Should an American Retire in Vietnam or Southeast Asia?
The world is flat. Globalization means it's possible to get customer service from India on products made in China sold in America. But it also means you can move your wealth and yourself from high cost geographical areas to ones where labor is cheap as is the cost of living.
People are more hesitant to move to another country when they have bills to pay and they need to worry about finding a good job abroad. For retirees, a country's job market has much less value. For a retiree, it makes sense to live someplace where wages are low, opposite to the rest of the working population. American retirees are increasingly retiring abroad.
Typical foreign countries for Americans to retire to are in Spain and Latin America as well as France, although France and the rest of Old Europe are quite expensive due to the weak dollar relative to the euro. Some Latin American countries like El Salvador use the US dollar, others like Belize, peg their currencies to the dollar.
The more adventurous Americans consider retiring to Asia, especially cheap Southeast Asia. Only the wealthy consider retiring (and denouncing their American citizenship for tax purposes!) to Singapore. But the Philippines is a popular country for retirees, especially American war veterans. But why not Vietnam?
Cost of living in Vietnam is cheap. That blog post tells you all you need to know about the cost of living in Saigon. The most expensive part of Vietnam (or most of Southeast Asia) is the plane ticket there and if you're planning to stay long term, with few and infrequent trips back to North America then you could live in Saigon or Hanoi for $600/month or spend double that and live two lives. I will tell you what you need to know to find cheap housing in Vietnam. Inflation, out of control for many years, is now back to single digits. You can argue that other poor countries are cheap to live in as well, but Ho Chi Minh City is pretty inexpensive for a "city" and there are always small towns in the countryside (or Mekong Delta) which are an order of magnitude cheaper.
Vietnam doesn't have the best hospitals in the region but quality of healthcare is improving with newer international hospitals such as FV (Franco-Viet) Hospital. Nonetheless, healthcare is still an issue. Cost of healthcare is extremely cheap. Prescription medicines are usually generic and cost nickels. You can buy pills by the pill. Medical procedures without medical insurance are affordable. For more serious hospital needs many expats fly to Bangkok, which is a 1 hour and often under $100 flight away. However, most medical care and procedures can be done in Vietnamese hospitals now. But this is a concern for expats in all developing Southeast Asian countries. Vietnam itself is even a medical tourism receiving destination for people in Cambodia.
Things to do
Vietnam has islands, beaches, 2.5 major cities, an incredible variety of unique cafes. But perhaps more importantly, beer and liquor are really cheap. (Vietnam is neither a religiously conservative Muslim country nor a nanny state.) Bottles of popular beer are around 75 cents/ea. Pirated DVDs are $0.50/ea, and cable TV, which has American movie channels like HBO and Cinemax as well as foreign service channels from countries like Japan, Korea, Singapore, France, and Germany, is maybe $5/month. I hear it now costs an average of $23 to watch a movie in Japan. In Saigon, movie theaters are 10-15% of that cost! Watching traffic in Ho Chi Minh City from a sidewalk cafe is free, or the cost of a 50 cent coffee. Vietnam's a very foreign country - you'll find something interesting to do.
You won't be alone, although you may be forced to rub elbows with Australians, Kiwis, Canadians, British, and other people from all over the world. You may even meet some Vietnamese people. There are a number of American-owned restaurants and bars and plenty more which serve "American" food like pizza, burgers, and tacos. Americans gather to celebrate the 4th of July and Thanksgiving where turkey is available at some restaurants and hotels in Saigon. There is also a Burger King at Tan Son Nhat Airport, Domino's delivery all over Ho Chi Minh City, and KFC's on nearly every corner.
Vietnam also has the benefit of not having of not having the reputation of being a sex tourism destination like Thailand, Cambodia, or the Philippines. You won't have to convince family and friends back home that you're not just here to buy sex.
English is not one of Vietnam's or most of Asia's strong points, although Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines have the highest percentage of decent English speakers. However, thousands of Americans and Europeans live and work in Vietnam without speaking even basic conversational Vietnamese. I would recommend learning some Vietnamese but it's not at all necessary. Vietnamese language lessons start from $2.50 an hour. On the other hand, English teachers are in huge demand in Vietnam. You can retire in Vietnam and make $15/hour or more teaching English on the side.
Some countries around the world have retirement visas. For example, Malaysia and the Philippines both have special visas for retirees. Vietnam doesn't have one but it's easy for a retiree from the US or other Western countries to live in Vietnam indefinitely as a tourist. The cost is about $25/month until you marry a Vietnamese girl. Vietnam C2 tourist visas can be renewed indefinitely. You could also set up a business in Vietnam and get a business visa. "Set up a business."
Even within the States, Americans are preferring to retire in warmer climates - Florida, Arizona, Nevada. Vietnam has both tropical weather in the south and four seasons in the north. The temperature is warm all year round in Saigon whereas Hanoi's winters dip into the 50s, and it's not unheard of for it to actually snow in Sapa. I prefer warm to cold, but sometimes Saigon does get too hot.
Vietnam is culturally and historically a Buddhist country. According to government statistics though it's more atheist in its beliefs. But, significantly, some 1/10th of the country is Christian and there are churches everywhere. Unlike Indonesia, belonging to an organized religion is not legally required here.
Which is not to say that Vietnam is Shangri La for retiring expats but for the slightly adventurous who can stand to be away from "home" for many months at a time, who enjoy warmer weather, who appreciate value when it comes to money and don't want to sink their savings into a "retirement visa account", and who prefer being able to drink and eat as much as they want - then why not ask other expats why Vietnam isn't the place to retire?
- Working in Ho Chi Minh City (or any city in Southeast Asia)
- Cost-of-Living in Vietnam: It's Really Cheap
- Bootstrap Abroad - Cheaply Bootstrap Your Startup from Vietnam
- Medical tourism to and from Vietnam: Which hospitals should an expat in Vietnam go to for treatment?
- Software Outsourcing to Vietnam: A Major Challenge