Since you found your way here I assume you’re moving to Vietnam. Congratulations! Vietnam is such a great country and she’s been my home for many years now. Not many countries can offer such rich culture, great food and friendly people.
But it took a while for me to get used to living in Vietnam. Some things work differently here, ranging from smaller things how you greet older people, to major things like apartment leases.
But you’ll overcome those issues over time, especially if you have local friends who will help you out. But many are moving alone and then it can be challenging at first. Therefore I have created this useful guide which covers pretty much everything you need to know about living in Vietnam. Hence you won’t repeat the same mistakes I did when I moved here.
Let’s dive right in!
Living In Vietnam
Vietnam has a population of 94 million and a land mass of about 331,000 square kilometers. It is a diverse country and home to 54 different ethnic groups, where Vietnamese (Kinh) is the largest consisting of 85.7% of the total population. The country is divided into 58 provinces and 5 municipalities. The municipalities are the highest ranking cities and those are Hanoi, Hai Phong, Da Nang, Ho Chi Minh City and Can Tho.
The official language is Vietnamese but English is widely spoken in the larger cities.
Unless you’re from an ASEAN country you need a visa to enter Vietnam. The good news is that applying for a Vietnamese visa is not complicated, and compared to other South East Asian countries it’s pretty straightforward. In addition most people will be able to do it 100% online.
- Most visitors will enter Vietnam on a tourist visa. Applying for a tourist visa is easy and can be done over the Internet or at an embassy overseas. If you apply online you’ll receive a visa approval letter that you show to the immigration officer upon arrival. After you pay the stamping fee you’ll receive the visa in your passport.
- You may be eligible for a business visa if you’re moving to Vietnam to explore business opportunities. The benefit with a business visa is that you don’t need to leave the country every 3 months, hence no visa runs are needed like with the tourist visa.
- If your parents are Vietnamese you may be eligible to enter Vietnam under the 5 years visa exemption rule. During the exemption period, you can freely travel in and out of the country without a tourist visa.
- If you’re moving to Vietnam for work, your employer likely will take care of all the visa and work permit processing. Keep in mind that the work permit is valid for 36 months and has to be renewed after expiration.
Tip: all my visas have been processed by an excellent immigration lawyer in Saigon. He’s fast and charges reasonable fees. Send an e-mail and I get you in touch with him.
You need medical insurance when living in Vietnam. Most hospitals won’t even start your treatment until they know you have a valid insurance, or can finance the treatment with cash. Even for emergency cases.
You can find medical insurance for as low as $50/month, for example with IMGlobal. With IMGlobal you are eligible for emergency care at the top private hospitals in Vietnam, for example Victoria Healthcare. In addition the insurance covers other medical services like emergency evacuation and emergency dental work.
Vietnam has both public and private hospitals. The private hospitals have good doctors and great services but I don’t recommend the public ones. The quality standards and professionalism are lower, and the prices won’t differ much anyway if you have an insurance. Some good private hospitals are Victoria Healthcare, Family Medical Practice and FV Hospital.
Tip: Some routine medical services are priced lower compared to the west. For example health checkups (testosterone, cholesterol etc) or teeth cleaning. If you send me an e-mail I’ll give you the contact info for a good dentist.
Tip 2: Due to bad food hygiene, stomach worm is a major issue. Hence most locals take deworming medicine twice per year. If you are staying in Vietnam for a longer time I recommend that you do the same. Fugacar is a reputable brand.
In the past, I have written extensively about finding accommodation in Vietnam. For example, here’s one article that will help you find an apartment in Saigon. And when you found your apartment I recommend you read how to sign an apartment lease in Vietnam to make sure your landlord treats you fairly. Rental protection is limited and you’re on your own – especially if you’re a newly arrived foreigner.
Since you likely spend the first days in a hotel I recommend that you read my article where to stay in Ho Chi Minh City where I’ll help you find the best hotels in Saigon.
Public transportation is pretty much non existent and most of the major cities are not walkable. Hence the majority of the population uses motorbike to get around. You can rent one yourself for $50 per month, or buy a used one for $300.
You need a Vietnamese drivers license to drive legally. Neither the license from your home country nor an international drivers license is valid. Sadly many foreigners have gotten into trouble because of their ignorance. If you’re driving without a valid drivers license your medical insurance may not be valid! Therefore I recommend to get a drivers license if you are planning living in Vietnam for a longer time.
Most foreigners uses a 3rd party service for their licence, and friends have recommended this one to me. The license comes in two classes: with A1 you’re allowed to drive bikes up to 175 CC, and with A2 there’s no upper limit. The price is usually $150 for a A1 license and $300 for an A2. For most people A1 will be enough. To get approved for your license you need to pass both a written test and driving test, and the whole process takes a couple of week.
As an alternative you could use Uber or Grab. Both works great and you have the choice between a motorbike or a car. A 10 minute motorbike ride cost about 20k VND.
