One of the most common questions Tim and I get asked when people find out we live in Ho Chi Minh City, is if it’s safe to live there. Generally, my answer is “Yes. I feel as safe here as in many other cities around the world, including Australia and our hometown, Broken Hill.” But safety to me is more complex than simply the crime rate. Other things can contribute to harming your health, like traffic, pollution levels and weather all need to be taken into account too when planning where to set up home overseas. As a sizeable, chaotic city, Ho Chi Minh does pose its challenges, but for my husband Tim and I, the benefits of living here far outweigh the downside.
While there are plenty of stories about petty crime like bag snatching, pickpockets and taxi scams, especially in the tourist areas, I’ve never felt personally threatened, even walking by myself at night. But that doesn’t mean you can be complacent. There are specific rules both Tim and I live by wherever we are. We must be onto something because even though we’ve been to over 135 countries, many of them very poor, we’ve never had anything stolen or been physically harmed. We think they’re common sense, but we see plenty of people who don’t display even half of our caution and still manage to stay perfectly safe here.
Flashing your expensive jewellery, wads of cash or expensive camera gear and leaving them unsecured in the open is just inviting trouble. The average monthly salary in Ho Chi Minh City is less than $400. So, by Australian standards, many people here are considered poor. However, because of the low cost of living and family support systems, most people are reasonably happy and (in our experience) 99% are honest. However, if your phone is worth a couple of months’ wages, then it makes sense not to leave it around.
Most houses and apartments here are very safe, with security grills and fences and many have someone supervising the entrance 24/7. All our apartments have had safes or lockable spaces where we can leave things like passports and extra cash.
We have heard tales of woe where guys who’ve gone out and had a few too many drinks, have suddenly found themselves the attention of an attractive young lady and been relieved of their phone and wallet at some point in the evening. But I don’t think that’s isolated to just here.
Our Top Tips for Staying Safe
- When Tim and I go out on the town, we take enough cash and one card and leave the rest at home. I wear a neck pouch that slips under my top, rather than carry a handbag. Over and above theft, I have a terrible habit of leaving things hanging around. Having my wallet attached means I’m less likely to forget it. Tim keeps his cash in his front or zip pocket, rather than a bulging wallet in the back. We always keep small change readily available to pay for taxis etc., so we don’t have to dig out and sort through the main stash.
- Even though we trust our cleaner implicitly, we don’t leave valuables scattered around our apartment. The landlord sometimes has maintenance men come to fix things, so to avoid any temptation we store valuables out of sight.
- We always keep alert for wandering hands in crowded places such as markets and public transport. Unless we’re taking a picture, we put cameras away and keep our hands in our pockets (or on our bags), depending on where we have any valuables stowed away. If we do happen to have a handbag, camera case or backpack with us, we keep them zipped up never let them dangle in our blind spot or behind us.
- To guard against snatch and grab, we always keep our bags and cameras securely around our body, rather than slung over one shoulder. On busy streets, we carry them on the opposite side to the traffic. We never keep valuables in the back pocket of a day pack and use a small carabiner to clip the zips if we have to carry it on our back and there’s something in there we’re worried about losing.
- When we’re travelling on the back of a motorbike taxi (Xe Om) we wear our backpacks or bags in the front of us, between the driver and us. In a cab, we lock the doors and keep luggage away from open windows or in the boot.
- If we’re headed for a massage or spa treatment, we only take enough cash for the service and leave any jewellery at home. And we never accept a massage from the street masseurs that comb some of the local bars. Chances are, they are more interested in your wallet than ironing out the knots in your neck.
- We don’t walk home down dark, deserted streets late at night. It makes sense to take a taxi for a couple of bucks rather than walk home, especially if we’ve have had a few drinks. In saying that, I’m quite happy to walk around our local neighbourhood at night as everyone knows us and looks after each other.
Traffic conditions appear chaotic and fraught with danger. Crowded city streets with thousands of motorbikes weaving in and around an increasing number of cars and maniac bus drivers can be overwhelming for even the bravest souls. Texting while driving appears to be a national sport and Westerners cringe at the lack of helmets on children, overladen vehicles and the occasional motorbike driving the wrong way up a street. And yet it works. I have my Vietnamese licence and have ridden around in some of the craziest traffic for years without incident. The reason why there are relatively few accidents is that everyone is travelling so slowly. I’ve never had cause to drive my motorbike over 45 km/hour. I don’t ride when I drink, I concentrate on my surroundings and ride defensively.
Walking across the road is somewhat of an artform but there are traffic lights and I use them where available. Where there are no lights, the key to a safe passage is patience. Either the traffic will clear or slow to a stand-still so you can weave your way through. Make yourself visible by raising your hand and walk at a constant pace without making any sudden movements. Motorbikes will go around you, cars will usually slow and you should never, ever step in front of a bus. Once you’ve done it once or twice, it becomes natural. If in doubt, walk on the lee side of a local and let them show you the way. We’ve even had an elderly lady take our hand and lead us across a busy road. The local drivers will note that you’re not Vietnamese and usually be a lot more cautious as they go past.
The weather in Ho Chi Minh City is tropical, so to protect your health it’s best to exercise in the cooler parts of the day and keep your fluids up. Afternoon storms in the rainy season are fairly predictable so you can plan your outings, so you don’t get caught and when pollution levels rise in the dry season, choosing inside activities, of which there are plenty, over the great outdoors can help avoid problems. I’m prone to allergies, yet I’ve never had too many issues.
So, is it safe to live in Ho Chi Minh City? I would say absolutely yes if you use your common sense. Human nature seems to make people spread the tales of woe, rather than talk about the positive things. I prefer to take suitable precautions and dwell on the many benefits of living here. A great vibe, fabulous food, hospitable locals, a low cost of living and a wealth of opportunities for both business and pleasure. If we let ourselves be scared off by the bad experiences of an unlucky few, we’d be missing out on so many great experiences. The vast majority of people here in Ho Chi Minh City are honest, hardworking and incredibly happy you’ve chosen to visit and live in their hometown. But there’s only one way to find out your reality…and that’s to come see for yourself…