Cover image: The Bitexco financial tower and street in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
So upon entering Vietnam as a digital nomad and trying to glimpse out of the plane window to catch my first glimpse of the country I started to feel it…
Unfortunately I didn’t have a lot of drinking water left, so I was sparingly sipping the last 250 mL I had while I figured out how to get in line for my VISA.
VISAs In Vietnam
Hopefully you’ve travelhacked a super cheap ticket if you dream of travelling the world (it can be much cheaper than you think), but the final step to getting in to a new country is the VISA.
The easiest way to expedite the process is to get a Visa On Arrival letter (I used these guys, and everything went smoothly – I got the letter e-mailed to me in 2 days, regular order).
Pretty much, for $40 U.S., a company gives you a pre-approved letter from the Vietnamese Tourism Bureau allowing you to get a VISA. Maximum length of stay is 3 months, which you can extend later.
After getting off the plane, you go to the left in the airport in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), fill out a form, and give them:
- The filled out form
- The VISA On arrival Letter
- A VISA-sized passport type COLOR photo
And then you wait. If you’re lucky, you get in line first and there isn’t a huge queue. If not, well I hope you have more water than I did.
After a while someone awkwardly mis-pronounces your name over the intercom, you pay the fee (exact U.S. Funds required), and you are on your way.
Note: I was informed on an expat group I’m a part of that the border officers notoriously don’t smile, and are quite curt. This is contrary to most Vietnamese people, as I will discuss in a bit.
Taxis From The Airport
After exiting the airport, go left allll the way down the taxi line. Ignore every person and taxi and only take Vinasun or Mai-Linh taxis. Only take these taxis if they have meters. All other taxis will rip you off.
There is a huge conversion factor from Vietnamese Dong to Canadian dollars. As of writing this article, 100,000 VND is approximately $5 CAD. A taxi to the city centre (District 1) should run you approximately 150,000 VND. Taxi meters show a number like 22, or 100, and you multiply by 1000 to get the total charge you have to pay.
I have noticed some taxi drivers and stores will try to short change you. Know how much you give and how much you should get back. Do your best here, but at a rate of 1,000VND being nearly 6 cents CAD… you shouldn’t worry too much.
Culture Shock and First Impressions
Riding in the taxi I was overwhelmed – There are many districts in HCMC and all are very different – District 1, the city centre, is busy, full of lights, and loud. District 2 has many condos, is quieter, and is far less urbanized (there is much more space between buildings compared to cramped District 1).
But running through District 1, with hundreds of motorbikes, taxis, and bikes weaving amongst each other (holy crap how many times did people nearly get run over), and the lights… I was going nuts… and anxious that I’d get ripped off or something.
I finally got to my hotel though, and thank God compared to Hong Kong, it was a Western style hotel with a super big and comfy bed.
I collapsed :).
Coming off from trying to be scammed by taxi drivers and trying to be all safe (I mean this is a third world country after all, so everyone is going to try and scam me and rob me, right?), when people were being super nice to me at the hotel and smiling… all I could think about was how they were staring at my Macbook I had to check reservations on, and how they were plotting to steal it from my room.
*sigh* the mind.
Actually Vietnamese people are in general very friendly from what I’ve found. There’s a huge sense of family and community and wanting to help each other out, in the form of giving you assistance, paying for your food, etc.
You still shouldn’t be an idiot, and hold out your iPhone on the side of the road (motorbike thieves snatch phones out of people’s hands). There are bad eggs everywhere. Most people will try to help you with directions if you are lost though.
I have found though that Vietnamese people are very apologetic and don’t like confrontation… they would rather avoid the situation than facing it head on. For example when a couple was smoking in my hotel (which is non-smoking), the staff said, “Oh they are leaving tomorrow, it’s OK!” instead of confronting them.
Finishing the Book
While hanging out with an entrepreneur/expat friend, I got to finish my book in his office. I had disciplined myself to sit and do some editing in Hong Kong, and wrapped it up in HCMC. This is coming out March 19th. You can check here for more info – you can get it free if you pick it up 5 days from the release date!
Class Divide – Isn’t It A Shithole?? It’s Third World!
Yes and no.
The huge thing that struck me with HCMC is that you’ll have stretches of slums, broken down buildings, very poor people sitting outside in the streets… But then you’ll also have random super modern buildings with stores like Topman inside charging the same price as you would find in Canada.
You will have crumbling buildings, but also pristine condos.
There’s a huge class divide here which I would separate into three tiers:
- The first are slums and poor.
- The second are mid-class people, with reasonable jobs in hospitality or the restaurant industry, but without too much extra spending money.
- The third are expats and “baller” Vietnamese – those that live in the nice condos or can afford modern tailored clothes.
Cost of Living
I feel a bit guilty for taking advantage of this but it is one of the reasons I came to Asia – a high standard of living for a low cost. I thankfully found a nice condo to live in, complete with putting green, saunas, pool and lifeguard, balcony, gym, 24/7 security…. Split three ways, the condo is $350 US a month.
Going out at night, unless it is to a Vietnamese beer hall (haven’t been there yet) is approximately the same as in Canada or the US. Usually there is no cover, but a drink can run between 5-10$.
But big bowls of Pho cost $3. A large, nice meal costs $10 here.
I have found that there is a rule of three – whatever you have in the West, divide that by 3, and that’s the cost here.
