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Expat in Saigon

Vietnam, the land of the Ascending Dragon (check out a map of the country to see why), friendly people and great food. We moved to Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City by politicians and non-fiction books, but no one else) for my husband's work and looked forward to checking out the up-and-coming metropolis. All the reports we had heard about Saigon was that it was the most modern and vibrant city in Vietnam, with the streets being flooded with cafes, bars and breweries in recent years. That sounded awesome to us. Other than that we knew nothing about and no one in the country that we were about to call home for the forseeable future.

 

So what is it like living in Saigon? Read on to discover some of the thoughts and experiences I had while I was located there.​

People

The Vietnamese people are very friendly. They are not shy about coming up and saying hello, even if they don't speak any other words of English. Kids will run up to practise their English skills with you, and parents sometimes encourage their children to converse with you in shops or restaurants. Often when I am out running, local men beside the path shout out to me and wave, loving the fact that a foreigner  is passing by on their streets. Sometimes the locals can be loud and abrupt, which can put you on the back foot momentarily, but usually they are happy to help you in any way they can.

 

Most people over the age of 40 don't speak English, as well as many younger adults who left school early to help out with the family business. Although they can't communicate verbally, they will mime, point, write down numbers, or just pull someone off the street to interpret for them. If you're willing to spend money in their store/restaurant, they will find a way to make it work.

 

Lining up is not a common habit. Coming from a country where we are expected to form a line at counters, bus stops, airports, etc., it's a little frustrating to see people purposefully make their way to the front to be served before you. I have to remember to remain calm and remember that this isn't my country, this is just how they do things here.

The pyjama suit is well and truly in vogue in Vietnam. There is absolutely no shame in wearing a matching top and bottom pyjama set out in public, at any time of day. Floral patterns are popular. I don't know how it started or why it still continues, but it is accepted as regular attire by the locals. I never managed to join in the trend myself, but I'm sure no one would blink twice if I rolled out of bed and walked down the street wearing the same set of clothes. 

 

Haggling in tourist areas is often expected. Prices will be set higher as the store owners know they will be talked down. In some sections of the Ben Thanh market prices are set and there is no wiggle room (signs are posted stating this), but outside of here feel free to drive a hard bargain. And not only in markets - if you are getting clothes custom-made for you (a popular endeavour here), this is another opportunity to strike a deal. After a while you will have an idea of what things should cost and find the best way to negotiate a reasonable price. Just remember you are often bartering over a couple of dollars, so don't take it too seriously.

 

I can't speak for men, but I definitely noticed that Vietnamese women have an obsession with white skin. The range of whitening creams and cosmetics stocking the shelves is extraordinary. It is almost impossible to buy non-whitening deodorant (really, whitening deodorant). On a sunny day women often walk outside with umbrellas. Pants and long sleeves were the norm, even during the hot season. When driving a scooter every inch of their skin is covered up, from their fingertips down to their toes. I stand out as a scooter driver as you can see my arms and legs. I find it funny that the West want to be browner and the East want to be whiter, trying to meet in the middle somewhere.

Public urination. Specifically, male public urination. It's widespread and inescapable. I run along the canal most days, and I don't think there is ever a single run where I don't pass a man peeing through the fence into the water below. Along the street is no different. There's no trying to hide it, no shame, they just pull up on their bikes and go in front of everyone. It probably has something to do with the lack of public toilets around, but I never got on board with this custom.

 

A Vietnamese woman cooking and selling breakfast on the street.

Food

Vietnamese food is fantastic. It's fresh, full of variety, and centred around rice and herbs. There really is something for everyone. The main touristy go-to meals include pho (noodle soup), banh mi (baguette), spring rolls (fresh is best), fried rice and noodles. Every second building on main streets serves food, even if it's from the bottom of someone's house. Street food carts are also abundant, usually only selling one or two dishes that have been prepared that morning or the night before. The best part is it's cheap. Ridiculously cheap. For street food you are looking at $1 a meal. In a local, basic restaurant, perhaps $2. A mid-level restaurant with cleanliness and service may cost up to $5, but even that's a bargain compared to Western countries. Food will definitely not be high on your weekly budget allocation.

