10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Living in Vietnam

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This post was written by Sam, blogger and Vietnam expert, who blogs on Itching for Travel.

Vietnam is a trending destination in Southeast Asia for both backpackers and location independent travellers.

Some travellers spend three months exploring the length and breadth of Vietnam. Others teach English in Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi and Da Nang.

After spending five years living and travelling in Vietnam, I came to realise how different life is.

Discover my wisdom as a long-term expat on the things I wish I’d known before moving to Vietnam.

Things to Know Before Living in Vietnam

1. Making friends is easy

The Vietnamese, young and old, are always eager to welcome foreigners. Sit in a local street-side restaurant, and someone will start talking to you. Half the country are learning English, and the Vietnamese are keen to practice.

Stay in a guesthouse, and you’ll find the owners take excellent care of you. Make friends, and you’ll discover first-hand that nothing is too much. Vietnamese hospitality is second-to-none.

2. Hoodies have different meanings

Despite the thermometer hovering in the 30s constantly, the Vietnamese wear jeans, hoodies and sometimes winter jackets. Pretty much everyone driving a motorbike has a surgical face mask. In the first few days, this feels somewhat daunting. In the West, we often see those who cover their faces as potential criminals.

Not in Vietnam. The clothes protect against the extreme UV rays from the sun. People wear masks to stop themselves breathing in the clouds of pollution. After living in Vietnam for a few months, most Westerners wear face masks. Some of the long-term expats even wear their jumpers when it’s close to 40°C/ 100°F.

3. Vietnam is an affordable destination to live and travel

Travelling in Vietnam is about as budget-friendly as it gets. Backpackers who are planning a trip to Vietnam can often stretch their daily expenses for food, accommodation and activities to less than $30 or $40 (USD) a day.

Stay longer, and you’ll find you can cut this cost of living even further. For example, you decide to live in one of the cities such as Ho Chi Minh, and rent an apartment somewhere like the popular Masteri Thao Dien building, you’ll find that your daily costs come down to $15-$20, while still enjoying a very high standard of living!

You can buy bottles of local beer for as little as a dollar a bottle. Glasses of craft beer cost more, but still a fraction of the price back home. A delicious meal in a family-owned restaurant usually comes to less than $5 with a drink.

The further you get from the big cities, the cheaper the cost of living.

Location independent travellers often love Vietnam because they get more value for their money. Discover how much it really costs to travel long-term, and how to thrive on less than it costs to live at home.

4. Vietnam is a noisy place

Vietnam develops at a lightning pace. Old buildings get demolished and replaced daily. One new house finishes and the neighbour starts renovating. Districts transform from a blanket of tiny homes to four-storied buildings in the space of a year.

Apartment blocks mushroom out across the skyline interspersed with hundreds of cranes. Millions of motorbikes honk their way through the streets, especially in Hoi Chi Minh and Hanoi’s Old Quarter – which is a must-visit on any Hanoi itinerary. You’re probably going to face much more noise than back at home. Learn to deal with it.

Bring earplugs.

5. The country has a thriving expat community

Although there are lots of travellers enjoying 10 days in Vietnam or less, there are also plenty of expats.

English teachers, location independent travellers and long-term backpackers call Vietnam home. You’ll rub shoulder with expats from around the world, and make friends with the locals.

Many of the older expats head to Da Nang and Hoi An in Central Vietnam. Younger travellers often stick to the big cities. You can find dozens of online groups to meet other expats and travellers. Otherwise, go for a craft beer and see half the bar full of Brits, Aussies and Americans.

If you want to spend more time in Vietnam, find out how you can travel forever here. Spoiler alert: This is a proven way to go from 9-5 worker to traveller earning an income in less than a year.

6. Forget the concept of privacy when living in Vietnam

If you want to spend time alone, Vietnam isn’t the place to live. Locals approach foreigners all the time. Sometimes it’s out of curiosity and other times to practice their English. You might be eating a meal, and a local will come over and talk to you. Or you’ll instantly get invited to a group when you’re having a beer.

7. The Vietnamese are a forgiving group

A few short decades ago, Vietnam was in a bloody war with the United States. Today, they welcome foreigners into their
country with open arms. Speaking to older expats from the United States and Australia, they reveal their insecurities. But after arriving the warmth and hospitability overshadows the horrors of the war that many Vietnamese lived through.

Rather than bitterness, the older Vietnamese share their stories. The younger generation born after the conflict embrace Western culture.

If you want to learn more about the war, head to Cu Chi Tunnels near Ho Chi Minh City. Or follow the Ho Chi Minh trail through Central Vietnam.

You’ll find museums and relics dedicated to the conflict in major cities.

8. Be patient with the queue jumpers

It’s unthinkable to jump the line in some countries, especially the UK. Not in Vietnam. Huddling is more popular as everyone jostles to get first. In Vietnam, this is normal. Always have an open mind and give yourself a dose of patience before living or travelling in Vietnam. Otherwise, you’ll end up pulling out your hair in frustration. You’re in their country. Learn to be patient.

9. Expect delicious food

Vietnamese cuisine is available in most major cities around the world. You can order a steaming bowl of Pho in Prague or get Goi Cuon (Vietnamese-style spring rolls) in Paris.

Step off the plane in Vietnam, and you’ll instantly feel overwhelmed by the choices available. Family-owned restaurants serve dishes using recipes passed from their parents and grandparents.

Street vendors push heavy carts selling everything from banh mi (Vietnamese-style baguette) to iced-coffee to tropical fruits.

Head to the more upscale restaurants and order all sorts of fancy delicacies, and check out some of the amazing vegan restaurants in Vietnam if you’re plant-based (check them out if you’re not as well, they’re really good)!

