Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Report of what it's like to live there - 11/22/09

Personal Experiences from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam 11/22/09

Background:

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

My fourth expat experience.

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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?

Home base is Sydney, 10-12 hours with a stopover in Bangkok or Singapore.

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3. How long have you lived here?

6+ years.

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

Educator.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

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

Compounds of varying quality, huge apartment blocks, local houses for expats; and prices have finally come down.

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

You can get so much more than before, but of course you pay a lot. What is wonderful is the Canadian organic produce delivery service - reliable and they are opening a retail shop very soon.

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

Organic foods (the pesticides in the foods here make people sick), more books, underwear, bicycle helmets, high-quality sports equipment (for those shrinking playing fields).

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

Still no McDonald's, but there is Lotteria (Korean burgers) and loads of KFC.

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

Mosquitoes full of dengue - they need to be managed. Ants all the time - I keep foodstuffs in the fridge.

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Daily Life:

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

I don't go through the post office. I have great luck with DHL It's worth the money.

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

Lots available, but you have to check references carefully. Local maids are often the way thieves can access houses. Local maids are about $200 a month. Filipina maids are around $300-$400, but they are much more reliable.

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

Very good gyms are available. Not cheap but clean and well-equipped.

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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?

Fine - I use them all the time. You can get a debit card and use it, so no need to carry loads of cash.

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

Lots: the Mormons have a growing community with bi-lingual services. There is an expat group of charismatic Christians, and also a couple of other services. I know a rabbi came a few years ago, but I'm not sure if he is still here. Catholic services are available, of course, and also Jehovah's Witnesses.

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6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?

Getting less and less. The government wants the vast majority of any media to be in Vietnamese, so TV isn't what it used to be here.

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

The more you know, the lower the prices in the markets will be. But you can survive with very little, as locals do not expect foreigners to know any Vietnamese at all.

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

Do not come here. It is hard enough to get around on two feet.

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Transportation:

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

No trains. Buses are crowded, and the locals do not appreciate your presence. Taxis are safe if you take the ones used by foreigners - there are three main companies. But Vietnamese drivers have a strange way of using the gears (only manual cars are allowed by the government); they will drive 20km per hour in 5th gear as they think it saves gas. Really irritating, but they will not change.

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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?

You need something with high clearance to get through the flooded streets and also with good suspension to navigate the torn-up main roads into the city. There are no carjackings, as traffic is so slow they would just sit there after throwing you out of the car.

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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?

They say it is high-speed, however.... But you can access the internet - prices are about $20 a month depending on your usage. What can be troublesome is the government closing things down at times. Facebook is now being shut down here - everyone is working on finding ways to get past the walls.

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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?

Easily arranged. Get a plan through your workplace so you don't have to buy the top-up cards.

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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?

No, but you will want to keep your pet quarantined from the local environment and the local population, who are keen to kidnap your dog for ransom or to eat. (not joking)

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2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?

There is one well-known vet everyone that goes to, but the care is really pretty mediocre and getting worse. There is one new local vet who will come to your house and is a proper vet. Kennel care is a problem. The well-known vet just sticks your dog in a cage for the duration, and that is it. Feline care is hard to find, as cats are seen as bringing bad luck, so not much care and information is available.

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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?

Teaching ESL, marketing managers at local-hire salaries (low).

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

Shirts, trousers, tie. Women need to look as professional and attractive as possible to hold their own in the face of local women, who tend to dress provocatively.

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Health & Safety:

1. Pollution index (Good, Moderate, Unhealthy, or Very Unhealthy)?

Pretty unhealthy and getting worse, mainly from the breathtaking number of motorbikes on the roads.

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

I have been robbed twice on the street, pretty violently I might add. I now take taxis everywhere. As the global economy crashes, people become more desperate, so you have to be careful. But there is no chance of being held up at gunpoint. One growing danger is the rising rate of house break-ins and home invasions. This used to be a problem for the local population only, but now it has spread to expats as well. Ironically, the area with the most danger of this is the big expat compound.

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

Dengue is a danger all the time. Medical care is ok, SOS is very reliable. There are hospitals here which are somewhat clean, like the FV, but it is just better to get yourself evacuated for any surgery or serious illness. Local nurses are underpaid, overworked and not nice at all.

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

Rainy and hot or dry and hot.

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Schools & Children:

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

ISHCMC is good - an IB world school with an expat international feel. The rest are primarily for local rich families, with the resulting emphasis on exams and rote learning. All schools have space issues and no real playing fields to speak of any more.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

None, and they are very up-front about it. The Australian School, due to its generous admissions policies, has become the place where people are able to put their children if they have learning difficulties, but there are no specially-trained staff or special resources at the school.

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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?

Lots of decent ones around.

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

Through the schools. But with the demise of all playing fields at the schools, this can be a real problem. There is a soccer/football program for locals run by Arsenal - which can be really good if you have transport to get your kid there.

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Expat Life:

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

Big, with many different country groups. Last year there was a big exodus due to the global crash, but some are returning.

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2. Morale among expats:

Depends on how long you have been here. People who have been here longer than 2 years start to be affected by the constant irritations of the local culture, and by 5 years things become a little disfunctional.

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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?

Clubs, bars, restaurants galore. Dinner parties and gatherings, balls, whatever. There is always something happening.

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

It is great for families with small kids. Couples had better be solid, as the competition and temptation of the local ladies can be extreme. Singles find the local clubbing scene adequate for a while. Families with teenagers find this place tough. There is nothing to do, and they are able to access the clubs and bars from a very young age.

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

Super great for gay men, from what I have been told. Not sure about lesbian expats. It is best to come with your partner, I think.

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

Well, the local women are treated like slaves by the local men, who do nothing. There is prejudice, but nothing is deeply felt or expressed. There is safety in the cultural blandness here. All foreigners are seen as outsiders, no matter how friendly people can appear to be. So we are all in the same situation.

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

Other then the immense expat drinking scene? Hmmm, there are a few local excursions you can do once: Mekong Delta tour, going to Mui Ne (beach about 4 hours away) for the weekend, Cu Chi tunnels. Once you have done that, it is time to book weekends in Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur to maintain sanity.

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

There are warehouses full of lacquer wares, little wood things, badly made silk items, and loads of furniture which will fall apart at your next posting. The jewelery shops downtown will make up cute things for a reasonable cost, and there are a couple of shops which make excellent quality handbags - not cheap but worth the money.

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9. Can you save money?

Yes, but less and less all the time, due to rising prices for healthy and safe food and needs to fly away frequently.

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Words of Wisdom:

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

No. It is ok for one posting, but there just isn't anything here which one needs to explore in depth. After the first flush you realise it is one of the more boring places to be.

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

expectations that people will tell the truth about most things, ski equipment, wool clothes, nice shoes, desires to mingle with the local population in a relaxed way.

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3. But don't forget your:

flip flops, sunscreen, decent books, and wariness in negotiating anything.

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4. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

The Quiet American, there is a new film called Saigon Exposed (I think) that is supposed to be good.

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

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6. Do you have any other comments?

Bring as much of your life here as you can - you will need it to fill the large gaps of culture which exist here. You can be happy here if you do not expect the local environment to provide what you need in terms of activities and interests.

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