First Impressions: What’s It Like To Live In Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam?

DCBKK 2013 Podcasting Panel

EDIT: I realize this article is ranking in Google with people looking for more information on living in Ho Chi Minh City. Since 2014, we’ve had a guide at hochlist.com to get folks quickly acquainted with the city, along with a private Facebook group called The Hoch Coach.

In late 2013, having quit my job after two years of saving up and getting my financials in order, I took a month off in Bali, hopped over to Chiang Mai, and wrapped it up by attending the annual Dynamite Circle meet up in Bangkok.

Coming off the high of a large conference with over 200 people, something was missing once I got back to Taiwan.

The energy of being around like-minded folks where we talked about business, random topics, and the latest books just wasn’t there.

It felt like an old rut.

After all, I had already thrown away the old life script and if you are the average of the five people you surround yourself with – it was time to find a new community of people doing the same thing.

The last thing I wanted was to build a location independent business…and stay in the same location.

No thanks!

Living In Ho Chi Minh City - DC Junto February 2014

Since 2012, tribes of of Internet entrepreneurs have been gathering around in Saigon (Vietnam), Chiang Mai (Thailand), and Medellin (Colombia) where people are on the ground bootstrapping their businesses from cafes and co-working spaces.

As my friend Jon Myers says, you need to place yourself in favorable situations for good things to happen and engineer your own serendipity. Good things do not come to those who wait, except what’s leftover by those who hustle.

With a number of friends already based here in Ho Chi Minh City (a.k.a. Saigon), getting a one-way ticket to Vietnam was a no-brainer.

This post is a complete breakdown of everything in case you are thinking about relocating here too.

 

Overview: Living In Ho Chi Minh City

Living In Ho Chi Minh City - CathedralHo Chi Minh city is the largest metropolitan city in Vietnam.

Under the name Saigon, it was originally a French colony until it was renamed in 1976 after the reunification.

During the 1970-1990s, economists coined the phrase “Four Asian Tigers” after Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore as the fastest growing economies.

By the 21st century, all four countries joined the ranks of high-income advanced economies.

In recent years, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines were coined as the “Tiger Cub Economies” since they’re on a similar growth trajectory as the original Asian Tigers.

But since this is my blog and I have an economics degree, I’ll go ahead and throw Vietnam in there too even though it’s considered a frontier market.

TigersIn 2013, Vietnam had a GDP of $181 billion USD.

There’s still a lot of room for growth and to give you some perspective – mutual fund companies like Fidelity, Blackrock, and Vanguard have combined investment assets north of $5 trillion USD. That’s about 27 times the GDP of Vietnam last year.

Half of the country’s population is under 30 and the local vibe is bustling with energy as the economy continues to grow.

With the prevalence of technology and information freely available now, I believe what took the Asian tigers 20-30 years to achieve will take the Tiger Cubs only 10-15 years. So what’s it like on the ground?

 

Pros

Star Trek - Teleportation1. Chores disappear

One of the greatest things here is not having to clean the house or do the chores I once hated as a child.

For $70 USD a month split between four roommates, we have a maid that comes in twice a week to clean the entire house, help out with laundry, and make the place completely spotless.

I then proceed to destroy it in the next few days with my experimental cooking since reading the 4-Hour Chef.

Serviced apartments take it even further by cleaning six times a week, ironing your clothes, and delivering groceries for you. It sounds frivolous at first, but freeing mental head-space off medial tasks can add a lot of productivity over time.

It’s like magic.

Living In Ho Chi Minh City - Special Coffee #2 at id Cafe2. Café Culture

Coffee production has been a major source of income for Vietnam since the early 20th century. In 2009, coffee was second to rice in value of agricultural exports.

Because of that, there are a great number of established cafes around the city where you can work, chill out, read, or get some afternoon tea. Fellow Saigon resident James Clark from Nomadic Notes has a great list of cafes to check out here.

On a typical day, 5-8 people get together to co-work from the cafes here in Saigon. ID Café, M2C, Cosmos, and L’uisine are the most popular ones at the moment.

There are two main co-working spaces here in Saigon that I know of – Saigon Hub and Work Saigon.

While the facilities are decent and there is a good community, I’ve just been more productive working out of cafes as it also allows me to explore the city. A few folks here that have local developers usually have them work out of Saigon Hub.

Living In Ho Chi Minh City - Street Food Outside Ben Thanh Market3. Cost Of Living

Compared to Western cities like London, New York, and Los Angeles, living in Vietnam is cheaper by a large extent.

