I have been approached by a number of different people lately that are interested in more detailed information for those interested to retire in Vietnam and in Nha Trang in particular. One interested party sent me an interview form that would take a book to answer but has provided me a good format to try to write a more comprehensive blog addressing many issues. This may prove to be a very long blog so I will do my best not to ramble on…….. So here we go.
As many of you know I am from Canada and married a Vietnamese woman (Mai). I originally came here to holiday and found Vietnam to be a confusing, scheming, and abusive place that I never wanted to return to. After a few reluctant returns, I was able to start making sense of the sensory overload and began to appreciate the country. I am now in my 6th year living here and have not regretted my decision to relocate for a moment. I do intend to return to Canada once my useful days are over, but for now, I am still a strong contributor to society, which brings me to one of the reasons I chose to do an “early retirement” in Vietnam.
In my/our society, I was becoming a used up human being that had no future except putting in the hours in a good job that I came to dislike. Getting up every day was painful and the hours at work poisonous. It was a slow death. I am old enough that others around me are starting to pass away and the inglorious way they leave us was depressing….Many of us are just a small cog in a big machine. We have illusions that we are important and make a difference, but it is only an illusion. When we are used up in our society’s eyes, we become redundant. What do you do? After 55 most people I know just keep going the extra years to get that illusive maximum pension and social benefits. Sadly, too many become too feeble or unhealthy to enjoy the benefits they work so hard for. This was made crystal clear to me when my friend Thomas McKeough died in Hanoi on a holiday we were sharing. He was a co-worker and friend in the exact financial and family situation as me. He confided that he was going to quit his job….. be damned the loss on pension and move to Saigon to be with my sister in law. What a bold move I thought……… He died shortly after that conversation and I decided to do exactly what he planned (less being with the sister in law). The decision was made and within 90 days of returning to Canada and life as I knew it was over. (You can look up my beginning blogs if you are interested in that transition) Ok….. A person might think that if I was to jump all in and retire early…. Why Vietnam? Besides already having family here, there were other reasons that are hard to overlook. Let s look at some of the reasons why one might consider retirement in Vietnam.
Even though some areas can be struck by bad weather during certain times of year, it is still preferable to many that reside in colder countries. The temperature generally ranges between 16 and 34 degrees Celsius throughout the country. Some areas such as Nha Trang and the Mui Ne area enjoy a climate very similar to Hawaii with only a couple of months of predictable rain. I have experienced people with arthritic pain who complained of aches constantly in Canada become quiet and forgetful of their discomforts and aches. Those that prefer a cooler climate might prefer Hanoi or Dalat. Nha Trang has arguably has the most preferable mean temperatures. Saigon and Vung Tao is generally very warm to hot and muggy.
The Vietnamese culture is all about social interaction and family. If you have none, you will soon be drawn into one and be treated as such. The people are open, friendly and respectful. Western ideals and social structure have not influenced the masses and because of this, a person feels a sense of freedom that is lost in the west. Children and young adults are respectful. Children walk themselves to school and the parents do not fear their safety. You can interact with anybody you wish without the fear of becoming a victim of a special interest or the crusade of the day.
Cost of Living:
Vietnam is still very affordable, and is especially appealing to pensioners whose meager monthly benefit barely makes it at home. As more and more foreign influence is absorbed, this will change. Already I see the value of property increasing
and rents with it due to tourism, however, it is still a good value. Some of the reason is that the tax rate is low if nonexistent on day to day items. Foods, drinks, alcohol, cigarettes, and other items are incredibly cheap compared to our countries. A bottle of water 15 cents, a can of beer 60 cents, a bowl of soup or a sub sandwich 75 cents……. Wow!! There are products such as meat that is expensive but since Vietnamese cooking uses little meat, it is inexpensive. Housing is very inexpensive outside tourist areas but have become more expensive the closer you get. A person can find decent accommodation from as little as 100 dollars a month. At the current time I would estimate that a retiree living a comfortable life in Vietnam can do so for less than 1000 dollars….. That includes everything. I think the same for me in Canada would be 4000 dollars. There are perhaps other reasons a person might wish to retire in Vietnam and if you want to include some of your ideas, please feel free to do so in the comment section. Once a person has decided that this may be their ideal retirement destination they will have to consider other issues as follows.
