Cost-of-Living in Vietnam: It's Really Cheap
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:
For about $200 a month I get a two-story house split into four rooms (plus bathroom) where I live and work. It's not downtown but I can get there in five minutes flat (I've timed it). I've paid less for accommodations but most foreigners pay more, while getting less. Any newcomer to Vietnam should first stay in temporary housing until they can find housing that isn't targeted/price/marketed at foreigners, unless you're an ex-pat whose company pays for housing (this is another reason why ex-pat housing prices are inflated).
On the other hand, many local Vietnamese would consider my house extravagant and expensive. But Vietnamese, like their American counterparts, seem to think that homeownership is a God-given right and normally buy instead of rent anyways. Families that establish themselves here will buy a home even if it means living in the suburbs. For me, given how cheap it is to rent versus buy property in the inner city, it makes no sense to buy. In the US it makes more sense because rent is higher compared to house prices. My rent here wouldn't make a dent in a mortgage payment, but then again most Vietnamese don't take out mortgages. They buy their houses in cash, or gold.
Like many developed countries like Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, or most of Europe, car ownership is low here. The government is partly to thank for this because they tax imported cars 100%. Unfortunately, Vietnam's entrance into the WTO will change all that in a few years.
The way to get around in Vietnam is by motorbike. For $800 you can get a brand new Honda that will cost you three dollars to fill up once or twice a week. The streets of Saigon are jampacked with people who can not only afford motorbikes but who can afford fancy ones costing several times as much, up to $10000 after the government made high CC bikes street legal. To get a feel for how large the Vietnamese middle class is, one need only stand by the street and count how many automatic scooters go by.
Alternatively, one can flag one of the numerous taxis clogging the streets for about 50 cents (flag fall) or take a motorbike taxi costing 25 cents for short trips. Bus rides are 10 cents. The city bus takes you as far as the Cambodian border.
So for the price of insurance on a car in the states you can get around pretty economically here.
This is a land where food grows in abundance. So much so that we export to neighboring countries like the Philippines which are in shortage. Food is cheap here.
For $1 you can get a bowl of phở which many people in the North eat for breakfast every day. A set lunch for office workers consisting of a rice dish with meat, some veggies, soup, and some fresh fruit and iced tea will set you back from $1 to $2. Getting a coke or coffee outside could cost you less than 50 cents, the same price as a Vietnamese sandwich. The bread alone, a Frenchi-ie sub-sandwich roll is only 10 cents. Still, many families prefer to save money by cooking at home and shopping at local markets instead of supermarkets. Every person in this city is within walking distance of a market.
A feast with friends outside with a few beers, maybe some seafood, may cost each of you $5. A Heineken is $1. Local beers are cheaper. Homebrewed is even cheaper still, perhaps 10 cents a glass. It's no wonder many foreigners come here and instantly become alcoholics.
P.S. You aren't expected to tip at restaurants.
Cigarettes are not food but they're also cheap. A pack of Marlboros is $1 unless you're the idiot coming up with numbers for Numbeo.com. Local brands are cheaper. You can also buy a single cigarette for a nickel.
Just sitting on the street in Vietnam is entertainment enough. But if you want to escape to the cinema in the afternoon it will cost you $1.50, more if you want to watch Avatar in 3D. A DVD at the shop is 50 cents. And I've always had HBO, Cinemax, and Star Movies at home for free, included in rent.
Taking the bus to the beach will cost you $3. Staying overnight will cost you $10.
Taking a bus into the highlands will cost a few bucks. A bus to Cambodia costs $10. And flights to places like Singapore or Bangkok are about $50 each way.
I'm not a parent but I could easily fit a family of four in my house. I already have maid and laundry service ($36/mo) but in this hypothetical Vietnamese family the mother would stay at home whereas the hypothetical middle-class American mother would be put to work. The kids could go to public school or private school. Private high school in Vietnam averages $90/year and university tuition ranges from $100-$250 or much more for the dumb but wealthy kids.
The middle-class family in Vietnam has choices when getting around, whether by public transportation, private transportation, or hired transportation. They can live in a big city while living in a big home and can spend more time with their children and less time on household duties. They eat well, despite basically starving not many years ago, and have many choices when it comes to protein. And they can choose to send their children to private school, while many of their children even go study abroad. It's not a bad life, really, for $600/month.
And in the smaller cities in Vietnam, life's even cheaper.
UPDATE: Global oil prices have gone up and although the state subsidizes gas prices, they are still higher at the pump compared to before. Still, bus rides on the Saigon Bus are 3000 VND when you buy a 30-ticket book. That means for less than $5 you could ride the bus somewhere every day of the month. Think of it another way: You can ride the bus 7 times for a dollar. So if you take bus transportation into consideration when choosing a place to live you can save considerably.
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. Link to forum: Living and Working in Vietnam