Vietnam only opened up to the outside world in the mid 1990s. Since then, the country has gone through a tidal wave of change. The economy has skyrocketed, highrises have shot up and westerners have arrived. More and more settle into Saigon or Hanoi every day and for good reason. It’s a fast paced, frenetic experience, totally unlike anything else. For those making the journey, here are 11 tips to make it even easier.
Be prepared to sweat. Most of Vietnam is hot all year round and much of that is brutally hot. Even during the rainy season the heat can seem overwhelming. Taking humidity into account, you should be prepared for temperatures between 90-100 Fahrenheit. Unless you plan on living in the extreme north, expect oppressive, sticky heat.
Everything in Vietnam is cheap and you can find pretty much anything you’d ever want or need in the country’s bustling cities. There is no need to over-pack or over-shop before arriving. Instead pack what you need and then find anything else in the country. You’ll save money and, on account of the heat, most likely have a better understanding of what to wear.
One of the great joys of Vietnamese culture is the street food. There is something undeniably blissful about eating a bowl of pho while sitting on a tiny plastic stool as motorbikes scream by and 50 cent beers clink off the asphalt below. The food is delicious and shockingly cheap—you could eat for a week for less than $20. There is perhaps only one other experience that will make you feel more in tune with Vietnamese culture…
The motorbike is ubiquitous in Vietnam. It is as ingrained in the culture as wine in France or football in England. To truly feel at home, you need to embrace it. This will undoubtedly seem daunting and horrifying at first and there’s no question that there’s a certain level of danger involved. However, you’ll quickly find it to be liberating and exhilarating—you’ll feel a higher level of involvement with your surroundings.
In Saigon, the majority of expats live in the Thao Dien neighborhood of District 2. There are western malls, stores, restaurants and gyms. For many these amenities provide the comforts of home. These districts are all over Vietnam; they’re a selling point for many expats. If comfort is what you’re looking for, then by all means find a place to live in one of these districts. However, if it’s fun and authenticity you’re after, look elsewhere. Take a risk and move into a wholly Vietnamese neighborhood. It will be more difficult, but it certainly won’t be boring.
And that’s OK. Many westerners arrive in Vietnam expecting the same level of service or reliability they’re used to back home. This is a mistake. Vietnam is changing more than most places in the world right now and with those changes come difficulties. You will have some sort of insect infestation, you will not always have working wifi, you will certainly lose power and air conditioning when it is 105 degrees. The more prepared you are for these types of occurrences, the easier it will be.
They will be in the bathroom when you wake up at night. They will scamper across the floor. There’s no reason to panic, cockroaches are harmless and they will be your roommates.
There are motorbikes everywhere, yet it’s the buses that are the real danger. From Highway 1 to back alleys, there always seems to be a bus careening out of some corner. Be aware, because they do not slow down. Buses rely far more on their horns than their brakes. A general rule of thumb is the bigger the vehicle the farther away you ride.
One of the great things about Vietnam is the economic growth. The GDP is growing at a staggering 6% annually and showing no signs of slowing down. With this has come jobs of all varieties. It is not difficult to get a job as a westerner. Join local Facebook groups, expand your expat community, meet everyone you can and you will find work.
English is big business in Vietnam. It’s becoming more and more important to know the language and in turn the government and individuals are pouring money into schools, tutors, and language centers. It can be difficult to find an expat who isn’t teaching in some aspect. This of course means that there are more than enough jobs to go around.
Vietam is still a third world country. There’s still a great deal of poverty and there’s still a great deal of change ahead. Don’t expect it to be clean. There is garbage on every street. There’s trash on lots of the beaches. Perhaps in 15 years, after a large government push Vietnam will be cleaned up, but don’t expect that any time soon.