What is it like to live in Ho Chi Minh city 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!
Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City, is a major city in Vietnam. Whilst it is not the official capital of the country, that would be Ha Noi, it is considered as 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. Also, it’s perfect for anyone wanting to take a long break as it is in close proximity to Vung Tau Beach resort and the lush nature of Da Lat.
My name is Katie Sephton and I work as an English Teacher in Ho Chi Minh City. I have always been in education, whether that has been me as the learner or me as the educator. I grew up in a small town in the UK called Wigan. It was in the UK that I graduated from university 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 job offer of teaching in public schools. At first, I intended to only stay for 1 year, but here I am 1 year later with no intentions of leaving anytime soon.
I knew from being 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, I and boyfriend embarked on a month-long trip through Vietnam. It was during this trip that I fell in love with Vietnam, its culture, lush nature and 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 of teaching abroad. It made sense really, I wanted to travel 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 4 months traveling through nearby countries in South East Asia. I literally rocked up to Vietnam with nothing but my40-liter backpack stuffed with scruffy shorts, a few t-shirts and a pair of flip-flops.
As for accommodation and work documents, I was very lucky in 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 the matter of a mice infestation and lack of cleanliness. Finding a house or an apartment in Ho Chi Minh city is very easy to do. 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, transport, and activities in Saigon
For example, a pineapple costs me 15,000 VND / $0.60. As for transport, 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.
However, accommodation costs more than I had originally thought. Prices vary massively, depending on the accommodation set up and style.
For a small (30sq foot) but 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 around 4,000,000 VND/ $180.
c) Weekly expenditure
So aside from accommodation, my weekly expenditure is usually around 1,500,000 VND/ $66 per week. This includes eating out twice per day, snacks, fresh fruit, a night out, 1 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 really experience any difficulties. I have been lucky in that 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 6 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 was becoming physically exhausted of putting in 12 hour days, 6 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 the 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 exact same house/ apartment than a local. Sometimes, you may not even be allowed to rent an apartment because you are not Vietnamese. However, I do think this is more to do with the law as opposed to the person letting.
How to overcome culture shock in Ho Chi Minh?
The way of life here is so much different than in the UK and Europe. From the 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 characters of the alphabet 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 the 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 is always lots of motorbikes on the road, which I do like the hustle and bustle of, but during rush hour things can sometimes come to a standstill. 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 to 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 cool or whacky to see.
For example, when I first arrived, I was amazed at the full-blown man-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 to visit in Ho Chi Minh city?
As a tourist to the city, I fully recommend people to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels and War Remnants Museum. The Cu Chi Tunnels are a set of tunnels that the Vietnamese used to hide out during the war. Whilst on a visit here, you can even see the traps that were set up for the Americans.
The War Remnants Museum, whilst 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.
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. There are also a few expat sites that offer meetups and various classes; which make 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 to be busy with their studies or families. Family in Vietnam is a huge part of their culture and people often do a lot of activities with their family.
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 great 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 the time myself and a bunch of mates where 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 perspective 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 like it did me.
20. 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 that has a love for traveling and exploring the world. My passions are to explore exotic destinations, experience once in a lifetime opportunities & to 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.
Follow me on Untoldwanderlust, my Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.
*This article was updated on May 5th 2018.