• Meghan Bartok

Top differences between life in Vietnam and life in the USA

Updated: Aug 3

I've been living in Vietnam for almost a year and a half now, and let me tell you, it has been a big adjustment! More specifically, I have been living in Ho Chi Minh City, the biggest city in Vietnam, for the past 10 months. Daily life here is SO different from daily life in Western New York. Since I haven't really talked about it, I figured I would round up the biggest differences and share them here with you. Side note: I thought of quite a few interesting ones, so I'll probably add a part two later on!

The Weather

I’ve lived in both of the major cities in Vietnam, and the weather is very different in both of them, and it’s also very different from home. Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, is located in the north of the country. The weather there is more seasonal, with low temperatures in the wintertime being around 50°F, and temperatures in the summertime can reach over 100°F.


Ho Chi Minh City, where I'm living, is in the south of Vietnam. The weather here is humid and hot year-round with two seasons. The rainy season starts in May and ends in November and the dry season starts in December and ends in April. There is not much variation in temperature with most days being around 85-90°F. Lows are around 68°F and highs are around 98°F.


I won’t lie to you, I’m not the biggest fan of the heat. You would think after living here for over a year, I'd be used to it by now, but I'm definitely not. The best way I've found to deal with it is to only go out in the early morning or after the sun has set, as well as choosing cafés and restaurants with air-conditioning. I am really looking forward to living somewhere with seasons again, as I do miss the cold and the snow.


Transportation

Motorbikes are the most common form of transportation here in Vietnam. They’re much cheaper than owning a car (which are highly taxed - a new basic Toyota Camry starts at around $50,000 here) and their small size makes it easier to get around. In Ho Chi Minh City there are 9 million people and an estimated 7.5 million motorbikes. It’s definitely an adjustment getting used to living in a country where cars are not the main form of transportation.


Anything and everything can be transported by motorbike, including a family of four with their dog, a refrigerator, windows, and even another motorbike! Once I got used to driving here, I really enjoyed having a motorbike - the breeze is nice on really hot days and they are super fun to drive! However, there is an inherent safety risk that comes with motorbikes and now that Claire is here, I think my motorbiking days are pretty much over.


Safety

Overall, Vietnam is a very safe country with limited numbers of violent crimes. The most common safety issues here are theft and traffic safety. Purse snatchings and pickpockets are something you need to be alert for in the cities, as with any major city. I even had a man try to grab my phone from me, but unfortunately for him, I have a very strong grip. Most all houses in the cities have large metal gates with bars or wire at the top to prevent home break-ins.


Traffic safety is a huge issue here. Accidents are a pretty common sight, and with many people on motorbikes, the injuries from these are often severe or fatal. Most people do wear helmets, but children are not required to, and therefore you do see a lot of children not wearing a helmet while on the motorbike. It's also common to see three adults or a family of four or five on a motorbike that's only regulated to carry two people. Carseats for babies and children are not super common here, especially if you're relying on taxis. Many of the taxis I've been in don't even have working seatbelts in the backseat. This means anytime we go somewhere, I make sure I'm holding on to Claire VERY tightly.


When it comes to driving in Vietnam, it doesn't seem like there really are any rules. You can drive on the opposite side of the road, you can drive on the sidewalk, you can drive against traffic. I’ve come across many four-way stops with absolutely no stop signs or lights and it’s just kind of a free-for-all. Somehow, it all works, but I won't lie and say that it's super safe to drive here.


Traffic Congestion & Pollution

That was a good intro to this topic: TRAFFIC! Now I know this is something that is a problem in cities in the US too, but I’ve grown up in a small town where we don’t usually have much traffic. The traffic here can get really bad, especially during rush hour, when your commute can double or even triple! I’ve often thought about how much worse the traffic would be if everyone drove cars, as it's already very bad. I also think congestion is more manageable in the US when you can sit in your air-conditioned car listening to some music rather than being on a motorbike breathing in everyone else’s exhaust fumes.


Pollution is also a huge problem in Vietnam. Air quality in the big cities is usually moderate to poor, with Hanoi being a bit more polluted than Ho Chi Minh City. Once you are outside the cities, the air does improve dramatically. Litter is a big problem almost everywhere you go, which is very sad because it is a beautiful country. Recycling is also not very big here, with lots of single-use plastics consumed. There are Vietnamese women who go around and sort the recycling from the garbage, but I'm not sure where it goes from there!


No Amazon

While you can get some products from Amazon delivered to Vietnam, there are usually high import fees. There are Vietnamese alternatives such as Shopee and Lazada. However, these are not quite as reliable, and it can be hard to find product descriptions in English. While I do miss the convenience of Amazon Prime, not having it has definitely saved me a ton of money - no more impulse buys!


Mail & Delivery System

Living here has definitely made me very lazy - you can get almost anything you can imagine delivered to your house, meaning that sometimes there's no real need to go out. Paying with cash on delivery is huge here, even for super expensive items. I ordered a new iPhone and paid the delivery driver in cash when she arrived. This is nice because it ensures that you’re not paying for something that never shows up, but also inconvenient because you need to make sure you have the right amount of cash.


Getting mail - Not one of the apartments I've lived at here has had a mailbox. You can still get mail, but you have to be home to receive the mail. All letters and packages need a phone number on them, and the mailman will call you to come outside to collect your mail when he arrives. This can be slightly inconvenient if you don't know what day or time when the mail will arrive.


Packages coming from abroad are particularly tricky - they are all thoroughly inspected and there is a huge list of items that the Vietnamese government won't allow into the country through the mail. The items they do allow in usually take quite a while to get through customs and to you. I've only gotten a couple of packages from overseas here, and they usually take five weeks to get to me from the time the person has mailed them.


Grocery Shopping

It's super common to buy your produce at the market!

There are several big-name stores here similar to where we would shop at home. However, the groceries commonly bought can be very different! For instance, dairy is considered a staple product in most western countries - things like milk, butter, and cheese are all things I use on a pretty daily basis. Milk and yogurt are similarly priced to the US, but here, a pound (500g) of butter is around $9, and an 8oz (225g) block of cheese is around $4.50-5.50. There also is not a huge variety of cheese here unless you go to a gourmet food store. There have been so many times that James and I have joked about how much money we would save if we would simply cut dairy products out of our diet here. The instant noodle section is also often one or two whole aisles, as Vietnamese people do eat a lot of noodles.




Snack foods have very different flavors than I'm used to, with shrimp and seaweed being two very common ones. I do miss having salt and vinegar or barbeque potato chips! Even the original Lays taste very different from the original Lays there are in the US.


Some other things that I would consider staples in my diet at home are that aren't as easy to find here are things like more than three varieties of cereal, bagels, hummus, and tortillas. Luckily there's an imported food store where I can find almost all the foods I miss from home, even if they are on the slightly expensive side.

Which of these would be the hardest for you to adapt to? Let me know in the comments below!

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