Pros and Cons of Living in Vietnam for Expats
So you’ve been thinking of moving to Vietnam, but still weighing the good and the bad. Two years ago, I thought I’ll stay in Vietnam just for three months to complete my volunteering project in beautiful Nghe An province, but I ended up calling Vietnam my home. It was so unexpected and unplanned, but I can’t be happier with that decision. I am so fortunate to have a chance to live in different places around the country, including one of the poorest provinces, Nghe An and one of the fastest developing cities, Da Nang.
Continue reading if you’d like to know the pros and cons of living in Vietnam.
Please keep in mind it’s my subjective opinion so that it may differ from other people’s experiences. Let’s start!
Cons of Living in Vietnam
High Pollution Levels
The majority of developing countries face the pollution problem, and Vietnam falls into the same bucket. Pollution is everywhere, and it’s unfortunate to see how short term development is favored over long-term consequences. I can understand that since the country still faces high poverty rates, and fast-paced growth provides jobs and drives the economy. Anyway, the consequences are real. Lately, Hanoi hits the highest on the list of the most polluted cities in the world.
Air quality is pretty bad in the cities, and on some days, you can notice the layer of smog in the distance. The air is much better in the countryside, but the life quality struggles, especially for expats as lacking infrastructure is real.
Another shocking thing I’ve experienced is a culture of littering. As I was living near the beach in Nghe An, I loved to spend time on the beach. Unfortunately, beaches and surrounding area serve as a garbage dump for locals. You can find all kinds of plastics, styrofoam, nylon, fishermen, nets, etc. The majority of that trash ends up in the sea, and gradually over time, it affects a marine life that’s the primary source of income and life in the region. I guess it’s a lack of education on the matter, and I’m not blaming people, but I believe we, especially expats, should work hard to educate locals and save the environment.
I’ve experienced small kids aggressively throwing covers of candy or plastic glasses on the road during the motorbike drive. The parents seem not to care at all, which again touches the point of lack of education.
Currently, especially in bigger cities, the younger students and professionals started to show an initiative about saving the environment so you can join many beach clean-ups, educational events, and fundraisers, which is quite impressive!
The video below shows one of the best views in Vietnam – the top of Hai Van Pass. You can see yourself how much trash and plastics is around…
Chaotic Traffic (You’ll Soon Get Used to It!)
Alright, probably you’ve already heard about Vietnamese traffic, so I will be short here. I was extremely shocked to see traffic after I’ve landed in Hanoi. Since the tax on car imports is enormous, people’s primary vehicle is a motorbike. Did you know that officially there are around 45 million registered motorbikes operating daily? Imagine that! It’s close to one bike for every two people, which is just mindblowing. Now imagine that amount of motorcycles on the roads…crazy, huh?
Once you start driving and get comfortable, you’ll notice that there is a flow in traffic that everyone follows. The majority of people are aware of each other and traffic, most of the time, goes smoothly. Don’t be surprised about the constant honking since it serves as an indicator to show others that your are in the traffic.
Be extra careful of trucks and buses since, in Vietnam, there is an unwritten rule – the priority goes to the bigger vehicle.
Looking to drive a motorbike in Vietnam? Check out our detailed articles covering every aspect of motorbike trips:
- 50 Lifesaving Tips to Safely Travel Vietnam by Motorbike
- Motorbike Trip in Vietnam: Budget, Routes & Tips
- How to Successfully Deal With Vietnamese Traffic Police
- How Much It Costs to Travel From Hanoi to Saigon on a Bike?
You can see how driving during the rush hour in Saigon looks like (from our latest trip):
Lack of Food Hygiene
Vietnamese street food scene is booming, and it’s one of my favorite parts of the country, but it comes with downsides. The most significant disadvantage is food hygiene or lack of the same since locals prepare food on the street. The air quality, insects, dust, non-drinkable tap water, wild rats are just a few aspects that lower food hygiene.
I’ve been talking with many expats, and some of them are very concerned about food hygiene. Many people traveling and living here got stomach problems related to food. Luckily for me, I’ve never experienced any problem with food in Vietnam (knocking on wood), and I enjoy street food every day.
Rapid Development and Construction Everywhere
Rapid development isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it creates job opportunities for locals and improves their quality of life. Anyway, in some places, the construction and development pace is out of control, which has many adverse effects. For example, in Da Nang (An Thuong area), it’s so hard to find a single street without construction work going on. It’s very shocking to see that the majority of construction workers are middle-aged women who work from morning till dark (sometimes during the night, too). I must mention that I haven’t noticed women working on construction sites in the big cities, but in the countryside. If you know more about the reasons behind it, please let us know.
