Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Report of what it's like to live there - 09/02/10
Personal Experiences from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
Not first expat experience. Have lived in Bangkok, Thailand, Ljubljana, Slovenia. Lisbon, Portugal. Milan, Italy.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
Washington DC. Usually travel 3 flights. DC to west coast SFO then Pacific route to Japan,or Bangkok or Singapore, then need to change to connect to Vietnam. But last post was Bangkok so did a direct transfer.
3. How long have you lived here?
Have been here for 2 years, 1 more to go.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Trailing spouse, husband works for State Dept. at US Consulate
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
We live in the very center of HCMC in a furnished Condo with 12 floors, a pool and a small restaurant. We can be anywhere within 20 mins or less. There are good taxi's and also motor bike taxis called Xe Om (pronounced Say Om. If you get to know a couple of the old guys that stand on your street corner with their motor bikes, they make very good modes of transport, they look out for you. Helmets must be worn here it's the law and is enforced, but they are mostly building site plastic things. we brought 2 good strong helmets from the USA (made in China of course sigh!)Across the river a longer commute, 20 minutes from center on a motor bike, 40 minutes in a car not rush hour,as bad as a couple of hours if in rush hour and construction going on. This area is called Anh Phu and is where all the compounds and schools are, good facilities for families with children.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
I buy all my veg and fruits from (Vietnamese grown)the local markets and supermarkets, I have a Vietnamese housekeeper 2 mornings a week and she does all my shopping for me, as you really need the language for the markets and the patience for the pushing crowds. Imported goods are available and expensive, nuts, breakfast cereals, Olive oils, bread is wonderful here and Coffee is good. You can save if you want.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Any products for your pets, we brought Clumping cat litter and are so happy we did, malt paste and good quality cat food. Electronics are expensive. we bought big 5 Lb bags of walnuts, almonds etc at Costco and keep in the freezer. Nuts and cheese cost a lot. Medicines are untrustworthy sold from open air pharmacies and can be fake. So bring any cold remedies, antacids, Aspirins, NSAID's etc you need. Main brand names are not found here, so even if the Dr, prescribes it, you can't always buy it here such certain cholesterol drugs.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
There is only one Franchise here KFC. No McDonalds etc, Which I am very happy with as I don't like fast food franchises. There is a coffee group known as Highland Coffee, they have high prices like Starbucks, $4 for a coffee more for fancy ones, but I go there sometimes to escape the frenetic streets, to sit with other foreigners and not be stared at, read a paper and soak up the A/C, wifi Internet is free too. Then there are lots of Mediterranean restaurants like Jaspas, Kita Cafe, Black cat, prices mid range, can be costly if with family. French restaurants like Ty Coz more up market. The local "Pho" noodle soup restaurants are clean and the food quick, tasty and cheap, $2 to $4 for a big bowl of broth, noodles, chicken and the leafy Vietnamese fixings. The big hotels do amazing all you van eat Buffets for various prices around $25 Good for a Sunday treat. There are German, Cuban, Mexican places, steak houses and lots of Japanese places. All price ranges.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Mosquitoes. Dengue fever is on the rise. Although not an insect, there are a lot of parasites here, best not to go barefoot to avoid hook worm (The local population use the streets as a toilet frequently) All veg and fruit needs to be soaked with a cap of bleach, rinsed and air dried. Pick restaurants wisely, Some food handlers can have poor personal hygiene.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Do it all by APO and DPO
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Very good, easy to find, need references though, the Anh phu neighbours website is a good source, always check out person you want to hire with their previous employers. There are full time, part time house helps and nannies too. My housekeeper comes 2 mornings a week for 4 hours, I pay her $90 a month. She does all my marketing and cleaning of the veg, fruit, meat etc, and ironing and any errands we need run. She could cook but I prefer to that myself.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
The gyms in the big hotel chains can be expensive, they have nice gyms in a lot of the Condo's and in the housing compounds in Anh Phu. We joined a local Vietnamese gym around the corner for $120 a year! Down side are the noisy speakers and blaring music, we wear ear phones and bring our own music.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
Never use them, always cash. Very tricky here need to be careful, a lot of fraud and stealing.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Yes, Catholic Church has services in English. I don't know of any others.
6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
Yes, we have cable TV with CNN, BBC, HBO, Star TV, Max, Discovery, Animal planet, Sports,AXN, Australian, German and Japanese TV channels in English. The news channels get delayed and out of Sync. and the movie channels are censored from time to time.
7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
If you have a home help, that is huge, she can do all the shopping. I speak 3 other languages, Thai, Italian and French, I could not learn Vietnamese to save myself, a very frustrating time we had trying to learn this without formal language training. It really helps a lot to speak the language but the Hanoi speakers refuse to understand the Ho chi minh accent and vice versa.
