Our species has an obsession with categorisation. From plants and animals through to simple and complex ideas, humans like to give everything around them a label, and then fit these labels into groups.

Such categorisation has lent itself to a theory talked about by Vietnam-based expat, John Cole. Picking it up in the mid-1980s in Papua New Guinea, both tongue-in-cheek and yet daringly close to the bone, Cole places the foreigners living in this country into three categories: missionaries, mercenaries and misfits. While there is a rhythm of the words — three ‘m’s and two words with the suffix, ‘ary’ — in Vietnam’s case there are negative historical connotations attached to the labels ‘missionary’ and ‘mercenary’. So, we’ve updated the labels to take into account modern-day Vietnam. But the question remains. Could this categorisation hold some truth?


The Do-Gooder


When I first came to Vietnam I was brimful with good intentions. I saw the poverty, was shocked and tried to help. There was a badly treated Cambodian street kid, perhaps only 12 years old. Together with my partner we tried unsuccessfully to get her off the streets. Then there were the booksellers in the backpackers’ area. I taught them English, for free. We had a few lessons and then they stopped turning up. Although my well-meant intentions ended in failure, I was trying to do some good, make a difference. I was a do-gooder. But only partly so.


There are thousands of foreigners living in Vietnam full of good intentions. A small minority are truly selfless — altruists. They give themselves almost 100 percent. Michael Brosowski of the Hanoi-based Blue Dragon Foundation is of this ilk. His life revolves around helping young, disadvantaged people in trouble. Saigon-based Trish Franklin of Loreto Vietnam is similar, having given up everything for the sake of those in need. These two people, along with a few other like-minded souls, are the real do-gooders. They have a simple cause — to help give people better lives.


Other people with this mindset — the NGO workers, the volunteers, the diplomatic workers, the people who go to fundraising events and the teachers who believe that imparting their skills will help people in Vietnam to better opportunities — are driven by charity-based motivations in this theoretical setup. But this categorisation only partly describes their raison d’etre, the work they do in Vietnam.


The Money Makers


With the possibility of earning a relatively large salary in Vietnam while enjoying the cheap cost of living, there is a money-making element to the lives of many expats living in this country. While it’s not so fruitful as in the past — when expat packages and add-on benefits were often outrageous — salaries for most foreigners remain relatively high. The money-maker is someone who takes advantage of the place where they work or live. In the traditional sense — that of the mercenary — they are highly-paid fighters motivated only by financial gain. The modern world puts them in a different environment, but the motivation is the same — money.


At various times in this country I have been motivated by money. There was one period where I was particularly ‘bad’, if earning money can be seen as negative. I was working all the hours that both daylight and night could send, but I was on a roll and stashing the cash. Even with a decade’s worth of inflation, what I was earning at the end of 2002 far surpasses what most foreigners here earn today.


There is a period when most people living here become driven by financial gain. The key is to balance the desire to earn with a sense of morality. Earning money is positive, but earning large amounts of money at the expense of others is unjust.


The Misfit


Changing visa and work permit regulations mean that there are less misfits from overseas making a living in Vietnam. Now you have to prove you are here for the right reasons. In the past anyone could rock up and start afresh.


But the fact remains — countries like Vietnam attract people who cannot make it back home. Here you can reinvent yourself. If you teach, you are treated with respect. While back home you might be a nobody, in Vietnam you can become a big fish. The sea here is just that small.
We’ve all met this type, all known the teacher whose previous job was as a cleaner at a fast food restaurant in the US. We’ve also met the corporate worker who can’t hold down a job, but due to an overseas background gets hired (and then fired), when they are just not cut out for management.


Then there is the opposite factor. People like myself who have lived here so long that going home may no longer an option. In reality it is. But finding the work I do in Vietnam back in London would be impossible. In London, 200 people going for the same job will have my level of experience, if not more. They know the city, have local knowledge and bring with them a portfolio of contacts that I just don’t have.


The word misfit is not necessarily negative. It can also apply to people who have felt the urge to broaden their horizons, seek new opportunities and try life overseas. This was how I originally came to Vietnam — I think most foreigners here may have a similar story. We are not misfits as such, but our life choices are motivated by the need to search out something different. So, maybe it’s better to describe people like ourselves as simply not run-of-the-mill. Regardless, this is where we fall in the view espoused by Cole.




The categorisation talked of by John Cole describes behavioural extremes. In the same way that most people are moderates, with only small amounts of edge-of-society individuals becoming extremists, so the people who are truly misfits, do-gooders and money makers are in a minority. Aspects true to most of us fit into a mixture of all three categories. To deny that is to deny the reasons why we live in a place such as Vietnam.


However, the longer you live in this country and acclimatise to the culture, the way of life and the belief systems, for many people such categories cease to apply.


Ultimately everyone, regardless of background, is influenced by the unique characteristics of the place they live. Foreigners living long-term in Vietnam are no different.


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Nick Ross

Chief editor and co-founder of Word Vietnam, Nick Ross was born in the humble city of London before moving to the less humble climes of Vietnam. His wanderings have taken him to definitely not enough corners of the globe, but being a constant optimist, he still has hopes.

Website: twitter.com/nickrossvietnam

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