 

Vegans and vegetarians are well catered for here. Twice per lunar month some Vietnamese Buddhists convert to a vegan diet, which is great because it means there are loads of vegetarian restaurants around the city. It also means that many of these restaurants will be overflowing on these days and it can be hard to find a seat, so it's best to avoid them at this time. The local restaurants will usually consist of a room temperature buffet of all sorts of weird and wonderful foods. Mock meats are used heavily. You point to what you want, they pile it up on a plate with rice, and you pay about $1. More and more mid-level and higher end vegetarian restaurants are popping up, as well as food delivery services. You won't be at a loss of places to eat. Look for signs saying "chay" (pronounced "chai", like the tea) and you can't go wrong. But make sure to avoid "chạy" - here you can go wrong. Diacritics are everything.  Also the banh mi bread is usually vegan (compared to the butter/milk/egg-filled sliced crap in the supermarkets), so you can eat all the "banh mi chay" you desire. Check out Happy Cow for an exhaustive list of restaurants. 

 

Supermarkets: most have a vegetarian section, full of dried or canned mock meats. They don't look that appealing, but if it's something you're after you generally won't have any trouble finding it. Tofu and soy milk are extremely popular, but don't expect to find vegan yoghurt, ice cream, bread, frozen meals (except spring rolls), burgers, hummus, or a range of other common foods in regular supermarkets. There are a couple of specialty stores and online shops that offer these products at high prices. I just learned to live without them. 

 

If you are gluten-free than you are in luck, as most meals are based on rice or rice noodles. Just avoid the bread/banh mi and you'll be fine. Lactose-free can do pretty well also, as milk is not common except in coffee. If you are trying to avoid sugar you may be in trouble. Sugar is in EVERYTHING. Even when you ask for no sugar there is sometimes still sugar in it. Juices and hot drinks are the common sources, but also condiments, bread, dry biscuits, and most cooked foods (for non-sugary, buttery bread, again go for banh mi). Wholemeal/wholegrain is almost non-existent here.

 

While every second storefront is some sort of eatery, every other building is a cafe, serving mostly Vietnamese coffee and sweet milk tea. It's not as easy to find an espresso or latte as you might think, let alone a decent one, so if you happen to come across a cup that you can tolerate, mark it on your map. 

 

On the table of many restaurants, food stalls and markets, you may be given a single-use packaged napkin. These aren't free. I don't think I've ever visited a country where you have to pay to wipe your hands after a meal, but here in Saigon it's a common occurrence. In these places there are no free napkins, so you have the choice of being extremely environmentally unfriendly and ripping into the plastic, or just cleaning your hands on your pants and saving yourself 2000 dong. If you see a large pile of paper napkins in the middle of the table, not wrapped up, these are complimentary. Help yourself. 

 

Bun cha gio = noodles with spring rolls.

Buffet with banh xeo (pancake).

Fresh spring rolls.

Daily life

I have often found that there are some locals who love to see foreigners walking around their city, particularly outside the main tourist drag. Almost daily I will be greeted by Vietnamese people I have never met before. Kids especially love saying hi, and possibly asking what your name is. Older men hanging out on the footpath will shout hello as you pass, waving their arm wildly so you don't miss them. This may be the only English they know (although one man did wish me Happy New Year - in May). Just smile and return the greeting - you might just make their day.

 

Footpaths, if present, are not for pedestrians. They are scooter lanes, scooter parking spots, or places to set out a few plastic stools and sit around with friends and food. They are definitely not for walking. If you do happen to find a spare patch of unclaimed path, take care on the tiles - chances are several will wobble under your foot, sending a burst of murky water that will invariably land inside your shoe. Between dodging the bikes, the stools and the teetering tiles, you can see why no one walks anywhere in Saigon. If a scooter driver sees you walking they often ask if you want a ride (for a fee), as obviously you are crazy to attempt a stroll along the streets.

