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Becoming an Expat in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City

Are you looking to live in Vietnam? Expats in this country enjoy some great perks from a really low cost of living to great food. Find out how to become an expat in Vietnam.

Note: If you want to hear us discuss this on our podcast, just listen here:

In this article you’ll learn:

I always knew that at some point in my life, I’d become an expat. Jim and I have lived overseas for many years in many different countries, but we’ve never been expats, or even digital nomads for that matter.

What is an expat? You ask. An expat is someone who lives and/or works in a country other than the one they hold citizenship in, and according to this definition, we might have technically fit the bill. However, our jobs were working for the US government, on military bases overseas. That’s like living in little America. Trust me.

On base, you have all the services and amenities of living in any US town. There are clinics or hospitals, dental care facilities, schools for the kids (that’s where we worked), gyms, theaters, bowling alleys, restaurants, and even places to rent tents and boats and such.

One of the biggest perks is the grocery store (the commissary) that carries the most commonly bought items. You can get everything from Pop Tarts to US Prime Beef there…and everything in between. Food is one of the things that remind us of home, and after living as an expat for a few months, you definitely find yourself wanting a regular cheeseburger or some good Mexican food. With the commissary, that’s never really a problem.

That was our life, living overseas, but still enjoying the comforts of the base. You really don’t ever have to leave the base to have a full life, and many people don’t. Those people weren’t us, though, we lived off-base, shopped in local markets and grocery stores, and traveled extensively to get to know the country we were in, but we always had that base that we could rely on to provide something we might be missing. Neither of us feels that we were ever true expats.

Our Reasons for Moving to Ho Chi Minh City

That has all changed. We were trying to figure out where to go Vietnam vs Thailand, and around August, we decided we were going to take the jump and move to Vietnam for a couple of years. Why? It’s simple. Traveling around the world and learning how to make money while traveling, like blogging where we’re not beholden to anyone else, has always been our dream. Honestly, we’ve been traveling around the world as we worked for other people before. Now it’s just us.

As we started looking into it, we realized that Vietnam is a great place for retirees and digital nomads. Your dollar (or other western currency) goes a long way in this country.

There are many cities in Vietnam where people like us want to live, but the three biggest places are Ho Chi Minh City (the largest city), Hanoi (the capital), and Danang. We’ve been to all three and they each have their pros and cons, so if you are looking to move to Vietnam, even for just a few months, do some good research on where you’ll want to base yourself.

As I mentioned, though, we didn’t really have much of a choice. The reason we moved here, specifically, was because our family is here. We want to see as much of our grandson as we can as he grows, and that means living in the same city as him.

Being an expat in VIetnam allows you to meet and interact with the locals.
Being an expat in VIetnam allows you to meet and interact with the locals.

Vietnam Visas

Wouldn’t you know it, we move here in the middle of a visa policy renovation. No one knows for sure how it’s all going to pan out, but basically, Vietnam wants to limit tourists to 30-day visas.

Yes, you can easily do a visa run to the neighboring countries, and in fact, there are people who will facilitate this for you and make it as easy on you as possible. You just need to pay them.

We are not interested in trying to make a visa run every 30 days, even though we plan on traveling extensively, it’s just one more thing to worry about. We want to have a visa that allows us multiple entry privileges while at the same time being as long-term as possible.

For us, since we have a family member who has a Temporary Resident Card we can piggyback on that. A TRC allows Erika to live and work in Vietnam for as long as she’s employed. I don’t know how long hers is good for, but her work monitors it and helps her stay legal.

We’re able to first get a 90-day visa, which we can then turn into a 6-month visa. After those 6 months are up, we just renew. Luckily Erika’s school has facilitated all of our paperwork, and other than having to leave the country to pick up our 90-day visa, it’s been relatively simple. Fingers crossed, it stays that way.

In short, for you, if you want to stay longer than 30 days as a tourist, you should either make a visa run plan or find a job who will then sponsor you to stay in the country.

Expats in Vietnam eat cheap, like buying a whole cooked duck from this vendor for only $15 US.
Expats in Vietnam eat cheap, like buying a whole cooked duck from this vendor for only $15 US.

Apps to Download for Living in Vietnam

Grab is our number one app in Vietnam. We use it for transportation, take-out food, shopping, and even moving large things like furniture. What we really like about Grab for transportation is how it lets you choose what type of vehicle you need.

