I was dodging motorbikes, flying over potholes and racing towards the other side of the sidewalk. A real life frogger game. As I walked around the busy city I was struck with a sense of wonderment. Three months ago this was merely an idea in my head. As I looked around I couldn’t help but wonder, ‘What took me so long?’
You are aware of inventions that were made, plans that were done and businesses starting out of nothing. You think to yourself how lucky those people are. You think to yourself how you wish you had done something like that. You think to yourself life would be so much easier if only…
Sometimes you hear of a friend who started a business, traveled around the world, ran with the bulls or opened a cupcake shop. You ask yourself, Why didn’t I do that? Then that annoying nagging voice in your head screams an answer back at you, You’re broke. You owe 356246462 dollars and your vital organs to government and private student loans.
The sad truth is you can’t do all these amazing, ingenious things you had planned because 6 months after you graduate, the devil (disguised cleverly in the promises and dreams you received when entering college) comes knocking at your door. You may be able to avoid him for a short time but like any stage five clinger, they always come back to find you.
I myself was being harassed by said devil on a much to constant basis. I had graduated from a great University with a degree in Visual Communications. Although very versatile, a journalism degree isn’t really booming in the economy right now. In fact, nothing is booming in the economy right now except the sky-high debt the recent graduates have incurred. Upon graduation I was left with heaps of student loans and very little prospects.
I took a job with an e-learning company where I mainly worked from home with the occasional on site video filming. Although the job was flexible and offered enough money to get by, it was certainly not enough for my interest growing student loans. I had no idea what to do.
At a particularly self-deprecating time of my life, I was living at my mom’s house trying to save money for my next move. I just didn’t know where the move would be. One of my best friends had recently moved to Taiwan to teach and was loving life. I started doing research and found a very persuasive blog on all the highlights to teaching in Vietnam. After a few bottles of 2 Buck Chuck, listening to my mom yell at my sisters and remembering that I was 24 and really needed to get a life, I had decided Vietnam was the perfect move.
Little did I know that this move would change my life, my bank account and my bleak outlook on future careers. Through trial and error, a lack of tactfulness, and a lot of courage, I have created a basic plan for you to pay down your student loans. Throughout this E-book you will learn first hand the do’s and do not’s, how to get not one but multiple jobs, set up a bank account, apply for a work permit, places to live, etc AND how to pay down your loans. All while seeing the world and the amazing things it has to offer.
Vietnam in a nutshell
As you (hopefully) know, the Vietnam War-or the American War as they call it – was a long and brutal one. However much of the brutal part was incurred by the Vietnamese. Despite this traumatic time the country has bounced back tremendously and is growing each and every day.
Situated just below China and to the west of the South China Sea, Vietnam is a beautiful country that is quickly growing in popularity as a must-travel-to destination. With mountains to the north, beaches to the east, the world famous Mekong River to the south and tons of other countries to the West, Vietnam is a perfect place to set some roots while also exploring South East Asia. The people are wonderfully friendly and the cost of living is dirt cheap. Keep in mind that dirt cheap to us is vastly different to them. Teachers get paid an unseemly amount compared to a Vietnamese salary so remaining humble and grateful will get you far.
Vietnam is a socialist country, (Communism Light) but generally speaking it doesn’t affect the expats living there. Sure the police are corrupt, which can get in the way of foreigners planning events and parties, but when you get pulled over and only need to pay 200,000 VND ($10) to drive away, it doesn’t seem so bad.
The economy saw a major boom in the 90’s but has since slowed down. With that said, it is projected to be the fastest growing of emerging economies by 2025, according to a study done by PriceWaterhouseCoopers.
The need for English teachers is in high demand with virtually hundreds of language centers located around the major cities. The pay is good and, as a teacher, you are respected. This also opens the door to many other opportunities in other fields. Many people living here made the transition from working as a teacher to working at an International corporation. The skills you develop while living here are ones that can give you a step up in the competition. Many employers understand the value of a worker who is not afraid to take a chance, easily adaptable and works well under pressure. Living in Vietnam certainly requires all of those things and make you that much more desirable whenever you return to the working force back home.
The culture here is very rich with roots in Buddhism and Confucianism. As of late, Christianity is also becoming more and more popular with churches and temples mingling together in most large towns. Hanoi is vastly more conservative and traditional than Ho Chi Minh and you find a more reserved kind of quiet with its inhabitants.
The weather varies from North to South and different months make for the best weather. In Ho Chi Minh it is ALWAYS hot and humid. Rainy season (August- January) cools the city down and makes it more bearable. Travel north to Hanoi and you find cool/ cold winters and hot summers.
Most importantly- the food! The food here is superb with different towns producing their own twist on Vietnamese cuisine. The pho, noodles sitting in a broth that has been simmering for hours upon hours, is spiced differently depending on where you are but is always mouth-watering delicious.
In spite of the hardships Vietnam has faced from many war torn years, the people are very resilient and open. The beautiful scenery, fast-paced nightlife, crazy traffic and friendly people make this country unique and special in a way that you can’t help but want to be apart of.
Right now, teaching in SE Asia seems to be the hip thing to do. With so many countries to choose from the research can get cumbersome as to what suits your desires. So let’s break it down into the things you are probably looking for when moving overseas.
- To save money – YES. Vietnam is CHEAP to live in. As in a filling meal for $1.50 and a beer for even less. Teachers get paid an average of $17-21 per hour. The longer you stay the more hours you get. Rent can go anywhere for $200-1,000’s depending on how spoiled you want to be.
- To have a life – YES. With the great salary and cheap cost of living it is very easy to enjoy your days/ nights off and still save money. There are plenty of expats living here. If you are feeling drained from trying to understand a different language or broken English than just head to the District 7 or District 1. These two areas are full of expats and travelers alike.
