That means there are good work opportunities for non-Vietnamese speakers – especially those with prior experience in emerging markets – as well as returning Vietnamese candidates, say observers of the country’s jobs market.

However, given Vietnam’s continuing classification as an emerging economy, the pay for even the most senior jobs is unlikely to rival salaries in a vibrant regional hub like Singapore. Or Indonesia, whose population of 250 million, compared with Vietnam’s 90 million, acts like a magnet for multinationals in the fast-moving consumer goods sector.

Ho Chi Minh City-based Robert Walters country manager for Vietnam Jon Whitehead, says there has actually been a reduction in overall spending on salaries by multinationals in Vietnam.

“The employment market here isn’t incredibly buoyant. Vietnamese who’ve returned sometimes have unrealistic expectations about their market worth at present.”

Managing director of Vietnam-based asset manager VinaCapital David Blackhall concurs that salary inflation has slowed.

“However now that we are seeing a strengthening of the economy and markets, the pressure to increase salaries and improve work conditions will become more noticeable, particularly in mid to upper management roles,” Mr Blackhall says.

“All sectors have shortages in top executives in investment, risk and compliance, sales and marketing, engineering, real estate development, finance, and human resources,” he says.

A World Bank report issued in July this year suggested Vietnam’s real GDP would grow at a moderate rate of 5.4 per cent in 2014, supported by continued foreign direct investment flows and strong manufacturing exports. That’s slowed from levels of around 7 per cent per annum in the first decade of the century. The World Bank report continued that domestic demand would remain weak on account of subdued private sector confidence, high debt levels in state-owned enterprises, high non-performing loans of commercial banks, and government budgetary constraints.

The rivalry between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City is similar to the polarisation between Sydney and Melbourne, says Whitehead: “It’s hard to get people from one city to relocate to the other.”

However the drivers of employment in Vietnam’s two largest cities are starkly different. Hanoi, as the nation’s capital, has a large public sector and is also the location of South Korean and Japanese manufacturing. HCMC has a greater concentration of commercial activity and is more likely to be a destination for expatriates.

Whitehead said Vietnam’s government has recently made the conditions under which foreigners can be hired more restrictive.

To qualify for a work permit, a foreigner now needs to show five years’ of work experience in his or her field, or a specialist qualification, says Whitehead. The government has discretion over what it regards as a suitable qualification, he says. Furthermore, the work permit lasts only two years – after which you must apply for a renewal – instead of the previous three.

But multinationals are still looking for foreigners despite government pushback, Whitehead says.

“They haven’t driven skills up to the level they need for succession planning to become wholly Vietnamese. Also, Vietnam is not an established market. That means employees here aren’t as familiar with the demanding, multicultural workplaces taken for granted by multinationals.”

For foreigners already working in Vietnam, salary reality tends to dawn if they want to stay on beyond their contract. It’s common for foreigners who’ve transferred to Vietnam to end up liking the country and wanting to stay longer, says Whitehead.

“If you are transferred you’ll typically get a package initially. After that, if you want to stay in Vietnam you’ll find it difficult to transition onto a similar one. Companies are less willing to pay large amounts.

“We’ve filled two roles recently – the general manager of a pharmaceutical company and a country manager for a retail company. They’re now both earning about $US15,000 a month. One was already here and wanted to stay, the other one was in Germany, with previous experience in Vietnam and wanted to come back. They both had to take a pay cut.”

The Robert Walters 2014 Global Salary Survey estimates that the CFO of a multinational is likely to get a salary of $US122,000 per annum tops (not including bonus). That’s about the same as a marketing director and HR director. IT roles get considerably less – the head of IT top salary is about $US65,000, according to the Robert Walters survey. A supply chain director might get about $US90,000.

All estimates are for salaries in Ho Chi Minh City – likely to be a little higher than in Hanoi – and do not include bonuses, which range from 10 to 30 per cent of salary.

VinaCapital’s David Blackhall said one sector that seems to employ a significantly higher proportion of foreign professionals is real estate. “In particular property investment and development. I think this is due to the fact that property development is more specialised than the general mainstream finance, accounting and banking areas.”

Housing costs in Vietnam are reasonable – a good two-bedroom apartment might cost $US1,000 a month – but taxes are quite high, rising to 35 per cent on amounts over $US4,000 a month, says Whitehead.

By Prue Moodie - The Australian Financial Review - September 17, 2014