Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Expatriate expense in Sài Gòn.

I'd just start by giving a plug out to:

Australian Clinic & Pathology Diagnosis
38 Mạc Đĩnh Chi, Đa Kao Ward
District 1, Hồ Chí Minh City.
Phone: 8227 2264 - 827 2265

That firm is the clinic that I go to when necessary; I recommend it to anyone from abroad visiting this town. I learnt about them from a Australian coworker last year. They are the company that worked out the chest virus I had, gave the recommended pills to me - and without the constant overmedication of antibiotics common here. That is also the firm that my Vietnamese girlfriend sees when necessary. She even recommended it to one of her employees as well. And it only cost me 100,000 VNĐ (or $10 AUD).

Now it is not one of the "common" expatriate clinics. There are a few in town: SOS, Columbia-Asia, and a few other. Now guess what price they take? About 110 USD for a trip to the doctor - or $150 AUD. A little bit more for tests and ultrasound. My girlfriend's response was "too expensive". She's right.

That's one of the strange things about expatriatedom here: some things like food are a lot cheaper than home. For example, a full meal for four plus tea and beer was 95000 VNĐ tonight. That's cheap. However, "services" for foreigners in Việt Nam are often more expensive than home - although it depends on where "home" is. My theory is that the services are set at a rate equivalent to U.S. prices. That may make the Americans in town comfortable. It certainly makes the American insurance companies comfortable. On the other hand, the prices are outrageous for Australians. Pay $150 for a consultation in the land of the bulk bill? Fuck that.

Another example of a "service" cheaper at home is the humble gymnasium. Recently I've been attending one at a certain ritzy hotel. I actually won it in a "trivia" contest, would you believe? However, the conditions of the prize state that this is an "off-peak membership": out of here after 4:00 pm, and no coming in on weekends. And how much would I pay normally? About $110 USD a month I think. If it was peak membership, double that.

Here the comparison to home is unfavourable again. My old stompin' ground in Brisvegas, Thor's Gym, has the following prices: "Casual visit AUD8; one month membership AUD90; three month membership AUD250; six month membership AUD350; one year membership AUD470." (One person who worked at this unnamed Sài Gòn gym - a Canadian - also mentioned that it was more expensive than at his home.) And yet again, there are local alternatives that are - if not better - than comparable. One guy from my CELTA course ended up attending a gym whose membership consisited mainly of Vietnamese from the local Navy. He never got hassled either. (However, lack of air-conditioning would deter most expats.)

So what explains this odd phenomena, where expatriates pay about a third of the average yearly Vietnamese GDP/capita for a visit to the doctor? One guess is that of exclusivity - "you can't be rubbing with the poor." While that is the result, I believe it isn't the intention. Another explanation is that they believe the expat services deliver better quality. I can understand why people have this belief, but I'm not convinced is is inevitably true. One workmate picked up a bad case of athlete's foot from another "expatriate" hotel gym.

After some thought, I think the main reason expatriates pay inflated prices is that they don't know any better. This implies that the information available to expatriates is limited. That's understandable. You are in a strange country, which speaks a strange and tonal language not understandable to you. There are a few resources available: guidebooks, handouts from various embassies and consulates, and a few odds-and-ends from tourist companies. It is understandable that they choose the "big-name" companies first. The problem is that the "big-name" companies are generally the "big-name" prices. That isn't a hard-and-fast rule back home, but it seems to be over here. After all, "competition" in this sector is limited, so there isn't much incentive to cut prices.

However, there is one shining light in the darkness: word of mouth. The advantage of word-of-mouth (well, from friends) over the guidebooks is that it is generally altruistic - rather than dis/un interested (from the embassies)... or worse, involving some "finder's fee" that you don't know about.

After 6 month's of living here, and about $500 US of medical bills (from 3 consultations!), I learnt about the "Australian Clinic & Pathology Diagnosis" from a co-worker. That was the place where he took himself, his wife and his two daughters whenever they got ill. He told me about it. I told my girlfriend, she told her employees, and perhaps they'll tell other people. And now I'm telling you.

So if you are sick in Sài Gòn (and believe me - that's common) - you know where to go.