I spent the first five years of my time in Vietnam in Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon). Now that I have a family I have chosen to reside in the nearby beach town of Vung Tau but most expats usually live in one of the larger cities, especially Ho Chi Minh City due to the much larger range of recreational activities and also many more work opportunities there. Ho Chi Minh City, with a population pushing nine million (over 13 million if you count all non-residents visiting the city at any given time), is the economic engine of Vietnam and there is much to know if you are a new expat looking for a place to live and/or work.
Due to safety and comfort, most expats end up living in one of three districts:
- District 1
- District 2
- District 7
District 3 is also relatively popular but has a more Vietnamese feel to the neighborhoods there and is getting a little bit more away from the city center of district 1. District one is the heart of the city and includes most of the major hotels, restaurants, and tourist attractions such as Ben Thanh market and many beautiful pagodas (Buddhist monasteries). This is also where most of the popular nightclubs and bars are located as well as the so-called “backpacker” area near Pham Ngu Lao and Bui Vien streets.
While I don’t personally care for Pham Ngu Lao it remains a popular destination for expats, especially newbies, because there is a concentration of western tourists there which can make one feel at home in a foreign land as you deal with culture shock and whatnot. It’s also a fun place to hang out late at night when many of the other bars and nightclubs have closed. There is supposed to be a curfew around midnight, but most places around Pham Ngu Lao stay open pretty much all night as they have treated the local police properly and are left alone to ignore the curfew.
While district 1 and 3 are the places to be for many foreigners that want to be located in or near the heart of the city, many of us would rather live in a more suburban environment and go into the city when we feel like it. In this case, you will almost certainly choose to live in districts 2 or 7. These are the areas of Ho Chi Minh City where there is the largest concentration of international schools and foreign families. They are also very safe, clean, and generally well planned out. However, district 2 has a much different feel to it than district 7, so where you choose to live, if your job does not dictate the decision, will largely depend on which environment you prefer.
District 7, at the heart of which is a well-planned community called Phu My Hung, is very clean and has a large number of Korean families and businesses located there. Many have come to call it Korea Town, although there are still a lot of western expats living and working there as well. This is where I lived for the first couple of years that I was in the country and enjoyed it well enough. It is definitely one of the cleaner, nicer and safer places to live in Ho Chi Minh City (although the city is generally very safe wherever you go).
District 2, which is on the northern side of the city, virtually the opposite direction of district 7, which makes traveling between the two at least a 30 to 45 minute drive, is also very nice. At the heart of district 2 is a small mostly expat community called An Phu. This is where I lived for about three years as well. An Phu has a different feel than Phu My Hung because the streets are narrower, have more curves, and you generally get the feeling that the community sort of developed naturally of its own accord, which I rather prefer. It also has perhaps the largest concentration of western expats, which may be what you are looking for.
In addition to the above, in the center of An Phu lies the very affluent BP Compound, which is filled with very large villas that are mostly lived in by the executives of large international corporations operating inside Vietnam. So the community has a feeling of affluence to it that, mixed with the intimate pattern of the streets, gives it a unique feel. There are also plenty of good restaurants and bars of various types that add to its appeal for those of you who like to eat out a lot, which is one of the greatest benefits of living in Vietnam as an expat because it is so inexpensive compared to our home countries.
One thing to note about Ho Chi Minh City is that although it is generally safe, you still need to be careful when it comes to theft. It is usually not a good idea to have a backpack, handbag or purse on your person while you are riding on a motorbike as thieves have been known to try and yank them off while you are driving. This has led to some very serious injuries in some cases and while it is easily avoidable (by simply not having your bag on your person while on a motorbike) it is definitely something to keep in mind.
I have never had anything like this happen to me or any of my close friends, but there are enough stories out there in the news and on Facebook expat sites that you should at least be aware of the danger. This is especially true right before the major Vietnamese new year holiday called Tet, which takes place in late January or February every year (depending on the lunar calendar) as there is quite a lot of pressure on the locals to give “lucky money” as a gift to friends and relatives. These apparently motivates those with fewer resources to go on a stealing spree in order to meet their family commitments. I will write a separate post all about lucky money, Tet and related topics. More details to come about Ho Chi Minh City as well. Please leave questions or comments in the comment section.