Many people are concerned about security and become alarmed at scams, thefts, and other things reported in travel sources and media. This is pure fear mongering and sensationalism at work. Vietnam is one of the safest places a person could live. Violent crimes in Vietnam are rare. Sure they exist as in any country, but here less than most. A person need not fear anything bad will happen to them physically. There are many poor people and youth looking for a quick buck so petty crime is everywhere. Nobody is immune. Common sense and a few security precautions is all you need. Basically, if they can’t see it or have easy
access to it, your goods are safe. In 6 years and extensive travel staying in unsecure hotels, I have never had a single item go missing. My tablet computer is in a local hotel behind a unlocked door many times……… NO PROBLEMS. The problems arise in tourist areas where all the travel guides send the money to. Risks are snatch and grabs, and the occasional scam. The shake downs, and pick pockets usually happen to drunken people leaving bars after 10 pm. “Real Vietnam” shuts down at 10 pm and most the population is sleeping. ALL of the bad element not sleeping will be attracted to the tourist area at that time in search of easy money. You can search my other blogs for more specific information on this issue.
Healthcare is a concern to many when visiting Vietnam. I have seen media sources that showed grim footage talking about the 3rd world conditions in Vietnam. Yes there are places like that in poorer areas, however, what they do not show you is the modern side of healthcare which is available in most cities, and all locations that attract retirees. There are clean hospitals with foreign trained doctors. These places have up to the date medical equipment and are quick and efficient. I have used, or been with people that used medical services many times and am always amazed at the service. What also amazes me is the cost of services. In some cases at 100th of the cost of services back home. Let me give you 3 examples.
1. At home it takes a specialist and 3 months to get a MRI. I simply walked in and within 5 minutes was consulting an English speaking doctor. Within 10 I was being scanned in a very new MRI diagnostic unit. A total of 30 minutes and I was
again being consulted and 45 minutes, out the door. The total cost was 20 dollars for the MRI and 5 dollars for the consulting.
2. My wife falls and breaks her ankle. We rush and were admitted to emergency. A bone doctor was called and within 10 minutes he arrived. He aligned the break and skillfully built a cast. Within 1 hour, my wife was hobbling her way home. This service cost me about 19 dollars in total.
3. I went without appointment to a brand new private hospital in Saigon that has reportedly the best equipment and most skilled doctors. We arrived at 9 am with the intention of getting some common blood work done. My wife had other ideas and ordered the full package. She wanted to be tested for everything. I cannot blame her…… She has always been a bit concerned about health issues, but I was afraid. She was not finished tests until 3 pm. During that time there were tests for everything….. Vision, hearing, and a general physical. There was also a MRI, Ultrasound, and x-rays. We had extensive blood and urine work done for almost anything that can be imagined. In Canada, we would have been on a waiting list for specialists for a year for similar service but this was all done in one day………… and the total cost? 220 USD, Amazing!! I have come to the conclusion that if a person requires medical help that is not too serious, it is much less expensive to pay as you go. With the exception of narcotics and dangerous medications, most common drugs can be prescribed by the pharmacist and require no prescription. Medications can be very inexpensive sue to most coming in a generic form. Instead of getting an all in one cold medication, you will get a combination of 5 tablets. I cannot speak to specialized drugs such as cancer fighting agents, but I am pretty sure it will be much less expensive.