 

Pedestrian lights at intersections are not at all pedestrian-friendly. They change quicker than the traffic lights, meaning you can be halfway across a four lane road when, without warning, the little man turns from green to red at the same time the car lights turn from red to green. No blinking, no sign, just go. The cars and scooters won't care that you have zero time to make it to the other side. You will get honked and then they will fly around you, expecting you to stand in the middle of the street until the lights change again. Just a few seconds of flashing before turning red would be nice. 

 

Toilets. It's important to know the toilet situation in any country you go to. Despite Asia being the home of squat toilets, they rarely exist in Vietnam. 99% of the time you will find a sit-downable Western toilet waiting for you. That's the good news. The bad news is that public toilets are few and far between. Shopping centres fine, restaurants fine, major tourist attractions fine, but anywhere else? Highly unlikely. Make sure you plan ahead.

 

One of the regrettable sides of Saigon is the wave of phone and bag thefts that occurs on a daily basis. Main tourist and expat areas are the usu targets, and it's not uncommon to see frequent reports on Facebook expat sites about another victim. The perpetrators are often on scooters, and will target people walking along the street or even on another scooter. If they see a phone in your hand or a bag hanging off your shoulder and they can get close enough to you, they will go for it. For some people the automatic reaction is to hold on to your property tightly, but this usually results in people being dragged along the ground and the assailants speed away. The golden rule is to just let go so you don't give yourself a permanent injury, or worse. Phones, bags, money can all be replaced. Prevention is always the key, so have some awareness of your surroundings - don't walk close to the road if you can help it, keep your phone out of sight and have your bag draped across your body tightly. 

 

Always always always try on clothing before you buy it. Most people do this in their home country anyway, but in Vietnam the sizes are completely different even to other Asian countries. In Thailand I was generally the same size as I was in Australia. In Vietnam I could go up one, two or even three sizes. There's no standard. Also finding plus-sized clothes may be a little difficult, but it's around if you look hard enough. 

 

A concern or respect for the environment hasn't hit Vietnam like it has other countries. Recycling is almost non-existent. Plastic bags and straws are given out by the truckload. The rivers and canals are polluted, and every day a boat comes through to collect as much waste as possible. Littering is commonplace, with people young and old carelessly throwing their rubbish onto the street or into the water, believing that someone else will pick up after them. Several times I saw people walk down to the canal and toss a plastic bag full of garbage into the water, or pour liquid run-off from their cooking the day before. Public bins are rare. There is no nationwide campaign to reduce waste or recycle materials, and it's not in their mindset that they can make a difference. A few restaurants and businesses are getting on board, but it will be decades before they catch up to the West.

 

Joining in a trail race or going for a hike will show you just how bad the littering problem is. Every small village you pass through will be lined with rubbish that has obviously been there for years. And the problem is still continuing today. On one trail run I competed in, runner after runner had dropped their gel and food packets and all along the course. I didn't need route markers to find my way - I just looked down at the ground and followed the litter lining the path. It was really sad to see. 

 

Street market.

Setting up

Looking for a house to rent is pretty much like it is in most countries. There are various websites you can peruse, usually found with a Google search. Just contact the agent to set up a time to view a property (you are far more likely to get a response from an SMS/Whatsapp message than an email). If you don't like it, the agent will find other places meeting your criteria. Look at several properties to get an idea of what's available. There are no agent fees. You can do a little negotiating with agents/landlords but don't expect miracles. We couldn't drop the rent but we did arrange to get an air conditioner installed in the living room and all furniture and kitchenware was included. Rent will often cover cleaning of the property, which for us also included laundry, and we didn't have to pay extra for Wi-Fi or water (except drinking water). Overall, renting here is a bargain.

 

Setting up a bank account is a headache, as each bank has different rules and regulations that seem to vary day to day. Generally you need a work contract plus minimum deposit, but on occasions you can get away without these. The upside is you can open a dual currency account that accepts both Vietnamese dong and US dollar. This is great for when you leave the country, as dong is useless outside of Vietnam. The downside in Vietnam is that you cannot deposit foreign currency cash into your account without some form of customs declaration stating where the money has come from. Often they will only accept deposits from your employer, as they need a "paper trail". So if you bought a ton of cash with you into the country, make sure you declare it at the border. If you're self-employed and get paid in cash, invest in a safe. 

