On Saturday, I sat at a bar in the District 1, Ho Chi Minh City with a friend of mine from Australia. He was leaving Vietnam and, in his words, he was so happy to be getting on a plane out of here.
He complained about how expensive things were and how he had spent so much money on basic living expenses. I was shocked by his words and, as we spoke, I realized he had made the same mistakes that so many other foreigners make when moving to Ho Chi Minh City.
There is no substitute for experience moving to a new city or country, and there is no question that Vietnam can be a cheap place to live. However, without such experience, it’s easy to miss out on Vietnam’s budget-friendly options.
Ho Chi Minh City, from my own perspective as a long-time resident, is a tale of the 'dual economy.' On one side, there is the luxury and convenience of predominately Western-style living. On the other side is a combination of Vietnamese-style living with a modern twist.
|Chefs are pictured preparing seafood in a buffet restaurant at a hotel in District 5, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News
Here is everything you need to know about setting yourself up as a newcomer to Ho Chi Minh City:
Location, location, location
Last year I found an amazing apartment on the edge of Ho Chi Minh City, in Thu Duc City, with a view of the entire metropolis. It was great. I was able to spend my days watching planes land and catching the sunrises. And it was cheap! However, the 10km ride to work every day became the bane of my existence.
While traveling 20-30km to work in most Western cities is considered 'normal,' trains, buses, and expressways make commuting these longer distances possible. This is not the case in Ho Chi Minh City. Traffic, the lack of a rail network, and buses that get caught in the endless traffic make commuting a struggle in Saigon.
This year, I moved to a new apartment just 2.6km from my work and it vastly improved my life. Choosing a location within 5km of your workplace is crucial to making sure your life in Ho Chi Minh City is as comfortable as possible. Extended commutes only add stress to your health, time, and money.
In a similar vein, don’t sign a rental agreement until you confirm where you are working.
If you are a teacher, insist that all the schools you work at are within one or two districts so that you can locate yourself centrally. The time and money you save will go a long way in raising your quality of life and enjoying your experience in Vietnam.
Live like a local
Ho Chi Minh City has grown extensively over past few decades, and much of this growth has been influenced by foreign developers. District 1, District 2, District 3, District 4, and District 7 are well known for having large numbers of foreigners living in small pockets or communities. In some of these areas, rental prices can be two to four times the price of what similar accommodation would cost elsewhere. A major contributor to these high prices is convenient access to services that cater specifically for non-Vietnamese speakers.
However, with a little help and planning, you can save up to 50 percent on accommodation by choosing the right location to live. Depending on where your work is located, areas such as Binh Thanh District, Go Vap District, Thu Duc City, District 8, District 11, and some parts of Phu Nhuan District and Tan Binh District can offer quality rentals at up to half the rate of the more Westernized areas of the city.
|Flowers are displayed at a shop in Tan Binh District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News
A good rule of thumb is to look at the services offered around your potential home. If you are within walking distance of anything 'Western,' you will be paying more.
Also, don’t be fearful of not knowing Vietnamese. Locals in Ho Chi Minh City are some of the friendliest in the world and they want to serve you as much as you want to be served.
Have confidence and form relationships and you will find it rather comfortable living in a more 'local' Vietnamese community.
Remember the 'dual economy'
I learned very quickly when I moved to Vietnam over nine years ago that there are two different economies in Vietnam. On one side, there is an economy that caters to low-wage earners. The food is cheap, and people live comfortably on rather low income.
Then there is the upper economy. Prices of almost everything are much more expensive. Things like electricity, water, and other utilities can vary greatly depending on the location and type of residence that you choose to rent.
At one point, I was living near the airport, alone, in a one-bedroom serviced apartment. My electricity bill hovered around VND1.5 million (US$1 = VND23,425) each month. Now, four years later, I live in a two-bedroom apartment in a less Westernized area with my wife and our electricity bill never exceeds VND500,000 per month. Choosing the right place to live can save quite a bit of money over time.
Such costs also often tie in with the price of food and drinks. Eating in local 'quán'-style restaurants and at street food stalls is often the cheapest way to survive, especially if you are living alone. Buying food and cooking can, sometimes, cost more than buying meals on the street, but the choice is yours.
We all love entertainment but be aware of the variation in the cost of things such as beer, wine, and spirits. A local beer in a Vietnamese-style restaurant might cost, at most, VND25,000-30,000. That same beer at a Western-style bar might set you back VND60,000, and even up to VND200,000 if you choose to frequent one of the less desirable bars in the city. If you opt to entertain yourself at key Western establishments, you should expect to pay double what you would pay in less Westernized areas.
It's also important to remember that the 'dual economy' extends beyond just the basics. Everyday items such as clothes, household goods, and personal services like massages, haircuts, and spa treatments all have massive price difference depending on where they are located. Learn the value of your favorite things and learn where to buy them for a good price and your cost of living in Ho Chi Minh City will be greatly reduced.
|Seafood dishes are served at a snail shop in Phu Nhuan District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News
Cash is king
Whilst technological growth has transformed Vietnam into a growing modern economy, cash transactions still make up a majority of the sales of goods and services in this country. There have been some massive improvements in banking technology over recent years, but there is still a big part of the economy that has yet to adopt such options.
If you want to set yourself up to be able to use electronic funds for some purchases, local debit/credit cards are usually accepted at larger restaurants and established businesses. You may also find apps such as Samsung Pay, Zalo Pay, and Momo are accepted in many franchise-style stores and cafés, but expect to pay more for their products.
The fact of the matter is if you want to be able to buy things for cheap, you will need to carry cash. Street vendors, market operators, and local cafés and businesses usually don’t use technology to sell their products. It is a total cash economy and the only currency accepted is dong (VND). Vietnamese people have no interest in using foreign currencies as a legal tender, and the country even has laws to prevent their use.
|Groceries are sold at a stall at a local market in District 12, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News
Know the real price
One of the truly frustrating things that I occasionally experience is 'dual pricing.' This is when vendors are willing to sell goods to a Vietnamese person for one price but will only sell the same goods to a foreigner for a higher price. You can’t stop this, but you can choose the shop that will give you good, honest service.
Personally, when I find a good service provider or vendor, I make it a point to use their service as much as possible, be it a 'banh mi' stall, a 'com tam' restaurant, a barber's, a motorcycle repair shop, or any other service. The best thing to do is to form a good relationship with the business and use it as much as possible. They will be honest, and they will give you the best service at a fair price.
|A vendor is making 'banh trang nuong,' often known as Vietnamese pizza, on the street in District 12, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News
When I arrived in Vietnam in 2013, it felt like I made mistake after mistake. I was spending more money than I was earning, and I struggled to find a comfortable place to live. I moved every six months or so and each time I moved further and further away from the center of the city.
After nine years and eight moves, I am more comfortable than ever. I live in a good, local area with a mixture of local services, but I am just 5km from Western-style services should I need them. I am close to my work and only commute around 30 minutes a day. I have created a good habit of eating local and my budget is to spend less than $10 a day on food for myself and my wife, including beers.
With a little knowledge and planning, your experience of living in Ho Chi Minh City can be amazing, cheap, and a lot of fun. There will be difficult times, but it is those little amazing moments with the local community that make your time here one to behold. Go slowly, get help, and set yourself up right, and your time spent living in Ho Chi Minh City will be one that exceeds your dreams.