Broadly speaking, an average meal from a local restaurant will cost you about $1.50 to $3.00 USD, with upwards of $10 US+ at nicer establishments in the city.

In the city center around District 1 and 3, a small room in a home-stay or apartment will cost anywhere from $250-$300, with high-end full service apartments starting at $800 USD. A typical studio with a kitchen will cost about $450-$600 depending on where you are.

A beer at a local joint will cost about $2-3. At a nicer nightclub or hotel, that same beer would cost you about $4-5 USD.

Prices on menus do not include VAT and service charge; so expect to pay an extra 15% at nicer establishments within the city.

Here are some commodities I purchase on a frequent basis to give you a better idea:

  • Bottle of Water (1.5 Liter): $0.50 USD
  • Bananas (8-10): $0.90 USD
  • Pineapple:  $1.25 USD
  • 3G Service (3.5GB Data Limit): $9.50 USD
  • Chicken Breast (4): $1.80 USD
  • Pork (4): $1.80 USD
  • Shrimp (12-15): $2.50 USD
  • Onions (5): $0.90 USD
  • Tomatoes (4-5): $0.50 USD
  • Strawberries (20-25): $1.50 USD

In a normal day, I try to eat at home once or twice as the local restaurants use a lot of MSG (monosodium glutamate) in the food as flavoring. Last month, I spent about $130 USD in groceries.

Living In Ho Chi Minh City - Vinasun Taxis4. Walk-ability

Most of the people I know are based in District 1, which is the city center of Saigon. Headquarters of international corporations and high end retail shops are all based here.

For transportation, you’d be insane to drive a car here as the traffic, motorbikes, and smaller roads will make it a nightmare.

Everything is walkable if you don’t mind the sun and heat. If not, a short taxi ride will cost you anywhere from $2 USD within the city center, to $3-5 USD for rides across the entire city.

For those that hate walking, you can rent a motorbike for about $50-70 USD a month. It’s really the most convenient way to get around the city, although it has its risks due to traffic. Accidents happen on a daily basis here, so be careful if you decide to take one up.

Living In Ho Chi Minh City - Prison Pho by 19A Nguyen Thi Minh Kai5. Food

Dishes in Vietnam vary by geographical region (north, central, south), and many of the same dishes have variations depending on where you go in the country.

Pho is obviously a big staple here, but there are plenty of other dishes inspired from rice to baguettes.

If you happen to be in town for the next few months, former lawyer turned soup-eater Jodi Ettenberg is hosting food walks to showcase some of the best Vietnamese dishes around town.

Meals on the budget side will cost around $1.50-$2.00 USD, with the higher end that starts at around $5-6 USD or more. You could go super local with street vendors for under $1.00 USD in small pockets of the city, but you’ll need to order in Vietnamese and know exactly what you want.

Here are photos from one I attended in January where I had to eat four dishes and a dessert within five hours:

Living In Ho Chi Minh City - Clam & Bread Dish Living In Ho Chi Minh City - Bun Cha Ha Noi
Living In Ho Chi Minh City - Com Tam Broken Rice & Pork Living In Ho Chi Minh City - Mi Quang Noodles

Vietnam also has an abundant system of motorbike couriers that will deliver propane tanks, flowers, and virtually anything you can think of.

For a dollar, you can order food online delivered to your house from over 20-30 restaurants around the city. Most folks here use Vietnammm.com to order. Ben Style is a popular choice as the founder was a former bodybuilder that understands the need of eating clean food.

Living In Ho Chi Minh City - Vietnammm.com for online food ordering

 

Cons

1. Pollution and Traffic

Like many Southeast Asian countries, motorbike culture is a big part of life so traffic becomes an issue. Crossing the road becomes a game of human Frogger as seen below.

Living In Ho Chi Minh City - Roundabout by Ben Thanh Market

2. Black Puddles Of Death

On the sidewalks, you’ll have to watch out for the black puddles of water that come from a wheel of fortune – dishwashing leftovers, rain, or who-kn0ws-what. Avoid these puddles of water like the plague and you’ll be fine.

Living In Ho Chi Minh City - Street puddles in Saigon

3. Heat and Humidity

If you hate sweating while walking around on a hot summer day, you probably won’t like Southeast Asia very much.

Unlike Southern California, the humidity levels are much higher which makes the afternoons a 24/7 sauna. At night it cools down, but you’ll still need to sleep with an air conditioner on in most cases.

