When my husband Tim and I first set our sights on a travel-rich life overseas, we knew we needed a place to base ourselves. Somewhere we could earn an income and where the low cost of living wouldn’t make a dent in our savings. Naturally, we looked to Southeast Asia and when it comes to big opportunity and low costs, it’s hard to look beyond Cambodia and Vietnam.
For us, Vietnam won out and we chose to settle in vibrant Ho Chi Minh City.
Sitting side-by-side in the heart of Southeast Asia, you might think there’s not much difference between Vietnam and Cambodia. But that would be making a big assumption.
For starters, Vietnam has almost eight times the length of coastline than its smaller neighbour, so of course the choice of excellent beachside locations in Vietnam far outnumber those you’ll find along Cambodia’s “Lost Riviera”. From beachside cities like Da Nang, Nha Trang and Vung Tau to the golden sands you’ll find at UNESCO World Heritage sites Ha Long Bay and Hoi An, beach lovers are spoiled for choice in Vietnam.
Vietnam has a population almost six times that of Cambodia and the level of infrastructure here reflects that. A raft of new developments are set to improve things further still. New highways linking major population centres, airport redevelopments and a planned high-speed train line throughout the country will continue to make travel, both domestically and internationally, faster and more comfortable. The domestic transport system is plentiful, cheap and convenient too, making getting about a breeze.
More than half of the population here in Vietnam speak some English. That makes life so much easier for us expats. For Tim and I, it also meant an income opportunity. There’s big demand for English teachers and we’ve found getting work has been easy. We both took a teaching English course back in Australia before setting off and now, working here as teachers, I get paid around $29 an hour after tax while Tim earns around $27 an hour.
Then there’s art and culture. Old Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City) wasn’t known as “the Paris of the East” for nothing. The sense of style and fashion that earned the city that moniker still remains. Just pop into any of the internationally renowned galleries around town or attend Vietnam Fashion week (held in April every year) to sample it for yourself.
Opportunity abounds in Vietnam, now recognised as one of the world’s best start-up hubs. Bootstrappers and digital nomads flock here for the low cost of living and a massive pool of talented recruits. With that influx of money and ideas, comes better entertainment, accommodation, educational opportunities and networking hubs. The expat community here is flourishing and there’s no better place to experience a fast-developing nation with stars in its eyes.
But Vietnam is not all hustle and bustle. I can still go to the local park in the morning and join with a regular Tai Chi class. People here work hard but still know how to enjoy the essential things in life. Good health, family, friends and, of course, food…
There’s no doubt that Vietnam has some of the best cuisine in the world, whether it be the incomparable street food or ritzy fine dining. I can eat three delicious meals every day for a month and still not repeat a dish—and it won’t cost me more than $10 a day. And if I want to go 5-star, I can wine and dine in fancy restaurants for a fraction of what I used to pay back home.
And if I’m really craving the subtle flavours of Cambodian specialities bo luc lac (sauteed beef and vegies) or fish amok (sweet curry in banana leaves) I don’t have to hop the border. I can easily find it in any number of great restaurants and street stalls dotted around town. In fact, there’s even a whole section of one of the local markets dedicated to Cambodian delicacies.
As for refreshments, we won’t get into the argument of who has the cheapest beer. You can get a decent ale in either country for under a dollar, but Vietnam has embraced the craft beer industry with gusto—a major plus point for my beer aficionado husband. On my last trip to Cambodia I was in Siem Reap, where I could only find a couple of outlets selling craft brews, whereas here in Ho Chi Minh City our favourite bar has over 50 taps to choose from, all originating in Vietnam. Many of them have won awards and are now being exported to other countries in the region and around the world.
Coffee culture is also booming here. You’ll find everything from tiny traditional cafes through to trendy coffee labs, plus a whole string of national and international chains including Gloria Jeans and Starbucks. Coffee is a major part of the Vietnamese lifestyle. Tim and I can take our pick from six excellent cafes by walking just 100 metres around our apartment—and we live in a small block in a quiet lane away from the main business district. Closer to all the action there’s even more choice.
I guess ‘choice’ is the word that comes to mind when I think of Vietnam. Choices in food. Choices in activities. Choices in landscapes. Even climate—while the south has the typical tropical wet and dry season, the north has four distinct seasons and can get snow in the mountains in winter. From seaside retreats to highland escapes, deserts to forests and mystical dreamscapes made up of limestone karsts both on the water and the land… Whatever your dream retirement haven looks like, I’m betting you’ll find it in Vietnam.