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.
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.