- To travel – YES. Not only is it super cheap to travel around Vietnam but several other countries are a $10 bus ride away. With patience and nausea medicine, this corner of the world is your oyster.
So now you have the vision and the drive. You see the light at the end of the tunnel. Now what? The first first step is to save for a plane ticket. Very few companies will pay for your plane ride. In fact, the only ones are the International schools which require a teaching degree and at least 2 years experience. So if you contact them, get a job and a free plane ticket then you are already having more luck than 80% of the teachers living there. More than likely you will need to pay for your own plane ticket. After working a little while with a language center you can apply with the International schools who should pay for your ticket home after a year long contract.
So the next first step is to get all your documents ready for arrival. This means you need a fresh background check: state or FBI (state is cheaper). You also need a certified copy of your diploma. The background check should be mailed to you, already certified. If you graduated with an education degree and are a certified teacher, you also need a copy of your teacher’s certification. Generally speaking you must have a college degree to teach in Vietnam these days.
I also highly recommend getting TEFL or CELTA certification. You must have one of these to get a work permit (or be a certified teacher). CELTA is a Cambridge based program that cost between $1,200-2,500, depending on where you take them, and about 4-6 weeks of your time. They offer it in pretty much every country. This will help you find a job more easily but it is certainly not required for most schools.
I took an online TEFL course that was promoted on Groupon for $60. They say it is 150 hours but if you have more than 3 brain cells you can finish it much, much quicker. This online course opened up a lot more doors for me.
If you decide to not do either of these than you will have a bit more trouble finding a job. It can be done, but it may be with a learning center that has you driving all over the city for 30 minute classes. Once you build up some experience you can then apply for language centers that are a little more reputable and well-known.
The easiest way to get a Visa is to apply for one online. You can opt for the one month or 3 month, single entry or multiple entry. I used www.vietnamvisacorp.com and they just recently came out with a 6 month visa option. While this option is more expensive, it will ultimately save you time and energy. When you receive the acceptance letter, print it out and bring it with you to all airports you may encounter on your long journey over. Make sure to read the letter carefully. Most of it is written in Vietnamese but you can make out the dates. I applied for a 3 month and something was mis-communicated and they approved me for a one month. I had paid for the 3 month so once I entered the country I had to visit the office headquarters every month for a (free) renewal. It was a hassle, but if something is messed up they do help to fix it. Once here, when your visa runs out you can take it to most any travel agent and they will return it the next week with a renewed visa.
Moving on to jobs- how and when to get one. As stated earlier, if you are a certified teacher you can try your luck with emailing a few International schools, get a skype interview and hopefully a job. This requires previous experience and is generally very competitive. So if you are not this special breed of a person then the best advice is to just come over and then email, email, email, visit, visit, visit. My first week here I emailed about 50 companies and walked into 10-15 places. I had 2 jobs by the end of the week. Most companies will not hire until you are physically standing in front of them.
Their school year is similar to that of the United States with summer from May-August. I would recommend coming early to mid August to hit the ground running. If they ask whether or not you like kids, you should answer YES. If they ask whether or not you like adults, you should answer YES. Can you work nights and weekends? OF COURSE YOU CAN. The inevitable truth with any foreign teaching gig is that until you find a college or International school you will be working nights and weekends. The kids go to school during the day while the adults go to work. This leaves the weekends and nights for teaching. After 3 months I lucked into a job with a college and now work Monday-Friday.
Any google search of Language Centers in Vietnam or English Jobs, Vietnam will bring up hundreds of results, but to name a few large ones: ILA, Apollo, VATC, Compass, UEC and Aston. ILA and Apollo usually require you to have a CELTA certification but you may hit them at a time when they are desperate for teachers.
I’m here, now what?
Congratulations! You ignored your parents’ complaints and tears and made the jump. I know you are following all my advice, so you have arrived and hit the ground running.
You should come with plenty of copies of your resume to hand out to everyone. I would suggest a little tweaking of your resume. If you were a babysitter, mention that you have experience with young children. If you were a server, highlight the fact that you have great communication skills. Anything to make them feel as if you are motivated and willing to be patient with their students.
Once you start to get replies to your emails they will want you to come in for an interview. Most companies will also want you to do a ‘mock lesson’ where you will either teach one hour in a regular class, or to a group of people who work with the company. Don’t worry, if you made it this far you would have to deliberately fail to not get the job. The mock lesson will provide some constructive criticism and most likely a job. Follow the guidelines of teaching a class and you will be fine. Review material they learned the day before-usually a quick game solves this). Preview- give a general outline of what you are going to be teaching them that day. Teach- kids like games. Throw in a game, some group work, some solo work and a whole lot of repetition and the hour will fly by.
Finding these interviews: same note as before, look up English Language Centers and email the heck out of them. Whether or not they have a job posting, email and tell them you are living here and are available immediately. If you are having trouble, join some expat/International groups and get connected.
Once you have a little experience under your belt you can also post some ads on the internet for private tutoring. This is an easy way to make extra cash. Once you find out what your client is looking for you can go to the bookstore and choose a book that will best suit their needs. They have TONS.
*Sometime during this process, get a phone. The sooner the better. Go to any phone store and they can set you up with a SIM card and a phone. I paid $25 for a cheap flip phone (circa 2003) and $5 for a SIM card and my minutes/texting lasted me 3 months.
Granted, I didn’t have many people calling me then….
If you feel that you will be driving, it may be smart to get a cheap phone with internet access so that you can have Google Maps to look at while driving. Trust me, you will get lost.
