As the cost of living goes up and the visa goalposts keep moving, many Thailand expats are talking about moving to Vietnam. But is Vietnam really all that better than Thailand? Is the cost of living lower? And what about the mooted visa rule changes coming to Vietnam in July? To get a better idea of what expat life in Vietnam is like, I put some questions to Dan Thomas, one of the partners at Saigon Expat Services.
We’ve never met yet and I actually don’t know that much about you so can you give us a bit of a run-down on what you do in Vietnam and how you came to be there in the first place? Well, after traveling around Thailand and Asia in 2004 I decided to make the big move and head to Vietnam in 2006. Like many of your readers now, I was intrigued about Vietnam’s history and culture. I arrived in Saigon really not knowing what to do and how long to stay. However, I fell in love with Vietnam immediately and I’ve never looked back.
I worked in real estate for many years which then evolved into my current business, Saigon Expat Services. It’s a free advice website for expats who want to settle in Vietnam. We cover everything from moving house and car rentals to insurance and travel. As you may know, there’s a lot of chatter on the forums and social media from Thailand expats who have had enough and are seriously looking at moving to Vietnam. Do you see evidence of this on the ground in Vietnam? And if you do, what do you make of it? And for that matter, what do medium- or long-term Western expats in Vietnam make of what some are saying could become an invasion of once-called-Thailand-home expats?
So far there has been a trickle of expats arriving from Thailand. I’ve met some and heard both positive and negative feedback. The consensus seems to be that Thailand is better to live, but Vietnam is cheaper. Many are testing the water at the moment and coming over for a holiday to see if they can live here. I don’t think any local expats are worried here about an invasion as most people I know are settled in their jobs or businesses. In fact, some expat businesses would welcome more people coming over! There’s also a huge demand for teachers here as well so plenty of jobs to go around!
OK, I wasn’t going to ask about the teaching scene but now that you’ve mentioned it, what are the requirements for those who wish to teach? Is it the same as Thailand where a bachelor’s degree is needed for school and university jobs? It’s a requirement but often overlooked at many of the language centres here. If you plan to teach in Vietnam then most international schools or universities will require at least a degree in any subject to get you the work permit. Furthermore, an international school will require the full credentials such as a degree and teaching certificate from your home country. If you have this then you are the cream of the crop with regards to salaries and benefits! However, many expats choose to work without a degree and work permit. It’s very rare that teachers get caught by the authorities but you should never take the risk.
These days expats in Thailand are a diverse bunch and the days when expats could be pigeon-holed in to one of a few categories (sex tourist turned resident / English teachers / diplomatic staff / expats with professional careers on 2- or 3-year contracts) are long gone. Today you can find expats in Thailand doing just about everything. How is the expat scene in Vietnam? Any idea on numbers? What’s the breakdown insomuch as which nationalities do you come across most in the expat scene, and what do they tend to be doing etc? And with Vietnam being communist, does that mean a bigger presence of Ruskies than you get in Thailand?
According to the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs, there are 83,500 expats living in Vietnam. The question is do these figures include all the expats on tourist visas? I doubt it. Demographics change from city to city. Saigon and Da Nang has a mix of Westerners, Koreans and Japanese. In the capital, Hanoi you will find a large French community. Vung Tau on the coast is very popular with Australian retirees.
8 – 10 years ago the good old Russians arrived and ‘took over’ a few beach towns with direct flights bringing in millions of tourists each year – especially in Nha Trang. It caused huge rent increases for businesses and most of the expats chose to close up and move on. You may only find 5 expat bars dotted around the area these days where as in the past you had streets lined with them. These days a lot of Russians have now left or can’t afford to travel and the Chinese have stopped going due to the virus. It’s a beautiful town – will the expats decide to move back?
As for expat jobs – most western expats in Vietnam are teachers. Think around 70%+. Most are from UK, Australia, US and now South Africa. Salaries are high compared to Thailand. Think 20-25 USD an hour. Some only need to work 2 – 3 hours a day in the morning and spend the rest of their time sitting in the sun drinking – and they can save on that! As for other jobs – many own businesses – which you can have 100% in your own name. There is also a big demand for managers in specialised fields with the growing economy.