When it comes to more significant projects, like building large hotels or infrastructure, the majority of workers aren’t Vietnamese people, but ‘imported’ Chinese workers. How much does rapid development improve the life quality of the regular Vietnamese family?
I have to mention that apartment hunting is profoundly affected by rapid construction in the cities. While I was living in Da Nang, An Thuong area was going through significant infrastructure upgrades, which translates to dust, unbearable noise, and bad traffic. It’s tough to live next to a large construction site, so when you’re hunting for your next apartment, be sure to rent the place for a few nights before signing a contract. Thank me later for that. 🙂
Occasional Power & Internet Outage
As in the majority of developing countries, electrical infrastructure doesn’t follow the pace of development, so it’s not a strange thing to experience a few power or internet outages per day. When I was living in the countryside, we’ve experienced a power outage almost every day, and it was very frustrating. Anyway, you have to embrace it if you decide to live or travel in the countryside. That’s one of the main reasons I’ve mentioned that the countryside might not be the best option for expats, especially if you need a stable internet connection and electricity.
When it comes to cities, the situation is a way better, but still, there are some occasional power blackouts. In Da Nang, for example, when the construction site is around, you can count for a few outages per day. Also, sometimes the trucks break the electrical wires, and it causes the blackout in the whole block. The good thing is that the majority of apartments/cafes have power generators in case of a prolonged power outage.
Language Barrier is REAL
The language barrier is REAL, and sometimes, it gets tough to establish a basic conversation with locals. When I’ve first arrived in Vietnam, I’ve been living in a rural province of Nghe An, where I could count on the fingers of one hand people who could speak English. At first, it’s bizarre, but after a while, you understand that people living in rural areas simply don’t have time and money to learn English. Plus, on top of that, you are the foreigner in their country, and you should adjust. These people are hard workers leaving their sweat in the rice fields to put the food on the table. The younger population, teenagers, and primary school kids are learning conversational English at a swift pace. I’ve met a few teenagers, and we could speak and understand each other with the support of Google Translate.
I was teaching school kids English as a part of a volunteering project in Nghe An, and you can read my volunteering experience here.
Not to forget, Google Translate in Vietnam helps a lot, even in the remotest areas. The translation isn’t perfect all the time, but people seem to understand the context, which makes communication way more manageable.
When it comes to big cities, the level of English is a way higher, which means the majority of younger people know the basics, but only a small percentage can hold a conversation. The demand for English is enormous, and the best example shows the rapid growth of English so-called schools or centers on each step.
If you’re planning to relocate to Vietnam, start learning Vietnamese from day 1. Not only it will help you in connecting with locals, but you’ll be able to get better prices, learn more about Vietnamese culture, and it’s fun! I’m currently learning Vietnamese in exchange for sharing my language. The best way to acquire Vietnamese is to meet local people who’re looking to improve their English. Such a win-win situation.
Loud Karaoke Bars
Alright, this doesn’t necessarily need to be a downside, but these fancy karaoke bars can turn in your biggest nightmare overnight. Singing karaoke with friends and family is one of the staple cultural activities of Vietnamese people, so expect a lot of karaoke bars.
Why are these bars a downside? Well, if you’re living in bigger cities such as Da Nang, in some areas, there are multiple karaoke bars next to each other. The isolation is close to non-existent, and people usually participate in this intense activity during the night, so you can guess it. It’s very noisy and sometimes annoying to hear drunk people trying to sing.
When you’re searching for the apartment, I recommend exploring the surrounding area and booking a few nights before signing a lease since you’ll get a better understanding of the area.
Pros of Living in Vietnam
Friendly Vietnamese People
So, the story goes like this. I’ve been driving my old and broken backpacker’s Win and in the middle of nowhere, I ended up without fuel. I accepted the fact that I’m going to push the bike for a while on an extreme heat until I find a gas station. After 5 minutes, I’m about to give up and wait for the sun to goes down a bit, but here come the locals. They didn’t ask anything, they’ve just put their leg on my bike and pushed me. It was shocking, funny, and dangerous, but they reduced my struggle. Another story was when I was driving around the highlands and got caught in a massive rain. I’ve stopped near some house to get the raincoat and continue driving, but locals get out and insisted that I cover from the rain in their home.
I could write a whole book with anecdotes of friendly Vietnamese people. Some people will tell that Vietnamese people are generous because they expect something in return. I would strongly disagree regarding the general population, but for sure, there are some people, especially in touristic places, who’re pretending to be friendly just to sell you something. If you’re traveling around tourist places, be sure to prepare yourself and learn about common scams in Vietnam before bragging that Vietnamese people just want your money.
