cost of living

Hackation. That's what people are calling hackathons (sponsored hackathons!) away from home. It could be in NYC, Bali, Berlin. But a lot of people are moving to the Bay Area or quitting their good-paying jobs in the Bay Area and sticking around and building their startup product from there. There are a lot of good reasons to be near Silicon Valley when you're a tech startup. Access to capital, a local consumer market who's up for and used to using experimental products.

But not every product needs to be developed in Silicon Valley. Not everybody needs to submit themselves to the pumped up rental prices there right now. Not every product person needs to be in the echo chamber of tech startup talk. Not everyone needs to live in a van just so they can afford to bootstrap in the Bay.

Haters gonna hate. Hackers need to hack.

Why Vietnam?

Vietnam? Isn't there like a war going on there? Answer: No. But due to nearly two decades of disastrous economic mismanagement by the government the country, and its remaining people (those that didn't risk their lives to escape on boats), remained in a post-war stupor until the turn of the millenium when things really started turning around economically due to open market reforms culminating in entrance to the WTO. Today, Vietnam's economic capital Ho Chi Minh City (which you may call Saigon) has a sheen of modernity to it. Western fast food chains like KFC and Pizza Hut abound. Downtown Saigon is full of new shopping malls and department stores - great for window-shopping. Young people increasingly choose between carrying iPhones or Samsungs, although Nokia still dominates. Traffic, once dominated by bicycles and rickshaws, is now completely gas-powered - but mostly scooters, not cars. Wifi is freely available and 3G internet can be had for $2/month. Of course, underneath it all is a missing public transit network, lack of public safety controls, regular brownouts, streets that flood due to poor urban planning and rapid development, an Internet that is reliant on a handful of undersea cables, and a currency that is subject to periodic devaluations. For the Vietnamese citizenry all is not rose-colored.

Low cost == Longer runway.

For foreigners though, late economic development, a huge population of underemployed people, cooling foreign direct investment sentiment, and a perenially weak currency means cheap guesthouses vie for customers, beers cost from 1 to 4 bottles per dollar, and a hacker can hack it in this country for $10-$20 a day. Are you consisting on ramen? Living in your car? Or otherwise roughing it to save money for your startup? Maybe I can convince you to reweigh your options.

Incubators, events, community

Vietnam is not particularly good at a lot of things. It's also not an Asian Silicon Valley - that's a title Singapore is trying way too hard to earn. There's no Y Combinator (okay, there was a V Combinator....) and no Google or Facebook. But we do have a scrappy and growing community of tech entrepreneurs. We have programs like Topica Founders Institute, shared work spaces like the Start Network, incubators like Officience, mLabs in the Saigon High Tech Park, annual events like Startup Weekend Ho Chi Minh and BarCamp Saigon, and smaller events like Start Me Up and Mobile Mondays.

It's not a lot but it may give you just enough sense of community to concentrate on building your own damn product. You won't overhear product pitches at every cafe (of which there's an order of magnitude way more of in Saigon than anywhere in the States).

But once you do need to hire help you will be able to do it affordably, whether for software development, testing, usability, marketing, research... While you're here, take advantage of the fact you don't have to pay Silicon Valley salaries.

Link to Silicon Valley

With all that said, there are a lot of reverse refugees from the Bay Area now living in Vietnam. After the Vietnam War (referred to here as the American War) ended and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, especially the educated and merchant classes, fled the new government, many of them wound up living in San Francisco and then San Jose. Others ended up in Orange County, Dallas, Houston, and other parts of the world. But today, a huge population of Vietnamese-Americans lives and works in Silicon Valley. Now that business opportunities are better in Vietnam, many experienced technology workers have returned to their birthplace to start companies. And so, thanks to their experience, today a large software industry exists in Vietnam. And many non-Vietnamese have come to join them. Maybe you'd like to be one of them?