With going out during the week, clubbing 2 days on the weekends, eating out at restaurants all the time… my approximate monthly budget if I’m strict?
And I’m living well – if I had picked a shared house or opted to cook at home more the price might decrease further. So even if I allow a safety factor, the cost for what I’m getting is incredible.
Food and Stomach Issues/Traveler’s Diarrhea
OK so let me start out by saying that I have a VERY sensitive stomach – it is sensitive to spicy food, new food, stress, anxiety… My stomach is always the first thing that goes.
I was not surprised on getting here that it was going a bit crazy, I expected it.
But I got a bit lax on my eating rules and got Montezuma’s revenge.
Running to the bathroom every hour or so for a bit I can handle if I’m in a hotel room and such… But when I started getting continuous cramps, I talked to my Pharmacist friend just to check but started to take the anti-biotics I brought with me.
Azithromycin is prescribed to be taken while travelling in case you get Traveler’s D. After one pill the cramps went away. I took a pull course of 2, 250mg pills for 5 days and definitely feel better, so I will follow the general guideline:
“Peel it, boil it, cook it, or forget it.”
I see many people drinking raw juice and eating raw vegetables, but I’m sticking to cooked stuff. I’d rather not have to take another course of these anti-biotics.
So be forewarned – Even if locals eat this stuff or other people do, it’s better to be safe than sorry. I mean thank God I wasn’t puking my brains out or anything…
Ensure you have anti-biotics before traveling abroad. It’s better to have medication with you than risking foreign meds or not being able to get your hands on them.
As mentioned, HCMC is HOT and humid. Average temperatures right now hover around 36°C during the day. At night, it does cool down… but walking around for an hour will make you sweat unless you are used to this type of weather.
Nightlife here, as mentioned, can cost a similar amount to the West except for cover charges. However at certain bars you can pay a 300,000-400,000VND (15-20$ CAD) cover charge.
For a specific mention on women and dating, see below.
There are lots of different types of bars and I’ve only been here a week – there’s higher scale lounges (Xu bar) to the infamous Apocalypse Now – mostly a sea of older white guys macking on hot Asian hookers. It’s quite a sight to behold.
I haven’t done much dating yet, but let’s begin with the night life:
At this point with the bars I’ve gone too (led by local friends), many MANY girls are prostitutes in these bars. Usually it’s easy to tell since they either approach you quite directly or stare from man to man like you are a target. “Average” girls seem to stand around or hang out with each other more, and might give you a casual glance.
There is a huge online dating scene here with Tinder, Badoo, and sites like vietnamcupid.com available. In short – there’s no reason not to have a date if you want one with a Vietnamese lady, especially as a white male.
I have not done much in the way of going up to girls during the day, so I can’t comment on that yet, but I hear it’s not bad.
What I have found though, is that the language barrier can be an issue – Many girls speak very rudimentary English and it can be hard to connect with them. I feel like for me personally this may become a huge issue since knowing a woman’s desires, interests, etc. (the deeper stuff) really makes my sparks fly for her. I may have to go hit up some expat meet-ups and bars XD.
You mostly have to stick to easily understandable questions and you must speak slowly.
But, I do notice girls seem very honest and upfront here. Mark Manson had an article talking about how flirting is terrible and Western society is full of sexual shame, hence all the banter and so on for displaying sexual interest and us hiding our feelings and intentions because we’re scared of rejection and looking silly, blablabla.
Here, girls will tell you up front that you are handsome, and be very straight forward in wanting to hang out. When I date women I try and screen to only hang out with these types of girls (no games) in Canada, but it seems even more straight forward here. I think if you tried to banter a lot, unless a girl speaks very good English or has spent some time abroad, it would just go over their heads or they’d become extremely confused.
I have been told that Vietnamese women get jealous quite easily and also get attached/fall in love very fast. I’ll save my judgement for that later.
However in general – Vietnamese women seem very happy, kind, and are very beautiful.
I knew it would be ESSENTIAL to have friends upon getting here, so that I wouldn’t feel lonely and I had people I could call on for support. Thanks largely to one guy from a travel forum, I met entrepreneurs the first day I was here, and got taken out at night by an awesome local who introduced me to more people.
In a week I have some close friends here I go out with at night, and I definitely don’t feel like I’m by myself at all.
I think, other than packing, this is the most important thing to do – Either join expat groups and forums to make friends and connections before arriving at a location, or find a way to meet expats and locals when you get to a new city.
Again though – My local friends are extremely nice, and the entrepreneurs from the West are also cool and quite humble (they have accomplished a great deal yet don’t throw things in your face).
Vietnamese in not an easy language – it is quite nasal and primarily based on intonation and annunciation. Some words could be spelled the same but have different accents on certain letters and mean totally different things.
Unlike some languages which contain commonalities to English, I have not noticed any similarities with Vietnamese. For example, ga is chicken, eh-noi is hello, and so on.
As I mentioned for dating, most Vietnamese people do not speak a great deal of English. Those that do are of the higher class, or are in the hospitality industry. Restaurants frequented by tourists will speak basic English and have an English version of the menu, but more hardcore Vietnamese stuff won’t have much English at all. You might luck out to find someone who speaks English in the restaurant, otherwise prepare yourself to be surprised by what you get to eat!
With all of this though, I found I had to face a lot of personal challenges extremely quickly.