Vietnam is quickly becoming the most popular destination in Southeast Asia for digital nomads and expats. The low cost of living plays a major factor, and the deliciously cheap street food helps as well.
Most digital nomads and entrepreneurs prefer to establish a base in Ho Chi Minh City, while expats and retirees prefer locations like Hanoi and Ho An. You will, however, find digital nomads and entrepreneurs in both those locations, but the communities are smaller.
Another reason Southeast Asia is a hotbed of expat life: Short and long-term rentals are generally easy to find. This proves true across the region, from Thailand to Vietnam. When looking for a place to live, it’s a painless process. While Craigslist can be helpful, it is not necessary. Simply choose a neighborhood/district and walk around. You will find plenty of buildings renting rooms or apartments. There are also modern, Westernized condominiums in the larger cities. Similar to other Asian cultures, Vietnam culture if very family/ community-based. Some expats also use the affordable real estate agencies. Unlike in the West, these real estate companies also negotiate rentals and the fee is often minimal, with their fee coming out of the renter’s side of the price.
In addition to the ease of simply getting set up over there, the food and culture is a huge draw. Street food is a fact of life in Southeast Asia, and on a Western budget, it’s very affordable. Note that the local wages are very low—$148 in some cases—and as such, prices are pegged accordingly.
One of the drawbacks for older retirees is the lack of medical infrastructure. Though Ho Chi Minh City has quality hospitals, they are still behind nearby Thailand’s strong medical tourism industry, which guarantees high-quality medical facilities. For retirees with health concerns, this fact is a determining factor in choosing Thailand over Vietnam.
Possibly the most popular destination among expats, Hanoi is home to a large expat community, many of whom are ESL teachers or work for NGOs. Similar to Chiang Mai in Thailand, there are western culture influences in Hanoi, making it easy to find international foods, as well as English-friendly businesses and health services.
Many expats, even those in the south, prefer the vibe in Hanoi. The weather in the winter, however, is quite dreary and the lows are a cold, damp, 50°F (10° C). The city is less trafficky and congested, which many expats prefer to the rapid, chaotic pace of life in Saigon.
One of Vietnam’s largest cities, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), is a go-to destination for young digital nomads, travel bloggers, and budget travelers. While you will find expat families living in the city, there are outnumbered by the digital nomads who covet the city’s cafes and speedy wifi. Popular areas for living are Districts 1 and 3. Other areas are cheaper, and further from the city centre, but if you’re keen to have a large community of expats nearby, you should focus on the two popular districts. Like big cities the world over, you will have access to a large number of expat amenities like expat grocery stores, expat restaurants, gyms, co-working spaces, malls, and a higher tier of housing if you are looking to splurge on a fully kitted apartment.
Hoi An is a sweet town that is both less chaotic but still a very popular tourist destination. For that reason, you’ll find all the needed amenities such as wifi and expat foods, and also a community of digital nomads and expat entrepreneurs. As this small coastal town grows, the retiree community is also growing. Though it’s popular with tourists, expats can live just a bit outside of the city center and have a peaceful life in the rice paddies. It’s small enough that living outside of the city center is still a short, convenient drive or walk into town. The nearby beach also gets a big thumbs up for the quality of life. As a town, you have the quaint, pretty architecture, but still access to a beach and delicious foods. It’s an excellent small-town option if the two big cities don’t quite sound appealing. Being a smaller town, however, you will want to check your apartment’s wifi connection before you rent—while some have fiber optic connections, it can vary wildly.
If you have a beach city in mind, the top spot for expats is the coastal city of Nha Trang. This spot has a long stretch of gorgeous beaches. It’s in southern Vietnam, so the weather is warm year-round but the coastal position makes it cooler than the city. And even more, it has a laid-back vibe that locals and expats love. Although there are some touristy spots, it is far less congested than Hanoi or Saigon, and the tourist-factor ensures that you can find expat amenities.
Da Nang city deserves a mention as it’s a beautiful spot that many expats love. The expat hubs are definitely the two main cities, but the beach-side life elsewhere is very alluring for many expats. There are few digital nomads and entrepreneurs in theses cities; the expats tend toward retirees and families. Da Nang is wealthier than many other Vietnamese cities, and the city is generally clean and quite modern. The weather in Da Nang is a huge selling point for many as it’s more temperate that Nha Trang.
The range of delicious foods is reason enough for many to move to Vietnam. While restaurants exist, it’s really about the street foods. In fact, it’s nigh impossible to avoid street food in Vietnam, especially in cities like Ho Chi Minh where eating street food is a part of everyday life. Navigating the street food scene is overwhelming at first, but this Jodi shares an extensive post covering everything you need to know about eating street food in Saigon. Though she lists regionally southern foods, it’s also useful for street food in the rest of Vietnam, too.
The national dish of Vietnam, Pho (pronounced ‘Fa’) is traditionally made with noodles, beef brisket broth, herbs, and chilies, however, if there are several other versions available that include chicken, tofu, or shellfish. Pho is best enjoyed at a street stall. Vegetarian pho is very difficult to find and you should never assume the broth at a street food stall is vegetarian, even if it’s a tofu dish.
Vietnam is moderately vegetarian-friendly. In general, you can get by with saying chay before ordering. This tells local vendors to direct you to the vegetarian dishes they offer. But the concept of vegetarianism has wiggle room in Asia, and they will often assume you are okay with fish sauces and pastes. If you are vegan, there are options but you will have to work to find them. Happy Cow has an extensive list of restaurants throughout the country, and this is a good guide to traditional foods you can almost always order vegetarian.
Vietnamese food is heavily based on rice and rice flour, making it easy for those suffering from celiac to find foods they can enjoy without becoming sick. Before arriving in Vietnam, download a celiac translation card in Vietnamese to make eating less stressful.