Vietnam has transitioned from a budget backpacker mecca to attracting expats, digital nomads, and early retirees. With its unique culture, affordable living, and world-renowned cuisine, it's easy to see why people are considering moving to Vietnam as the solution to the rising costs of living in the US.
Early retirees are eyeballing established retirement hotspots Hanoi and Da Nang or the up and coming cities of Nha Trang or Phan Thiet. But there are significant hurdles to overcome if you want to retire in Vietnam. The lack of a proper retirement visa is a critical disadvantage. This post breaks down the pros and cons of retiring to Vietnam to give you the information you need to make an informed decision.
What is the Cost of Living in Vietnam
To answer if something is worth the money, first we find out what it cost. Vietnam is high on my list of favorite affordable retirement destinations.
For context, a professional white-collar worker's average wage in Vietnam is ~$450 per month.
- General Accountant - $557
- Java Developer - $1123
- Marketing Executive - $614
- US English Teacher: $1500-$2500 (depending on company, experience, and qualifications)
Source: Vietnam Works
Compared to the US, those are some ridiculously low salaries. Before you get too excited at the thought of retiring to Vietnam on a $500 a month budget, know that most Westerners would not be comfortable living "local": smaller housing, street food, and fewer creature comforts than in their home country.
At the same time, most retirees could not expect to live on a typical corporate expat income level. Western companies usually pay housing, car, schooling, tax benefits, and a $180,000 executive-level salary. Total compensation packages of over $250,000 are not unusual for a corporate expat. With the stark extremes of living like a local or living like a company executive, what expectations should an expat retiree realistically have in a low cost developing country?
How much does it cost to retire in Vietnam?
|Total Monthly Expenses To Live In Vietnam||$960|
|COST PER MONTH|
|Rent- Furnished New 1 Bed, 1 Bath Western Style - Upper Middle Class Area||260|
|Maid Service 1 day per week/4 hours per day||INCLUDED|
|High-Speed Internet & Cable TV||INCLUDED|
|Cell Phone- 5 GB Internet Per Month||3|
|Personal Care Items- Shampoo, Soaps, Etc.||20|
|Household Items- Laundry Soap, Tools, Dishes, Etc.||20|
|Massage- Home Service 1 Session per Month||32|
|Haircut 10 times per year||4|
|Total Personal Luxury||36|
|1st run movie 1 time per month||5|
|Budget Night Out-3 beers at local bar 1 time per week||22|
|Crossfit Style Gym||65|
|Home Cooked Meals 7 times per week||74|
|Street Food 13 times per week||122|
|Local Sit Down Restaurant 1 times per week||87|
|Travel Health Insurance||60|
|Exchange Rate to $1 USD||23,176|
$960 per month to live comfortably in Vietnam. For less than $12,000 per year, you can hit gym, eat out frequently, and enjoy beers on the beach. To ensure you have money for visa runs and incidental expenses, let's round the total to $1,000 per month.
What kind of lifestyle can I Afford on $1000 per month?
I worked with several expats and digital nomads for estimates to retire in Vietnam on a modest monthly income. The range of "required" income varied between $1000-$2000. The unknown is always what the definition of a "comfortable" standard of living would be.
The good news is Vietnam's low living costs rank it in the Top 10 Best Countries To Retire. That $1000 monthly budget above includes a comfortable lifestyle with frequent meals out, a western-standard apartment, maid service, and an active social life.
The Cost of Living in Vietnam is 73% less than a Medium Cost of Living city (MCOL) in the United States.
If you plan to fund your retirement on only Social Security or a small pension, your monthly budget will go far here. Many expats live comfortably in Vietnam on less than $1000 per month. Regardless if your tastes are modest or luxury, your living costs are less than what you would spend in a MCOL city in the US.
How Does The Cost of Living in Vietnam Compare To US?
Let's dig into some real-life numbers and get some context to the spending. Let's compare expenses in a MCOL city in the US (Portland) with a MCOL city in Vietnam (Da Nang).
The Top 4 living expenses in the US are housing, food, transportation, and healthcare. These 4 expenses make up 68% of the average monthly spending in the US.
Vietnam- Da Nang
Total $ Top 4 Living Expenses
Monthly Savings Retiring To Vietnam = $1,800
By moving to Vietnam, you would save over $21,000 per year. In the US living, on $1000 per month is living near poverty level. In Vietnam, that money goes a long way. Let's look closer at the standard of living $1000 per month buys you.
Here is an example of a one-bedroom apartment about 1.5 miles from the beach in Da Nang. This fully equipped and furnished apartment is located in between the river and the My Khe Beach.
★ Modern apartment design, high-class facilities and full facilities.
★ There is a living room, a kitchen, and a mezzanine. Fully equipped facilities such as sofa, smart TV, air conditioner, washing machine and dryer, cooking stove, elevator, spacious parking space.