Living In Ho Chi Minh City - Ben Thanh MarketBecause of the humidity, small cuts and bruises take longer to heal and are more prone to infection due to the pollution.

Make sure to bring first aid supplies with you just in case. Here is a good list of what to bring if it’s your first time out here.

In addition, a bottle of water becomes your best friend as many of the cafes that sell coffee and juices have plenty of sugar in the beverages.

The beaches are also not as accessible compared to Bali, and you’ll have to take a short flight away to escape the city and find the waters.

4. MSG

Living In Ho Chi Minh City - Avoid MSG if you can!Monosodium glutamate is a flavor enhancing food additive that’s used in Asian dishes and commercially packaged foods such as chips, crackers, soups, canned foods, and salad dressings.

In Asian cuisines it’s used as a seasoning in stir-frys and other preparations. There’s an ongoing debate on what levels of MSG are acceptable to be safe, but personally I try to avoid it.

Most dishes at local restaurants will have some amount of MSG here and there, which is why I try to have 1 or 2 meals at home every day.

5. Petty Theft

I’ve heard stories of exquisite poker scams to get money out of unsuspecting tourists and drive-by motorbike thefts in tourist areas, but have never seen one for myself since I’ve been here.

Vietnam is still a developing countries and like many places, there is a large income gap between the tourists and locals who may be struggling to get by. It’s unfortunate that it happens but as long as you are careful with your valuables, it shouldn’t be a big deal.

As a general rule, I wouldn’t leave my laptop or phone out in the open at a local café. Also when taking photos with your smartphone, keep your guard up and use the death grip.

 

Monthly Expenses

Your mileage will vary depending on your quality of life and recreational habits, but generally speaking you can get by pretty comfortably with $1,200 a month. For a higher end budget, $2,500 USD a month will allow you to live like a king with maid services six times a week and have everything delivered to you.

I’ve spent an average of $1,100 USD per month when everything is tallied up.

  • Rent: $350
  • Utilities: $40
  • Taxis: $10
  • Groceries: $130
  • Eating Out/Drinks/Alcohol:  $450
  • iPhone 3G: $10
  • Misc: $50
  • 3-Month Visa: $45
  • Gym: $15

I currently live in a house with three roommates in a six-story building. We all have our own bathrooms and I have a disco light in my room. It was originally going to be a karaoke room, but the owners converted it to a regular room to rent out.

Living In Ho Chi Minh City - 96 Le Lai Kitchen Living In Ho Chi Minh City - 96 Le Lai Kitchen
Living In Ho Chi Minh City - Living Room Living In Ho Chi Minh City - Balcony

In the city center around District 1, a small room in a home-stay or apartment will cost anywhere from $250-$300, with high-end full service apartments starting at $800 USD. A typical studio with a kitchen will cost about $450-$600.

If you live outside the city it becomes significantly cheaper, but you’ll be disconnected from the community and end up spending more time getting around.

Recreational travel is not included in the breakdown as that’s up for you to budget for. Overall it’s just a fraction compared any major US city, so for any bootstrapped entrepreneur it’s a reasonable place to make your home base.

 

Should You Come To Saigon?

That depends on your profile. It’s hard to give a one-size fits all situation, but here are my general observations:

Bootstrapped Entrepreneurs

Yes. With the community on the ground, having like-minded people to hang out with is hard to beat.  There are other hubs around the world at the moment in Medellin (Colombia), Chiang Mai (Thailand), Bangkok (Thailand), and Ubud (Bali) – but the critical mass is really at Saigon where we’ve got 30-50 people on the ground.

Developer / Designers / Programmers

Yes. Kids in Vietnam now learn basic computer programming in second grade, with 11th graders knowing enough to pass the Google interview process. Plenty of folks here have hired developers here for projects that involve PHP, Rails, Objective C, or Magento. Jessie Lawler from Evil Genius Technologies has an apartment rented out as an office for 10-12 team members that code for him.

E-Commerce

Maybe. If you’re into sourcing products, Vietnam does have a small edge against China with lower labor costs and more advanced factories in bags, luggage, and clothing niches.  If you’re looking to source over $50,000 USD in product, check out these guys from Sourcing In Vietnam to help you get started.

Hippie-Dippie Folks

No.

Backpackers

No.

Entrepreneur Couples With Kids

No. I don’t have any kids, but having seen what’s available in some areas within Southeast Asia, there are probably better locations to base your kids at the moment. The traffic situation can get a bit hectic, and medical facilities aren’t as developed as Bangkok if an emergency ever arises.

