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What’s it like living in Vietnam? A foreigner’s first month in Ho Chi Minh City

What’s it like living in Vietnam? A foreigner’s first month in Ho Chi Minh City

Here I am, here I am. 

Ever since arriving in Saigon about a month ago, I find myself repeating those words.

Here I am, here I am.

I wanted to move to Vietnam ever since graduating from university three years ago. Something about a different experience as I’d grown tired of Tokyo, the city I call home and the city I grew up in. I had a job lined up as an English teacher and all seemed to be going as planned until Covid hit.

I’d waited so long to be in Vietnam that I suppose I expected everything to be easy

My plans, and in some ways, my dream, was put on hold until a month ago when I arrived in Tan Son Nhat Airport and those words first came to me:

Here I am, here I am.

In Vietnam. 

In Saigon.

I stayed at a hotel in Go Vap for the first week. The receptionist, who looked like he could be a boy of thirteen, spoke little English, but he was accommodating and tried his best to understand my questions. 

Where can I get some food?

Is there anything to do around here?

He smiled, a kind smile that showed he had no clue what I was talking about. He’d nod, repeating what I said and we’d do a few rounds of that before I gave up and thanked him.

It wasn’t his fault, anyways – how could it ever be his fault? I was the clueless foreigner, the one who was lost, bumbling English while all the other guests chatted away, out the doors and off to a brand new day. All I could say was Hello and even then I was still embarrassed about my pronunciation.

I’d waited so long to be in Vietnam that I suppose I expected everything to be easy once I’d landed but, of course, things were never going to be that simple.

So, what to do, what to do?

I figured I may as well just walk.

Photo by Hiep Nguyen on Unsplash

Those walks around Go Vap didn’t amount to much, the language barrier proving more of an issue than I’d thought it would. For whatever reason, I had some notion that I’d be able to get around with just English, but I found sign-language and pointing got me further. 

Vietnam, Vietnam, here I was, but how strange it all still felt.

Would I ever figure it out? And if so, when?

I was impatient and eager to escape from the sense of separation trailing me like a shadow. I walked with my hands behind my back while the people in their shops and behind their stalls gave me friendly but distant looks.

All the while, the motorcycles rumbled and the sun drummed a furious beat in the sky, making me sweat, making me stoop, making my head spin and I needed some water, I needed some –

Here I am, here I am…

Fast forward to the end of my first month and I’m now living in an apartment in District 1. Getting it was a bit of a hassle, taking me to back alley house viewings at the end of broken gravel roads all the way to fifth-floor studio flats with balconies letting in all the noise of rush-hour in Saigon.

But I’m here now, I’m here.

In a room on a quiet road with windows looking out onto a house surrounded by plants. An old lady lives there and whenever I pass she smiles and says, Xin-chào, and I smile and return the greeting. 

I’ve also got my own motorbike, and that changed a lot.

Photo by zibik on Unsplash

I remember my first time riding on the back of a Grab bike, that pure sense of nerve and excitement as the driver sped off to join the haphazard stream of traffic. Horns honked as if keeping time with a broken record, everyone veering off this way and that, but I soon noticed an order in all the chaos, a certain method to the madness. Any nerves disappeared and a wonder like that of being a kid in a candy store took over.

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From the back of a motorbike, you see everything. All the pockets of Saigonese life you otherwise never would’ve noticed appear in slow-motion: a face, a smell, a conversation, a colour, each revealed in all their everything before vanishing, only to be immediately replaced by something else. I loved every second of my Grab rides, but those seconds will never compare to the feeling of complete immersion I got when I hopped onto the front seat. 

I started with a cute 50cc called Candy, but I’ve moved up to 125 and it’s with my trusty Honda I now get around the city.

Saigon, Saigon, from your bumpy roads to your streets that flood after rain, from your old folk on bicycles to your giant buses blocking the lane.

Saigon, Saigon, I now feel like I’m somewhat a part, whether I’m speeding along or stuck in traffic, the sense that you are home now slowly enters my heart. 

But then it happens all again. 

I leave my house to sun and a few minutes later it rains.

I enter a store and feel all the eyes shift my way, a waiter approaches and asks what I want, or, at least, that’s what I assume they’re asking. I mumble, pointing at someone else’s order – Give me that – then sit down with some shame.

When the bowl or plate of whatever arrives, I wolf it down before leaning against the wall to watch everything around. 

Motorcycles rumble on the street outside, passing by in flashes. Incense wafts from a Buddhist altar on the floor, and there are some offerings of food and drink. The heat slaps and sweat trickles down my back, I have a sip of the complimentary iced tea and close my eyes. The language, to me, a collection of incomprehensible sounds, centres at a single point in my head, growing louder – GROWING – and maybe someday I’ll figure it out. 

But for now? For no –

Here I am. Here I am. 


Liam Langan is 24 years old with English and Japanese heritage and was raised in Tokyo. He likes to write, read, cook, box, and has recently taken up jiu jitsu.

If you’re a writer or aspiring to be one, get in touch so we can feature you. We prefer pieces about Vietnam and Southeast Asia related to food, travel and lifestyle.


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