Almost Fearless

Expatriate Me: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Edition

I wrote a post the other day comparing Barcelona to Oaxaca and talked a bit about why we like Oaxaca so much. At the time, it occurred to me that there’s not a whole lot of information out there about other cities that are well-suited for settling down, so I thought, “Hey, I should turn this into series.” Boom, one week later, here we are! There’s such a huge difference between “Places that are fun to visit” and “Places you end up living” – so I thought it would be cool to give people an insight into what places rank well for the well-traveled expats who eventually settle down. We could live ANYWHERE. Why do we pick these places?


This week I’m featuring Barbara Adam, who I met while traveling/living in Chiang Mai several years ago and we’ve kept in touch online ever since. She’s also launching a book about Vietnam this week, which meant I lucked out by getting her to do this, because I know she must have a million things going on. Thanks Barb! (PS: If anyone wants to volunteer to do one of these, shoot me an email!)

vietnam-7Where do you live now and where else have you lived as an expat?

I live in Ho Chi Minh City with my Vietnamese husband, our two kids, three dogs and a hedgehog. In the past we (without the pets) lived in Singapore for two years and in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand for seven months.

Side note: Ho Chi Minh City was known as Saigon before 1975, and most people use both names. Saigon is much less of a mouthful than Ho Chi Minh City, especially if you try to pronounce it with the proper tones: Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh. Even with tones, Sài Gòn sounds much nicer.


What are some of the things that you didn’t love about other places you’ve lived as an expat and how is it better in Ho Chi Minh City?

Singapore drove me nuts because it was so expensive and my commute was an absolute PITA. I could see my office building from the end of our street, yet it took an hour on the bus to get there. Bus + train took an hour. Walk + train took an hour and 15. Cycling took a very sweaty hour. It was only 10 minutes away by taxi but I couldn’t afford to pay S$20 to get to work every day. This was because buses and bicycles aren’t allowed on the freeway that went straight into the financial district.

It also took us a long time to make friends in Singapore, so Vu found the stay-at-home dad life to be pretty lonely.

I loved Chiang Mai and I could have stayed a lot longer, but Vu was homesick for Vietnam. We’d agreed we would be there for six months. I stretched that out to seven but he really didn’t want to keep living there. Again, for him, being a stay-at-home dad was just too lonely. His best mate in Chiang Mai was the guy who lived next door to us. He was a butcher who worked at the market. His kids would play in the street every afternoon, and Vu and the butcher would lean on the butcher’s truck and talk, using a mixture of broken Thai (Vu) and broken English (the butcher). Vu is a very social guy, so these stilted conversations, while much valued, weren’t enough for him.


What do you love about Ho Chi Minh City?

I love the food. I love it so much that I run street food tours with Vu. We set up Saigon Street Eats three-and-a-half years ago and we’ve shared “our” Saigon and our favourite food with thousands of people. It’s very rewarding. We have so much fun on our tours.

I love the energy of Ho Chi Minh City. It’s vibrant and alive and you can see life being lived everywhere. There’s also a certain joyfulness here. People seem more ready to laugh. Life seems lighter and free-er here than it did in Australia and Singapore, although that could just be a reflection of the fact that I am happier here, with a much better job!

I also love the attitude towards children here. Vietnamese people regard babies as the best toys ever. When people see my kids they act like it’s Christmas morning. When people don’t react like this, I wonder what is wrong with them. Then I realise I’m not in Vietnam.

Kids are also more included here. That might have something to do with the fact that there are just so many of them! Of a total population of 92 million, 40% are aged under 25. So there are kids everywhere — restaurants, cafes, parks, playing on the street. They’re not expected to be seen and not heard. They’re allowed to be kids, to play and move and be noisy. Sometimes it’s a bit too noisy for me. Vietnamese people have an incredible tolerance for noise, an attribute I definitely don’t share.


What would most people find unexpected if they moved there?

I’m going to answer this in list form, because otherwise it seems very disjointed.

1. Population density.

I still get blown away by the sheer volume of people of Ho Chi Minh City. Officially, the population is 8.2 million but most locals estimate it’s really about 10 million, about half the population of Australia. There are just so many people packed in together, and yet it works.

2. Education Costs

If you’re not Vietnamese, you’re not entitled to go to a government school, which means most expats send their kids to an international school. Most international schools are phenomenally expensive, with tuition fees around US$20,00 a year per child. You really need to factor these costs into your plans, or get a teaching degree because teachers at the international schools usually get the tuition for one or two children free as part of their salary package.

3. Roosters.

I don’t think it’s possible to live in Saigon and not hear roosters crowing. Even if you live in a highrise apartment. Vietnamese roosters are very competitive. They start crowing at about 4am and continue throughout the day.

4. Queuing Etiquette

Vietnamese people don’t queue. They just push forward, they yell and wave bits of paper to get attention. If you don’t get in there and do the same, you won’t get served.

5. Maids

Most households have a maid, usually live-in. Having a maid doesn’t signify wealth, though. The construction workers who life in rickety handmade shacks on the vacant land near our house have a maid! While the construction workers are busy building houses, the maid cooks, cleans, does the washing and the shopping and looks after their chickens, ducks, quails and dogs.

6. If someone does move there what tips can you give? What do you wish you had known?

I wish I had known how beguiling Saigon is. I came here in 2007 for a working holiday of “three months or so”. Although I was hitting the reset button on my life, I really didn’t expect the city would give me a husband, two kids and a pack of spoiled dogs. I definitely didn’t expect I’d ever set up a business, either. I’ve paid a fortune in storage fees over the past eight years. If I’d known I’d stay away for so long, I would have sold all my stuff!

More practically, Western-sized expats who are moving here should bring enough light summery clothes to last a while. There is a very limited range of “big size” clothes here, and getting things tailor-made isn’t as glamorous as it sounds. It’s very hit and miss, and I have a lot of misses taking up space in my wardrobe.

The same goes for shoes. Although Vietnam is one of the world’s biggest makers of footwear, anything over a size 7.5/38 (for women) is export-only. So bring shoes. You should also bring flip-flops and a bag/handbag big enough for a pair of shoes. Your nice shoes won’t last through a rainy season if you wear them out and about. You need to wear flip-flops until you get to where you’re going. You don’t put your “nice” shoes on until you’ve arrived at your destination. But, if you’re visiting someone’s home, you take your shoes off at the door. In those cases, leave your nice shoes at home!

vietnam-1Barbara’s book, Vietnam: 100 Unusual Travel Tips and a Guide to Living and Working There is available now for the Kindle! You can check out more from her life at her blog, The Dropout Diaries.

She also runs the very tasty Saigon Street Eats tour with her husband Vu.

Christine Gilbert

I’ve been dragging my husband around the world since 2008 always with the promise that, “Yes, Drew there will definitely be hammocks there.”


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