Why I decided to move from Canada to Vietnam

The case for making the move, as told by a lawyer-slash-musician-slash-social entrepreneur.

In your late twenties and early thirties, don’t be surprised if you’re invited to what seems to be a never-ending list of farewells. Your friends (and maybe even you) will move away to another city, country, or continent. My friend Steven Ngo is originally from Vancouver, works as a lawyer in Calgary, and is now embarking on a trip to Vietnam for an indefinite period of time. No, he’s not doing the South East Asia backpacking tour, he’s there to work. Here’s what he had to say about the process of coming to this decision and what you may want to consider if you ever want to live or work overseas as well.

You were born, raised and educated in Canada, having worked in Vancouver and Calgary. Why the decision to move to Vietnam? What were some of the key factors that influenced your decision to move to Vietnam and practice law?

Like many Asian Canadians, I felt the itch to connect to my roots and learn more about my culture. While I was born, raised and educated in Canada, my cultural background is part Vietnamese. My dad was from Vietnam, my mom was from China.

When my dad and my relatives left Vietnam as refugees on a boat, the country was in the midst of a war. Life was different back then. Now, Vietnam is on the rise and undergoing an incredible growth trajectory. Over half of the population is under the age of 30 and most were born after the war. Vietnam is now a vibrant economy and will be a major player on the world stage. When the opportunity came up to join one of the prestigious global law firms in their Ho Chi Minh City office, I jumped on the opportunity and ran with it.

What do you hope to gain out of this experience? What are you most excited about? What are you most unsure of?

Having grown up in Vancouver, I feel that it is easy to fall into a comfort zone. You end up hanging out with the same group of friends, going to your favourite coffee (or bubble tea) shop, doing the same few things on rotation. While it is nice to have some routine in life, it is easy to fall into the trap of going through the motions. I felt that this was happening to me.

With this experience, the one thing that I am most excited about (and unsure about) is getting thrown into a completely new environment, re-establishing my life, making new friends and adapting to the culture. I went through this journey during my student exchange year in Singapore at National University of Singapore and it was a transformative experience for me. I was a different person after my exchange year. Before my exchange year, I was guarded, anxious and emotionally unaware. After my exchange year, everything changed for me. I became much more open, adaptable and friendlier.

Post-exchange Steven was definitely better than pre-exchange Steven.

What are the challenges and opportunities you see in taking the leap to move from Canada to Vietnam, both personally and professionally?

From a professional standpoint, I am excited to make new connections and build contacts in a different part of the world. Today, business is more global than it has ever been and I foresee plenty of opportunities between Canada and Vietnam in the near future.

From a personal standpoint, it is about breaking out of my comfort zone and seeing where life takes me. This is both a challenge and an opportunity to explore a different side of my identity and I am excited to see who I become a few years from now. Let’s chat again then.

In preparing for your move, what research did you do, what conversations did you have with family and friends? What surprised you in your research and conversations?

I am the type of person who likes to get as much data as I can before making a decision. During my research, I reached out to friends, colleagues, pretty much anyone who has worked in the region.

It is, however, important to be aware that not everyone will support your decision. This will happen, but do not let this discourage you. A few people that I spoke with were against the idea and this can be due to various reasons, including speaking from a position of fear or envy. Envy is a very tricky emotion and is considered the “secret emotion”.

This also reminded me of the story about “the crabs in a bucket”. Whenever a crab decides to escape from a bucket of crabs, the other crabs will try to pull it down and keep it in the bucket. It is not until the crab actually escapes from the bucket when it becomes an object of admiration (or envy). Elon Musk is a famous example of this. If you ever get a chance to read his biography, Elon had a lot of haters who tried to downplay his ideas, but look at him now. Watch out for crabs. Yes, you can quote me on that.

What are your top 3 tips for anyone considering relocating to Asia from North America for career opportunities?

  1. Be on the ground. This is a valuable piece of advice that a friend told me. He recently made the move over to Hong Kong to work as in-house counsel at a private equity firm. The face-to-face element is critical and can move things forward. I understand that this would mean taking a week from work and spending a good chunk of money, but if this is something that you are serious about, swipe that credit card.
  2. Be open. Reach out to your contacts and ask if they know anyone who is working abroad or has worked abroad. If relocating is something that you are serious about, it is important to invest your time in doing this and being open to opportunities to meet and chat with everyone and anyone (see #1 above).
  3. Be aware. It is one thing to conduct your research beforehand, but it is another thing to be at the firm that you want to work for and get a feel for what things are really like. Some places may look great on paper, but be aware of what is going on around you and pay attention to your intuition. This happened to me when I made my initial trip over to Vietnam — I followed my gut and it has made all the difference.
Photo courtesy of Steven Ngo

Interview by Natasha Jung.

Steven’s Bio:

Lawyer. Social Entrepreneur. Musician.

Steven graduated from the University of British Columbia, Faculty of Law and spent a year of his legal studies at Queen’s University. Prior to law school, Steven worked as a business analyst at TELUS in the Calgary, Vancouver and Toronto offices and interned in the Istanbul office of a European corporate law firm. He also volunteered in South America where he assisted physicians in conducting emergency medical procedures and repaired homes for a children’s diabetes foundation in Quito, Ecuador.

Steven graduated with top honours on the dean’s list and was the valedictorian at the University of British Columbia, Faculty of Science. He is also an avid musician, having founded a non-profit music organization, performed at the 2010 Winter Olympics and presented at the TEDxKidsBC as a speaker. He has been extensively featured in the media for his work in the community.

From July 2014 to August 2017, Steven practiced in the corporate department of Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP, one of the leading business law firms in Canada. In October 2017, Steven will be joining Allens Linklaters in their Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam office.

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