 

Mobile phone companies: Viettel, Vinaphone and Mobiphone are the most popular. They have great coverage in the cities, but if you'll be going rural regularly maybe check which has the better coverage where you will be. SIM cards can be bought on the street, and generally everything is organised online. I didn't need to show my passport or ID to buy a SIM card or to sign up for a plan. I chose a ridiculously cheap prepaid plan at a whopping US $2.50 per month, which included 2 GB of data plus calls/texts. I don't use my phone that much so I never went over the cap. I love how cheap this country is. 

 

Finding jobs. If you have a job before you come, great. You can negotiate relocation costs with your employer and they can help you bring in all your luggage, furniture, etc. If you turn up on a tourist visa looking for a job, don't expect something straight away unless you're a teacher. It took me a couple of months to find work, and I was lucky that my husband landed his position before we arrived. Jobs are like houses: Google is your best bet. Facebook expat sites and word of mouth are often good sources. 

 

Work permits are a joke. As is standard in many countries you must show your qualifications, but these must match exactly what your contract states as your position title. Not that you can't do the job, you just have to pay almost twice as much for the work permit. I have an undergraduate degree in science, but this wasn't deemed suitable enough for me to be working as a science tutor as I didn't have a teaching certificate. Then you have to get a police check, which takes about a month to come through, plus the world's worst medical check-up. It will take most of the day, it will cost you a fortune and they honestly couldn't tell you if you have anything wrong with you. You will go around from room to room in a hospital, where different specialists will "assess" you to see if you have anything that prevents you from doing your job. In the skin room the doctor looked at my hands and signed me off. In the orthopaedic room I had to stand up and sit down. Even the blood test came back with a few results outside the normal range but the doctor didn't take a second look at it. I could have been dying and they would have said I was fine. Once all that is done it takes another month to get the actual work permit. You can work without it, but you are taxed at a higher rate. 

 

If you are considering shipping over household goods, there is a bit of a process involved. Firstly, make sure you pick up an immigration card at the airport when you arrive. Fill it out and have it stamped. If you forget it, you have to leave the country and come back to grab the card. There are a bunch of other forms to fill out that the shipping company will have for you, but the real pain in the ass is that you can't import your goods without a work permit, and as described above, this takes a couple of months. So don't ship anything you need straight away. Once you can finally receive your belongings, the government will then charge you a 40-70% duty based on their perceived value of your shipment. This varies based on the whim of the immigration officer. It's a bit of a kick in the guts to receive that bill. 

 

Some of the nicer apartments in the city.

Getting around

Just get a scooter. Don't think about it, don't try to weigh up the pros and cons, bite the bullet and purchase one. It's helpful if you know someone who speaks Vietnamese to go with you when you buy the scooter, but if not you can still haggle a little. It is so much easier to get around, the freedom is fantastic, every building in the city caters for scooter parking, and it's cheap.  Most expats will be concerned by the craziness of Saigon traffic. And they're right, it is completely different to Western countries. But once you're in it, you'll find it's not as bad as it looks. Everyone drives incredibly slow - if I made it up to 50 km/h I felt like I was flying. In Australia in a car, I felt like a snail at this speed. There's also the plus side of very few road rules (well, the enforcement of road rules anyway). The lack of indicating, the absence of sticking to lanes and the notion of "go with the flow" means everyone moves seamlessly as one giant organism. If someone cuts in front of you, no problem, just move over a little and you'll have space again.

 

Expect the occasional low impact bump into another scooter. I've seen minor accidents where three or four scooters end up on their sides, along with a gigantic load that one scooter is invariably carrying. Everyone jumps straight up, dusts themselves off, helps to restack the cargo on the appropriate bike and goes on their way. No shouting, no blame, no insurance. It's a pleasant change.

 

When driving a scooter don't worry about what's happening next to you or behind you, concentrate on what's going on in front of you. There will constantly be scooters coming at you from the wrong directions, people crossing the street, slow-moving carts making their way across four lanes of traffic, bumps and drains in the road, possibly the remnants of a broken helmet or someone's shoe, vehicles coming out from side streets without looking, left hand turns from the right lane, cars and scooters zooming through red lights - anything can come from anywhere. Expect the unexpected.