The cost of getting a work permit depends on who hires you. Most of the large corporations want you to have a work permit but will not always pay for it. They will assist you with the steps but not the price. It can get expensive. If the company doesn’t mention the work permit then you don’t really need to worry about it. You can keep getting your visa renewed and don’t have to worry about it. Please note though that this is not technically legal.
To work in Vietnam, legally, you must have a work permit. The odds of you being arrested or deported are slim to none but it is still a possibility. I recommend doing everything in your power to get a work permit as soon as you can. Also keep in mind that if you are not getting a direct deposit from your company to your Vietnamese bank account and need to send money back home (which is the case for paying off student loans) you do need to have a work permit.
The work permit process is complicated in an easy sort of way. There are a lot of steps that you will probably find superfluous but getting these steps done is not terribly difficult.
- Go the the US Embassy (or Embassy of your residing country) with your background check, diploma, copy of your passport, Celta/Teacher’s Certification (or similar). They will apostille (certified copy) all of these for $50. The office is only open Monday-Thursday mornings.
- You then need to take your certified papers and go to the Foreign Affairs office where they stamp them. I have no idea what the stamp is for.
- You then head to the People’s Committee where they will translate the papers and give them back to you a week later. You need 3 copies and they will certify all the copies. Note that steps 2 and 3 are open during the week and have a VERY long lunch break. This process costs about $20, give or take.
At some point during this process, if you didn’t bring them with you, make sure you have plenty of passport photos. You can have them taken here if needed.
- You need to get a health check. You can do this at home but it requires more translation fees and is easier to get done at a hospital in Vietnam. Your work will recommend a hospital to you. Get there as soon as they open.
- Once you have all of this done you will give all your paperwork to your employer, who will then take it to the powers that be, to give you a work permit.
If you are looking for extra cash there are a few options. Private tutoring is always available with a simple posting on Expatblog or Craigslist. This is an easy, tax-free way to make $15-25 an hour. You could also find people needing someone to edit English books/papers/etc. They will pay you to re-type and edit what they have translated. Additional jobs during the night or weekends can be fairly easy to find as well. A lot of companies need someone to work 1-2 classes a week.
Another out of the box option, if you have the semi- skills for it, is acting. A friend of mine knows French and plays a French cowboy in some episodes of a TV show here. (I never said quality) He does not get paid much but they pay for him to travel to shoots (mostly in Vietnam) and his accommodation as well.
Again, once you have arrived here, finding a job is a breeze. Don’t be discouraged after the first few days, just keep emailing and visiting and someone will bite. It is daunting to move to a new country without a job but that is the way they do it. The people here are much more laid-back and lead a simple, easy life.
The city is separated into different Districts. District 1, 2, 3 etc. At any time you may be whisked away to fight for your life. Just kidding. Sort of.
I am getting ahead of myself here though as the districts refer to Ho Chi Minh City. Let’s talk about which city (or town) you may want to live in. I live in Ho Chi Minh City, located in the southern part of the country. This is the busiest and most modern place you will find in the whole country. You will never be bored with the food, bars or clubs. People here are much more Westernized and much less conservative.
However, you have to give to get. Living here also means a fast-paced life. There is constantly traffic and noise and dogs barking while you are trying to sleep. On that same note though the job market here is very plentiful. There are hundreds of language centers and dozens of International schools that are always looking for more people. Most language centers also offer a job teaching classes at the public schools in town. They last about 30 minutes and you work on pronunciation and play games.
If you decide to live in HCMC then there are a plethora of options to choose from. If you are coming by yourself, finding a shared apartment or house is pretty easy. A lot of times you can look on Craigslist and you will see many other expats who are always looking for additional roomies. Expect to pay about $200-350 for this. If you are more of a loner there are also a lot of studio apartments that are available. You can look at Craigslist or do a google search to find these. Expect to pay about $300-500, depending on how much you want out of it. If you want a two bedroom you are looking at paying $400-700- depending on how Western you want the place to be. Make sure when you meet with the real estate company that you are on the same page. You need to know what the final cost out the door is. Many times they will have maintenance fees or parking fees that they ‘forgot’ to mention.
So, what part of the city should you live in? My advice before signing a lease is to get a job. Your job location will affect your residence. Eventually you may change jobs and by then you have hopefully learned the city more and are driving a motorbike. Also, many lease managers here are flexible with the lease and as long as you give notice, you can leave before it is up.
One side of District 1 has the area where all the backpackers hang out. This is where food is cheap and drinks are flowing. On the other side of District 1 is what I call the ‘Fancy District’. This is where many of the rich travelers stay and it is very Western. Food is really yummy but also more expensive. By more expensive, think in terms of prices back home and that is what you pay. A lot of the clubs are located here as well as the upper class shopping.
District 2 is not next to District 1; it is located outside of the city. The only reason you would live here is if you got a job with one of the International schools located there. District 3 and 4 are on the outskirts of District 1 and offer different pros and cons. 3 is a little more expensive and is constantly crowded with motorbikes. 4 can be cheaper but you need to make sure you have security or a good lock. 5 is also next to 1 and is known as China Town. 7 is also one a little outside of the city and is very popular for the Western community. The streets are wide and quiet and you rarely feel like you are living in Vietnam. Many Westerners live or go out here to escape the chaos and to feel a little more like they are at home.
There is also the option in living in an area that is not categorized as a district but has a name. For instance there is the Go Vap district. It is between the numbered districts and is another option for the many places to live. As stated though, find a job first. Even if it is semi-permanent you do not want to deal with culture shock and a 45 minute drive every day your first month.
If HCMC does not sound like the place for you, you have a few other choices. The second most popular would be Hanoi, located in the northern part of the country. Hanoi has many great attributes, the main one to me being that with a short drive you are in the mountains or national parks. Hanoi itself is a smaller version of HCMC but with just as many bikes and even more pollution problems.
