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in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

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Kat Smith
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Ready to embrace the chaos? Look no further!

So, you’re moving to Ho Chi Minh City but don’t know what to expect…

Ho Chi Minh City (previously Saigon) is a hectic and energetic city. Hordes of motorbikes cover the streets, buzzing by like bees, their drivers all fueled by cà phê sữa đá. 

The estimated 8.6 million population just doesn’t seem like a big enough number some days. The streets are never empty. Bars and restaurants are always open and there are tiny alleyways you’ve passed every day but never noticed until now. 

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The city feels alive at any minute of the day, especially in District 1. HCMC is divided into 24 districts but the ones you’ll hear the most about are probably District 1, 2, 3, 7 and Bin Thanh. This doesn’t mean the others aren’t worthy, it just means those 5 are the ones you’ll most likely live in and find the most job opportunities. The most common job is as an English teacher.

View of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
View of Landmark 81

There's a district to fit your desires

District 1 is the heart of the city. A lot of businesses and “tourist must-do’s” are here. The Bến Thành Market, the War Remnants Museum and the Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral are a few of the biggest ones. There is also a lively night scene in D1 but it’s definitely catered to the wild partier. Score some free drinks at the glamorous rooftop bar SkyXX on Tuesday for Ladies Night or don't go home until sunrise hitting the late night spots Lighthouse, Observatory and Broma. And, as any HCMC blog will tell you, brace yourself for a loud and crazy night on Bui Vien Walking Street. Pro tip: the giant balloons you'll see everywhere on that street seem fun but have recently been the cause of many people fainting. Inhale with caution or not at all.

Pink Church Tan Dinh Vietnam
Tan Dinh Church in District 3

District 3 shares a “border” with D1 and is very similar, maybe just a little quieter in it’s social scene. I use to work in D3 and while there is a lot going on, I didn’t spend much time here outside of work hours. Although, C.On Global Food Factory is a cute spot to grab a refreshing coconut coffee or a cheap Asian style lunch (I recommend the pad thai). I enjoy relaxing lunch breaks here with my book. But, before you move on! Take a peak at the infamous pink church, Tan Dinh. It honestly looks like Barbie's Dream House more than a church.

Binh Thanh District is huge. It’s a common neighborhood for locals but also hosts the high-end Vinhomes Central Park and Landmark 81, the tallest building in SE Asia. The apartments and facilities are high-end, if that's what you're looking for. This area has an open green space along the river, a brand-new mall (with ice skating rink!) and a big variety of food and drinks. At the bottom floor of the mall is a food court with a variety of Asian delicacies. So you know, the mall has Lamborghini and Bentley dealerships so prices aren’t typical for Vietnam.

Hop on a motorbike, explore the city and embrace the madness of it all!

District 7 is the new haven for expats. The district itself is on the outskirts of the city and is newer in construction. The streets are wider, buildings are gleaming and is typically much quieter than the rest of the city. D7 hosts a small weekend market above Boomerang Bistro that’s worth checking out if you’re a shopper like me and enjoy checking out local products.

District 2, or Thao Dien in particular, is where most expats choose to live. It’s tree lined streets filled with cafes, restaurants, co-working spaces and shops are definitely aesthetically pleasing. Most people who have recently moved to the city chose one of the high-rise apartment complexes in the area, with the Masteri as the most popular. Thao Dien is famed for is “neighborhood” vibes while still being close to the city center. People from all over the world live here, meaning you can easily get international cuisine and groceries. One of my favorite international restaurants is Benaras Gardenia. Enjoy some delicious Indian food in a lovely space and on the weekends get treated with live shows and music. A weekend in Thao Dien isn’t complete without brunch. There are a number of restaurants with good ones but Vintage Emporium and The Loop are must tries. For local food, try Bep Vo Kitchen, An Cafe, Hue Corner and Quan Bui Garden. Since it’s catered to foreigners, it’s typically considered one of the more expensive neighborhoods.

Not sold on Ho Chi Minh but still want to live in Asia? See what it's like to live as an expat in Hong Kong.

Vintage Emporium Ho Chi Minh Vietnam
Vintage Emporium brunch, Thao Dien

Let a realtor do the work for you

You can easily find Facebook groups to rent apartments and houses. Check that group out to get an idea of prices and standard of living. If you comment on a post, be ready to have a ton of realtors PM you asking if they can find you your dream home. We used the agency Honeycomb and they were beyond helpful, even after we moved in. There's no additional cost for you to use a realtor, so why not let them do the heavy lifting. Our agent was more than patient with us as we vetoed most options she sent us. Sorry, Amy!

motorcycles Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam
Typical daily traffic

Once housing is settled, you'll need to get around. The streets (and sidewalks) here can be full of traffic going in whichever direction the driver pleases.

I’d recommend using the apps Grab, GoViet or Bee (Viet versions of Uber/Lyft) and chose the motorbike option. The rides are cheap and it’s a great way to get use to the driving etiquettes- let’s be honest, you just do what you want- before you start driving for yourself. 

When you’re ready, it’s easy to rent a bike for a day, week or extended period of time. You can also buy a bike for cheap (mine cost about $300 USD) just make sure it comes with a blue registration card and you test drive it before you hand any cash over. Take some time driving in quiet streets (Thao Dien or D7 are great) before going for it in D1, D3 or the highway. 

Keep in mind monsoon season is from May to November, more or less. It usually pours in the afternoon each day so try not to schedule your first time on the bike in heavy rain and flooding. The rest of the year is hot and dry.

It's a near guarantee you'll find hobbies, places and people you'll love in HCMC.

There are high end rooftop bars and clubs all boasting a ladies night on a different day of the week, chill bars and craft beer breweries and endless amounts of cafes serving up local coffee and sweet treats. Walking down any given street you’ll find a stand serving up Pho on the sidewalk, an international restaurant from any given spot of the world and always someone on the corner selling a variety of fruits with spicy salt. The best way to see the city is by foot or bike. Explore alleys you've never been down, taste street food from push carts and enjoy a coffee on a tiny little stool on the sidewalk.

Speaking of coffee, get your taste buds ready! They have more varieties here than I ever thought possible. Coffee with condensed milk, orange juice, salt or coconut are all the norm and absolutely delicious. No matter how long you stay here I guarantee you'll continue to find flavors that surprise you. It's also a lot stronger than anything I've had before so drink it slowly, sometimes it hits me like jet fuel!

It’s really a city of contradictions that somehow all melds into one truly unique spot.

For extra tips and a safe space to meet people and ask questions, join the Facebook page Fexpats Ho Chi Minh. Just by using the search function you can get most, if not all, of your questions answered and if not, ask away! The females in Saigon are helpful, open-minded and willing to help out a newcomer to the city!

Thao Dien, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Thao Dien, Distrct 2

I'll be honest, I was a bit anxious to see how the locals would treat me. As an American, I know the first thing that pops into our heads, consciously or not, when we hear Vietnam and I assumed it'd be the same for them. Upon arriving I forgot about those worries. People smile at you in the streets, taxi drivers try to impress you with their best English and the only looks I received were curious ones. The War Remnants Museum is a heavy, emotional place but I'd recommend you go. It gave me extra respect for these people who can live with such a devastating recent past and still welcome me, and other Americans, with open arms.

I thoroughly enjoyed my year in this city and can't believe it's come to an end. Although I loved it dearly, the beach was calling my name in Da Nang, Vietnam. Follow along on my journey and check on older posts to get some more detailed tips for Saigon!

xx
Kat

P.S. Looking for a job in Saigon? Check this post about Teaching English in Vietnam!

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