 

Try not to be distracted by what people are carrying on the back of their scooter. I have seen fridges, five mattresses piled up high, a dozen gas bottles, two metre high panes of glass or wooden frames, animals, toddlers sitting on stools between the driver's legs - the list is endless. It's hard not to look but don't let this divert your attention away from everything that's going on in front of you.

 

Rain is a bitch. Always, always, always have a poncho stored in the bike seat for wet days (which is pretty much every day for the six months of rainy season). Drive slow.

 

If you are pulled over by the police they may ask to see your Vietnamese driver's licence. Most foreigners won't have one, although they are relatively easy to obtain. If you don't have one they may ask you to come to the station. The best thing to do here is to enquire whether there is a "fine" you could pay. They will pull a random number out of their head, possibly based on how wealthy you look. Pay it and be on your way. 

 

There are no trains in Saigon. Yet. It's coming, you can see evidence of it everywhere. But without trains, that leaves buses. Local buses. They go everywhere and are crazy cheap, but don't expect English-speaking staff to assist you in getting around. That's where the incredible BusMap app comes in handy. You can find all bus routes that go past a particular point on a map, all the stops on that route and how long until the next bus arrives. It's fantastic. If you're strapped for cash but need to get around, this is the way to do it. Note that bus drivers hate stopping, so you may have to jump on or off a moving bus.  

 

Taxis are relatively cheap and the city isn't that big. Just make sure they use the meter and get the sedans rather than the big 7 seaters. Show them on a map where you want to go, or have the address written down in Vietnamese. Easy.

 

Grab is your other choice, for both scooter and car. Download the app, sign in and you are ready to go. They are cheaper than taxis and generally arrive within 5-10 minutes of booking (unless it's raining. Don't expect much when it's raining). Scooters always carry a spare helmet and car drivers willingly jump out of their seat to assist you with any luggage you might have. The main reasons I love Grab are that I don't have to worry about any language barriers, as my destination has been sent to the driver already, and I can't be ripped off because the price is set before the driver sees me. If you don't have a scooter, you'll no doubt be using Grab a lot.

 

When most people think of Saigon traffic, they think of the incessant horn-blaring. It's true, they love the horn, but it doesn't take long to tune out to its blast. Horns here are not used in anger or frustration like in Western countries. Nine times out of 10 they are used to warn people that they are coming through (for both cars and scooters). At first I looked around everywhere when I heard a horn, thinking I must be doing something wrong and feeling panic rise up in my chest that they wanted the ignorant white girl off their streets. Now I don't even blink, I just casually move aside so someone can get past. 

 

Don't even ask me what the rule is at roundabouts. If you can get in, get in. If you can get out at your desired street, well done. 

 

Yep, that's a fridge on the back of the scooter.

Just a typical street in Saigon.

Kids are usually helmet-free.

Keeping Fit

The Vietnamese love being active. Early in the morning you will see see hundreds of them lining the parks and waterways, walking up and down and using the outdoor exercise equipment. A few of the younger people might be running, but the middle-aged and elderly locals won't be outdone. I don't know where they get their moves from but they are extremely entertaining. It's somewhere between low impact aerobics, dancing and cheerleading, and I often wondered whether there was a TV program or popular gym workout everyone was following. Maybe they just copied each other. Whatever the stimulus, they are not afraid to strut their stuff. Big arm movements are a must, and wiggling of the hips is expected. Walking backwards is not uncommon. It's a social affair, with groups getting together to burn a few calories before the temperature rises. Come 8 am, the paths are relatively empty and the work day has started. I was too shy to join in myself but I fully support everyone having an active lifestyle, whatever form this may take.

 

Runners are going to struggle in Saigon, unless you love treadmills (ugh) or you are happy to repeat the same, flat, paved circuit day after day. As a trail runner, this made life tough. There are no dedicated running paths - actually there aren't many paths full stop. Choices were mostly limited to: 1-2 km loops around tiny parks; the canal (up to 15 km for the circuit but numerous road crossings); a 5 km loop around Thao Dien (on relatively quiet roads); or athletics tracks. It wasn't ideal.

