Living in Ho Chi Minh: A guide

There’s a certain energy to Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City that gets into your system. With eight million bikes circulating the cluttered streets, it’s a city in constant motion; everyone just keeps pushing forward

Feature by Lilly Pugh | 07 Feb 2017

It can be overwhelming at first but before long, you’ll take up the pace, and everywhere else will start to seem just too quiet.

Vietnam is still a communist country but it’s easy to forget it in the Southern hub. The only signs of The Party are the compulsory red and gold star centered flags above each household on national holidays and the government officials dozing in alleyway corners. It’s the more liberal and laid back sibling to Ha Noi and for better or worse, you can do pretty much anything you want. With around 30% of the population under 25, Vietnam is a young country and Saigon is a land of entrepeneurs, opportunity, optimism and experimentation. It has a contagious sensibility which can easily turn a one month visit into a five year stay.

The neon signs and red/yellow glare of moto lights prevail at night but Ho Chi Minh City isn’t the chaotic megalopolis it may seem passing through. By day, the sun bleached pink and turquoise painted houses make up a pastel cityscape and between the busy roads, warrens of quiet alleyways are home to communities that feel like villages. It’s a varied landscape: wooden stilt houses on the river, decaying colonial villas on imperial remains and Singaporean style condominiums on recently reclaimed swampland. As the heat seeps into your step, you hang out on street corners for one more cà phê sữa đá (iced coffee with condensed milk). It may be buzzing but it’s equally laid back.

Saigon Kisses and Motorbike hugs

Motorbikes define Saigon life – just crossing a road is a daunting task for any new arrivaI but you’ll have to brave it because driving is simply the only way to get around. Locals wouldn’t be caught dead walking, favouring the gasoline fueled prosthesis to travel the smallest of distances. The pavement is clogged with parked bikes, forcing sun burnt pedestrians into the street. I admit it takes a bit of cultural adjustment to embrace the roads. Our ingrained risk assessment makes driving in the city feel like watching a scene from Final Destination unfold in real time. It’s common to see five helmetless children crammed onto a bike or a couple of guys sandwiching a three metre pane of glass between their legs, but it’s the only way to do it, so they get it done.

However, if you absorb the rhythm of the roads you’ll soon realise there’s an organic logic and a spectrum of unwritten rules which govern driving in Ho Chi Minh City. Sure, every newbie gets a Saigon Kiss (a small circular burn on your inner right leg from the hot exhaust pipe. Always exit left!) but you’ll soon learn to group with other bikes, like schools of fish, to edge your way through a cross section, to use cars as a shield to make a sharp turn, and to get well out of the way if a bus is coming through. The first and most important rule: always expect the ridiculous.

At least for now, movement is fluid for a city of six million – unlike the congestion in Bangkok or Manila or the Underground in London or New York you can move pretty freely. You can rent a bike for £30 a month but if you have the cash, buy one up front – it’s a good investment as you can usually sell them on for the same price. I bought an old Honda Street Cub for just 4,000,000 VND (around $140) and gas is as cheap as chips. Spend some time getting to know the traffic with motorbike taxis (adorably named ‘Xe Om’s’ aka motorbike hug) before you take the plunge.

Chay, cháy, chạy, chảy, chai, trai, trái: vegetarian, burn, run, melt, bottle, boy, left

Vietnamese is a tonal language which means ‘Yes’ you’re going to get it wrong and ‘No’ you’re not going to be able to hear how or why. In fact, there are eight vowel sounds and five tones (six in the North), so there is a lot of room for error. Be prepared to be laughed at – the Vietnamese don’t often hear non-native speakers use their language and apparently nothing is funnier – but the shock response when you start getting it right is well worth it.

Begin with numbers, food and basic conversation and you’ll soon tune in to the language. The trickiest thing for any rookie is to master personal pronouns. Even in the least formal conversation you will be called ‘little sister’, ‘older sister’ or ‘aunty’ to denote your status in a Confucian style hierarchy. As such, people almost always ask how old you are at the start of a conversation to set things straight.

Unlike their neighbours in Cambodia, Thailand or Malaysia, the contemporary Vietnamese alphabet is adapted from the Latin alphabet making it much more accessible. Created by Portugese missionaries as early as the 16th Century it was a colonial move by the French to banish the old VN script derived from Chinese, but it is now inseparable from VN culture.

Perpetual Summer

If you’re from the UK you probably can’t imagine what it’s like to live in hot weather all year round. We grow up with a distrust of the sun, lugging jumpers and umbrellas in backpacks ‘just in case’ even on the sunniest of days. It takes some getting used to, but it’s pretty nice to wake up every day to sunshine. You may need a few showers a day when you arrive but you’ll quickly learn to be content with being a bit sticky. Women layer themselves head to toe with long skirts, scarves, masks, gloves and even toe socks to shield their skin from the sun, their clothes from the dust and their lungs from the pollution but don’t be fooled, underneath they’re sporting high heels and cocktail dresses.

Rainy season is another story. The rain is usually in full force from 3pm right through to rush hour. The downpours can be intense and it’s common to see the roads turn into rivers, sometimes waist high. You’ll need a full body mac to stand any chance of keeping dry but if you’re brave, there’s no rush like driving over the colossal Saigon Bridge as thunder and lightning rattles the skies. After six months of dry weather you’ll revel in the rainfall.

Ngon quá – ‘delicious’

Get down low on tiny plastic stools with the locals for the best food. You can find the classics on every corner: Phở (noodle soup), Bánh mì (meat or egg sandwich) or Xôi gà (sticky rice with chicken and quail eggs). If you’re lucky/unlucky you’ll get some impromptu karaoke. There are also some less well known local gems like Bánh Xèo (pancake made with rice flower and turmeric filled with shrimp, coconut and bamboo shoots to be wrapped up in mustard leaves and dipped in creamy peanut sauce).

If you’re new to the city, sidle up to some more experienced expats to show you how to order and what food is what. VN food is pretty varied but you might miss the Western staples like chocolate or cheese – for some reason chocolate tastes like plastic and Dairylea triangles (worryingly impervious to the heat) seem to be the only cheese in regular use – but embrace the local cuisine and you’ll eat affordable fresh, home cooked, healthy food for every meal.

Where to Live in Ho Chi Minh City

Get used to lots of space, balconies and foliage. You can get a nice room in a shared house in Saigon for round £200 or 5,000,000 VND. Houses were once taxed according to their width against the street, so Vietnamese ‘tube houses’ are narrow but tall with five or six stories. Make sure you get a great rooftop for the cool evenings.

Areas of the city are mostly named as numbered districts, Hunger Games-style. Most foreigners live in District 1 or District 3 for a cosmopolitan/Vietnamese feel and where people are less likely to be baffled by you wandering down the street in shorts and shades. District 2 is expat suburbia with huge villas with pools and gardens for just a little bit more of your Dong. It feels more like a village around these parts and you’re never far from a hot latte or burger and chips.

District 7 is the place for Korean and Japanese expats with modern condominiums Singapore-style, huge shopping malls and wider roads awaiting the arrival of cars. Here you can live a life of comfort and luxury.

Working in Ho Chi Minh City

Most foreigners in Vietnam are English teachers. The demand for teaching is so high that it is actually a little concerning how easy it is to get a job. You won’t need a degree or a native tongue, a TEFL or even a police check. Teachers get roughly $20 an hour. However there are opportunities in most industries in Saigon. I know people working in advertising, marketing, production, writing, fashion, construction, architecture, personal training, yoga and much more. There is also a huge start-up scene with plenty of Digital Nomads hot desking in cafes and co-working spaces if you’re looking to start your own thing.