What is it like to live in Ho Chi Minh as an expat?
In this Expat Interview, Katie shares her expat life in Saigon, Vietnam. She will discuss her moving procedure, good and bad things about Ho Chi Minh, places to visit in Ho Chi Minh, the cost of living in Saigon, and more!
About Ho Chi Minh city
Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon, is a major city in Vietnam. While it is not the country’s official capital, which is Ha Noi, it is considered the capital of the South.
Ho Chi Minh has an abundance of history and is rich in culture. It is a perfect location for anyone who wants to take a city break.
My name is Katie Sephton, and I work as an English Teacher in Ho Chi Minh City. Whether I am a learner or an educator, I have always been in education.
I grew up in a small town in the UK called Wigan. I graduated from university in the UK with a degree in Child and Youth studies and gained experience working in schools.
I first moved to Ho Chi Minh City in July 2016 after securing a teaching job in public schools.
At first, I intended to only stay for one year, but here I am, one year later, with no intention of leaving anytime soon.
I knew since 18 years old that I wanted to spend a year abroad teaching, as this is the perfect way to fulfill both my passions of teaching and traveling.
The only problem was that I had no idea where I wanted to teach.
Why did you choose to live in Ho Chi Minh city?
In 2015, my boyfriend and I embarked on a month-long trip through Vietnam. During this trip, I fell in love with Vietnam, its culture, lush nature, and the vibrant cities of Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi.
After returning to the UK to finish my final year of university, I just knew that Vietnam was the place I would spend my year teaching abroad.
It made sense, I wanted to travel to Asia, and I knew I already loved Vietnam, so why take the risk and go anywhere else?
How to prepare for moving to Ho Chi Minh city?
Honestly, I didn’t prepare at all.
Before I came to Ho Chi Minh, I spent four months traveling through nearby countries in South East Asia.
I literally rocked up to Vietnam with nothing but my 40-liter backpack stuffed with scruffy shorts, a few t-shirts, and a pair of flip-flops.
As for accommodation and work documents, I was fortunate that the company I started working for provided accommodation and applied for all relevant work permits and residency cards.
However, I did move out of the accommodation provided by the company after the first two months.
I moved out due to a mice infestation and lack of cleanliness. Finding a house or an apartment in Ho Chi Minh city is very easy.
In fact, I have contacted an agent, viewed an apartment, put down a deposit, signed a contract, and moved in all in one day.
Cost of living in Ho Chi Minh city
Generally, the cost of living in Ho Chi Minh is very low compared to European countries. Things like groceries, transport, and activities are very cheap.
a) Groceries, transportation, and activities in Saigon
For example, a pineapple costs me 15,000 VND / $0.60. As for transportation, a 40-minute journey on a motorbike taxi costs me 33,000 VND/ $1.50.
Activities like going to the cinema are around 150,000VND/ $6.60 for a movie and a large popcorn and drink.
I’m ashamed to admit this, but I have never actually cooked a meal since being here as it is just so cheap to eat out. Generally, for a local Vietnamese meal it is between 30,000 – 50,000 VND/ $1.30 – $2.20.
-> Read related: 20+ Vietnamese street food you should try!
However, accommodation costs more than I had initially thought. Prices vary massively, depending on the housing setup and style.
For a small (30sq foot) but a modern one-bedroom apartment, prices start from around 12,000,000 VND/ $530. To reduce costs, it is possible to find a room in a shared house for approximately 4,000,000 VND/ $180.
c) Weekly expenditure
So aside from accommodation, my weekly spending is usually around 1,500,000 VND/ $66 per week. This includes eating out twice per day, snacks, fresh fruit, a night out, one western meal, and a trip to the cinema or bowling.
What are the difficulties of living in Ho Chi Minh city?
When I first arrived, I didn’t experience any difficulties.
I have been lucky because I moved here with my boyfriend, so I have always had someone to talk to and never feel lonely.
As I stated in the previous question, the company I worked for sorted everything out for me, so there was nothing for me to worry about.
However, about six months down the line, I started to dislike my job. Not the actual teaching aspect of it, but the unfair demand of work hours and lack of social life.
This was difficult for me as I had a great bond with the kids, but I became physically exhausted from putting in 12 hour days, six days a week. In the end, I ended up leaving the job and finding a much better one with much better hours and pay.
My advice to anyone thinking of coming to teach in Vietnam is to be sure to read your contacts thoroughly and understand your work hours.
Did you experience any discrimination in Ho Chi Minh city?
The people of Vietnam are some of the kindest and warm-hearted I have ever come across.
I have never personally experienced any discrimination. The local people are very friendly and helpful, despite a language barrier.
They also love it when I attempt to speak the language. Just a simple ‘hello, how are you?’ in Vietnamese goes a long way with the locals.
However, there is a slight problem of discrimination when it comes to the cost of accommodation and sometimes other services.
It is openly known that foreigners will pay more money for the same house/ apartment than locals.
Sometimes, you may not even be allowed to rent an apartment because you are not Vietnamese.
However, I think this is more to do with the law than the person letting.
How to overcome culture shock in Ho Chi Minh?
The way of life here is so different from in the UK and Europe.
From street food to going to work on a motorbike, it is all so different.
For some people, I understand that eating street food may be a concern, but most of the time you can see the person cook it in front of you and let me tell you, the food is the best in Asia.
The language is also very different too.