Visas, Work permits, and Visa Exemptions:
Most expats that live in Vietnam have visas and renew them every 3 months. There is no commonality with immigration departments it seems so in some areas there might be slight differences. Here is how it works in Nha Trang. There are 2 common classes of Visa. The c series visa is for the traveler and the B series is for the business person. C1 is a tourist visa that is issued for 1 month single and multiple entry that can be arranged as a visa on arrival (VOA) or 3 months single or multiple entry. These visas can be renewed for up to 4 times before you will be required to leave the country. Many expats simply have a weekend holiday in a close by neighboring country and have a new visa made. If they are fortunate, some can get a 6 month vise, but that is unusual. A C2 visa tells that you have family here and is easier extend in some cases. These visas can be renewed almost anywhere. The B series visa work in a similar fashion however, they are more expensive to renew, and must be sent to the issuer for renewal, so it can take a couple of weeks. The last form is in a VISA EXEMPTION. The expiry is the same as your passport. I am not sure why they are called this as is basically the same in look to any visa except color. It entitles you to stay in Vietnam for up to 3 months without a visa, however, It cannot be extended. That means in order to renew it a person has to leave and re-enter every 3 months. There are some lucky individuals that have been able to renew every 3 month for years without having to leave as I was once able to do. The renewal fee was 10 dollars. Work permits are available to those people who have a company that will sponsor them, but that is not common. I know many expats working for hotels and such that have none. I even know one who was let go because he wanted a proper work permit. You are issued a temporary residency card that has both a Vietnam identity number and you passport number. With this status, no visa is required. You will present both your passport and residency card when entering and exiting the country. The work permit is valid for 2 or 3 years.
Banking and services:
ATMs are everywhere and access to your overseas money is always available. Banks can also give cash advances on credit cards and other services. You can open a local account if you have a permanent address and a 3 month visa. All
transactions are done in Vietnamese Dong. A person is able to open an account in a foreign currency, but have to withdraw it as Dong. Most monthly bills such as electricity, water, garbage collection is paid on a monthly basis in cash. They knock on your door and issue receipts. No need to rush to the office to pay. NOTE!! Be sure to notify your bank and credit cards that you will be extending your stay in Vietnam or risk being cut off from your funds.
It may take a little adjusting to recognize it as such, but public transport is everywhere. In addition for standard transit lines, there are many private operated services. All cities have public busses. They are mostly comfortable, air conditioned, and often faster than taxis because of congested streets. The fare is currently about 30 cents and is for 1 way only. There are usually a driver and a fare agent. Simply get on and the fare agent will collect and give you change. Taxis, Xe om (motorcycle cowboys) and even cyclos are readily available. Between cities you have Bus, Train and Air running on a frequent schedule. International licenses are not recognized in Vietnam. Unless you have a valid Vietnam driver’s license, you will be driving illegally and be held responsible for any hurt or damage caused. You are also subject to large fines and confiscation of the motorcycle. (Currently enforced rarely) A bicycle is one of the most reliable and safest modes of personal travel.
Barbers, hair salons, Spas, massage, manicures/pedicures, and fitness centers are also easily accessible in most places. A person can elect to use local fitness club for about a 5 dollar monthly fee or get a membership at a large hotel fitness center for almost western rates. Most expats can afford a little pampering as the local services are very good and inexpensive. A decent blind massage will run about 4 dollars for an hour and a manicure/pedicure for 2 or 3 dollars. Tourist area prices are much higher but still very affordable by our standards.
Long gone are the days of having to worry about water quality in the cities. Most municipalities treat the water going to households and even though I would never drink it, I do wash my fruits and vegetables without any issues. Places like restaurants and coffee shops normally use ice manufactured in facilities with purified water. You can normally spot these by the ice being cylindrical or exactly square in shape.
Business and legal status:
Vietnam has long been a closed economy and only recently has foreign investment influenced business. Many people are interested in coming and opening some kind of small business. It can be very difficult and foreign ownership is not
allowed in many instances. Usually a person will need a Vietnamese partner with everything going into that person’s name. This has some consequences as you have to totally trust this person and limit your visible involvement to the authorities. I am not saying that you cannot find some kind of work to keep you busy, but much of it may be under the table. It is possible to be listed as a partner on your business as I am but it is complicated and can be expensive. Many come with a TOEFL background. These people can usually find part time and some full time tutoring/teaching English. There is a work permit/residency card that is available to people that can be sponsored by their employer.
