Deirdre Appel is an American expat who relocated from New Jersey to Ho Chi Minh City in October 2012 with nothing but a single suitcase. She is now settled in the Vietnamese capital and working as an English teacher. Deidre says that the key to making the most of your expat experience is having an open mind and being ready to explore your new host city.
To learn more about Deidre's adventures in Vietnam check out her blog, Life on the Flipside.
To learn more about expat life in Vietnam explore the Ho Chi Minh City guide.
Q: Where are you originally from?
A: I am originally from New Jersey in the United States.
Q: Where are you living now?
A: Currently I am living in District 1 of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Q: When did you move to Ho Chi Minh City?
A: October 2012
Q: Did you move with a spouse/children?
Q: Why did you move; what do you do?
A: Like many other expats, I am an ESL teacher. When I graduated from university in May 2012 I was eager to find a way to explore and travel the world rather than immediately start a job at home. I took the summer to obtain my CELTA certification, save up some funds, and research where to move. In October, I left for Vietnam to teach English.
About Ho Chi Minh City
Q: What do you enjoy most about your Ho Chi Minh City, how’s the quality of life?
A: I enjoy the constant energy this city holds. Once you are out on the street, it is hard (and possibly a bit dangerous) to not be alert and active. We joke that we are slowly developing a case of ADHD as your attention is stolen by something or someone new every minute. I also love discovering the nooks and crannies of the city that at first glance go unnoticed. It takes some time to break into the city and explore all it has to offer. For example, the city has an awesome café culture. It just takes some effort to uncover all these cool, contemporary spots that are sometimes hidden down alleys or on second floors.
Quality of life is good. You can maintain a pretty active lifestyle if that is what you are searching for. There are plenty of gyms and pools to join. Food seems to be healthy enough. Pollution is manageable; just use a face mask when you drive during rush hour. The worst is to be stuck behind a bus as its fumes pour out onto you.
Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about home?
A: I miss the nature at home. I miss parks, hiking trails and big forests. Ho Chi Minh City does offer several parks and for a city of its size, it does have a fair amount of trees. But even with this, it is hard to escape the perpetual activity and noise of city life there.
Q: Is the Ho Chi Minh City safe? Are there any areas expats should avoid?
A: Ho Chi Minh City is a safe place for expats to live. The main concern for expats living here is petty theft, pickpocketing, and drive-by thefts. These crimes are on the rise and it's common for thieves to utilize their motorbikes when they do it, driving by and snatching your bag, jewelry, phone, or other personal items. It happens to people on their own motorbikes or walking on the street. The best way to avoid this is keeping valuables in your pockets, not walking at night with a large bag, or using your iPhone too openly. It's happened to me before and you can only learn from it. Make sure to watch your bag and phone when walking home at night, especially around tourist areas such as Bui Vien and Pham Ngu Lao.
Q: How would you rate the public transport in Ho Chi Minh City? What are the different options? Do you need to own a car?
A: The main form of public transportation here is the bus. There isn't a metro or subway to get around. The buses are super cheap but using them takes more time. The best way to get around is by motorbike. Ho Chi Minh City has something like 3 million motorbikes for its 6.6 million people. Most expats rent or buy motorbikes while others use xe om, or motorbike taxis. They are the cheapest taxis to use as the car taxis charge much more and take longer, especially in traffic. Set a price with your xe om before to avoid price arguments or haggling once you arrive at your destination. I haven't met an expat who owns a car yet.
Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Vietnam?
A: Fortunately I have never had to experience the healthcare here in Vietnam. Touch wood. I have traveler's insurance but I know some schools, if you are on a full time contract, provide private health insurance.
About living in Ho Chi Minh City
Q: Which are the best places/suburbs to live in Ho Chi Minh City as an expat?
A: In my opinion, as a new expat, I would suggest living in District 1 or 3. They are both centrally located and close by a lot of activity. There are many bars, restaurants, and shops around these areas. They do tend to be more expensive though and a little less authentic to Vietnamese culture. But if you venture out of the very tourist-packed areas in District 1, you will get your share of true Vietnamese life. Many expats who have been here a while prefer to live outside of these areas in places like District 7 as it provides less traffic, less noise, and more open spaces. The commute into city centre will be longer but you gain more as a trade off.
Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in Ho Chi Minch City?
A: Depends on how much you are willing to pay. If you move out of District 1, you will get more for your money. The city offers luxury to basic accommodations. "Room for rent" in guesthouses is also another cheaper option. It all depends on your taste….and budget.
Q: What’s the cost of living compared to home? What is cheap or expensive in particular?
A: Cheap! An alternative to Vietnam was finding work in New York City and prices there are outrageous! Food and drink are extremely affordable as well. You can afford to dine out often on a teacher's salary and save plenty if you chose to cook each meal at home.
Q: What are the locals like in Ho Chi Minh City; do you mix mainly with other expats?
A: The locals here, especially those my age (22 years old), are so friendly! They are so eager to talk to you about where you are from, why you chose Vietnam and what you think about their country. Many want to practice their English with you and it is really easy to make friends with locals if you put the effort in. I've gone out to eat with locals before and each time they have brought me a small gift as appreciation. They're all very kind. The teaching community tends to stick together and hang out with one another but it’s not uncommon for locals to be a part of it.
Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends in Ho Chi Minh City?
A: I'd say so. They are plenty of ways to get involvement with different sports clubs and activities. There is a dodgeball league that meets twice a week. It's a fun way to be active and meet other locals and expats. There are soccer and basketball leagues if getting plastic balls thrown at you isn't your idea of fun. Yoga or dance classes are good too. And the school you work with will also be a great source of meeting other people. A lot of young expats seem to be in similar situations, everyone is open to meeting new people. The expat community is small enough here to keep in touch easily if not cross paths without even trying.
About working in Ho Chi Minh City
Q: Did you have a problem getting a work visa/permit for Vietnam?
A: In order to get a work visa you have to be sponsored. Depending on your school, they will reimburse you for the costs and help you with it. The process is a bit lengthy and you have to have a police clearance from your home country to apply along with other personal documents like a health check clearance and original diploma. Definitely have the police clearance sorted out before you arrive if you're planning to stay long enough to need a work permit. If you've been here for longer than 6 months when you apply, you can get a police clearance from Vietnam.
Q: What’s the economic climate like in the Ho Chi Minh, is there plenty of work?
A: In terms of the English teaching, yes, there is plenty of work to find here. And well paid work, too. There is a high demand for English teachers as Vietnam is an up and coming spot in the ESL world. It is not as sought after as some places such as Thailand but that tends to have its benefits in terms of wages. It is totally possible to move here without a job and begin looking once you arrive. That's what I did and in fact, I would recommend it. It allows you to interview in person, see the school and facilities, meet other teachers, and then make your decision. There are job vacancies posted online but sometimes the best thing to do is to contact schools directly with your CV and inquire about possible positions. If you want a teaching job, you'll find one.
Q: How does the work culture in Vietnam differ from home?
A: The schedule is a lot different from the typical 9 to 5 work schedule at home. If you are working at a language centre, you definitely will be working weekends and evenings. It takes some getting used to as it's basically the opposite of home. If you manage to have a Monday through Friday gig (most likely with public schools) this won't be the case but you may have to endure split shifts. From my experience, the work culture has not been drastically different. There still needs to be a level of professionalism maintained, in both your manner and dress. The work culture will really depend on the school or company you work for. You'll encounter some schools that are much more organized and professional than others.
Q: Did a relocation company help you with your move?
A: No, I came over with my friend and a very large suitcase that we had to lug around hostels until we found our apartment. I'm sure a relocation company would have helped!
Q: Is there any other advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals?
A: Come with an open mind, ready to explore. Remember that life here may be very different from what you are used to so give yourself time to adjust. I most definitely suggest getting a motorbike, sooner rather than later! The city opens up having your own transportation and you really feel a part of life here with one. Make sure to get familiar with the organized chaos that is traffic here, first. And lastly, don't be afraid to experiment with the street food. They are so many amazing new dishes to try and the Vietnamese really pride themselves on it. Life exists as much on the sidewalk as it does inside the house here.
► Interviewed February 2013