Will this virus cause more businesses to move from China? Many were already planning it – maybe this will create even more opportunities. There are two major reasons many expats are talking about leaving Thailand for Vietnam – the increasing cost of living and the increasing difficulty getting a visa and the seemingly ever-shifting goalposts. In other words, Thailand expats perceive these things will be better in Vietnam. Would you agree with them that things in these respects are better in Vietnam – or is it a case out of the cauldron and in to the fire?
That’s a good question and one we can only infer. Prices in the big cities such as Hanoi and Saigon are increasing – there’s no denying that. However, cities such as Da Lat, Da Nang and Vung Tau are still very cheap. Nobody can honestly say how long this will last. But it doesn’t seem to be changing soon – and most expats are very comfortable in these places.
As for visas, it really depends on your purpose to live in Vietnam. If you plan to come over and work legally – or open a business, or get married then the new visa rules that were mentioned in your column last week will be a huge positive to move here. However, if you plan to live on 3-month tourist visas then you may want to wait and see if the new rules in July are enforced. Monthly border runs are going to put a lot of people off living here.
When I visited I got the impression Saigon had a lower cost of living, but I also know that visiting and living there are two different things. Do you have any thoughts on the general cost of living for an expat in Saigon compared to Bangkok? I know this is a bit of a how long is a piece of string question, but any general thoughts would be welcome.
Saigon can be as cheap or as expensive as you make it as an expat. I know people who live here comfortably on 800 US$ a month eating where the locals go (which doesn’t mean it’s bad), whilst others get through 5000 USD a month eating and drinking at expensive restaurants and clubs. Prices in downtown Saigon are creeping up for sure – especially in the tourist areas. Many people visiting Saigon from Bangkok may find the western restaurants and bars in the expat areas expensive. A little bit of local knowledge goes a long way though. You could be paying 15 US$ for a breakfast in one restaurant whilst the same quality breakfast could be 5 US$ around the corner. For drinkers, Vietnam has some ridiculous cheap happy hours each evening. Take number 5 bar on Pasture Street for example – an institution in Saigon. From 3:00 – 7:00 pm each evening you can drink as much Tiger or Heineken as you like for 120K VND – that’s 5 US$! However, if you plan to bring your family with you then you may need to budget accordingly for school fees.. Expect 16,000 US$ + for a kindergarten place and 25,000+ US$ for a teenager at a good international school.
Back to the visa issue in Thailand, what many expats fail to acknowledge is that there are many visa options available to them. You can get an Elite Visa which allows you to stay in the country year-round, and if you qualify for a retirement via by age (50+) but don’t have the necessary finances, there are some easy work-arounds. What’s the visa situation like in Vietnam at the moment? Unfortunately for the retirees there is no retirement visa at the moment! Currently, most people do 3 month visas (think 120 US$ each time for a visa run), or are either married to a local or set up a business to get a 2 year Temporary Residence Card. Everyone can get the long term TRC whichever way you do it – but can be time consuming – and pricey if you do it 100% under your name – if you decide to open the business license to get it.
What’s the feeling on the ground amongst expats and the mood with the mooted upcoming changes to visa regulations? There is some concern. Not only from the retirees and teachers working without a work permit but also from business owners who rely on them – especially from the bars and restaurants in the expat communities. The new rules state that from July all tourist visas, regardless of nationality and length of visa, will only get a “permitted to stay stamp” of 30 days. So up to a year visa is still available but each stay is limited to 30 days. At the end of the 30 days you will need a new stamp for another 30 days. This is at the discretion of Customs – so it’s not guaranteed. However, there are options to stay here as mentioned with the TRC so it might just mean having to jump through a few hoops to get the long term visa. Salaries are good here, as well as it being cheap, so it might be a case of having to bite the bullet and get the TRC for many.