Odds and ends:
Internet and cable TV with movie channels are available and inexpensive on a monthly basis. Often a simple purchase can be a painstaking process. Simple day to day items from the west may not be available here and convincing a shop to bring it in is next to impossible. They only will sell you what they think you want…… including food products. If you find a good bread or pastry, there is no guarantee you will ever see it again. Choice for consumer products is very limited. Almost any kind of tool or machine you might require can be purchased here. The same applies to clothing is you are not too large. If your shoe size is larger than 44 you may have difficulty.
What city is for you?
There are a number of cities that carry a large expat community. In these places you are able to get services in multiple languages. There are restaurants and entertainment venues where you can meet other expats. A person is usually quick to meet and befriend other because of immediate commonalities. Because of this, it does not take long to establish friendships. The most common retirement destinations in Vietnam are Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Nha Trang, and Hanoi followed by Vung Tao, Hoi An, Danang, and Dalat. Each of them have their own merits. Staring in the south.
1. Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) is the largest city in Vietnam. It is a very metropolitan place with all the modern conveniences of home. It is usually very warm to hot with a long rainy season starting mid may.
2. Vung Tao is an oil/weekend getaway town or small city. It is located on a coastal river outlet. There are many beaches thou often silty. There are many bars and restaurants set up by expats. The town is often a place where people from Saigon will come for the weekend to play. The closest thing Vietnam has to a Wild West style of town.
3. Nha Trang is Vietnams tropical get away. It has the most stable and agreeable climate. The city boasts miles of beaches, and plenty of activities. There is a large expat community only second to Saigon and perhaps Hanoi. It currently is still much more affordable than other cities.
4. Dalat is a city at high altitudes that might appeal to people from cooler climates. It is the city of romance and most Vietnamese want to visit due to the cooler or cold climate and folk legends. It is a Vietnamese tourist city so certain times of the year can be absolutely crowded and expensive.
5. Hoi An is the most visited place in Vietnam by foreign tourists. It can suffer from very harsh weather conditions during rainy season. Hoi An attract people with its tailoring, gift dales, and historic old town. Expect a much more expensive environment.
6. Danang is a city that sprang from nothing into a more modern small city. There is a small expat community that is growing. Danang is promising go be a big player in the Vietnamese economy in the future. They have developed quite a number of resorts, golf venues, and host many of the tech related events. I am starting to think of it as the Las Vegas of Vietnam. It too can be hit hard by weather.
7. Hanoi is Vietnam’s capital city. It is more old style and cultural than Saigon. There is a lot of shopping and products as with any city. The climate is much cooler than the south and can be very chilly in the winter months.
Hanoi, Hoi An, and Dalat are probably the most expensive locations for the retiree to live. Saigon and Vung Tao less so. Both Nha Trang and Danang still are a good value compared to the other but for how long I do not know. They are both developing so quickly. Lastly let me mention a city called Quy Nhon. Until now it has been mostly ignored but I think it will become a hot destination to those that want a beautiful place to live next to the ocean. So far there is almost a nonexistent expat population, but that will change. It is just too nice a place to remain secret forever.
What to expect living in Vietnam:
Vietnam is a country and culture unlike any other. The moment you get off the aircraft, you will experience culture shock. Most people do. It is a hot and noisy free for all with almost all of your senses being overwhelmed. It takes a while for it to start sinking in but it does. A person does adjust to much, however, there are also adjustments that are difficult. Perhaps it will be easiest to explain how and if I have adjusted to day to day life in Vietnam. Let me start with the cultural aspect.
Culture is probably one of the easiest to adjust to. They are simply different from us, plain and simple. It is just not the customs, and language, but other things such as mannerisms, courtesy, personal etiquette, cleanliness, and habits. There IS a language barrier. A person has to be patient when dealing in a non Vietnamese language. A Vietnamese person may understand the words you are using and be agreeable but most likely will not understand in which context you are using them. This results in you getting a yes answer when you ask someone to do something, but it never gets done, or you make a simple enquiry about something, and it gets done without your consent often costing you money in the end. Often you see what looks like 2 people that are almost to blows with the yelling and waving of arms but all of a sudden, the stop and burst into laughter. In the middle of a conversation, the person you are talking to can suddenly use a finger in the nose to clear something. If in a line waiting your turn, another will simply push in front of you if you do not close the gap and defend your space. Garbage will be thrown out of windows into the street directly in your path without concern or thought.