★ Located in a quiet location, close to Vincom, only 5 minutes to the city center
You probably know about taking off your shoes in a house, but do you know the custom with hats?
To help first-time expats avoid embarrassment or, worse, potentially insulting your host country, I have compiled a list of Cultural Etiquette and Customs for expats moving to Vietnam
Vietnam is in my Top 5 favorite countries when it comes to food. Vietnam was a French colony for close to 65 years. The cuisine is a delicious fusion of French flavors with nearby Thailand, Cambodia, and China. Like Thai cooking, each Vietnamese dish has five foundational flavors: salty, sweet, sour, spicy, and bitter.
Traditional street food costs $1 - $3 per meal. I eat out 2-3 times per day here. Going to the grocery to buy the ingredients to cook a meal will usually cost me more than heading to my favorite Bun Cha vendor down the street.
Ready for a splurge? The Square at the Novotel has an All-You-Can-Eat 5* seafood and steak buffet will run you $25 per person.
I'm not going to lie. Transportation is where comparisons are not apples to apples. Everyone here rides a motorbike. It's a culture shock when comparing against the United States' car culture; Even Grab, the Southeast Asian Uber, uses motorbikes.
You can buy a used motorbike for $300 / 7 million VND and sell it for the same price when you leave. If you're looking to buy a motorbike or other second-hand items, ChoTot is the country's equivalent to Craigslist. Buying also means you are responsible for maintenance. To make life easier, you can rent a Yamaha Mio for $55 per month, and the dealers handle any maintenance and repairs.
A liter of gas costs around 20,000 VND. Conversion for us US folks is equal to ~$3.2 a gallon. The average MPG for a scooter is about 100 MPG. If you drive around a bit, estimate gas and maintenance costs at $30 a month.
The safer transportation option is Grab. For those that don't know, Grab purchased Uber's Southeast Asian Operations back in 2018. For 12,000 VND initial fare and 3,400 VND per kilometer (less than .25 cents a mile), you can go about 4 miles for under $1 with Grab.
INSIDER TIP : Motorbike License- Let me get this out of the way first. If you don't know how to ride a motorbike, Vietnam is NOT the place foreigners want to learn. Drivers crowd the road, only loosely follow the traffic rules, and chaos reigns in the streets. If you don't have a valid motorbike license, your medical insurance will not cover you for any accidents.
I stick with my travel health insurance for $53 per month. You can buy local insurance for roughly $79 per month. The critical difference between the two is that local insurance will not cover you outside the country, but will cover some in-patient check-ups.
My travel insurance covers me wherever I travel and has medical evacuation coverage if I need to get to another country for a serious medical procedure. But I pay for all my check-ups, x-rays, etc., out of pocket.
An example of Vietnamese healthcare costs in a private hospital with English speaking International staff:
- Health check-up (x-rays, blood work, labs, etc.) ~$110
- An ultrasound costs $90
- X-rays are $20.
No insurance is required.
What is Not Included In The $1,000 Budget?
Taxes. The numbers above assume you will stay in the country for less than 183 days, thereby avoiding tax residency. Non-residents only pay taxes on income sourced in Vietnam. If you retirement savings, pension, or social security is from the US, no taxes are due. Taxes for expats are extremely complicated. Please consult with a tax attorney or accountant to understand your tax situation.
How Should You Greet A Friend In Vietnam:
-Handshake -Deep Bow -Kiss on the Cheek -Big Hugs
To help first-time expats avoid embarrassment or, worse, potentially insulting your host country, I have compiled a FREE list of Cultural Etiquette and Customs for expats moving to Vietnam
Does an American need a Visa for Vietnam?
If you are from the US, you need a valid visa. Unless you plan on working or studying, you will be applying for a Tourist Visa. You have three options for a short-term visa:
- Visa from the Embassy or Consulate of Vietnam- Valid for 30-90 days and are single or multi entry. Can be extended.
- e-Visa- only valid 30 days and are single entry. Cannot be extended, only renewed. Renewals require local sponsorship.
- Visa on Arrival (VOA)- Require a pre-obtained Letter of Approval. Valid for 30-90 days and are single or multi entry. Can be extended.
INSIDER TIP : Long-Term Visas- You may have heard about a longer 1-year tourist visa option. The Department of Immigration has stopped issuing long-term visas. For retirees, your visa options are the ones listed above, unless you have Vietnamese family or use the Visa By Investment process below.
American citizens can apply at an Embassy or Consulate responsible for your jurisdiction:
- Vietnamese Embassy in Washington DC
- Consulate General of Vietnam in San Francisco
- Consulate General of Vietnam in Houston – Texas
INSIDER TIP : Visa on Arrival- If you plan on flying in during the busy season (December to March or July to September), prepare to stand in line for the Department of Immigration stamp your visa. Especially at busy Tan Son Nhat Airport (HCMC), large tour groups can make this a long process after an already long flight.