The people are far more conservative -as it is right below China- and Buddhism is much more prominent. Finding a job here is not difficult, but will require a little more work than HCMC. There are not as many language centers and schools, but that is not to say there aren’t a lot. If you feel that a busy metropolis with little chance of nature is not for you, I recommend Hanoi. It’s all about perspective. I can not comment on where exactly to live there, but I do know that the city is full of lakes, which sounds ideal to me.
f you need even MORE quiet there are a few other places you can choose, but finding a job will be much more difficult. I would not recommend showing up to these places without one. You can email ahead of time and hope they accept you but to show up is not ideal. I would recommend moving to Hanoi or HCMC first, finding a part-time job, and then emailing these locations. If you tell them you are living in Vietnam the chances of a job are much higher.
I will list a few worth looking into but if you really want that small town feel than a simple internet search can lead you to many more options.
Danang, a town located on the beach, is a good option with a good number of expats living there. Halong Bay is also located near the sea and is a HUGE tourist attraction. I have seen a few postings for jobs but be ready to deal with some shady characters who are always trying to rip off the tourists.
The Mekong Delta has a few towns in the region that hire English teachers. Living here you would most certainly live a slower paced life and you will not have many other expats to keep you company. Many times these smaller areas will include accommodation as part of the offer.
As far as the smaller details go, the price for utility bills is not high. My apartment includes everything but electricity (including maid service) and since we are huge babies about sleeping hot, we have it running all night. Typically we pay $80 a month, which is ridiculously high compared to most other people. If you don’t want to pay for a high bill then invest in a lot of fans or an apartment with a nice breeze. The water bill is about $10 a month and internet and cable is about $20 packaged together. If your apartment does not come with these included your landlord should help you with getting it set up. So after all that, Bada Bing Bada Boom, you are set! Go have a 50 cent beer, you deserve it.
*Be prepared, no matter where you live, for rolling black outs. Your power will go off for an undetermined amount of time and you either sit there staring at the wall, go out for a beer OR (gasp) pick up a book. It will happen multiple times while you live here. Deal with it.
What is that Smell?
Lucky you for choosing Vietnam because the food here is spectacular! If you had ever had Vietnamese food back home this is 10x better. The pho is delicious and every part of the country puts their own spin on it. Down south the food has a delicate spice with a touch of sweet. Head up North and you find the flavors a bit more aggressive.
Unlike other Asian countries, eating bugs isn’t really a big thing here. Instead, to really get your tummy rumbling, they have as what has only been described to me as ‘different animal’s stomach parts’. This was not my favorite but is definitely worth a go if you consider yourself a ‘foodie’. The spring rolls here are also excellent as well as a good ol’ Banh Mi. The sauce of choice here is fish sauce, which is much better than it sounds. It is great on rice and to dip your spring rolls in.
Even more lucky you, is how cheap the food is. The local people love street food and offer it everywhere in the city. A banh mi can be found for 50 cents to $1 and the pho or rice plates are about $1.50-3. ($3 is a lot for street food so your rice better have gold flakes in it.) Downstairs from my apartment is one lady who sells rice, meats and veggies for $1.50. This includes soup and tea. Next door is another lady who sells Pho (which includes shrimp and pork) for $1.50. Keep in mind when eating street food that you will be sitting at a table and chair that is designed for a 5 year old child.
For some late night food you can find kebabs, meatball sandwiches and a whole lot of other greasy food on Bui Vien. There is also a few 24/7 restaurants located around this area. If you have not yet taken the leap to drive yourself or it is raining and you don’t feel like heading out, then I recommend directing your internet to foodpanda.com. They offer food delivery that is usually free (or a cheap delivery rate) from almost every restaurant in the city.
If you are looking for an actual restaurant, the backpacker district will be much cheaper than the restaurants in other parts of the city. If you are near Bui Vien there is a great pho place located on the corner of Pham Ngu Lao and De Tham with good prices and yummy types of pho. Hot pots are also really popular here and are great for a large group of friends. They bring you a boiling pot of water that has already been seasoned (deliciously), a burner and a ball of wax to keep the fire going. A place that recently opened, called Tom Yum Yum on BV, offers this plus BBQ delights for an amazing price. You choose your meats and they bring them out raw with veggies and noodles as well. From there you add the things in yourself and bon apetit. These can be found at most Vietnamese and Thai restaurants.
If you need a Western fix I have a few recommendations. One of my favorites is Elbow Room which has the best pizza I have found in the city and great pasta as well. Black Cat is similar with great burgers and desserts. Scott and Binh’s, located in District 7, boasts elegant southern cuisine. Although more expensive than local food, the prices here are very reasonable and the food is superb. This can also be a good excuse to check out the other bars located in D7.
For a really yummy brunch go to Au Parc, located off Le Duan street. They offer mimosas, blood mary’s and warm sumptuous breads and spreads on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
The Spotted Cow offers Buy 1 Get 1 burgers on Tuesday and same deal for pizza on Wednesdays. Scoozi offers Buy 1 Get 1 pizza on Sundays and the pizza there is pretty legit.
HCMC also offers a great variety of International cuisine. The city has a large french influence; thus you will find many great french restaurants and pastry shops. Choosing a french restaurant is a great decision if you want to indulge in some french cheese and/or wine. The city also boasts many Indian restaurants as well as Mediterranean, Italian and even African eats. A great place for some fast food is Zeus, located on Cong Quyn off of BV. They have gyros that are freshly made by an authentic Greek cook for the low price of $2.