The alphabet characters are the same as in the English language, so it may appear easy to read, but the language is very tonal, and if your pitch is off slightly, it can throw your whole sentence into gobbledygook.
However, learning the language is fun and a great way to immerse yourself in the culture and interact with locals.
What do you like about Ho Chi Minh city?
I love Ho Chi Minh! It is a vibrant city that is a great place to live.
There are so many things to see and do. There are also tons and tons of food places and street vendors. It is a foodie’s paradise.
The thing that I love the most about the city, though, is the sense of community.
Even though I am a foreigner here and don’t speak the language very well, I get a sense of belonging more than I did in my neighborhood in England.
For example, when I sit down at one of my local restaurants, I am greeted with a huge smile and my food autonomically put in front of me, without the need to order.
Are there any bad things about Ho Chi Minh City that you don’t like?
That is a very difficult question to answer because I love almost everything about it. The only downside is sometimes it can take forever to get somewhere when there is a lot of traffic.
I mean, there are always many motorbikes on the road, which I do like the hustle and bustle of, but things can sometimes come to a standstill during rush hour.
This can be particularly frustrating when you just want to get home from a long day at work.
What are your favorite things to do in Ho Chi Minh city?
My favorite thing to do is drive around on a bike or sit in a nice bar or coffee shop and people watch.
I just love to sit and take in the culture and watch the local people go about their daily life and business. There is always something fabulous or whacky to see.
For example, when I first arrived, I was amazed at the full-blown human-made aquarium that some locals set up at the back of their motorbike.
And I kid you not. I once saw a man hauling a huge wardrobe on the back of his bike.
Where do you recommend visiting in Ho Chi Minh city?
As a tourist to the city, I recommend visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels and War Remnants Museum. The Cu Chi Tunnels are where the Vietnamese used to hide out during the war. While on a visit here, you can even see the traps set up for the Americans.
The War Remnants Museum, while harrowing, is very educational and a great way to educate yourself about the effects and devastation of the war.
If you have a little more time in the city, take your time to visit the markets, the post office, the Independence Palace, and check out Walking Street.
> Check cheap Cu Chi Tunnel tour from Hochiminh city.
> Remember to buy SIM Card with 4G before coming to Vietnam. Click here to reserve your SIM card.
Is it easy to make new friends in Saigon?
It is relatively easy to make new friends as the more you visit a bar or coffee shop, the more you will see the same people and instantly become connected.
A few expat sites offer meetups and various classes, making it easy to find people with similar interests.
Do you hang out with locals or foreigners mostly?
I usually hang out with friends from work, who are mostly foreigners. However, I would love to have local friends, but many local people my age always seem busy with their studies or families.
Family in Vietnam is a huge part of their culture, and people often do many activities with their families.
Where is your favorite place to meet friends in Ho Chi Minh city?
Usually a local bar/ food place.
There is a great place near my apartment that sells super cheap beer and delicious food. It is the perfect place to hang out with friends, eat, drink, and have a laugh.
The atmosphere is excellent as it is lively but not too noisy so we can still chat and play card games.
A memorable experience in Ho Chi Minh city
I have so many memories, but one that is particularly standing out right now is when myself and a bunch of mates were walking into town for a night out, and we came across some local men singing karaoke and drinking beers on the street.
They invited us over. We sat, had a few drinks, and sang karaoke with them for hours. In the end, we didn’t even make it out.
It was such a fun night interacting with locals and singing street karaoke. This was my first experience of street karaoke, and it has since happened again; this is just the Vietnamese culture and hospitality for you.
Did you change your perspective of Ho Chi Minh after living here?
Before moving to Vietnam, my perspective was always a good one. The local people are so friendly, the culture is incredible, and living here would be so fun. My view of that has remained the same to this day.
What are your advice and tips for living in Ho Chi Minh city?
Be open to the way of life and enjoy every minute of it.
My main piece of advice is to learn to drive a motorbike too. This one is rich coming from me, as I have still not learned yet, but believe me, I wish I had learned from the start.
Learning early on will help combat your fear, and you will be able to do so much more and be more independent. Sure! Grab is a great way to get around, but it can get a little annoying having to wait sometimes or when you have to rely on someone else to get you somewhere on time.
Would you recommend others to live in Ho Chi Minh city?
Absolutely! Ho Chi Minh has so much to offer in terms of culture and activities. The people are incredibly welcoming, and the city is very safe.
I would totally recommend it to anyone who is thinking of moving here. Just take the plunge and give it a try. It may surprise you as it did me.
What have you learned from living abroad?
By living abroad, I have learned to become independent and do all the grown-up things like apartment hunting and sorting out hospital appointments, and so on.
I have also become much more confident in meeting and interacting with new people. It is so easy to do here, as everyone is so friendly.
Furthermore, I have learned a second language. Well, kind of. I’m getting there, but Vietnamese is so darn hard to pronounce. This is still very much a learning curve for me.
More about Katie
I’m Katie, an English teacher who loves traveling and exploring the world. My passions are to explore exotic destinations, experience once-in-a-lifetime opportunities & immerse myself in new cultures.
I have lived in Vietnam as an English teacher for almost two years, where my hunger for travel continues to grow. When I am not teaching, I like to explore my surroundings, take lots of pictures, and blog about my experiences.
The opinions expressed here by Expatolife columnists are their own, not those of Expatolife.