Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Report of what it's like to live there - 07/26/19

Personal Experiences from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam 07/26/19

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

No. Spent a lot of time in Taiwan, and did a tour in China.

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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?

East Lansing, Michigan. Plan for 24 hours of travel time, because there are no direct flights between Vietnam and the U.S. (yet). Transit through Seoul or Tokyo.

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3. How long have you lived here?

Two years: 2017-2019.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

U.S. government.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

We lived in a serviced apartment downtown near the Independence Park. I usually walked to work (10-15 minutes). Three-bedroom, two-bath. The building is excellently maintained, the staff are very responsive. Small gym, indoor pool, yoga room, and small playroom for little kids.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

If you dare to shop in the local “wet markets,” food can be ridiculously cheap. However, there is the real and great danger of buying food that is contaminated from ground pollution or the over-use of pesticides. Organic produce in grocery stores is a safer bet. Quality is good, variety is average. Produce spoils very fast due to the lack of a cold supply chain in Vietnam. Produce is harvested and brought to market as quickly as possible, but not in refrigerated trucks. Bananas, for example, go from green to brown in three to four days. Expect to go grocery shopping several times a week if you need fresh vegetables.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

Not available or very expensive: peanut butter that doesn’t have added oil or sugar. Brown sugar, maple syrup, and chocolate chips. Tex-Mex food including salsa, beans, tortillas.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

When we first arrived, we were wildly enthusiastic about Vietnam. Like Uber Eats, it’s a centralized clearinghouse for restaurant delivery. Delivery is free or cheap, and fast. However, we came to realize that using the service generates a heart-breaking amount of plastic waste. Eventually we realized it was probably greener to go out to eat than to order in.

There is a nice range of options for eating out. In Vietnam, you can get a meal for a dollar or for a hundred dollars. Both ends of the spectrum have their charms. Of course, Vietnamese cuisine dominates the restaurant scene, but French, German, Japanese, Korean are also well-represented. A surprising amount of good Indian food as well. Not much good Chinese food, though.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

We lived on the 5th floor (really the 6th floor, since Vietnam follows European custom of calling the first floor the ground floor), too high for mosquitos to fly. I saw one or two cockroaches in our apartment the entire two years we were there. Occasionally saw the “wall tigers” (geckos) in our apartment.

On the street is a totally different story: geckos everywhere. Cockroaches and mosquitos are a constant problem. Vietnamese rats are the most cocky rodents I’ve ever seen, walking around the city with an attitude of entitlement. Experienced a gush of schadenfreude when I saw a rat try to cross the street and was flattened within seconds. The vermin bring disease. Dengue fever is a real problem here.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

DPO. My life changed forever when I discovered peanut butter would ship through DPO.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

I didn’t hire anyone, but most people did. Part-time cooks and nannies are the most common. Cheap and good. One friend had a problem with a cook and had to fire her. Another friend had a wonderful experience with her nanny. For many Vietnamese people from the countryside, domestic work is a way out of poverty.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

My building has a small gym, adequate for my needs (staving off decrepitude is my goal). Some people joined local gyms. I never heard them complain about it, but neither did they rave.

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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?

Still mostly a cash-based economy, but the government wants to change that. Many merchants charge a 3% surcharge for credit cards. ATMs are common. Fraud is a persistent problem, so it’s safest to use one inside a bank.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

The Notre Dame cathedral in town has an English-language mass.

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6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

Language is a real paradox in Vietnam. Inside the city, local people seem reluctant to interact in Vietnamese. It’s quite easy to live your life in the city without a word of Vietnamese. And it’s actually hard not to use English. But when you go out of the city, outside the tourism bubble, you find that many people over the age of 20 do not speak any English. English is very common and popular among students, so most young people have at least serviceable English.

Vietnamese is (in)famous for being hard. Many people come to Vietnam with the goal of learning Vietnamese, and give up. There are classes available, but quality varies greatly. It’s discouraging, but nonetheless, I took private language classes for the entire two years I was in country, and my language improved. Making friends with Vietnamese people helps a lot. One of my coworkers attends a local church that has services in Vietnamese, and she has great colloquial language skills.