10. Always have an open mind after moving to Vietnam

The biggest piece of wisdom I can share about living in Vietnam is to have an open mind. Back home, you might pride yourself on this. But Vietnam will test you. Things don’t always go right, and you’re almost guaranteed to face challenges and setbacks. From facing minor road accidents to visa complications to three-day funeral parties lasting until 6:00 am.

Other times you’ll watch people drive like their on a kamikaze mission or pack their motorbike so high it looks like a house on two wheels. Have an open mind, embrace the experience and chaos, and you’ll fall in love with Vietnam.

Moving to Vietnam?

If you want to move to Vietnam, you’ll face incredible highs like making friends with the locals, seeing beautiful nature like Sapa’s rice terraces and Halong Bay’s limestone cliffs and experiencing the delicious food. And other time excruciating lows like having to spend two days sorting out your visa because someone ‘forgot’ to process the paperwork. The key is to have an open mind and treat the trip as it is: As an experience.

About the Author

Sam is a full-time freelance writer and owner of Itching For Travel living out his dream of travelling the world. Over at his site, he shows, encourages and inspires you how to follow through with your dreams to travel.

Head over to Itching For Travel on Facebook and get free advice, free one-on-one coaching and a free eBook showing you how to go from office to full-time traveller in less than a year. Post a comment or send us a message, and we’ll send the eBook and help you follow through with your dreams.

17 responses to “10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Living in Vietnam”

  1. Pat Mccashin says:

    I liked the article, I am Canadian in Portugal at the moment but always wanted to head to SE Asia to keep traveling.

  2. Rick Hollingsworth says:

    How do things work if your sick

    • Claire says:

      There are lots of hospitals and doctors with varying levels of English, I went to a private hospital in Vietnam which was affordable (for private healthcare) and everyone there spoke perfect English, the doctor I saw had trained in either the UK or US (can’t remember which now!). There are also public hospitals, English here will be limited, but it’s ok for minor things if you can show the doctor without needing to explain or have a translator

      • Caleb Wickham says:

        I lived in Cambodia for six years and travelled to VN for any serious medical situations (e.g. lithotripsy for kidney stones).

        As mentioned, English is spoken widely especially in the technical sectors, and often practitioners have had Western post-grad training placements (proudly displayed on their office walls).

        Hospital groups vie for foreign business, and advertise on-line so choice of facilities and specialties means greater benefits (and even deals for ‘frequent visitors’).

        Even for those without health insurance, paying in cash has its advantages.

  3. Brian says:

    Claire, I am a British citizen, I am 56 years old & I have 3 criminal convictions in Australia, but have no jail time, I have also lived in Australia for 54 year’s. Would their be any issues with me potentially living in Vietnam with a Vietnamese lady that I want to marry.
    Thank you.
    Brian.

    • Claire says:

      Sorry Brian, I have no idea! You’re best off contacting either the British, Australia or Vietnamese government and seeing what they say about it.

    • Buu Tran says:

      Brian,
      I think no problems even if you had jail time. If you’re not criminal you’re accepted.

  4. Alvaro says:

    Hi Claire,
    Thanks for the interesting post! It makes me want to move there! I have an online franchise of beauty products that I want to expand in Vietnam. In which groups or sources would you recommend to contact the expat community to explore the idea? Is there any FB group or forums that you recommend?

  5. wisam says:

    hello
    a nice and encouraging article
    I am an Iraqi architect with more than 30 years of experience in France Jordan and Lebanon
    my wife is Lebanese we have two boys 13 and 16 our country are facing big problems
    I am thinking to move to a peaceful country worm with a potential level of economic development, so I am thinking to move to Vietnam is it possible???
    I need some advice.

    • Claire says:

      Hello, nice to hear your comment. Unfortunately, I can’t give you advice on how to move to Vietnam, you’ll have to check with the embassy, but I hope it all goes well for you!

  6. Benny says:

    Hello, this is a nice article, I came across this as I currently live in Japan, but due to certain things I’m looking for a new destination in SE Asia to live and work.
    The first thing I’d like to know is the Vietnamese opinion of tattoos? In Japan it’s not so popular and restricting.
    Secondly is there a good support service for expats, in Japan everything is tricky or confusing making life rather difficult sometimes.

    Thank you for your response!

    • Claire says:

      Hello, this post was written by a guest author but I will try to answer from my experience visiting the country a few times. I think tattoos are fine in Vietnam, I’ve never heard anything to the contrary. I have a couple myself and was never advised to hide them.

      I think there is some support for expats, especially if you are hired by a good company – they’ll offer you help! Quite a few younger Vietnamese people can speak English and they’re always very happy to help – I think the level of English in Vietnam is better than in Japan generally 🙂

  7. Robert Hamilton says:

    I visited Vietnam last year before covid started. I stayed a week in Saigon and took side trips to the surrounding areas. I was expecting to be treated suspiciously as an American. As a veteran of the US military (I entered the military right after the Vietnam War) and as a career Police Officer, I was overly cautious. However, I found the people incredibly friendly and welcoming. I really enjoyed myself. I felt comfortable there and look forward to a longer stay next time. Amazing generocity and super inexpensive.

  8. Susie says:

    Hi Claire , how would life be for a 16 year old English boy ? How are schools for ex pats any idea ?

  9. Eric Morgan says:

    Hello I’m Kodi, living in America and being black we face alot of racism towards blacks. How are black men recieved in Vietnam.?

    • Claire says:

      Hello Kodi, I’m sorry I’m not sure about racism in Vietnam, I do know Black people who have travelled and they haven’t told me that they had issues but of course I’ll never know the extent of it if they do occur. I really hope that any bad attitudes are changing and that you enjoy Vietnam!

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