Anyway, Vietnamese people are amicable and kind. They are always ready to help, share a broad smile that makes up even the worst day, and can listen and understand. I’m a people’s person and always trying to form a connection and empathy with people.
Please have in mind that it’s my subjective experience. I’ve been traveling around Vietnam for the past two years and really can’t remember any bad experience with people.
A Heaven for Foodie Lovers
Hands down to the best cuisine I’ve had a chance to try. Vietnamese food culture, or more specifically, street food culture makes everyone wondering about mouthwatering dishes came straight from the source.
Vietnamese food is exceptionally fresh and diverse, which makes me believe you simply can’t end up without the ideas of what to eat next. I was living in Da Nang for a year, and I probably tried more than 50 authentic dishes from the region.
Oh, did I mention that food differs from region to region? Some areas serve the same food, but people use different spices, herbs, or ways of preparation, which ends up like a completely different dish.
If you ever have the chance to explore the whole country, you’ll soon realize the specialties differ as you progress to the north or south. For instance, the north is known for its authentic Pho, while the central region is known for its delicious bowl of Mi Quang.
On top of having abundant choices when it comes to eating, the food is extremely affordable, and you can find it on each step.
Many times it happened that I didn’t know what I’d exactly love to eat, so I just drive the bike around until I’ve found a friendly local with a broad smile preparing food on the street.
What amazes me the most is how affordable the food is. If you’re eating on the street, you can expect to pay anywhere from 10,000 – 70,000 for a hearty meal. Have in mind that noodle soups usually costs in the 30,000 VND range, while rice combinations can cost a bit more, depending on how much food you have on your plate.
Vibrant Coffee Scene
Whoever traveled around Vietnam knows about Vietnamese coffee. It would be a sin no to try a sip of this hot rhapsody, and once you try, it’s tough to get used to any other coffee. I’m a huge coffee addict who loves simplicity, so I usually go with standard coffee with milk and ice (caphe sua da).
Vietnamese people tend to use a lot of Robusta beans since it’s very cheap and tasty. Some upscale cafes have different beans on the menu, such as Arabica beans from regions such as Da Lat, or even Ethiopia or Colombia. Anyway, a cup of Vietnamese coffee is robust and features a pleasant coffee aroma and sweetened taste of condensed milk.
Wanna learn how to prepare an authentic Vietnamese coffee with milk? Check our detailed guide here.
Locals are religious about their coffee breaks, which usually takes place all-around day. There is no way that a Vietnamese person will reject an invitation for a talk with a coffee. Local coffee shops cater to locals who bet on the cards or play Chinese chess during their break. Also, quite popular are gaming cafes where youngsters stare at their phones and play popular multiplayer games.
I really love the coffee scene, not only for the coffee itself but also for the ambient that gives me a focus required for my freelance business. In some bigger cafe franchises such as High5, Highlands Coffee or House of Cha, you may find a perfect spot for working on your laptop. Also, locals tend to study and work there so it’s just an ideal place to get some work done. If you’re in Da Nang and looking for a cozy cafe where you can work online, here’s the list of all work-friendly places in Da Nang.
The coffee culture is just a part of colorful Vietnamese culture, and if you’re a coffee addict like me, you’ll get along. Not to forget, coffee is exceptionally affordable, and menus offer abundant choices.
People associate Vietnam with many things such as friendly people, mouthwatering food, beautiful women, strong coffee, but we can’t miss a breathtaking landscape. Hands down, Vietnam is the land of diversity, and landscape definitely falls into that description.
I was fortunate enough that upon my arrival, I had a chance to visit the stunning Halong Bay and Tam Coc area. Whoever plans to visit Halong Bay, I can’t recommend more climbing to Bai Tho mountain and enjoying the view over the city and the bay.
Once I sat on the motorbike (it took a while), I’ve experienced extreme freedom in going off the beaten path and honestly exploring the diversity of landscape in Vietnam. The north is known for its high peaks, terrace rice fields, narrow roads, and solely breathtaking views. If you’re about to travel north, don’t forget to drive a stunning Ha Giang loop. Once you start going south, you’ll experience windy mountain passes offering stunning views over cities (Hai Van I’m talking about you!), as well as dense jungle roads near the Laos border. Kontum and Pleiku area features the heart of Central Highlands, where the majority of ethnic groups live, so not only you’re going to experience a stunning landscape, but also, you’re going to see a different way of living.
I’d say that the south is a bit more specific when it comes to beaches as the tiny islands surround the coast. Once you proceed further south, around Mui Ne area, you’ll experience a sand desert out of nowhere. Can Tho city is known as a Mekong Delta area where you can explore river streams and how life goes on there.
