As I write this I’m sitting in my cozy apartment in downtown Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon). Aaron and I rented this place for a month while we do a little traveling, get acquainted with the city, and look for a more permanent home.
Every morning I brew buttery Vietnamese coffee in my French press and perch myself at my kitchen window. I love observing life in the hectic alleyway below my second-story apartment. Motorbikes careen down the road, buzzing and honking as they go. Street vendors line the narrow alley, cooking up fragrant noodle soups. And pajama-clad women sit on tiny plastic stools, boisterously gossiping with one another.
Like most places in Ho Chi Minh City, my apartment is loud. Just outside my kitchen window, directly next to the alley, is a sizable construction site that has grown from one to three stories since I moved in nearly one month ago. Yet despite the rapid pace of construction it is, oddly enough, not all that loud compared to the hustle and bustle that goes on just outside my bedroom window, at the opposite end of my apartment.
Out back is a small ice-making factory. The handful of men who work there spend their days clamoring away, tinkering with their ancient motorbike, and noisily packing small trucks with large bags of ice. As I learned my first night in town, deliveries start at 4am and end at around 12:45am.
The neighbors, just across from the ice factory, are remodeling their home. Some days they cut tiles, other times they jackhammer the pavement or stack bricks against the wall or chisel things. Last night they were busy cutting lots and lots of tiles until 10pm.
Their next-door neighbor has a series of pet birds, who inhabit the handful of ornate cages that hang from his front porch. He also has a pet rooster (that’s normal in Ho Chi Minh City). I have yet to actually see the rooster, but I hear his feeble crow periodically throughout the day. Ironically, he never crows at sunrise.
Currently, this is my little slice of Saigon. I like to think of it as a microcosm of the city. With over eight million people spanning 24 districts, Saigon is massive, chaotic and it’s definitely noisy. I imagine that my little neighborhood, which is comprised of tangled alleyways, tall, narrow houses and family-run shops, is representative of most of Ho Chi Minh City. But I’m quickly learning that’s far from true.
Like most big, developing cities in Southeast Asia, Ho Chi Minh City is changing fast. High rises are shooting up all over the place. The city’s increasingly expensive and gentrified downtown is now peppered with international hotel chains, glitzy malls, serviced apartment buildings, and the crown jewel of the city’s skyline, the 68–story Bitexco Tower.
While most of the city is still made up of modest Vietnamese homes, quaint shops and hole-in-the-wall restaurants, it’s abundantly clear that in five or 10 years’ time Saigon will be a very different place than it is now. It’s definitely a vastly different place than the one I (briefly) visited back in 2006.
Some people love this city and others hate it. I think I can understand both sides of the argument. But despite my somewhat intense living situation, I’m still feeling very positive about this move. I absolutely love being back in Southeast Asia. I love Vietnam and I’m beyond happy to be here.
But I’m also realistic. Like most places I’ve lived – Jakarta, Phnom Penh, Beijing – I can tell that life in Ho Chi Minh City isn’t always going to be easy. Things like noise, pollution, traffic and so many other little things will get frustrating. In some ways, they already have.
It’s only been a few weeks and I’ve already had one mini-meltdown. But that had more to do with being overwhelmed with job hunting, house hunting and all the major changes that come with a big move than the city itself. I’ve also had very little sleep since moving to Ho Chi Minh City, thanks to what might be the world’s loudest Airbnb rental. That’s the last time I rent an apartment in Southeast Asia sight unseen.
But all things considered, I’m actually quite Zen about it. It definitely helps knowing that I’ll only be living in this apartment for a few more days. Plus, I’ve spent much of the past month exploring this fascinating city and visiting the islands of Southern Vietnam, so the construction in my apartment hasn’t driven me totally insane.
Challenges aside, I do think life will be exciting here. Actually, I know life will be exciting here. I think once I actually find an apartment, get settled into a new job (whether it’s freelancing or finding a more traditional job in the city), and start meeting people, things will be good.
This is my fourth country in four years, and I’ve learned that there is always an adjustment period when moving to a new place – especially a place like Ho Chi Minh City. I know that these things take time and that there will be ups and there will be downs. But I’m not only up for the challenge, I’m excited about it.
Right now I’m feeling pretty positive about my life in Saigon. Let’s just hope I find an apartment soon. Fingers crossed that it’s a quiet one!
Have you ever lived abroad? What was your biggest challenge?