 

Don't even think of getting hill training in. I had to resort to stairs in apartment buildings, or running back and forth over road bridges. My local bridge had a 3% incline for 400 metres, followed by 50 metres flat and then 400 metres down. I did a marathon back and forth over this bridge one day and I still didn't make 600 metres of elevation. The other option is to take a trip down to Dinh Mountain, about 1.5 hours south of Saigon. There are a few routes coursing up and down the hill, with the option of road or trail. This place was a lifesaver. 

 

If you're looking for running groups a quick Facebook search will give you a few options. There are several that regularly meet in the city, although some only post information in Vietnamese. Runs often occur in different locations in Saigon on different days, so you should be able to find something near you. 

 

Races are few and far between compared to some other Asian countries. Each major city has a popular annual marathon festival, and you might find a couple of shorter charity runs advertised here and there. I can count on one hand how many trail events there are throughout the entire country. It's slowly increasing, but it's not quite yet up to the level of its neighbours. That said, the trail races are beautiful, easily offering some of the best scenery I have seen in a race. They're not all easy to get to but definitely check them out if you get the chance.

 

Cyclists similarly won't find any cycling lanes and will have to fight for space on the roads. Several cycling clubs organise rides out of the city on weekends, where the traffic quickly disappears and the road surfaces aren't too bad. There are few, if any, road cycling races, and maybe 1-2 mountain biking races each year. Triathletes have the Ironman 70.3 Danang and the Challenge Vietnam Nha Trang as their main (and probably only) events to focus on. 

 

Swimmers have a wide choice, ranging from cheap outdoor pools to fully equipped indoor pools. Some pools have specific sessions in which you can use the facilities, and you won't be allowed access outside of these limited times. 

 

Expensive Western-style gyms are plentiful and contain all the equipment and classes you would be used to. Some also have ice baths and sauna/steam rooms. If you don't want to spend that much, smaller, no-frills gyms are everywhere. These range in size and quality, but for the low cost you really can't complain. The major downside is that they are often open-air, with fans the only cooling measure in place. For some reason I can handle running outside in the heat and humidity, but the idea of doing a strength workout in the same conditions has me running in the opposite direction. If you can handle it, go for it. It's unlikely that English will be spoken in these gyms. Also they may close for a few hours in the middle of the day.

 

Morning runs along the canal.

Vietnam Mountain Marathon in Sapa.

Lning up for the HCMC Marathon.

Celebrations

The major celebration in Vietnam is Tet, or Vietnamese New Year (which coincides with Chinese New Year). There are special foods, distinctive decorations and specific customs that I never fully comprehended but you pick up parts of it. All the streets are lined with millions of flowers, ornaments, gift baskets and painted watermelons in the weeks leading up to Tet - you would have to be blind or living under a rock not to notice the hype. The giving of presents or money is expected, but we really didn't have any idea what to get or how much to spend. In the end we bought a large gift hamper for our landlord and gave the popular red envelopes with cash inside to our cleaners. A six-day long holiday is observed, disrupting schools, shops and most businesses as the Vietnamese spend time with their families. My major piece of advice would be to stock up before Tet starts. If you can even find a store open during Tet, prices are inflated to ridiculous prices. Many restaurants are closed (except high-end hotel restaurants), so be prepared to eat most of your meals at home. I remember trying to buy a bunch of bananas that would usually cost me 20-25,000 dong. During Tet: 70,000. Gambling is a cultural tradition, with both men and women throwing their money away playing some card game I never understood. The great thing about Tet is that the city is completely empty. I can walk down a main street and not see a car for five minutes. No traffic, no trying to avoid lawless motorists as a pedestrian, no fighting through crowds. It's a little eerie, like there's a plague spreading through the city but no one has told me, but overall I liked the temporary peace and quiet. 