8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Navigating the streets here is a nightmare, can 't imagine a wheelchair or crutches being easy along these pavements and crossing these roads of unending streams of motor bikes. However, I have seen the odd tourist in a wheelchair and on crutches,as a tourist you could manage it, but living here would present challenges. Stairs everywhere and shamefully bad pavements.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Taxi's yes we use the Mai Linh taxi company, never any problems. Buses and trains hmm why would you want to put yourself through that mayhem and crush, if you are on a shoe string and really counting the pennies,or very adventurous,I suppose. I have a friend here who takes the buses, she is very intrepid and speaks the local lingo adequately.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
You can't bring a car if it is more than 6 years old, you need to check the regulations, I am sure they change, we had to leave ours behind. I would say, if you have young children bring a nice big car to create a safe boundary for your family on your travels. If you are a couple or single, hire a car and driver if you want to go traveling, otherwise a taxi cab far is never more than $6 on the meter anywhere in the city even to the airport. Walk or Xe Om, bike taxi is fine.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes available. About $65 a month not unreasonable
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Because everyone gets their cell phone stolen here, the "mobi phone" company have a head office on Nguyen Du street, that are truly excellent at re-issuing you your old number again (without a paid plan. I buy a phone (Nokia)for less then $1 the give you a new SIM card with your old number, you do lose all your old numbers though. I buy minutes each month over the counter for 100,000 Dong = $6. A smal scratch card. Denomination is huge here 1 Million is $60.You have to carry around wads of notes. Brings trousers with lots of pockets and zips, and a hand strap for your phone for when you talk,with ahook to fasten to your pants. Hold all conversations and text all messages away from the kerb, and the passing bikes. Go over by a wall, but not the one used as a unrinal.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
No, no quarantine.
2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
There is a very good Vet in Taho Dien, Anh Phu, called Dr. Nghia, trained in the UK, teaches at the University. Excellent pet care and facilities for dogs and cats etc. Unfortunately they eat dogs in Vietnam, Dr. Nghia rescues the puppies from Kitchens and has them adopted. Beware there is "dog napping "here. Animals don't enjoy a lot of special treatment here.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
Not so much, English teachers, yoga or pilates teachers, translators.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Men mostly wear dark trousers and a light long sleeve shirt in the office, women wear tight little skirts and trousers and high heels and ride around on motor bikes with the heels. The dress code is pretty relaxed, I see a lot of skin on the younger girls, spaghetti straps etc. Older women are more conservative.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Yes. Petty theft, phone and bag snatchers, pickpockets. The most common theft I hear of, is 2 guys speeding by on a motor bike will knock cell phones from your hand or unhook or wrench bag straps from pedestrians and speed off. Usually these are crimes of opportunity, when you are out and about you are always being observed, especially in the markets. Everybody I know here has had their cell phone stolen at some point. My bag was strapped over my shoulder and under one arm, I felt the strap go, the robbers had wrenched it from the leather bag so fast and sped off causing the strap to spin off my body and leave me running after them yelling. Hopeless. There are house break-ins across the river in a district called Anh Phu where families live in residences, they have security guards, but here in the heart of the city we live in a Condo and the security is very good. I know of people who had their passports stolen when their hotel room was broken into. Never leave anything lying anywhere at any time, it will be stolen. The local culture is very tolerant of untruthfulness, you will often not be told the truth. Domestic help will lie to you, it is not unusual, make sure references are good, a lot of theft can be an inside job. The yoga studio I once attended had money stolen from the lockers by a family member of the owners. If you have something of value make sure it is locked a way in a secure place.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Any thing serious would be a Medevac to Singapore or Bangkok. There is the Family Medical clinic and a few others in the center of town and FV hospital just outside town.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
Air quality is not very good in HCMC, heavy traffic, millions of motor bikes. Many people suffer respiratory problems. Better air out in the countryside
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Vietnam has a very long coast line, about 3,000 miles long. Climate is tropical Monsoon. Weather patterns in the north vary from the south. Northern winters can be cold, summers hotter than HCMC. The South west Monsoon May to Sept. Northeast Monsoon Oct.to April. In HCMC Dry season is Dec to April. The weather is perfect in Dec and Jan. Daily Torrential downpours, humid in rainy season.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
There are good International schools here, mostly across the river in Anh Phu. I have no experience with them, but know friends with children who attend and are happy with the education.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
Again, over in Anh Phu is where nearly all the families with young children live, there are support groups and social network groups and activities for the young. A very valuable source of information is "Anh Phu Neighbours" a google group network runby a headmaster there. You apply to join and once in can ask for any help and all the neighbors chip in, selling things, finding tutors and so on. No advertising though.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
I believe so.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
2. Morale among expats:
Mixed, it is not easy living here. You have to try to be positive, if you can mix only with ex-pats and live in your own little enclave you can be fine, if you must work and mix with the locals it can be exhausting and frustrating. The thing is to try to find a balance, surround yourself with friends of all kinds and keep your morale up.
3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
Movie theaters, films are in English with Vietnamese sub titles, the audiences love to use their cell phones and talk during the movies, so I gave up and watch DVD at home. The Vietnamese love loud noise, Karaoke and huge blasting speakers, they have social events out in the streets which makes the windows rattle. Be careful where you decide to live, we had to move. to escape the barrage of noise outside our apartment.