Vietnam has it all, and it’s a very diverse country landscape wise. In my opinion, by far, the best way to truly experience the landscape and everything else Vietnam offers is by getting a second-hand motorbike and go on a lifetime adventure.
Looking for a beautiful motorbike route from Hanoi to Saigon? We’ve traveled from Hanoi to Saigon on the bikes in 30 days, so don’t forget to check it out.
Lively Expat Community
If you’re looking to form meaningful connections with fellow travelers or expats, you’re lucky as the bigger cities feature a vibrant expat community.
Since I was living in Da Nang, I can speak for that city and its expat community. What I’d like to mention is that at the beginning, I was mainly hanging around the foreigners in An Thuong area, but after a while, I’ve got a feeling that I was missing out from authentic Vietnamese culture. That was the moment when I stopped hanging so much around expat area and start to interact mainly with Vietnamese people. Currently, I’m balancing things out, and it works wonders for me.
I’ve met so many people who shared the same experience. Getting to Vietnam to learn more about the country, its people and culture, ending up being surrounded by westerners all the time. What are your thoughts on it?
In Da Nang, you have a large and helpful expat group with hefty of valuable advice and recommendations. Also, if you’re a digital nomad or would love to know more about the lifestyle, there is an active DN group with weekly meetups, which is fantastic for forming relationships and friendships.
I can’t speak for other cities, but from the Facebook groups, I can tell Saigon and Hanoi feature a way bigger expat groups with more activities and events going on.
Don’t worry, even if you don’t speak Vietnamese, you’ll find your pack of people in Vietnam. 🙂
Affordable Costs of Living
Expats enjoy a pretty affordable cost of living compared to western countries in Vietnam. You can live a pretty decent life, filled with activities, having your own motorbike and fully furnished apartment, eating out every meal without breaking the bank.
I’ve been writing about my experience while living in Da Nang before, so you can check a detailed living cost breakdown. Please note that I’m not partying hard, but I spend my money on other things such as gas, a motorbike, and loads of coffee! 😀
Living 2 minutes from the beautiful beach, having a full street of diverse street food, and tiny cafes is everything I need. I was spending about $600 per month and didn’t miss anything.
Please note that I was also saving the money while building my business, so this might be a meager cost. For a pretty comfortable life having a modern apartment in expat area, going out almost every night, and not worrying about the money, you can easily spend $1,000 per month. Anyway, for the quality of the life you get for your money spent, you simply can’t beat it.
This one is huge, especially for someone who loves to explore. In Vietnam, the popular way to explore the country is by driving your motorbike. Everything, the traffic signs, menus, and navigation signs use the Latin alphabet. It makes it extremely easy to navigate around the country where you possibly don’t understand more than 10 words.
While driving on the open roads, you don’t need to use navigation. Once you’re in the city and looking for a specific place, the navigation comes handy. When it comes to food, drinks, nightlife, and all other fun, you’ll find everything easy to understand. Also, in tourist places, you can expect menus on English, which is a huge plus, but also a sign of tourist prices. 😀
Anyway, navigating around the country and understanding what you’re ordering is extremely easy, mainly because of the Latin alphabet.
Since I’m coming from a country known for its cold winters and sweltering and dry summers, a climate in Vietnam was a pleasant surprise. At first, I was living in Nghe An, and the province is known for a super dry wind blowing from neighboring Laos during April – June. If you ask me to describe hell, then it would be staying in the place with a dry Lao wind pouring on you.
Da Nang was a pleasant surprise as the majority of the time, you’ll experience sunny weather perfect for the beach. You can check my full article explaining different seasons in Da Nang and finding the best time to visit the city. Anyway, you can expect sunny and stable weather from March to October. From October to December, the temperature started to decrease while the weather became a bit unstable slowly. A period from December to February is known as a wet season, which features a heavy rainfall, occasional floods, and overall, depressive weather to live in.
Probably the average temperature for the whole Vietnam sits in the mid-20s (celsius) degrees. Also, the critical thing to mention is that the south experiences a monsoon climate, which means half of the year is a wet season. Prepare for daily rains and constant floods.
Extra – Bum Guns Everywhere!
Alright, at first, bum guns may sound like a weird thing, but believe me, once you leave Vietnam, you’ll immediately look for the ways to install one in your house. Once you learn how to use it properly and apply enough water pressure, then we’re talking about the comfort you simply can’t abandon.
Bum guns are the best! 🙂
After all being said, Vietnam has its pros and cons, but in my opinion, the pros hugely outweigh the cons. Vietnam is by far my favorite country to live in, and I can proudly call it my second home.