For the Vegetarian/Vegan folks out there do not be discouraged. Vegetarian restaurants are aplenty and as rice and noodles are popular here, you can rest assured you will not go hungry. They love their veggies!
There are also a few fast food chain restaurants such as Burger King, KFC, Carl’s Jr (Hardees) Pizza Hut and Dominos. I generally recommend avoiding the former as they are just as expensive if not more than back home. The pizza places are not bad and offer different deals for each day of the week.
You will find the list of ‘things you miss’ to be fairly short. To have wine you will either have to shell out more money or greatly lower your expectations. There is good wine but it does not come cheap. Cheese is also not really big here so you will be spending more money for good cheese. I have yet to find any Mexican food that I would call better than average and steak is almost non-existent or REALLY expensive. Mmmm, I miss steak…
If you like to cook then there are many markets located all over. Chances are there is one within walking distance of where you live. Pork, chicken and fish are cheap and fresh-I mean fresh as in fish are still flopping and some chicken may have some feathers attached-and the veggies are insane amounts of cheap. Once I bought about 3 onions, 3 tomatoes, 3 avocados, a handful of cilantro, lettuce, mushrooms, garlic and a bag of shrimp for under $10. If you need canned goods, beef or other odds and ends then head to one of the supermarkets. A few to name is The Big C, Satramart, Citimart and Lottemart. Fruit is abundant here and a new favorite of mine is a mangosteen. Try the fruit Durian (a large green fruit sold in many carts) and thank me later.
For a Western market the best is called Veggys and is located in District 1 and District 7. These will not come cheap but can help you out when feeling homesick. I tend to go there for some Kraft Mac n’ Cheese and Doritos. They also have a bunch of different salad dressings if you are feeling somewhat fat from all the rice.
Overall the city has plenty of food to help most every desire. I recommend getting as much cheap Vietnamese food as you can handle before your Western fix. Eating local is the absolute best (and delicious) way to save money and offers you some extra cash to spend on your loans or traveling!
Transportation: It’s a love hate thing
Let me say that driving here is scary. As in everyday you wonder if today is the day you will die. It took me 5 months to grow my figurative balls before I could do it alone. Traffic is nuts! People pay no heed to the traffic rules and you are on a motorbike which offers little protection from the asphalt beneath your feet. It is also exhilarating. Just you, the smoggy wind and thousands of people. I felt like a whole new woman when I drove myself to work the first time. I’d be lying if I said “I’m Every Women” by Whitney Houston was not on constant repeat in my head. Also the song “Highway to the Danger Zone.”
Anyway, if you are as scared as I was I recommend taking a trip somewhere that isn’t as badly congested.
I drove myself to the Mekong Delta-a 4.5 hour trip- and had loads more confidence in myself when I returned. I left at 5 am to avoid traffic and aside from dodging semi trucks who really don’t give a shit about you, I made it all in one piece. This helps. A lot.
I assume when you first get here that you will not be rolling in the dough. If that is the case, I recommend renting a motorbike at first. You can rent one on Bui Vien for about $50 a month. Don’t do this too long though because, as anything you rent, you are emptying cash into an endless vat. Craigslist always has travelers who are selling their bike for cheap. (They need to get out of the country and just want any price they can get) Test drive the bike, make sure it rides smooth and if you have made some Vietnamese friends, have them look at it as well. If you are looking around town you can get a reliable motorbike for $400-500. Anything cheaper either needs some serious faith on your part or a look over from someone who knows what to look for.
If you are driving a motorbike without a license then you are driving illegally. You will probably get pulled over at some point, for a reason you may never truly know, and the police will ask for your ID. Well you don’t have it. At this point they could take away your bike. This is unlikely. Chances are they will write down a number (or say it depending on their language skills) that they want you to pay them. You pay them (200,000 vnd is the going rate for this ticket) and drive away. To get a license you must either: take the driving test which requires a basic knowledge of the Vietnamese language or find a Vietnamese friend who can help you attain one for $200. Taking the driving test is the safest and most legal way to go about driving a motorbike.
So what if this thrill seeking death trap is not for you? There are other options you can take. Unfortunately there is not much going on in regards to public transportation. This applies for any city in the country. Pretty much your only option is a bus. There are trains that can take you around the country but no ‘Subway’ exists in Vietnam. I believe I read that they are working on that… So if you can not muster the courage for a motorbike you will be stuck with:
- Xe Om drivers-this is a motorbike taxi that costs significantly less than the taxis. You can find them everywhere
- Regular taxis. You can find them anywhere but they will cost more money. When choosing a taxi service use MaiLinh or VinaSun; they are the most honest
- The bus system. I can not vouch for this as I avoid it like the plague but it is a cheap, somewhat reliable option. Just be prepared to leave for your destination VERY MUCH in advance.
As far as cars goes, I will cut off my foot and eat it if you move to Vietnam and buy one. First point is that for every, I’d say 100 motorbikes, there is one car. This city is not built for cars. The alleys are small (and crowded with motorbikes) and the parking for a car is almost non-existent. Second point is that the tax rate on cars here is 150%.
YES, ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY PERCENT.
If your car cost $10,000 well congratulations you may as well have bought a $25,000 car back home. Almost all the cars I see here are Rolls Royce, BMWs or Bentleys. (Can you say Mafia?)
So now you are sitting in traffic everyday on your choice of vehicle and really need a break from the city life. How to get to said quiet destination? You have many options.
You can always motorbike it. SE Asia is known for being a place to hop on a motorbike and explore. Filling up your tank doesn’t cost much and you get the thrill of the wind on your face and the semi trucks to your side. If you do this be sure to have your oil changed every 500 km or so. THIS IS IMPORTANT. The bikes aren’t meant for long distance trips so proper maintenance is key. Like a lady, treat her right and she will keep on purring.