Tip: Both Uber and Grab offers a lot of attractive promotions. Sometimes you get several rides for free! Check their applications for promotion codes and make sure to have a valid phone number in your profile.
Cost Of Living
Vietnam is very affordable on a western salary. The average salary for a Vietnamese worker is $150 per month, and as a foreigner you can live here for as little as $1,000, though I think $1,500 to $2,000 is more realistic, especially if you want more convenience.
You’ll find much more details about the cost of living in Vietnam in this article.
From a crime point of view, Vietnam is a very safe country. It’s very unlikely that you become the victim of a violent crime. However, in the larger cities, especially Saigon, you should take the normal safety precautions. Including taking a taxi home at night and not show off too much valuables in public.
You are far more likely to fall victim of petty crimes like pick-pocketing. Always keep your wallet in your front pocket or in a concealed compartment. Also, be careful when taking out your cell phone in public. There are many thieves on motorbikes that will snatch phones from careless people.
The traffic poses the highest risk for injury or even death. Especially in Hanoi and Saigon where the traffic during rush hours can be a nightmare. I have personally witnessed a couple of very serious accidents on the streets of Saigon. If you decide to drive here, drive defensibly and follow the traffic flow.
Tip: pollution is a major health concern in the larger cities. Wear a high quality face mask when you’re driving your motorbike.
Vietnamese culture is one of the oldest in Southeast Asia and heavily influenced by China in terms of moral ethics and art. Modern additions comes from the French with their European style administration and Christianity, which is still practiced alongside Buddhism. The Vietnamese people are polite, generous and take their traditions and religion very seriuosly,
It’s important to understand that until very recently Vietnam was a very poor country. Most people in their 20’s experienced severe poverty in their childhood. Things have improved since then, but most Vietnamese people still remember the past and how fragile wealth can be.
Losing face is one of the worst things that can happen to a Vietnamese. In short it means that you tarnish someone else’s reputation in public, such as causing embarrassment or anger. It’s far better to remain calm and try to solve a situation without screaming. If you become visible upset you may just make the problem worse.
Tip: A friend told me that if you want to complain about a service, calmly tell the person that he/she is an embarrassment for their company. That sentence alone has helped him resolved many situations in Vietnam.
Finally, here are some other cultural aspects that you should be aware of:
- Never point your finger or touch someone’s head. Those things are considered rude.
- Never shake an older female’s hand, unless she stretches it out for you. Older males are ok.
- In the company of other Vietnamese, let the oldest person sit down and start to eat first.
- When passing things (like business cards) use both your hands.
The food will not disappoint. In my opinion the local cuisine is world class and on my personal top 5 list. Your choices ranges from cheap street food to fancy restaurants that rivals even the best ones in Europe and the US. In addition to being tasty the food is low fat and filled with healthy, fresh vegetables and fruits.
Most famous is a noodle soup called Pho. It’s cooked with a broth made from various spices, and served with meat, vegetables and noodles. Another Vietnamese favorite is a noodle soup from Hue called Bun bo Hue. The ingredients includes beef bones, fermented shrimp paste, lemongrass, and dried chili.
In addition you probably have heard of Banh Mi. It’s a sandwich that was originally introduced by the French but nowadays has become a Vietnamese staple. You see them sold on the street or in fancy restaurants.
Finally, Vietnam is the worlds second largest coffee producer, hence you’ll be able to taste some excellent coffee. For en extensive description of Vietnamese coffee I recommend reading Vietnamese vs Colombian Coffee.
Tip: Vietnamese people are crazy for fried chicken. If you want to sample some good fried chicken I recommend to visit a local chain called Don Chicken. In addition there is a good Korean chain called Gaxeo.
Internet works well in Vietnam. It does happen – though not often – that it slows down for the whole country. In one famous incident it was blamed on sharks biting the underwater cable. Most of the time Internet service is included in the rent.
Cell phone data is cheap and the coverage is good in the major cities. I recommend Viettel which has worked well for me over the years. The easiest way to get a SIM card is to walk into one of their official stores. At least one employee will usually speak English.
The postal system can be a bit shaky. So far I haven’t received mail, but friends who are living in Vietnam sometimes got their packages stuck in custom. The custom fees could be expensive, but sometimes can be negotiated. The best option is to bring everything with you when you are moving to Vietnam. I did sent packages to the US using DHL and that has worked well.
Computer repair is usually fast and affordable. I recently had my laptop screen replaced at Cong Ty Service Center (31 Nguyễn Thị Diệu). It took 2 days and cost 2 Million VND.
Many Vietnamese banks won’t allow foreigners to open accounts. Timo bank may be your best bet and they have never given me any issues. Try to bring along a local friend to make the application process easier.
Tip: before moving to Vietnam try to learn a few Vietnamese phrases. That will make everyday interaction with service people go more smoothly.
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