoon. Everything is new and exciting and the smallest of things can delight. Then the honeymoon ends and reality bites. During this period frustrations come to the fore. Simple everyday experiences start to irk and can get blown out of proportion. Finally, one settles down into real life and the good versus bad balance kicks in. If at this time the good outweighs the bad, then life is great. For some however, the bad overpowers the good. Enter the troll.

We asked Tom what the policy is on controlling them and when does a harmless troll having a rant become an issue. He said, “There are two sides of managing a large group like Expats in Ho Chi Minh City. The good side is that most members are positive, give great feedback and try to help in the best possible way. Then there is a bad side in that there is a small group of negative and disappointed people sharing their hate. They only appear to see the downside with everything in Vietnam and complain about it constantly. I don’t really understand why they live here to be honest.”

The group moderators have a policy whereby they will monitor things that are getting out of hand. If it continues, a quiet word is had with the antagonists. If it continues even further, they can and do ban these people from the site. It is inevitable in such a large group that arguments and disagreements happen all the time. The trick is to try and not let them get out of hand.

There is no doubt about it, the internet tends to exaggerate the bad. You read twenty positive posts, then someone says something really negative and human nature dictates that this is the one that sticks in your mind.

With all of this said, there is obviously value in the level of trolling, as it strengthens engagement in the site and provides a degree of entertainment that other groups are lacking. Everyone likes to break out the popcorn when someone makes a “faux pas” on Expats in Ho Chi Minh City. This has to be acknowledged as a contributing factor to the membership numbers.

Expats in Ho Chi Minh City, Today

Life over the last couple of decades has changed almost beyond belief. It is hard to imagine nowadays what it was like for the early pioneers here. Totally isolated and cut off from their friends and families back home, the life of an expat is an isolating experience.

Nowadays, information is more readily available, even in developing nations like Vietnam. Most of the original answers to questions expats asked are now readily available online. This has not slowed down activity within the group. Expats face similar problems no matter where they move, but those in Southeast Asia in general and Vietnam in particular do face unique challenges.

There is not a lot of governmental advice available to help expats settle in. Additionally, the red tape can seem overwhelming at times.

The fact that the group is still growing at such a rate is more than impressive. That it is doing it in a climate of dozens of more Facebook groups covering similar areas of interest is quite remarkable. In recent years we have seen groups starting up promoting events in the city, humorous anecdotes and photos, different districts in town and just about anything that can be bought and sold. Throughout it all Expats in Ho Chi Minh City continues to outpace them.

Not only have they maintained their leading position, but they have fought off the advances of some pretty big hitters who try, from time to time, to acquire the group. There has been a lot of interest from real estate companies looking for a ready-made platform for their advertising.

The Future for Expats in Ho Chi Minh City

We caught up with Tom on his recent visit back to the city that used to be his home. He is striving to make it even more accessible for members to get accurate and reliable information. This in turn will make their stay here more rewarding. It was great to finally meet the man after weeks of emails and Facebook chat. He is an affable and entertaining young man, with a genuine passion for Vietnam in general and Ho Chi Minh City in particular. It became apparent within minutes that he possesses a genuine love for the city and its people.

We asked him how Ho Chi Minh City had changed since he has been away. He replied somewhat predictably, “The traffic is hugely more congested than it was just two years ago. It has been quite a shock to see so many cars on the roads” Of course since he has been away there has been a massive amount of building work around the city and of course, construction of the metro system has begun in earnest.

Tom is in town to launch a new website. We met up with Sam and him at the launch party at Cafe Restaurant on Calmette.

The site will be an interactive platform that helps expats looking for certain items and services. For example, someone looking for an apartment with a certain budget in District 7, will be able to get reliable information specific to that search.

But it will be much more than just a search engine for property. Tom wants the site to cover all aspects of daily life in this giant Asian metropolis. Initially it will focus on expats in Ho Chi Minh City, but hopefully with time it may be able to grow to cover a wider area. Local people with good English skills will also be able to use the site.

Sam is the man with the data. He explained that the Expats in Ho Chi Minh City Facebook group gets upwards of 3,000 comments per day. There is a hard core of about 220 members who post almost daily. 4,500 people are active posting on the site weekly. It really does have an astonishingly high reach. The question remains however, just how successfully will it transition from being an active group on social media to a stand-alone website?

The challenge being that we log onto Facebook as an effect of this new digital social habit that affects us all. In Asia especially it is the primary tool used for communication between businesses and individuals. How does a stand-alone website maintain the social capital offered by social media?

A group of about 70 people gathered at the function on the rooftop bar of Cafe Restaurant. Tom spoke of their plans to develop the group. Sam spoke of the way he had written a few bots to study the traffic and the way that the group interacts with each other. 35,000 members don’t comment but visit on a regular basis.

Another administrator, Valentin Cheval spoke about the exciting plans for the new website. It hopefully will cover all aspects of expat life. Where to go in the evenings, the best restaurants, the best bars, where to buy items and how to survive life as one of the many expats in Ho Chi Minh City.

Describing the functionality of the new site, Tom says, “The website will be systematic, enabling people to gain knowledge on just about everything in the city. It would be great to get official channels involved. Expats that genuinely love Vietnam are wonderful ambassadors for this country”. The launch date is hoped to be in August or September, just in time for the new arrivals into Ho Chi Minh City, for the new school year. On top of this, we have of course many hundreds more returning after the school holidays.

Tom and Sam hope that the site will become as successful as the Facebook page. Its official title has not been decided yet and there is still a tremendous amount of work to do.

People like Tom, Sam and indeed we at AsiaLIFE and InSeAsia, are more than happy to spread the word of what this fascinating country and bustling city has to offer.

Hopefully the website will enhance the experience for expats in Ho Chi Minh City and indeed people simply coming on holiday. If it attracts people in the same numbers as the Facebook group, it looks to be shaping into quite the success story.

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Following a highly successful 25-year career as a singer/songwriter and musician, Keith pulled out of the rat race and moved to Southeast Asia in 2008. First living in Thailand, he moved to Cambodia and then relocated to Ho Chi Minh City in early 2013. Keith has had work published in magazines and websites in the UK, Europe, USA, Australia and Asia. He has written for the BBC and has appeared on TV and radio in many different countries. His great loves are music and travel, but he writes on a whole range of subjects.