Jim loves to go by Grab motorbike when he’s moving around the city so he chooses that option pretty regularly. When it’s just the two of us, we’ll take a car or a plus. There’s also an XL option if you have luggage, several people, or large items.

Zalo is a messaging app that nearly everyone in Vietnam uses. It is a must for communicating with businesses, realtors, friends, etc.

bTaskee is a service scheduling app used in Thailand and Vietnam for house cleaning, laundry, and much more. It is super convenient and a real time-saver.

Wise is a money-transferring app that allows us to transfer money to individuals in their local currency. Since we’re not working in Vietnam, we aren’t allowed to have a local bank account. We use Wise to pay our rent, and make other payments for services.

One final note for apps, don’t forget to look for expat groups on Facebook for your area. These connect you with a whole community sharing the expat experience. This is a great source to get your questions answered or to make some new friends.

Phones and Internet

You can pick up a SIM card right in the airport, and it’s easy to do and pretty cheap. We bought our phone service from Viettel, which has offices all over the city. For about $5 per month, we get 5MB of data per day, as well as more than enough voice calls and texting.

Getting Around Ho Chi Minh City

If you are planning on living in HCMC long-term, you might want to buy or rent a motorbike. Anything under 50 ccs allows you to drive without a special license. However, 50 ccs don’t have tons of power, and many expats trade up sooner or later.

We decided not to bother with buying a bike, because Grab is such a cheap service and we are normally traveling together, which means we’d be cramped on a 50 cc bike. Plus neither of us has a motorcycle license, so we’d have to worry about getting one of those if we wanted something bigger and stronger.

Huge apartment complexes provide pleny amenities for expats in Ho Chi Minh.
Motorcycles delivering goods all over the city is a common sight in HCMC. These two are parked outside our huge apartment complex.

Finding an Apartment

Finding an apartment anywhere in Vietnam is a pretty easy endeavor. There are Facebook groups you can join where you can find apartments listed. From those, you can meet the guides that will help you find a place.

For us, we were looking for an apartment in District 2, a huge expat area. We only need a one bedroom, but we definitely need a sitting area and small kitchen. We looked at a few, and I would tell the people who showed us around what we were looking for. One of them called us back with an apartment perfect for us.

Most apartment buildings have a lot of amenities which include things like swimming pools, gyms, barbecue areas, playgrounds, indoor playrooms, and who knows what else. Ours has all of these, and of course it’s secure as well.

Realtors are paid by the owner, so don’t worry about contacting them. For move-in expenses, expect to pay the first month’s rent plus two months rent for deposit. We made this transaction with cash, but our regular monthly rent is made through bank transfers.

Visiting a temple in Vietnam.

Cost of Living in Vietnam

Living in Vietnam is super affordable. Our rent is a third of what it was for a smaller apartment in Washington state. Utilities are also much cheaper. Our rent, utilities, and phones cost us about $650 (USD) per month. And there are definitely cheaper apartments available in other parts of the city.

Since we don’t have a car or motorbike, we chose our apartment location carefully. We can walk across the street for groceries, and there are several restaurants within walking distance so that helps with transportation cost

For longer distances, to the airport or other districts in the city, we use Grab. Rides are cheap, it costs about $1.50 to get a ride on a motorbike, or $4 in a car, to our daughter’s place about 20 minutes away. The airport is about 45 minutes from our apartment and that ride costs about $10. We also use Grab for food delivery.

Eating in Vietnam can be very cheap. A banh mi sandwich and fresh orange juice from the street cart down the road costs about $3 and makes a great breakfast. A dinner for two, delivered by a Grab motorbike, typically costs about $10 on average (it’s cheaper to go to the restaurant). We do some shopping at the Winmart across the street and find the prices there pretty low compared to similar items in the states. Overall we budget about $70 per week for food.

Restaurants are plentiful in Ho Chi Minh. You can find all kinds of foods, local and from around the world.

Final Thoughts

We didn’t technically pick Ho Chi Minh to live in, we’re here to be with family. However, as a retired couple, living on our fixed income, we’re extremely happy. HCMC is friendly and affordable. Plus we have the added bonus of discovering all the wonderful places to visit in this country and the rest of Southeast Asia as well. Stay Tuned.

Author Bio: Corinne Vail is a travel photographer, food lover, and a perpetual traveler who has been travel writing for over 14 years. For many years she lived overseas in Germany, Japan, Turkey, South Korea, and the Netherlands teaching the children of the US. military. She’s visited over 90 countries, and she’s not stopping anytime soon.

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