Why I chose to move to Vietnam, and specifically Ho Chi Minh City.
Fun fact: I took two semesters of Vietnamese in college during a time when I believed I would be teaching in Vietnam for a Fulbright.
(Note – I did not end up getting a Fulbright, learned I sucked at Vietnamese, and thus, diverted my attentions to South Korea.)
After a year of butchering Vietnamese with my dreadful accent, I gave up on the language with its impossible pronunciation. What I never abandoned was my sense of appreciation towards my Vietnamese classmates who always gave me their homework to copy, tutored me before every single test, and clapped super loudly all together whenever I got something right. As the only non-Vietnamese person in the class — well, there was this wannabe Asian, super white guy who mastered the language in a hot second much to my embarrassment— it came as a huge surprise to see how much my classmates came to my rescue. Even the teacher commiserated with the students on my lack of ability and gave me a helping hand.
That experience was my first introduction to Vietnam and its people. It sparked my curiosity for a culture so misunderstood and still very mysterious in some ways. Flash forward two and a half years later from my that first fateful day in Phuong Nguyen’s Beginners Vietnamese class to me sitting outdoors in a Saigonese food stall slurping down a bowl of bún thịt nướng with sweat dribbling down my forehead. It’s been three weeks since I first touched down and my thoughts about Vietnamese people being the nicest people in the world is confirmed on the daily. Besides the wonderful and kindhearted people of the country, here are other reasons why I chose to move to Vietnam:
1. Living in a big city
When coming to Vietnam, you either have the choice of living in Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi. It’s a tale of two cities, both alike in dignity (thanks Shakespeare for that one), and yet at opposite ends of the spectrum. The southern sister, Ho Chi Minh, is noted for her high-energy and modernism while her sister to the north, Hanoi, is cherished for her charm and tranquility. In the end, I chose Ho Chi Minh City since I’ve never really had the chance to be a “true” urbanite before. My past stomping grounds of Boston, Florence, and Daejeon were in reality, small towns masquerading as cities. To me, Saigon is the epitome of a big city with its 24 districts crammed with people living inside high-rises and low-rises and outside on the streets, hiding in alleyways. There are new corners to get lost in each and every day. As the fastest growing city in Southeast Asia, Ho Chi Minh (still known as Saigon) is in a constant state of flux with new trends coming and going faster than you can say “one more bowl of pho please.”
2. A warm tropical climate
One consequence of living in a land where you experience all four seasons of the year (think: gentle springs, humid summers, brisk falls, and bitter winters) means having a closet full of clothes to cope! By the end of my stint in Korea, I was hoarding eight full suitcases of God-only-knows-what!!! After my seven months of backpacking, I needed to de-clutter my life of all these material possessions. One way to do so was to move to a place with no requirements of a seasonal wardrobe change so somewhere either really cold or either really warm. Ho Chi Minh City has two climates: hot and humid. I can deal with sticky and sweaty. What I can’t deal with is lying down, face planted to a heated floor with a skyrocketing gas bill on my mind as I’m trying to regain feeling in my body. I’m boycotting cold weather until further notice.
3. An imaginative food scene
If you want to add more fuel to the debate between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, just bring up food. People get riled up talking about which food is better. I’ve heard that while Hanoi is the birthplace of the most beloved Vietnamese dishes, the Saigonese have the leg up on flavor, serving up bolder and more intricate cuisine. I have yet to sink my teeth into the food culture of the north (pun-intended) but the spread in the south is more than I can take. Beyond the classics, I’ve had to consult food blogs and make an inventory of all that I’ve learned, just to decipher the items on menus where no English translations are offered. Apparently, anything goes on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. If you like things tame, go for the most recognizable dishes. If you’re a little more spontaneous than that, walk down an alleyway and eat something you can’t pronounce while sitting on a little blue plastic stool with the locals. If you want to impress a local, how about taking them to Snail Street and ordering a plate of saltwater snails either curried, fried, or grilled? And if you’re that unorthodox person on the quest for the most eccentric dish on the streets? You can take your pick of multi-course cobra, duck tongue, grilled porcupine, sauteed field rat, and raw blood soup. If that listing made you sick, there’s always great imported French cheese and freshly baked baguettes around the corner. Bon appetit!
4. A lower cost of living
What do you mean my gourmet bánh mì sandwich was only $1? What do you mean my cellphone bill with 2.5 GBs of internet is only $13 per month? What do you mean a month-long gym membership at a pimped-out gym is only $25? What do you mean my reasonably-priced rent comes with maid service three times per week and lighting-fast, high-speed wifi? Oh wait, and the apartment is fully-furnished too down to the plush couch and plasma TVs? I am suspended in disbelief at how cheap the cost of living is in a big city like this one. Saigon is a smaller, cleaner version of Bangkok with half its price tag, meaning you can live like a king (or queen) in and still have money to save for a rainy day.
5. More job opportunities for Teaching English
Because Vietnam’s rising economy has been attracting more foreign investors, there is a real pressure to raise the standards of English instruction in the nation. The Ministry of Education and Training has issued a National Foreign Languages Project that by 2020, most Vietnamese youth should be able to use English confidently in all aspects of their daily lives. Since the decree, Vietnam is being touted as the next frontier for teaching abroad. The job market is not as saturated and strict in comparison to neighboring counterparts like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan meaning less competition and there’s the bonus of year-round hiring practices. While the salary might not seem that impressive at first, when put into perspective, you’re making as much in a month as the average Vietnamese household makes in a year which is humbling enough! In Vietnam, Native English Teachers have a great quality of life. You work about 20 to 25 hours per week as a full-time employee and depending on your employer, you may get a housing allowance, a generous number of vacation days, and a sponsored visa and work permit. This is also one of the few countries that will hire without prior teaching experience and bias of your country of origin (so long as you look white) but to work at more reputable companies, you do need the right qualifications. Need I say more?
Looking for a complete destination guide to Vietnam? Click here.
Here’s a highlight reel of my time in Vietnam