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7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Yes. Sidewalks are in disrepair. Wheelchairs would not do well. Also people ride their motorcycles on the sidewalk, especially along one-way streets (going the other way). Pedestrians do NOT have the right of way, so walking is dangerous even for people with no disability.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Taxis are cheap. Uber was here, then went under. Grab (Singapore’s version of Uber) is about half the cost of a taxi, but quality varies. Drivers are not as familiar with the city layout as taxi drivers. I prefer to take a taxi. From my apartment to the airport costs $4. I never paid more than $12 for a taxi.

The train system was built by the French a hundred years ago, and it is substandard. Slow and not comfortable. For intercity travel, many people rent a car. It’s actually cheaper to rent a car with a driver than to rent a car without a driver.

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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?

Traffic in the city is bad, but moves slowly. A big car might feel safer, but parking will be a challenge and you don’t need the protection and security. Japanese cars are popular. Many people have CRV or RAV-4 cars.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

My building came with internet, but it was cheaper to get service through an outside vendor. We paid about $40/month for high-speed internet. Usually had no problems streaming Netflix, HBO, etc.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

Easy to get a local SIM. Viettel had the best coverage. I had a prepaid plan. 10 gig of data for $10/month. Calls were charged by the minute. Any unlocked phone seems to work.

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Pets:

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?

Lots of people have pets, I don’t, but I heard good things about the quality of vet care.

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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?

EFM jobs in the Consulate. Always possible to teach English, pay is not as high as in China, Korea or Japan, but the cost of living here is also low. Many local companies hire foreigners with specific skills, but beware. Local labor laws and contract laws are on the books, but are often not honored. I met someone who worked as a branding expert for a local conglomerate. One day she was told that her contract was terminated and tomorrow was her last day.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

There are many opportunities to do volunteer or charitable work. Vietnam is still a poor country, and the countryside is especially in need of help. You can help out in orphanages, soup kitchens, and centers for job skills and English language training.

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3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Vietnamese people like to look good, but the local definition of “good” is very...local. Because of the hot climate, sleeveless dresses and low-cut clothes are common for women. It can be quite jarring to see so much exposed skin. Men tend to wear short-sleeved shirts. Shorts are rare. Ties are common for business meetings, rare otherwise. In the Consulate, business attire is the standard.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

Petty crime and crime of opportunity is common. Many people are victims of snatch-and-ride theft by thieves on motorcycles. As a male, I never felt vulnerable, even at night in sketchy areas. My female friends have told me that they feel otherwise. Travel with a friend is safer.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Dengue fever, Zika, hepatitis, you name the tropical disease, and it’s here in Vietnam. Food hygiene is a problem in Vietnam. I got food poisoning more times in two years than I have in my 50 years prior to coming here. Same for other GI distress.

Medical care is far lower than international standards. Typical problems of poor countries: too many people, not enough doctors, not enough hospital facilities. There is a Vietnamese word for two people sharing a hospital bed, it’s that common. Basic care in the Consulate is good. The full-time nurse is competent, and dispenses OTC drugs. The Consulate does not have a doctor on staff, but contracts with an American doctor. Medivac to Singapore or Bangkok is common.

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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?

Bad, but not China or India bad. Ho Chi Minh City is near the ocean, so a lot of the bad stuff blows away. Hanoi is much worse. That being said, it’s bad. Too many motorcycles on the road at the same time creates a cloud of poison twice a day at rush hour(s). Also, Vietnam is a tropical country, and something is always blooming. People with sensitivity to pollen will suffer from allergies.

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4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?

Vietnam suffers from a dangerous cocktail of poverty and lack of governmental transparency. Poor farmers and struggling businesspeople make questionable choices with regard to environmental protection and product safety. The government suppresses media stories that try to expose these issues. As a result, there is a “buyer beware” culture, and a distrust of local products in general. Things are cheap here, but you get what you pay for.

There is a growing awareness of food allergy and dietary requirements, but mainly in upscale places. Also a growing supply of organic food, but it’s impossible to verify just how clean and organic it really is.

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5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?

No winter = no winter blues. :-) General culture fatigue can be a problem, but that’s not unique to this country.