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
It's a great city for singles, I have heard, you need friends though, so as long as singles can hook up with pals, there is a lot to explore and do here, night life, restaurants, markets, travel, it helps if you speak Vietnamese). Regarding Families, the city center itself is not kid friendly, motor bikes all over the place going anywhere they please, the wrong way down one way streets all over the pavements, diagonally you name it, I am always being winged when I walk, they skim past you. Pavements are a nightmare, big holes, rubble from numerous building sites, walls used as public urinals, Electric cables overhead festoon the streets and catch you round the neck if you are not alert. As is usual in Asian countries the Vietnamese love to touch your children, especially if fair haired. Families are better off driving or going in taxis. But can have a good life here in the ex-pat community and doing road trips with a driver. Couples, yes absolutely, very nice here, lots to do as couples, gyms, parks, restaurants, Tutors in the ex-pat community who teach anything from Spanish, french and Italian to Tai chi and yoga
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
I have gay friends who live here, and I believe there is a good scene for them but not widely accepted. It is seen by the government as a social ill. There are no gays in Vietnam!
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
There is a large Catholic church in the center of HCMC with religious services. Some religious groups are under closer scrutiny than others. Not for their underlying philosophies and values, but for their perceived intervention in the political arena. In general if you practice your religious beliefs in a quiet fashion you are fine just don't engage in any missionary or conversion activities. Men are definitely respected more here, women are considered inferior. In restaurants or at public events I have found the man will always be bowed to, respected a lot and dealt with first. Male children are much favored and desired here. Black skin is rarely seen here and will cause the locals to stare maybe just a bit longer than they stare at any foreigner here anyway. We all get stared at, get used to it. But they will not be unfriendly to you because your skin is darker. It always seems to me they are being aggressive and rude to me, until I learned that this is the way it is in this society. There is a distinct lack of personal space and social graces are non existent out in the streets and shops, you will be shoved out the way. It's a good lesson in not taking yourself too seriously I suppose.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Exploring the old streets and amazing wet markets, with my camera and notebook (NO Bag). The beautiful old French colonial buildings (already sadly crumbling,dilapidated and unloved) are slowly being demolished and replaced with giant condo's and shopping malls. The city is changing dramatically on a daily basis, there doesn't seem to be any protection for old historical buildings. Money speaks here. Land is sold and suddenly a whole row of old shop houses and interesting buildings is gone overnight. Rents are tripled by greedy land lords and long time residents turfed out. The weeks before TET are a feast for the eyes, photographers and budding authors will love it here, so many colors and weird sights to see. I love to soak it all in, write about it, film it.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
If you like Latin dancing there are Cuban and Latin American restaurants and dance clubs. In the the center of town are 2 large parks which are nice to walk in, very green and you can people watch, see all the local Tai chi and sword dance practices. Take a boat up the river from the pier by the Riverside hotel.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Lacquer is very beautiful, plates, trays, pots, vases etc. Some very nice art work. Solid wood Furniture with Rattan or Water hyacinth. There is a nice China Factory Than Long.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
You can save money here if you buy local food, and don't eat out much. A lot of the cheapest fruit and veg is imported from China and the use of pesticides can be heavy, balance buying cheap and avoiding possibly toxic produce with more expensive and organic products from farms in Dalat in the North. There are many nice cafes and restaurants here, some great some not,which can suck up your money. There are a lot of spas and massage places around, it's a hit and miss experience. A lot lack finesse and quality of training that doesn't seem to be available here. If you find a place you like here or a therapist, hairdresser, restaurant, clothes shop etc, grab it, and make sure you get phone numbers, as the next time you go they have just gone, up and moved out. When the landlord's see a business becoming successful they raise the rent, the small businesses have no choice but pay up or to move. I have lost many places I liked due to this practice. The cool season in Dec to Feb is lovely for traveling, walking, exploring. We don't travel much in Vietnam as we have all we need in the city, but friends tell me Halong Bay, Dalat, Mui ne are lovely to visit. There are lots of opportunities for cycling, joining gyms. Personal trainers are affordable here.
11. Can you save money?
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Art work as you will buy more here. Any warm clothing at all, it's always hot here, even the cool season just needs a long sleeve shirt maybe. High heels, pavements are treacherous, rains are heavy. Nice hand bags, may be snatched. Jewelry, stick to costume jewelry.
3. But don't forget your:
Capri pants or trousers with lots of pockets for phone and money, so no need to carry a bag. Good strong, light weight foot wear, Theva's Geox, river sandals, any thing that can get wet, heavy rains, crumbling pavements can ruin nice shoes. Over the counter medications, cold remedies, antacids, antibiotic creams, NSAIDS, that you use. Patience.
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Up Country, by Nelson De MilleTears of War by Bao Ninh (view from the north rather than HCMC)
5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
The Quiet American.