How Much Does the Vietnam Tourist Visa Cost?
The visa fees for Vietnam are as follows:
- For an e-Visa: USD 25
- For a Visa On Arrival:
- Single-entry, one month: USD 25 stamping fee on arrival (plus the additional service fee for the Letter of Approval)
- Multiple-entry, one month USD 50 stamping fee on arrival (plus the additional service fee for the Letter of Approval)
- Single-entry, three months USD 25 stamping fee on arrival (plus the additional service fee for the Letter of Approval)
- Multiple-entry, three months USD 50 stamping fee on arrival (plus the additional service fee for the Letter of Approval)
INSIDER TIP : Visa on Arrival- Bring cash in US Dollars to pay your visa processing fees. Immigration does not accept credit or debit cards. Tan Son Nhat Airport (HCMC) installed an ATM adjacent to the visa counter you can use as a last resort. I still recommend bringing USD. The previously mentioned long lines apply to the ATM. Plus, foreign ATMs don't always accept your debit card, can breakdown, or run out of cash. Just bring USD and avoid the hassles.
Can I Extend A Tourist Visa?
Yes, you can extend a one month visa for another month. The fee will be approximately US$60 – US$155, depending on your nationality.
Extensions of one or three months are only available for three-month visas. A three-month extension will cost you US$180 – US$310, depending on your nationality.
Plan to be without your passport for five to seven working days while your extension is processed.
You can manage the visa extension yourself, but many agencies can do this service for you. Shop around for the best price.
Watch out for the Vietnamese holidays. Your visa expires on the day it expires, regardless if that day is a National holiday. The Department of Immigration is known to close for multiple days during holidays. Paying for a holiday rush surcharge can double the price of your extension.
INSIDER TIP : Visa Extensions- Even if your first visa was a multiple entry visa, your extension is only a single entry. If your extension is for three months and you leave the country, the extension is canceled.
It is not unheard of for your extension to only be approved for one month, even if you applied for three months. There is sometimes no rhyme or reason given; it just is what it is. Don't get too frustrated, because there is nothing you can do about it. If it happens, pop over the border for a visa run (Malaysia or Thailand if you want to fly or Cambodia or Laos via land transportation).
Does Vietnam Have A Retirement Visa?
Here is the bad news. Vietnam doesn't have a simple retiree visa like the Philippines. Vietnam doesn't even have a stupid expensive retirement long-term visa option like Thailand. If you want to stay longer than 174-days (three months + a three-month extension), you need to either make a visa run every six months or apply for a Temporary Residence Card with Visa by Investment (DT).
Did you know how you hold your chopsticks can be considered extremely rude in Vietnam?
To avoid embarrassment or, worse, potentially insulting your host country, download this FREE Etiquette and Customs Cheat Sheet for expats retiring to Vietnam
Can I Live in Vietnam With a Visa By Investment And A Residence Card?
Vietnam offers an investment visa for foreigners (DT) looking to establish a company in the country. I do not have all the details on the DT visa. But I also know that the capital investment required is substantial (between $130,000 to $4,300,000).
The Investment visa is for genuine businesses looking to operate in Vietnam. This visa is not appropriate for side hustles, digital nomads, or freelancers. Opening up a company here is not a simple process; in addition to the substantial investment, it requires legal costs, fees, and hiring local staff. The Visa by Investment is not a simple visa scheme like in Montenegro or Estonia that you apply as a work-around for a long-term stay visa.
If you are looking to establish a business, drop me an email, and put you in touch with my local contacts. But given the complexity and cost, I am not considering residency through company establishment a reasonable way to retire in Vietnam.
How Reliable Is The Visa Policy?
It's a freaking mess. I am not going to lie. There are more than 20 different visa variations, and their requirements change frequently. Sometimes the changes are official; other times, an immigration officer seemingly makes up their own rules.
The government relies heavily on third-party agents to process applications and extensions. With so many different agents, the information you get will be contradictory. You will find three wrong answers for every question you have on how visas and renewals are processed. Prices for processing and fees will be inconsistent. Even the consulate website is not even an up-to-date resource of the latest rules and regulations.
Key Takeaway: Is Retiring In Vietnam Worth The Money?
No. I'll take the 3-6 month visa my United States passport allows me. Half a year gives me enough time to enjoy the affordable housing, cheap and delicious street food, and stunning landscape. But, without a proper long-term stay visa process (the consulate literally advertises using visa runs as the "Best Way To Extend Your Stay"), retiring in Vietnam is too much of a hassle.
If I don't recommend retiring in Vietnam, what countries do I recommend with a retirement visa?