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6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Vietnam does not have a winter. Think Washington, DC, in August. That’s what it’s like in Ho Chi Minh City year-round. The rainy season is annoying, because the sudden fierce downpours cause flooding in the streets, and traffic slows down considerably. On the upside, the rain washes away the air pollution.

Hanoi has a “winter” where the temperature drops to a frosty 60° F. The colder temperatures there are accompanied by a rise in air pollution.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

Very good schools: American, British, Australian, and German.

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2. 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?

Many people have nannies for their preschool-aged children. Not sure about preschool education.

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3. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

Yes.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Largish community. Great variety, from students to English teachers to businesspeople. Morale in the community is generally high. I get the feeling that most people are in Vietnam by conscious choice, and have specific goals. There are lots of activities organized by the expat community, and many opportunities to interact with Vietnamese people as well.

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2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

Language exchange get together are common and numerous. The Community Liaison Office (CLO) organizes some activities and trips. The locally-engaged staff association also organizes team-building and charitable activities that Americans can join in.

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3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

Single men will enjoy Vietnam, but should be aware that many women are interested in emigrating at any cost. There is a lot to do for couples, like dinner clubs, travel, and cultural activities. Vietnam seems to be a family-friendly place.

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4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

Vietnam is one of the most LGBT-friendly Asian countries. Although they don’t enjoy legal protection or the right to marry, the society in general is open to LGBT, and they suffer from a relatively low level of discrimination. One of our former Ambassadors was openly gay, married, and shared his family life on social media. He was widely popular with Vietnamese people, and I think that helped raise the profile of LGBT rights.

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5. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?

White people will be popular. People of color will be less accepted, but are not discriminated against at the level they are in other Asian countries (China, Korea, Japan). Given the antipathy towards China, Chinese-Americans can expect dirty looks, especially when speaking Chinese in public.

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6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

There are 50+ ethnic minorities in Vietnam, and they are typically discriminated against by city dwellers, and distrusted by the government. Religion is a strong presence in Vietnamese society, but doesn’t seem to be the cause of friction in society. In Ho Chi Minh City there is a healthy blend of Catholics and Buddhists and they seem to coexist. There is a small Muslim population, largely the Khmer minority, and are under scrutiny by the government more for their ethnicity than for their religion. The government doesn’t trust organized religion for many reasons, and heavily regulates it.

Women appear to be second-class citizens in society, and seem to succeed in spite of that.

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7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

Travel in country is enjoyable. There is a lot to see, and it’s relatively easy to see it. The Vietnamese people are friendly to Americans, and are open to making friends. Regional travel is also a nice benefit. Siem Reap is an hour away by plane, Singapore only a little more. Direct flights to Taiwan. Sapa was disappointing, as was Hoi An, but I’m glad that I went and encourage you to go, too. History enthusiasts will like Hanoi.

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8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Similar to other places, the best food will not be in restaurants on he main road, but will be in side streets and alleys. Everyone should do a food tour on motorcycles. There are many tour companies that offer this service. Around the lunar new year (Tet) there are fun markets where you can buy decorations, dress up in traditional clothes and take photos.

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9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Lots of handicrafts, but make sure that you’re buying locally-produced work, not imported from China. There are some good tailors in town, fast and cheap, don’t skimp on the quality fabric, though.

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10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

Ho Chi Minh City is user-friendly. It’s easy to get around, sort of walkable, pretty safe, and not expensive (by American standards).

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Words of Wisdom:

1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?

They say you come to Vietnam and you understand a lot in a few minutes, but the rest has got to be lived. Vietnam is a fascinating country. I wish that I had more time to experience it. Also, Vietnamese is really, really hard.

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2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Yes.

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3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Winter clothes.

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4. But don't forget your:

Umbrella.

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5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

The Quiet American is still relevant and insightful. The movie with Michael Caine is good.

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6. Do you have any other comments?

The Vietnam War is irrelevant to people’s daily lives, but the scars are deep. Agent Orange can contaminate DNA, which means that birth defects can be inherited. Crippled veterans beg on the street. There is no resentment or animosity toward America from the war, you don’t can talk about it, just couch your comments in terms of the tragedy of war. For many people in the south, post-war “unification” under communism is another foreign invasion. This does not yet seem to be a unified country.

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