Another option is the bus. Super duper cheap bus tickets are always available. Be prepared for crazy drivers and bumpy roads though. This is a good option if you are strapped for time or money. Most buses offer an over night service that can take you from A to B while you hold on for dear life and wonder where to buy sleeping pills. Did I mention cheap? From experience, a bus from HCMC to Phnom Penh, Cambodia cost me $26 round trip. Best way to travel on a budget.
A third option is the train. The train can take you anywhere in Vietnam (within reason) and also offers overnight services. However the train takes longer than the bus and is more expensive. If the bumpy roads and constant blaring of a horn are not for you though, than the train is the way to go. They offer sleeping bunks where you will most likely get a good nights sleep and be refreshed for your day’s adventure. A train from HCMC to, let’s say Nha Trang,-the party beach scene of Vietnam-will run you anywhere from $15-30 each way.
A final option is a plane. Flights here can be found for a steal of a deal if you know when to look. Traveling within Vietnam will usually cost you about $100 round trip. When you are looking for flights you must ‘be aggressive, be be aggressive!’. Find out when the ‘flash deals’ are coming and prepare accordingly. Like a 14 year old waiting to buy tickets to a Taylor Swift concert (or certain 25 year olds…) you must be at the ready for your finger to get clicking when the deal comes. They sell out quick.
All kidding aside, I find driving a motorbike the most liberating of the choices. It is scary at first (and continues to be for me) but in the city you never drive too fast. If you happen to fall off chances are you will dust of your body and pride and get back on the bike. Having to rely on others or a taxi driver gets to be a real pain in the ass and you will miss the freedom you had back home. So in a nutshell, grow some balls and hop on a motorbike!
Party like its 1999
If you are living in HCMC then the options for going out are endless. High budget or low budget you can find all the beer, dancing, live music and karaoke you need to keep you sustained for your whole time living here.
For cheap options, head to Bui Vien. It is the backpacker district and most likely where you will stay when you first head to HCMC. Beers can be found here from 10 cents to $2 depending on how small you want your seats to be. This street is usually crowded every night of the week and you can always find great drink specials. I discourage going to the places on the corner called Go2 and other weird names. They will offer you ‘buy 2 get 1 free drinks’, but the drinks are watery and they charge a tax and service fee.
If you want cheap beer and new friends head to the small chairs on the side of the street. These beers are about 20 -50 cents and you will meet some fascinating backpackers while also getting a nice buzz.
After living here a while you tend to head towards the ‘nicer’ areas of the street. A great expat bar is called Stella (actually Ryan’s Pub as it is located upstairs but usually you see the sign Stella first). It has a pool table and dart boards as well as good pizza, wine and beer. Wine is about $4 and beer is a little less than $2. They have the best pizza on the street (thus far) and it costs about $5.
If you like to get your dirty dive bar on than head to T&R. It’s a street off of BV and has pool, choose your own song via Itunes, and a dart board. This place is dark, dank and smelly. Perfect for the dive bar lovers. It is also open till 4 or 5 am which is perfect for the nights when you just don’t want to go home.
If you have moved past the broke as a joke phase than head to the other side of District 1 where there are more upscale bars. A personal favorite of mine is called The Emergency Room (where much to my guy friend’s delight the staff dresses in nurse costumes). This bar has good drinks, good music, pool and darts. The drinks are reasonable and you can always make friends here. Red Bar is also located on this side of town and is supposedly famous. I am not sure why that is, but they have live music and is a good mix between Westerners and Vietnamese.
For more live music you have a couple of options. Acoustic is a well known live music venue that is usually filled with Vietnamese who love to dance and will always pull you to the dance floor. Generally speaking the bands are Vietnamese or Filipino, singing American/British tunes. The drinks here are EXPENSIVE so maybe get a good buzz going prior, if that is important to you.
The bars here love Happy Hour. Get to a bar between 3-7 and you are sure to find some great deals. My favorite is at Bar 5 on Pasteur Street. $6 for unlimited Tiger draft beer from 3-7 pm every day of the week. Can I get an Amen?
Cheeky Monkey, located near T&R, is really fun on the weekends with live music and plenty of backpackers looking for a good time.
Cargo Bar is also another huge venue that supports local music as well as International music. Many times you can find a gig on the weekend or a charity event taking place. They charge a cover but it is usually in the $5-15 range.
If dancing and clubs are your thing, you have a few options. Apocalypse is a famous choice that usually gets going about 11:30. Be prepared for loud music, smelly sweaty people and pricey drinks. (This is a club so that information should not be anything too surprising) Lush is also another club that has ladies night on Thursday.
One of my favorite places to go for a relaxed night with friends is what we call the ‘Rum Bar.’ I don’t actually know the name, as it is in Vietnamese, but if you look up the restaurant ‘The Black Cat’ the Rum Bar is right next to it. It is a bunch of little red chairs located on the sidewalk. Here you can find moonshine rum for cheap cheap prices. Bring some friends, bring some cards and relax with some pretty good rum.
You won’t find too much in terms of big name bands for concerts. In my time here that has not been any band that I have heard of that includes Vietnam in their tour. It’s a shame.
Free events can vary but a good way to find some is to go to http://www.wordhcmc.com/.
Other than the markets, the Vietnamese do not have many in-city events going on. A lot of times the events are put together by Expats and include some cover. The cover usually consists of a free drink or meal though.
There are art shows that happen on the weekends on occasion, which do not charge a cover. The parks in the city are really popular with the locals. They will bring their whole family, a lunch for 20 people and blankets and kites and spend the day there. The same goes for hanging out by the Saigon River.