If sales, marketing, and growing the business is your main focus – then yes you should be here as we have plenty of folks in the same online space.

 

Planning On Visiting?

Living In Ho Chi Minh City - American Airlines DealI’ll be here until October 2014 and figure out where to go next after DCBKK 2014.

Medellin looks exciting at the moment but we’ll see what happens since most of us tend to have location ADD.

If you’re planning on checking out Saigon at some point this year, American Airlines has a great deal from Dallas to Saigon for $1,050 USD including taxes.

Valid for travel from April – May 20th or August 21st – November 30th for Monday through Thursday departures. Must purchase at least 3 days in advance of departure. American’s Hong Kong service starts in June. So if you travel in April or May, it will be via Tokyo and connecting to JAL service to Ho Chi Minh City.

When you get here, taxis should cost around 150,000 VND ($7-8 USD) from the airport to the city center in District 1. Just make sure to take a Vinasun taxi that’s based out on the domestic terminal and make sure they use the meter so you won’t get ripped off.

Hope to see you here one day and if you’re planning on hitting the road, pick up a travel wallet over at ballerleather.com. Cheers!

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  • Dan

    Wonderful overview Terry… lolz re: hippy dippies.

    One other downside implied but not specifically mentioned of Saigon is that it’s uniquely difficult to get any kind of ‘nature.’ There aren’t any large parks in Saigon (although many nice small ones) and the traffic is really congested for hours around the city, so ‘getting away form it all’ generally requires 25 minutes to the airport and a plane ticket!

    Anyway great spot hope more entrepreneurs come out.

    • Dan

      That said, as an international hub the airport has improved greatly in the past half decade and there are tons of great itineraries running daily that are really affordable.

    • Ah yes, totally forgot about this. Should have mentioned the funky workout machines in the park too!

  • Coming here with mild expectations, I’m thoroughly impressed by the quality of life you can live here for the price. Incredible value everywhere. I live like a king and pay like a peasant. It’s the perfect environment for me to crush it!

    Also, I’m glad you shouted out vietnammmmmmmmm aka my life force here in Saigon.

  • Great post Terry.. Saigon sounds like a good place to be for entrepreneurs. Having a child on board now means I would probably not consider it for much longer than a few weeks. I love the Thai life, so will most likely head back there!..

    • Great place until you need access to nature and get away from things as Dan mentioned. Let me know if you ever stop by.

  • Great overview Terry, and I love the organization of your post.

    Bummer about the kids bit, but I’m still excited to spend some time there!

    • Cheers, when are you stopping by?

      • Fall, or early 2015. First spending 2 months in Europe this spring and summer in north US and Canada!

        • Sounds cool, I’ll likely be out of here by October 2014, but we’ll see!

  • Doan Tran

    Great post, looking forward to visiting Vietnam.

  • Mike Kovalio

    Great post. I’ll definitely let you know if I come for a visit!

  • Christoph Eilers

    Great article man 🙂 agree with you on most points. Where do you buy your groceries normally? I find that i get cheated too much if i buy on local markets…

    • I go to local Co-op markets or specialty stores where the prices are listed. Local markets are a hassle if you have to negotiate and all that stuff.

  • Jeremy Ginsburg

    great article, man! Agree with most and also have lots to add….may need to write my own version, soon.

    If you want to teach English, you should definitely come here. The demand for teaching jobs is out of control 😀

  • Strong second on keeping the hippies out :).

    Another thing I’ve come to appreciate about living in Vietnam or most any foreign country is the sense of “outsider syndrome.”

    Because you’re so clearly not from there, it’s easier to separate yourself from day-to-day BS and focus on what’s important to you. Having moved back to the U.S., I’ve noticed it’s easier to get sucked into those “my job sucks, I hate my boss” conversations that just feel like freaking poison.

    Since I can barely count to 10 in Vietnamese, wasn’t much of an issue in HCMC.

    • Just had this conversation with someone the other day – slapping myself probably would have been more productive!

  • Jarard Paige

    Terry,

    Thanks for the informative article about life in Saigon. My fiance grew up in Saigon but has been here (NorCal) for the last 20 years. We plan on heading across a border or a sea in the near future to transplant our lives, and we’re currently researching Asia vs. Latin America. Are there any similar posts can you direct me to that describe the scene in Medellin? We spent the holidays in Panama City and Bogota, but never made it to Medellin.

    P.S. I read through “The Millionaire Fastlane” last week, as a result of your recommendation on the TropicalMBA podcast. Great read…thanks for the suggestion.

