The rising number of expats arriving in Vietnam in recent times has created demand for housekeepers but cultural and language barriers need effort to overcome.
Advertisements for full-time and part-time housekeepers or maids have become commonplace on expat forums in Vietnam. Job centres are also full of ads from potential employers and employees. The demand for housekeepers has grown as more and more foreigners have come to work or invest in Vietnam over recent years, according to Ms Hong Phuong, Director of Thien Gia, a provider of home help for foreigners.
The backgrounds of those willing to work as housekeepers has also changed in response to the increasing demand, with students and even graduates joining the traditional source of country women. There is a very strong housekeeper network in place that informally shares information on potential employers and employees, according to Mr William Shin, an entrepreneur living in Ho Chi Minh City. It’s no longer difficult to find a housekeeper, particularly in big cities, foreigners agree. “You can even just ask one of your neighbours; a retired woman for example,’ said Mr Nicolas Cote, an English teacher living in Hanoi.
Together with the economic hit the country has taken in recent years, the greater demand has made the job more attractive as other jobs become harder to find. Though she holds a degree in accounting, 23-year-old Ms Hoa from Nam Dinh province works as a full-time housekeeper for an American family in Hanoi. With her basic English skills she is paid $400 a month; double the average starting salary for an accountant. The higher salary has kept her in the job longer than she planned. “I don’t think I will spend my whole working life in this job but I will continue with it until the economy recovers and I can find a good job in accounting on the same salary,” she said.
Apart from increasing opportunities and good salaries, housekeeping also has other benefits. Ms Mai, a 40-year-old with eight years experience keeping house for both local and foreign families, said she preferred working for expats as she can earn more while working less. Working for a local family involves many more tasks, such as cleaning, cooking and caring for the children. At an expat’s house, meanwhile, there are usually two or three domestic staff on hand, depending on the number of family members and the size of the house. Each is responsible for specific tasks, such as caring for the kids, cooking, gardening, or security. So they can focus on their own tasks and not be responsible for many things at the same time. “If I do my job well, foreign bosses are also nicer and show more respect than local bosses,” Ms Mai said, adding that when her ex-boss returned to their home country of Sweden they introduced her to one of their friends in Vietnam.
Although it’s not difficult to find a housekeeper in Vietnam, finding one that is suitable is apparently not so straightforward.
The language barrier is one of the major issues, according to Ms Phuong. Simple work such as cleaning or childcare requires less than a month’s training, while learning how to cook basic Western meals may take around three months. But to communicate correctly is much more complex, as almost housekeepers come from countryside and have a low-level of education and little or no English skills. Some young students and graduates with better English have joined the housekeeping workforce in recent times but foreigners tend to prefer experienced housekeepers over 30 years of age, as they are concerned that a younger person won’t stay in the job for a long period.
Together with the language barrier, differences in customs and culture also create difficulties for both sides.
Mr Cote said he would be happier if his housekeeper did what he asked rather than what she thought she should do. “For example, she usually spends too much time cleaning the banister but never touches the shower, even though we remind her all the time,” he said. “I don’t know why she does that,” he said.
Similarly, Ms Diana Wu, another expat living in Ho Chi Minh City, said that many times she hasn’t been pleased with her housekeeper after showing her how she wanted a task done but then watching her continue to do it her own way. For example, in the west parents feed their young children in a high chair at the dinner table, but her housekeeper chases her kids around the house with a spoon, feeding them whenever the chance comes. And while westerners may sometimes allow the children to cry, depending on the situation, many Vietnamese people can’t tolerate a crying baby and will pick them as soon as the tears appear. “Our housekeeper seems unwilling to follow my instructions,” she said. “I need to reason with her to get her to agree and understand why she must do things my way.”
From the housekeepers’ perspective, Ms Mai said it usually takes time for Vietnamese women to adjust to the different lifestyles of foreigners as many come from the countryside, where traditional culture and customs are deeply ingrained and can’t be changed quickly. “In Vietnam we usually stop children from playing with dirt or climbing and running too much, or help them to get up when they fall over,” she said. “When I did likewise with my foreign charges, my boss didn’t like it. She said she wanted them to develop on their own. But sometimes I couldn’t shake my old habits and my boss wasn’t happy,” she said.
Local housekeepers must also learn to use modern equipment when cleaning and cooking in a way that’s different to what they know. Ms Hoa said at first she had trouble with the washing machine and how to iron clothes properly. But her boss was nice enough to show here what to do. “I think the most important things for a housekeeper to foreigners is to be honest, hardworking, and open minded, to learn and adjust to new things,” she said.
All of the expats VET spoke to also emphasised the importance of honesty. Mr Shin said he went on a business trip once and returned to find some things were missing in his home. He suspected the housekeeper, but had no hard evidence. Mr Cote, meanwhile, said he lived with four other people and the housekeeper once asked them all separately for her salary, even though she was paid by the first one she asked. With such experiences, many expats say an honest housekeeper is worth her weight in gold and they are willing to reward them with a higher salary.