Everybody keeps filling my ears with how marvelously cheap life in Vietnam is, but I have my doubts on that. I mean, compared to Switzerland, Austria, Japan or Singapore… yes. Vietnam is definitely cheaper. But you have to do your homework, note places where they don’t overcharge you because of your long nose and generally add the costs of visa, occasional visits to your country of origin and all those extra fees that apply if you don’t know your way around very well.
The point is, most Vietnamese believe that Westerners are marvelously rich, educated and noble beings, like some fair princeling out of some cock-and-bull-story. Many see no harm in charging double the normal price for a bag of cucumbers, so you need to be on edge all the time.
From all Asian countries I can only compare it to China and if you take your average expat salary and compare it to the cost of living… China is cheaper, because prices are fixed and that’s it.
But let’s start and break down the costs of living in HCMC:
Renting a decent room in District 1 will cost you at least VND 6,500,000. Yes, there are cheaper options available, but I am referring to a spacious room in a nice area where water, electricity, Wi-Fi and drinking water are included. If you are lucky, you find a good place in further away districts at a lower price, but usually there is something fishy about it, so the VND 6,500,000 room is what I take as the minimum for a proper accommodation with Western standards.
The phone itself is at about the same price level as everywhere else in the world and it’s up to you whether you want to buy it. Probably even a bit more expensive due to additional taxes. SIM cards are available for VND 50,000 and one SMS costs around VND 300.
Taxi or motorbike taxi comes at around VND 11,000 per kilometer. Taxi is air conditioned and comparatively safe, while motorbike taxis are faster and more flexible. Your own motorbike usually costs anywhere from VND 6,000,000 (functional) to VND 20,000,000 (pretty good) and beyond. One liter of gasoline is from VND 19,000 in September 2017.
Cars are extremely pricy, mainly because of the high import taxes. But in a car you can’t go anywhere anyway during rush hour.
Local food is cheap and readily available on the street. For around VND 30,000 you can get a decent, Asian-sized meal like chicken rice. A bowl of pho comes at minimum VND 25,000. However - buy cheap get cheap. Local street vendors and restaurants often use cheap ingredients like recycled oil or fish sauce infused with chemicals that cause my stomach to turn when just reading their names. While having a dish like this once in awhile won’t kill you, ingesting Aspartame and MSG on a daily basis is something you may want to reconsider.
For a decent meal in a nice, local place you pay from VND 40,000.
Your craving for Western food can be satisfied easily from VND 70,000 upwards. For a proper pizza, prepare to pay at least VND 150,000, rather VND 190,000.
A good steak, and I am talking about a real steak here, is available from around VND 600,000 but rather VND 1,000,000. A really nice hamburger may be as much as VND 190,000. A tasty cut of salmon, char grilled with veggies and mashed potatoes is served for around VND 250,000. For VND 200,000 you get a plate of enough enchiladas to fill even a large bandido to the top.
If you are on a budget, but don’t want to miss grandma’s bread dumplings, home cooking is the way to go.
Like all things, you have various qualities available. You can buy a liter of fish sauce for VND 30,000, but I guess it is more MSG than anchovies in there. Good fish sauce you get for around VND 110,000, just containing fish and salt.
For a daily average of VND 80,000 per person and some cooking skill you can ensure good meals, fruit and water, including a coffee in the morning, but no fancy desserts and imported delicacies.
Home cooking is also the way to go if you have special needs. Lactose free food is available, because traditional Vietnamese food does not include milk. Lactose free milk is unheard of in Vietnam though. Rice does not contain gluten, but you never know what else is in the food at restaurants. Organic food is hard to find and pricy. Halal food is available at most Indian and Indonesian restaurants, for a relatively high price though. If you need halal restaurants on a budget, I guess the best practice is to look and ask around a mosque.
Health insurance starts from a monthly VND 2,500,000, not including dental. Dental treatment is usually not cheap, but fillings start at VND 200,000, depending on which clinic you go to. Without insurance, you can save money on your everyday medical needs if you only consult a doctor when necessary. The diagnosis is quite cheap at public hospitals if you are prepared to wait for your turn. Of course, should something graver happen and you need to stay at the hospital, then be advised that even a blanket on the corridor floor can drain your financial reserves pretty fast. It also may drain your patience, because sleeping on the floor where a hundred Vietnamese walk to the toilet every night is decidedly un-Western.
Okay, let’s calculate our monthly expenses for an adult person now:
- VND 6,500,000 living
- VND 3,000,000 food & drink
- VND 2,500,000 insurance
- VND 200,000 phone bills
- VND 200,000 mobility
- VND 700,000 visa
- VND 300,000 other necessities
Therefore the total monthly expenses for an acceptable lifestyle are around VND 13,000,000 for a single person without further responsibilities, excluding one-time expenses like purchasing a motorbike, laptop, clothing, shoes and the like. Of course, you can lower the costs by renting cheaper, eating cheaper, taking the risk of not being insured and generally lower your expectations. Also, like in all metropolises throughout the world, you can spend significant amounts of money on luxuries.
It’s up to you.
When it’s not up to you alone, because you have a family, you may take into consideration more than just living from hand to mouth. One of the special topics that appears all the time is:
While education in public schools is relatively cheap, the quality of these institutions leaves something to be desired. Excellent education is available in Vietnam too, but the costs of these international schools are quite expensive, unless your job position in Ho Chi Minh City covers your kids' education.