    • Have some folks there that have done writeups in a private forum. Email me and I can copy/paste to you there – [email protected]

  • Joe

    A local’s advice … get OUTSIDE of Saigon’s tourist center (District 1) and try some real Vietnamese food! http://www.eatingsaigon.com (from Joe & Hai

    • Thanks guys!

      Love how you guys have the dish names and pictures on the site. Will just be using that to try new things!

  • Another HUGE plus for living in Saigon is the ease of obtaining and renewing visas for long term stays.

    In Saigon it’s actually pretty simple.

    It definitely beats the constant visa runs of somewhere like Thailand and definitely beats the hassles one must go through to obtain longer stay visas.

  • great lowdown on HCMC and good timing for me as that’s where I’m headed in a couple of days.. may need to pick up one of those wallets too as my paper DIY one (www.instructables.com/id/Paper-Wallet/‎) is falling to pieces!

  • Wave Tribe

    Great post Terry.

    I lived in Bali on and off for years and this sounds very familiar. Everyone should get out there and see the world.

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  • Pat

    Terry, thanks for the break down. I’m going to write a “yes and” style rebuttal of the “Don’t do Families Here” piece.
    Day to Day Living
    Mostly, I think that it depends on you, your kids, and the neighborhood (duh). Chiang Mai and Bali do seem to dominate HCM (and I haven’t spent enough time in either place).
    However, I’d feel totally comfortable in District 2 or 7 with family, parks, schools, food. 15 minute scooter/taxi rides into D1 3-4 times/wk is not a scary thing for me.
    Living outside of D1 proper means lot less of all the undesireables that you listed. I too never felt remotely threatened by anyone or anything except a city bus. Pollution is bad in NYC, LA, Beijing (or China et al), Taipei, Chiang Mai (burning as we speak), BKK….so, that’s nothing new- though an important consideration.
    Getting a 2/3 bdrm for $600-ish and flying in a Mandarin speaking nannie/cook/maid/shopper or having a Vietnamese speaking nannie and having my kids grow up fluent in three or four languages seems pretty rad. English, Japanese +2 (pick ’em).
    That educational environment can’t be had for $200k in the US.
    Having a maid and nanny frees up my wife (if she’s the primary care giver) for at least 6 hours a day. That’s a great chunk of time for work or personal development.
    So, I’m sold on 6 months in Chiang Mai and then 6 months in HCM or some ratio there of (like avoiding the burning season) but I’d prefer my kids learn Vietnamese rather than Thai.
    Economics
    Also, I don’t think that the economic vibrancy of HCM can be discounted. I hadn’t seen that many building cranes since I was in Dubai in 2005. This economic boom is demographic based, not financial manipulation based. The tide is going to keep rolling in. HCM has hit a tipping point. More people, money, opportunity is going to come to HCM because of a certain critical mass. The education system is going to produce a lot of knowledge workers that speak English. That’s inevitable and it’s going to reshape the economy in the next 5015 years and mushroom the middle class. A new upperclass will form on the middle class wave as well. (all speculation on my part).
    Moving Here
    Totally agree that pretty much anyone pre college, post college should move here. You can build your skills, service your debt, find your way regardless.
    Happy to continue the conversation
    I’ll write up a “moving to the region with a family” guide but I actually intend to do ZERO additional research and just move and figure it out once boots are on the ground. Anywhere where there are already Westerners living has plenty of infrastructure to support my 75% Asian brood.

  • Pat

    HCM District 2 building boom to accommodate all the people moving in to capture opportunity. From the North (Hanoi), from other parts of SE Asia, and…from the West.

  • Mike

    Where are these “like minded” people in HCMC hiding? Do you know of any websites that lists “events/meetups/etc?”

  • Storewars News

    Nice read! Very informative. Something interesting: Procter & Gamble opens Singapore Innovation Center at Biopolis.
    Read it here: http://bit.ly/1hdACM5

  • Mike

    did u work there for 3 months? or just vacation for 3 months? what about getting immunized before leaving to vietnam? i heard people should take hepatitis A shots.

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  • Tom Pierce

    I was there for a couple of weeks. Visited my girlfriend (who is Vietnamese). I would like to live there but the only real work that is available is teaching English. One plus I would add is beautiful women. One minus? Few people speak English there.

  • dchun

    Check out some additional tips on living in Saigon https://boopis.com/blog/2016/06/21/working-and-living-in-south-east-asia/

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