A fun relaxed place to go is ‘The Geisha Cafe’ located in District 1. They have lot of board games to play while you sip on some coffee or smoothies.
Sports are also a big deal here and many times you can find people who play soccer or tennis a few nights a week. Grabbing some friends and heading to the riverside is also nice as it can be breezy at night and hopefully the smell of the river is downwind.
Movies are also a great option here. There are a ton of modern cinemas with the latest blockbuster hit for $3-8. Most all of them are in English with Vietnamese subtitles.
When you have a day off I also recommend Dam Sen Waterpark. Not far from the city center, this is a fun and cheap way to spend the day. It has a ton of water slides and a lazy river; thus making it a great way to beat the heat. As you can imagine the weekends are busy and packed with young screaming children. Go on a weekday and you should be able to slide to your heart’s desire.
For more nature hop on a motorbike and head to the Giang Dien waterfalls, about 2 hours from the city. They are man made but still fun and you can splash around in the falls as well as walk around the park area or have a picnic. Be warned that your picnic will have nothing on the food the locals bring. They go all out.
Another way to beat the heat is to head to one of the pools located near the city. A favorite of mine is located in D7 and is right next to the golf course. It is huge with lounge chairs and a sand bar (actual sand, not a bar) to lay in. Another pool is at the Van Thanh park. This park has restaurants as well as a huge park area with many interesting sculptures located throughout. These pools will cost you maybe $2 for an entrance fee.
The city also offers many cooking classes that can be taken for one day or on a repeated basis. Expect to spend about $60 for one class. I know that if I were to come home though with the inability to cook pho, my friends and family would be very upset. So a wise investment if you ask me.
There is always the option of shopping as well. Head to the markets or Saigon Square Plaza for your clothes, souvenirs and any other knick knacks you may need.
One other option is a weekend trip to Mui Ne Beach or Vung Tau Beach. Vung Tau can be reached by motorbike, bus or boat. The boat takes about 2 hours and is $10 give or take. Although somewhat dirty, you can still play on the beach and pick a hotel with a good pool. The view is nothing to scoff at either.
Mui Ne can be reached by motorbike, bus or train. If you choose motorbike though be prepared for your booty to hurt, as this is a 5-6 hour ride. This beach has more of a nightlife as well as more things to do. They are known for kite surfing and you can take a kite surfing lesson or just lay out for the day. It also has sand dunes located about 15 minutes away where you can sand surf for a small fee.
Whether it’s drinking, dancing, clubbing, rocking out or exercising you are sure to find numerous ways to keep yourself entertained when you are not working.
So let’s talk about money.
Unfortunately Sallie Mae nor the Federal Loans Government dude allow you to pay from a foreign account.
Like I was saying earlier about the work permit, sending money home can be a simple process or may be a pain the ass. If your work can do direct deposit, which I HIGHLY recommend, than you need to pick the bank that they will direct deposit to. If you have more than one job pick the bank from the job that pays the most and then see if you can get your other job to deposit to that bank. Even if it they charge a small fee, it is worth it.
When you have a direct deposit you can easily transfer money to your bank account back home. Show the bank your contract with your employer and that you have a direct deposit through them. Of course there are fees attached with this process, but overall it is fairly simple. In the end between my Vietnamese bank and Wells Fargo I spend about $40 to transfer money back home.
If you do not have a direct deposit things can get a little tricky. You will have to get a work permit which can take a lot of time. If you are in the early phases of your loan you can use a forbearance which will have you pay a small fee to put off your loan for a set amount of time. The details of this depend on who your loan is with. If that is the case than I recommend setting that up before you move, as you will need time for this to process. Even if you have direct deposit you will only get paid once a month, so count on arriving here and not getting paid until at least a month later.
If you can not get a work permit and do not have direct deposit you may be stuck in a pickle. Rumor is that a bank called Kookmin Bank will let you transfer $490 a month. I have yet to hear the results of said rumor, but it is something to look into.
Most large language centers will offer a direct deposit so you should not have to worry too much about this. They also will help you get a work permit, which is the legal and recommended way to go when working in Vietnam.
The bank I use is VietCom- I work with VATC- and they are decent. Enough people speak English to help me and they have offices and ATMs all throughout the city. Some other large banks are AgriBank, ANZ Bank and CitiBank.
To set up a bank account is a simple process. Bring your passport and about 300,000 VND and you are good to go. Your debit card will be ready after one week and you pick it up at the same branch you signed up for.
Most of these large banks should offer online banking but all it does is allow you to see your account balance if you don’t feel like walking outside to an ATM.
Other than through a bank, sending money home is almost impossible. You can not wire money from Vietnam to another country (like through Western Union or something).
As I said, this is not too much to fret over as direct deposit is usually offered and you can immediately begin the process of getting a work permit.
It’s the small things in life
Well you have a job and an apartment and a go to spot for beer and are now wondering how you can go that extra mile. What are some shortcuts I can take on my road to financial freedom and heated sidewalks?
The first thing I would recommend is to learn the beauty of bartering. At first you may feel a little nervous/anxious/bad/other qualities that make you feel like a horrible person to try and get it down $1 less, but do not worry. The Vietnamese actually like to barter. If you want a shirt and they say $5 (or 100,000 vnd) you say $2. They say $4 you agree with $3. If you continue to insist that it is lower be prepared to walk away without the object in question. Unlike other countries, the Vietnamese will let you walk away even if they know their offer is too high. The sense of pride for them is strong and they will sometimes stick at their mentioned price, just because they can. Most of the time though each street sells the same thing, so if you are forced to walk away chances are it is a few stalls down.
