A French Expat living in Ho Chi Minh City
I have arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in 2003 to try and see if I could be happy there. It was mean to be just for a few months…. Quite a few years later, I have since then opened this real estate business that provided me with opportunities to exchange with many expats from all around the world!
Phu My Hung didn’t really exist yet and Thao Dien was just a “small village” where expats where you could rent a villa. There was not many apartments at that time.
A lot has changed since then
Vietnam was a country that I wanted to discover. I am French with Vietnamese ancestry but didn’t speak Vietnamese though and my culture is really western. I already knew a few things from having traveled in this country before. But now it was question to live there this time.
All the people who I had the chance to meet in France who lived in this country were enthusiastic. It would be a chance to have more opportunities, meet new people and live a completely different lifestyle. So, I left very confident and poorly prepared but it didn’t really matter as I was young and single then….
The arrival at the early morning at the airport was for me a real shock. The heat, the motorcycles, the noise, the people trying to get your attention to sell you things was a little oppressing but well, I was here for a change of lifestyle after all.
This country although becoming more and more westernized is still very atypical and exotic. What should strike your mind is this crazy road traffic, an organized chaos! It really didn’t took me long to adapt actually and start blending.
Saigon, the economic capital of Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh City is located in the south of the country about 1800 km from the beautiful capital of Hanoi (very charming city to visit). It is the economic heart of the country and probably were you will get a job. As its middle class is building steadily and at a fast pace, the economy of the country is strong and really, all sectors are recruiting. Many expats work in middle to top executive positions in engineering, commerce, marketing, finance, import/export etc….
Most expats see their expatriation as a good way to better their career and finance…. All life expenses are usually paid for and you can make extra money by renting your home in your country. At the gateway to the Mekong Delta, the city is crossed by the Saigon River. It is divided into 24 districts but the main ones you will be get familiar with quickly are District 1 and 3 for downtown, District 2 and possibly district 7. It has more than 10 million inhabitants officially registered but probably much more as a lot of people come from the country side each year and don’t declare themselves. The nearest beaches (Vung Tau, Ho Tram) are at a hundred kilometers (but nearly 2-hour drive). Its well-connected international airport makes it easy to reach neighboring countries.
Pros and cons
The list of advantages and disadvantages of living in Ho Chi Minh City is very subjective. The heat, the noise and the pollution are for me daily difficulties. You may also miss the large open green spaces to just walk.
On the other side, there is:
- Better career opportunities
- Low cost of living: It’s easy to get help at home, which give you a lot more free time to work, spend quality time with your family and do different activities. Also, the food is great, easily accessible and cheap.
- Also, the expat community is large. You will meet a lot of people and not necessarily from your home country which is really appreciable. If you have kids, I think it will really be a chance for them. For you though, it will be costly as International schools cost a lot (15,000-25,000 USD per year and per kid…).
- The locals are very friendly although weirdly it can be hard to make real / close friends.
- Large variety of accommodation for all budgets.
The cost of living: Main expenses for a typical expat.
(If you are young and single with a local contract, your living cost will be significantly cheaper: shared /local accommodation, street food, etc…)
The school: From 6,000-25,000 USD per year and per kid.
The rent: For a 2-bedroom apartment in a nice neighborhood price will start from 900-1,000 USD/ months, for 3 bedrooms expect to pay a rent around 1,200 USD or more.
Food: Although cheaper, western restaurants/grocery food will represent a good part of your budget. It’s very subjective but a decent meal would cost you around 300,000 VND for 1 person. So, expect 800-1000 USD a month. I came to realize that cooking at home is not necessarily cheaper if you use western products.
The utility bills: Electricity will be the main cost as you will probably use ACs every day. Expect a minimum of 100 USD per month for this apartment. Internet, water, phone are cheap bills.
The transportation: Renting a car cost about 1,200-1,500 USD per month including gas and driver, 5 days a week.
Other costs to consider: health, insurance, outings…
Moving to Vietnam: What visa?
If you got hired to work here, your company will apply for a work permit that will grant you the right to possess a resident card valid for 3 years renewable for you / your family. There are also business visa that are possible for a period of 6 months. For Vietkieus, there are some exemptions of visa possible. If you are married to a Vietnamese, there is a spouse visa that will also give you access to a 5 years visa exemption.
Housing in Ho Chi Minh City
This is where I can probably talk a lot since I have been a realtor here for many years. There is a large choice of housing as developers build everywhere. The rental conditions vary according to the type of property and the location. For expatriates, there are 4 main options:
– Saigon city center, mainly districts 1 and 3. There are apartments or townhouses. It is noisy but the proximity of offices, markets, restaurants and nightlife …
– District 2 (Thao Dien / An Phu) and Binh Thanh (City Garden, Vinhomes Central Park, Golden River, Saigon pearl …) are neighborhoods chosen by the majority of expatriates. These are mostly apartments in large complexes , villas in compounds or individual houses in quieter and greener areas (except in case of construction site next to your home which can happen a lot and unexpectedly). In District 2, some of the nicest buildings to rent an apartment are The Ascent, The Xi Riverview, The Nassim, The Estella, River Garden…
There is a “village” spirit in Thao Dien, with more and more western style businesses, but the living cost is higher. This area is located 15-20 minutes from the city center by car. This is where most international schools and kindergarten are.