What do you like most about being an expat in Vietnam, particularly any things – be they tangible or otherwise – that you may not find or experience elsewhere? For me it’s a sense of freedom and safety that Vietnam offers. There’re no stop and searches on the street like what I’ve read in Thailand from the police. There are active traffic stops and they regularly stop tourists and expats riding their motorbikes – but if you’re not drunk and have a license then there’s no problem. Furthermore, the locals embrace foreigners as friends. I feel very safe anywhere in Vietnam and have had no real problems in 14 years. That said, there have been many instances of bag snatching as you would expect in most places in Asia, so it’s always worth being vigilant.
I get the feeling that some Thailand expats considering heading east have a rose-tinted view of what life in Vietnam will be like. Would you care to piss on their parade and let them know a few of the downsides they may not be aware of? For me, one of the major downsides is the prevalence of smoking there. I can remember floating around Saigon with my pal Mega and we went in to a café for a coffee. We got a great coffee, but left sooner that we would have liked because so many people were smoking and the place reeked. You just don’t get that in Thailand. It’s a smokers paradise here. Although some of the larger chain coffee shops and restaurants are starting to do no smoking, it’s prevalent in most expat bars.
If you plan to marry and have kids then education fees can really hurt as well unless you’re willing to put your child through a local school. However, I tried this and would advise against it until their medieval teaching methods change.
Traffic is also getting worse so choose a job near your house. Most people live in the expat enclaves of District 2 and District 7. Some people rarely venture to the main CBD to avoid the traffic. The air quality in Hanoi and Saigon is similar to Bangkok. So if you are planning to live here you may want to consider one of the coastal cities for fresh air.
There’s also the small matter of who you meet in bars. And I’m not talking about the girls! One good friend from Bangkok who recently decided to live here found that most of the people in the bars in Saigon were teachers – this he found was very different to the clientele at the likes of the Robin Hood bar in Sukhumvit. He wasn’t too happy about breaking into conversation each night with them so moved away. Please note: Due to the salaries here, even the backpacker teachers can afford to drink at the more affluent places. You will find a different kind of expat in other cities up the coast if hanging around teachers isn’t your thing!
Some of my readers are in Thailand primarily for the girly bar scene (or the ladies who don’t work in the bars). My limited experience is that the bar scene in Vietnam is not nearly as open as it is in Thailand and that Vietnamese ladies outside the bar scene are not nearly as easy as Thai women. How does that sound? That’s correct. Their only option is to head to a few nightclubs where the freelancers hang out or get lucky on the dating apps. The only similar thing with the girl bar scene in Thailand is the lady drink culture. The many hostess bars that are around the Pasteur Street / Ton Thap Thiep area are all smiles and no action, I’ve been told! Plus be careful of the girls adding the drinks to your bar bill. In fact it’s best to avoid them all together and stay in Thailand or visit Phnom Penh. It’s not even comparable.
What about dating Vietnamese women? Is it similar to Thailand where – and I hate to say this but more often than not it is true – you usually hit a home run on your first date? I guess that’s one of the great things about dating in Thailand – it’s super easy – but also one of the worst things – you don’t tend to take a lady seriously when she drops her knickers so fast. Haha. I guess that depends where you meet the lady. Most girls over in Vietnam tend to be a bit more conservative on the first date. They will usually ask to meet at a coffee shop or seafood restaurant first to ‘work’ you out (i.e. your job / salary). Oh… and it’s not uncommon for them to bring a friend as well for support! If your readers are looking for a home run early on – then hit the ‘dating’ apps and get the small talk out of the way first. Tinder, Badoo, WeChat and VietnamCupid are the most popular.
If you could offer a would-be expat to Vietnam 3 pieces of advice, what would they be?
- Have a trip around the different cities in Vietnam before choosing a place to live. Some people like the hustle and bustle of Saigon whilst Da Lat in the Central Highlands with its cooler climate is becoming popular for some.
- Use the Grab app for taxis – Taxi scams are rife as soon as you walk out of the airport.
- Keep an open mind when coming to Vietnam for the first time. It certainly doesn’t have the nightlife, shopping or beaches as Thailand. However, it can offer a great living experience with clean air, fantastic food and wonderful people.
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