Anyways, it may seem like a crazy idea at first. Moving to a foreign country and all. But if you're young, single, a bit adventurous, and determined to strike out on your own - or already have and are now ramen-profitable - then consider the costs: $1200 for cheap-ish rent in the Bay Area, buys you a round trip ticket from SFO to SGN. And every month of rent thereafter buys you two whole months of living nicely (all expenses) in Saigon. If you have a couple thousand bucks in the bank you can easily triple or quadruple the length of your runway by spending the time in Vietnam.

Who the heck would retire in the Bay Area? Retire to Vietnam instead.

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.

Expat community

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?

Last week I was interviewed by Sketch Magazine, a monthly publication for Vietnam's Japanese community.  So the September issue will feature a little something of my thoughts on living in Vietnam from a foreigner or Viet Kieu perspective.

One question that came up was: How did I end up in Vietnam? And why?

This is a question that's pretty commonly asked in the expat community.  Nobody chooses where they were born but we expats all had some say in the foreign country we moved to.  I traveled around North America, Europe, Asia, and some of Latin America before deciding I wanted to live somewhere in Southeast Asia, finally settling on Ho Chi Minh City.  

When I ask others how they ended up here I get a variety of answers.  You could split them into "planned" and "accidently".  Those who ended up here accidently stayed because of: 

  • a girl (often now an ex-)
  • came on holiday and became addicted to cheap beer
  • came for school and decided to stay (a lot of Germans, Koreans, and Australians)

Others come here due to Vietnamese blood relations, and some come specifically for the business opportunities.  And then there are the true expats, the ones who were sent here or came to work for a specific job.  Traditionally, they would get a fat expat compensation package with housing allowances (thus driving up housing costs for all) and other perks, but this is changing.

So what do those expats who didn't come here with a job in hand already do? 

1. Freelance.  With Vietnam connected to the world via internet (barely, sometimes), many of us with creative skills such as programming or writing can continue to work for clients back home.  Due to the much lower cost of living compared to Western countries, one doesn't need to work as many hours or maintain as many clients as before.

2. Find a job.  This is a bit harder since there may not be the breadth of positions available to match your specific work experience.  Having a PhD in some applied science may be worthless here.  Nobody may have heard of the university you thought was famous.  But most people I know eventually get a real job here (ignoring survivorship bias).

3. Make your own job.  This could be by starting a company, something which is within the reach of most foreigners here, whereas it would have been a highly risky use of savings back home.  Others shop their skillset around to companies who might not have had a position open if you can make them realize you are the solution they just weren't looking for.

4. Teach English.  This is what people do while they are in the process of #2 or #3.  Some people do this for years.  Teaching English in Vietnam is the easiest way to make decent money in Vietnam, assuming you're from the US, the UK, Canada, or Australia/New Zealand (but they also hire good English speakers from the Philippines, Europe, and other countries).  Teachers are in high demand and salaries are often more than you'd make back home.  Teachers don't even need high school degrees, much less college degrees.  Some English teachers find a school before coming here, but it's absolutely not necessary.  The situation is similar in neighboring countries like Cambodia and Thailand.  But with low cost of living and high salaries, Vietnam is probably one of the best countries to come and teach English in.

That covers the where, the what, and the why.  But how?  It used to be quite easy for most Westerners to stay in Vietnam on a 6-month business visa without actually having any business here.  They've since cracked down a bit but it's still possible and quite common to stay on a 3-month tourist visa renewed multiple times.  The laws on the book (not so much in practice) are always changing though, so more on that next time.

UPDATE April 29, 2012! If you have a question about moving to Vietnam, working in Vietnam, or otherwise related to being a Vietnamese expat, please write your question on the forum instead.

UPDATE July 17, 2012! Follow-up article Finding affordable housing in Vietnam - How much should it cost? has been posted

So there's been a lot of chatter in the Saigon twitter community lately about the average income of Ho Chi Minh City and whether $600/month can get you a decent middle-class lifestyle here.

This is what it costs to live in Saigon, Vietnam's (and all of French Indochina's) largest, busiest city and commercial center:

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