 

Western New Year is also celebrated, although it is nowhere near as significant. Fireworks will go off at midnight, so heading to a rooftop bar is a good option. Many restaurants will have some sort function or party that you can join for an exorbitant fee. Happy New Years signs flood the city, and usually stay up until Tet has finished. New Year's Day is a holiday, so feel free to go hard. 

 

Christmas is just another work day here, where life goes on as normal. Numerous shops and restaurants will decorate their windows and displays with Merry Christmas signs, trees and tinsel, and you might hear Christmas carols in one or two stores. A few restaurants offer a Christmas meal, which are aimed at expats, tourists or the minority Christian population. It will probably become more popular over time as people find ways to make money out of it, but it will always be a novelty rather than a religious experience for the Vietnamese.

 

Easter is almost non-existent. A couple of the Western supermarkets will sell Easter eggs - I even managed to spot two brands of vegan Easter eggs (and only two brands of non-vegan eggs). International school will do a couple of token Easter activities, and that's all you will hear about Easter. 

 

Don't bother with Vietnamese weddings. They are purely money making schemes with zero fun to be had. Just buy some drinks at the store and stay home - you'll have a much better time. 

 

Painted watermelons.

Chúc Mừng Năm Mới = Happy New Year.

Weather

Winter is fantastic. Three months (December to February) of temps in the high 20s, zero rain, low humidity. There may even be a day or two in the low 20s, causing you to grab out your thick coats as it feels like Antarctica. Outdoor exercise is possible and almost pleasant. But there is a downside: the pollution. Pollution is always bad in Saigon, but without the rains the haze builds up to a point where you can't see more than a couple of hundred metres away. This puts a hole in the exercising statement. There were a few weeks there where I was gasping on my runs when it should have been easy, where my eyes and throat would sting even after I headed indoors. Unless you took a break from working out or travelled outside of Vietnam, the only other option was to head to an indoor gym. Treadmill sessions are not my idea of fun.

 

After winter comes the worst time of year: hot season. For another three months (March to May) the temperature gets up to mid- to high 30s, but it's the humidity that's a killer. Going from the cool air of winter to the unbearable wall of heat in hot season is like a big sweaty slap in the face. Suddenly walking 200 metres to the nearest convenience store is a major chore, and your clothes are soaked through within minutes. The locals still wear jeans and hoodies at this time of year. I have no idea how. 

 

Following hot season comes wet season. I'm not sure which I despise more. The humidity decreases but six months of near daily rain doesn't reduce how wet I am at the end of the day. Rain will usually fall mid- to late-afternoon, right when I am either going to work or coming home from work. The roads are flooded, driving is reduced to about 20 km/h and the rain feels like needles are hitting me in the face over and over again. My shoes are constantly wet, the poncho is always hanging up to dry and my umbrella is more of an essential item in my handbag than my phone. Running is always done in the morning to avoid the slippery tiles on the footpath and the ankle- to knee-deep water on the roads. Overall, it sucks.

 

Sunny days in Saigon.

Language

So, so hard. Tones are extremely important in the Vietnamese language, and different dialects have a different number of tones. Even when you are 100% certain you are pronouncing a word accurately with the correct tone, you get a blank stare. Vietnamese people don't expect you to try to speak their language, so they often make no effort to understand you. I had to pull out Google Translate on a number of occasions.

 

To make things even more confusing, Northern, Central and Southern Vietnam have slightly different dialects. I once heard it described as, "If they sound like buzzing bees, they are from the north". It's true. And it's not only speech sounds that differ, vocabulary and grammar also vary. They really don't want to make it easy for you.

 

I met several long-term expats who had picked up the language and said it wasn't too hard to learn. I'm ashamed to say I didn't try too hard - I learned greetings, thank you, numbers and a few foods. That was enough for me to get by in many situations. English is becoming more and more popular, but having a few Vietnamese phrases under your belt can get you a long way. 

 

I was thankful that the written language was based on the Latin alphabet, making it easier to learn words compared to Thailand. This came in handy in supermarkets when I was reading food labels, checking to see if the product had any ingredients I wanted to avoid, and in restaurants. I wasn't able to do this when living in Bangkok, and couldn't even use Google Translate to help me there, so grocery shopping in Saigon was a much more pleasant experience.