But a person also sees another side. You see people treated with respect and the elderly helped. They try to be helpful and friendly. Vietnamese take pleasure at bringing you into their life. There is a sort of lost innocence in the world that remains with these people………….. Yes a person can adapt to the culture The noise is another issue. It is one of the only things here that I absolutely cannot adjust to. It is most likely that my minor hearing problem is so much more noticeable in the presence of loud surroundings. A person wakes up in the morning to crowing roosters and yapping dogs. Perhaps many, or perhaps only one but that is all it takes to wake a person up abruptly. Then there is the endless honking of horns. The Vietnamese grow up by horn and often you will drive by a family with a child continuously pressing the horn button on a vehicle totally oblivious to the parents. Often I get spurs of anger as a 180 decibel truck horn is going off behind you in congested traffic. Clothing and electronic stored have amplified dance hall speakers set up on the sidewalks booming out techno music to attract the Vietnamese client. In shopping malls Vietnamese love ballads are distorting out of inadequate pa speakers. It is a major adjustment. I have a case of high quality ear plugs as I cannot sleep anywhere in this country without them except if extremely drunk. Food is not an issue but the cleanliness of restaurants can be. Many expats will live and eat in areas where other expats mostly are. Most eating places have acceptable standards. Many local places may have excellent food, but look dodgy. All I can say is DEAL WITH IT! The mold resistant paint here cannot be washed clean so over time it can be black with handprints and other marks. It adds to the look. A common Vietnamese practice is that all garbage gets thrown on the ground and remains until the restaurant closes at which time it is swept and washed. If you ask, they will sweep it before you sit.
For myself, the single most difficult experience in Vietnam is an ongoing issue. Finding a good translator to relay information is incredible difficult as most will translate to what they think instead of what you are asking or telling, therefore, most dealings with government documents, local bylaws, renovations or improvements, or even getting knowledgeable advice can be incredibly frustrating.
A few more odds and ends:
Currently, air fare is about .20 cents, train .10 cents, and bus .05 cents a kilometer. Canned drinks including coffee and beer about .55 cents, cigarettes 1.00, an average Vietnamese meal 1.25 – 3.00, apartment rental less than 200.00-500.00, I
hope this article addresses most of the questions one might have when thinking of moving to Vietnam. If you wish to add something to this article, please comment and I will do my best to include the information in this blog.
Below is additional information that was requested in the comment section. Our first topic is
Prejudice and Tolerance:
The Vietnamese do hold some very rigid intolerances. Probably the strongest is still the divide between north and south. Northerners still have an advantage in employment, education, and quality of life that many in the south resent. Street names are still being changed and monuments still being built. Many Vietnamese also have some prejudice towards other Asian races, however, almost none exists towards the western nations. Whether you are American, German, Danish, or Australian, you will be treated with mostly kindness. Most Vietnamese still look at other races with an open curiosity and sometimes might insult not meaning to. For example, there are very few black people here. I had a case where a local tribes person brought a wet towel to a very black traveler assuming he was covered in oil. After the initial shock, we laughed about it all afternoon.
What was most surprising to me when I first arrived is how gays fit in this society, and because of it, my attitude changed. Back home I was constantly bombarded by special interest, parades, and defiant acts that made media headlines. In Vietnam…….. they are just part of society. Some will dress and act feminine, others not. Some Vietnamese see it as fashionable to be gay and take pride in looking as pretty as possible. They simply exist. There are no parades and displays of sexuality. People here mostly do not hide the fact that they are different and will interact with you in their own way. Probably the most are the carnivals that travel throughout the country. All big cities and every small town at some time have one visit with rides, games, and entertainment. A stage is set up and every evening at 8 pm, the lady boys come out in glamorous outfits to sing famous songs. These shows are enjoyed by the whole family adult and child alike. It is almost like nobody takes notice that they are different but simply fun to watch. It does not take long to lose any angst you might have brought from your society and simply accept gays for the way they are.