One time I watched a guy buying cigarettes and there were two different ladies selling them, standing right next to each other. The average price for cigarettes is $1 a pack. One lady said $2, he said ok $1.50 (knowing that he was giving her a little more) and she still said $2. The lady next to her promptly sold them to him for $1. This is a good example of them not budging due to pride.
Once you have mastered the art of bartering for food and objects you can now barter for your transportation. If you are still in the ‘scared as shit phase’ of driving a motorbike, chances are you are riding a xe om. (If not, you are already spending too much money on a cab ride) These can be tricky as you may not know for far you are going or may not have the same driver every day. My ride to work takes 15 minutes and costs $2. This is a good basis for most distances. If you have a driver who takes you everyday you may be able to work out a weekly pay that is a better price for you, and he gets the assurance of a loyal customer.
Another way to save money, which I myself am struggling with, is to not go out so much. Obviously going out and drinking/eating all the time are not good for any budget. This city is full of friends who will want you to ‘just have one beer’ with them but sometimes you have to say no. If you must, try and persuade them to the small plastic chairs on BV, drinks are 10 cents which is easier on the wallet.
If you are not yet in the backpacker frame of mind, get in it. Hostels (contrary to the many movies portraying otherwise) are really great places to stay when traveling as well as offering you amazing opportunities to meet people from all over the world. You can get a dorm room hostel for as little as $4 a night in most places. Also when traveling, decide if you really need that guided tour they ‘strongly recommend’. Many times I decide to trek it myself and it is much more fun as you get to make your own schedule.
Eat local. I already said it but I can not stress it enough. Cooking in can be a way to save money sometimes but honestly sometimes eating out (at a Vietnamese street vendor) is cheaper. Plus the food is probably better than what you had planned on making. If you need a Western fix, try and correspond it to the BOGO deal days and bring a friend. Then you get your fix as well as save money.
Be Friendly! If you are friendly towards the street vendor downstairs, or the vegetable lady down the street, chances are you will get a better deal. Learn a little of the language, make them laugh at you, and be a repeat customer. Pretty soon you will be quoted the same prices as the guy next to you.
Don’t be SO Western. Another way to save money is to learn to live with less things. Do you REALLY need that big tv? Do you REALLY need the surround sound speakers or a smart phone? Life is much more simple here so you should learn to embrace that. Before purchasing any ‘must-haves’ ask yourself if it is a necessity. On top of that, eventually (maybe) you will move back to the states and you certainly do not want to pack all of these things.
Overall, Vietnam is a really cheap place to live and how much money you save depends on how much you are willing to give up. In truth, you will not need to give up too much but by limiting your nights out, eating locally and learning the art of bartering you are on your way to financial freedom.
Arriving here can be scary and is definitely a culture shock. Lucky for you, I was my own guinea pig and have laid out a plan that should help you land a job, an apartment, and a path to paying off your loans. By partaking in the adventure of teaching and traveling you not only have a leg up on your fellow classmates, but you are about to discover a whole new world that will forever change you.
Here are some questions you may ask yourself or others may ask you about life in ‘Nam.
Do I need to speak Vietnamese?
Nope! Obviously learning some words will be very beneficial in your day to day life, but you in no way need to master the language. In the big cities especially, you can always find someone who speaks English or knows someone in the group who can.
When teaching, your students will already know the basics or you are just starting to teach the basics so Vietnamese is not needed.
I’ve just arrived, why do the locals seem so rude?
First thing is to re-define your definition of rude while living here. Their nature is different than ours. If they are standing in the doorway or just staring at you the thought of ‘rude’ or impolite never crosses their mind. It’s a natural thing for them. Learn to roll with the punches and you and your frame of mind will be much better off.
The water is TERRIBLE. NEVER EVER LET IT TOUCH YOU.
False. No you should not fill a glass from the tap and drink it, but you can certainly brush your teeth with it. Even a quick gulp and you are fine. Hell, if you accidentally drink a glass of tap water there is no need to run to the bathroom with your finger down your throat. It will be fine, you will get through it.
Vietnamese is a poor country, so teachers must get paid poorly.
As you should have already read, the pay here is great. Low end is $16 an hour and can go all the way up to $30 an hour. When demand is high so is the pay. Revel in it.
Should I be worried since it is basically a Communist country?
Absolutely not. As an expat you barely even notice this. I am sure if you spoke with a local they would feel that it impacts them on a daily basis, but the affect is not really felt as a foreigner. Corruption is definitely well in force but aside from the occasional pull over by a cop, you will be fine.
The war was not too long ago, do they hate Americans?
Nope. You will find the average person to be gracious and friendly and really curious about yourself. They love to talk and practice their English as well so be prepared for someone to randomly come up and start talking to you. In Hanoi you may find some people who are slightly more off put by Americans, as they are much more traditional, but you should never seen any physical aggression.
It’s a 3rd world country, do they even have modern technology?
I actually sent a carrier pigeon today to tell my boss I’d be late. JK. Everything you need to feel in touch with the modern world you will find here. Fast internet, TVs, cable, movies and so on and so forth. You will not be in the stone ages.
Well you certainly are not in Kansas anymore, but as long as you are not an idiot – i.e. – walk around with your iPhone in your hand, purse loosely strapped to your body and camera around your neck stumbling drunk-you will be fine. HCMC does have gangs, but they bother the locals not the foreigners. Guns are illegal, but don’t try and start a fight with the locals because 20 more ninjas will come out and kick your ass.
I won’t make any friends.
That sounds like a personal problem. Seek a hotline number.
OR be prepared for a ton of friends from all over the world! Not only is this a great network for your future travel destinations but you learn different views of the world. You also learn some really funny ways to say things. (Thongs for flip-flops. Tee hee).