3 Important Money Lessons I Learned From Vietnam

Some of you have messaged me that you are curious about the cultural insights my husband and I have about finances coming from our Vietnamese-American background. So here goes.

After the conflicts from the Vietnam War ended and the entire nation was united under communism, my family decided our situation was not good and that it was time to flee the country via wooden boat. I was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and immigrated to the US in the 1980s. While being raised by Vietnamese parents in the U.S., sometimes I felt split having one foot in Vietnam, one foot in the U.S. It wasn’t always easy to reconcile both worlds.

My husband also felt this way as he and his family also escaped Vietnam to come to the U.S. I guess that’s how we connected so fast and fell silly in love in college.

After we got married, being able to communicate values together, including money ones, became super important. It’s even more challenging when you are an immigrant or from a blended culture because every culture deals with money differently. That’s why we have to talk about money more openly with one another.

I share three important money lessons from across the ocean that we learned as Vietnamese-Americans.

Lesson #1

In some parts of Vietnam, you can see people living off of $1 a day. They cook using open fire, have dirt floors, and roofs made of corrugated metal.

Some of my relatives still live this way. During Lunar New Year — a holiday that’s so major it’s like Easter, 4th of July, and Christmas all-in-one — I send some money to help improve their living. After all, the only difference between me and my cousins is that their parents stayed in Vietnam, while my parents escaped Vietnam on a tiny wooden fishing boat. My fortune living in the US was not made on my own, but due to my parents’ hope and bravery for coming into this country.

I feel I can spare a nice New Year gift to my cousins.

One year, they used my New Year gift to buy a really nice laptop.

I didn’t think that was how that money was going to be spent. To me, I saw replacing their rugged pots and pilled clothes as a need, and a laptop as a luxury. I am using an old laptop myself, and theirs was even faster than mine!

It took time to understand them. A laptop to them meant to them a window to the outside world. Living without an internet is a state of absolute destitute, far more serious than having really old, used things.

Source: Facebook @cameraduyhuu

And Vietnamese people take freedom very seriously.

After the end of the Vietnam War, the entire country fell to communism where free speech and communication became limited by the government. However, with access to the internet, the world is at their fingertips.

If there is one thing I am very proud of, it’s that Vietnamese people are very resourceful. That’s why even if they are riding water buffalos with no formal education beyond high school, they know how to write to optimize SEO better than I do.

LESSON: buy what brings you the most happiness. In the US, you may be expected to have nice appliances, a nice car, a nice home. But you may not care to impress anyone. Don’t look to fulfill others’ expectations, look to your own heart.

Lesson #2

Our first bowl of pho made in the instant pot

In Vietnam, all females’ lives are revolved around meal prep. Food shopping happens daily. Women get to the open markets early as most foods are sold out for the day at noon. Cooking happens daily. There’s no freezer.

Women have no choice but to cook fresh food from scratch this way because dried or canned foods aren’t as readily marketed and freezers aren’t common in the tropics.

In the US, pre-processed foods are available at every American grocery store, which makes meal planning so much easier. I’m all for convenient food because it allows me to be a working mom and a mom of three all the while my husband is busy and away. But when we eat pre-processed foods all the time, then there’s a problem because it doesn’t give long-term health.

LESSON: Money does not buy health. And when you don’t have health, you have nothing.

Lesson #3

Intergenerational wealth building is a common strategy in Vietnam. A typical three-generation home setup is parents take care of the grandparents, and grandparents take care of the grandchildren.

In the US, no longer is living all under one roof the only option for a family of three generations to build wealth. We have retirement accounts like 401k, which adds creative options for families of multiple generations to work together.

Nobody builds wealth overnight in the stock market, it is done over several generations. Families with three generations who understand compounding and long-term perspective can build some serious, unimaginable wealth together.

And if it’s one thing Vietnamese people do well, it’s getting everyone involved and working together as a unit. Of course, this collaboration only works if parents teach their kids the power of compounding and to have a long-term mindset. Also, everybody has to have a solid relationship.

LESSON: Bequeath education to the younger generation about finances such as saving money, investing, compounding, and long-term goals. Education truly enables them to continue to build wealth for several generations. If family dynamics is right, and the ability to form a symbiotic relationship is possible, the family can be a mean money-making machine.