– District 7 (Phu My Hung) It is a also a newer neighborhood offering mostly apartments in large complexes and more affordable villas than District 2. This area feels somehow less dense with well-organized roads and safer as there are security guards patrolling. For dog owners, there are some nice parks, especially around the Crescent Mall. It is the favorite district of many Asian expatriates (Koreans and Japanese mostly) so you will find less western style restaurants and shops.
– District 9, is interesting for the French expats as it is near the French high school Marguerite Duras. It is also good for those of you who will work in the factories in Binh Duong Industrial park. The offer for expatriates includes mainly villas in compounds with swimming pools and sports equipment. Quiet, green, affordable prices but 45-60 minutes’ drive from the city center… So this is to consider for all the family (your spouse may feel isolated).
Jobs for your spouse/partner
Spouses can work but they are often local contracts with most likely modest pay compared to those practiced in your country. You can reach to the different Chambers of Commerce, private recruitment agencies and possibly Facebook to find job offers. Networking should also be a good way to find a job. Many expatriate women or men engage in entrepreneurship, often in the creation (jewelry, clothing, accessories, teaching …) or catering. Creating your own job is often the easiest way actually to start. You can rent an office in co-working space anywhere in Ho Chi Minh City nowadays. Volunteering is also possible in many sectors, including children and / or women in difficulty and the disabled. If you prefer to apply to a job, a good website to start your search would be Vietnamworks.
The construction of the Ho Chi Minh City metro is under way (due for 2020?), but for the time being you can use public transport as the bus system is not bad (use the app to know route and time schedule with live update position, cool no?).
Uber is no longer here, but you can use Grab or Go Viet apps to get around easily for cheap. The taxi are also convenient but often more expensive and if you are not familiar with the city you might get ripped off by fake taxis. Most expats can also get a private car with driver from the company. Driving yourself is possible as well by converting your driving license. It is cheap and easy. The traffic though and the police controls might put you off.
The motorbike remains the best way to get around (when it doesn’t rain). My first bike was the mythic Honda Cup 70cc. Was a joy to ride the streets of Saigon and discover all these new places, at that time at least. Now roads are really congested and polluted unfortunately. The antic bikes are really cool. My second bike was an old Vespa scooter. I loved its sound and odd style. Spent quite some time at the mechanics (that could be find almost everywhere). I now use a modern Yamaha bike. The cost of a bike varies from a few hundreds to over 2,000 dollars for the most expensive.
Groceries/ Food / Shopping
There is almost everything in Ho Chi Minh City. There are supermarkets everywhere starting to sell western products. The most popular brands is Co-opmart, Mega Market in district 2 which is really good for choice of fresh products, meat and fish (ex Metro Cash and Carry) and Big C, Auchan from France, Lotte Mart from Korea with some supermarkets in different districts. In most of them you can find some nice bakery areas with French baguettes and croissants…
If you are looking for “home-made” products, and are willing to pay a certain price, there is a “deluxe” grocery store, Annam Gourmet, is really good to have in Saigon. Small stores of imported products can be found on Ham Nghi Street as well (I often buy cereals and dairy there). Supply is irregular but you can get some great finds at times. There are also a multitude of small markets mainly for fruits and vegetables. The Benh Thanh market, very touristy, is also a very famous food market but I don’t really recommend it.
Vietnamese love to eat outside in the streets or at the restaurant so expats many good places to eat. The choice is really very good, from the street stalls to the gastronomic restaurant. They are usually good and inexpensive.
For clothing, many shopping centers have emerged in recent years offering international brands but are often more expensive than in Europe/America. For children’s wear or teenagers, T-shirts …, check Saigon Square. There are several websites where you can shop now. I like the Decathlon website for example for sports clothing. I find it easier to get good items at a good price and the delivery is fast (1-2 days).
Children and schools
Schools are everywhere in Ho Chi Minh City. There are several kindergarten and International schools. Since, I am French, I ll talk about the French international Lycee Marguerite Duras in district 9. It is very good. It welcomes students of all nationalities from kindergarten (3 years) to year 12 (Terminale). La Petite Ecole (District 2) and The Boule & Billes school (Binh Thanh district and district 2) welcomes children from nursery to CM1. St. Ange School (District 2), from nursery to primary school.
It is quite easy to get treatment in English or French speaking doctors in Ho Chi Minh City. The French-Vietnamese hospital (FV Hospital, located in the city center and in district 7) offers all specialties. The International Medical Center (CMI, in the city center on Pham Ngoc Thach street) has several generalists, a pediatrician and other practitioners. Vinmec is also a good option in Binh Thanh, International SOS, Colombia Asia are all good. No problem either to find a good dentist or pediatricians. Most hospitals and clinics have their own pharmacy (it is best to buy the drugs from these in-house pharmacies to avoid counterfeited drugs).
Sports, leisure and weekend activities
You can basically practice all sports here (swimming, tennis, yoga, dance, football, rock climbing, badminton, martial arts etc …) With good facilities around the different stadiums in Saigon. There are also many clubs on Facebook organised by expats.
Two English language magazines list the different venues / events Ho Chi Minh City (bars, restaurants, discotheques, concerts, etc): Word and AsiaLife. You can find a lot of local events on the FB “Local” app as well.
Other related resources:
1- WILLFUL AND WILDHEARTED is a travel blog written by Laura, an american girl passionate about travel and food. You will find on her page some info about her experience living in Vietnam.
2- Shannon’s blog also provides practical advice for planning your expatriation. Check this page if you would like to know about the cost of living in Vietnam; it is very comprehensive.