Ho Chi Minh City
I lived in HCM for about 6 months in the 2nd half of 2009. It was one of the worst times of my life. I was, and still am an English teacher. In HCM there are two distinct social statuses; the oppressed and the oppressors. Of course there is the corporate
scene that is largely foreign but that's a whole other world of multinationalism and corruption.
What you don't know, but may have had some slight inkling of is that HCM is under occupation by the North, it is under military garrison, and the main base is not far from the center of the city.
North Vietnamese, at the time of Liberation, descended on HCM in droves and had free reign to take what they wished and if any locals resisted they would be hauled off to re-education centers, along with the millions already there. Much of HCM was plundered by the Northerners and they still hold sway. Much of the seediness of HCM is due to the oppression the local, or native Saigonese, live under.
I worked in schools teaching kids and teenagers and before too long my jobs were getting thinner, and thinner to the point where they almost disappeared. Why? I am a committed teacher, I have many years or training and experience and by and large students love me and my classes. There in lay the problem. Students were starting to graduate, some had been on the same course for 8 years. Schools in HCM see student progress as a bad thing and should be discouraged. The longer they stay the more they will pay! I was bad for business. So I got shut out.
There are many schools in HCM full of students, so many it is amazing at first but one soon finds out that they are owned and run by a few people. All the teachers are ripped off as are the local teachers too.
In truth HCM is under occupation, tho' it might seem otherwise to tourists. Foreigners long term in HCM are on the main either cashed up from business or hiding out, the latter being the majority.
I stayed in private hotels and basically had to due to my income, and each one, except for one would come into my room and take what ever they liked. There was nothing I could do about it except to leave and when I did I would have to pay at least 6 months of electricity I would have used if I stayed.
Never take up the offer of motorcycle girls. They will not take you back to your hotel for two reasons – they can't fleece you and they are not allowed to go. What you do is find a hotel, a cheapy, book a room, hire a bike, and go stand on the street and wait. Soon you will be surrounded by a group of 9s or even 10s. You get one to follow you back to your pre-booked hotel. That way you get what you pay for. Any other way you will get rolled, and there is nothing you can do about any crime done to you in HCM, unless you have connections. Every policeman is able to be bribed and expects to be.
The good side is that there are lots and lots of very honest conservative people, but it can take some time to find them as they are all out to get you in the first 3 months. Even your students will strip you of any thing they can get in class while you write on the white board. But the little kids are lovely and sweet and honest as everywhere.
Hospitals and dentists are the best in Asia, and cheap. They have the latest medical technologies and are very good with them, and cheap. Dental technology would have to be as good as any western country you care to name, and the best places run a 24/7 service.
Food is superb as you discovered but is going down hill with chemical agriculture. But better than most countries still. Food is cheap, too, and is kept that way by the military because they don't want to deal with riots, and they do have them.
Long term foreigners that do adapt do well and also with the ladies, too. In fact if you are thick skinned and do your job, i.e. just be a foreigner's show thing you'll do very well, but most marry a Northerner. Not that the Southerners don't make good wives, in fact they boast the longest marriages of all Asians, but you got to take them out to realise that. If you don't you'll become a slave and target for the whole extended family.
A local woman is always a part time prostitute. She may elect, at any time, to offer a service, any where she chooses, and that is totally acceptable in HCM. Where as a man, any man, not just foreigners, will be scorned if found out. Also women are dangerous. If they accuse any man of anything he is deemed guilty by every one. She may enact her punishment as she sees fit, and the man must take it no matter how severe. I have seen women beating men with building timbers in the street, usually at night, until his head cracks open. She might kill him if she gets carried away, but that's OK. HCM women have impunity. No matter how criminal they may be they have the right to be so, and thus they run the whole show. I kid you not.
The sanctuary is the coffee shop (cafe da), or tea shop and local beer bars (bia hoi). They are just for men, run by women of course, but they are free zones for men, and men only. You do see girls in the street coffee shops but they are not very relaxed because they are in the male zone. Then the local beers bars are really just for men, it is their turf, their only turf, to be. This is where you make the connections.
What you did not see, but perhaps noticed, was the outdoor restaurants. If you had seen them and looked you'd wonder why they are packed to the brim with males. They are where you get a girl for your delights. The food is usually the best, too, and moderately priced. You may choose which waitress you wish to take out. In fact you can go there with a female escort and she will do the deal for you. It is totally acceptable for her to do that but most don't for obvious reasons. That's the place to go for pleasures. You will find the most seductive girls there and there are such restaurants all over HCM. The boss will be very delighted with your choice, and often will shout you a drink or food for doing so. When you come back for 2nds you'll be accorded great service, every man will. Very few foreigners know about those places, and if they do have not worked out how to get in to the swing of them. But the ones that have will tell endless tales of joy! Be careful not to get attached as they are up for grabs for any customer. That being said that if you do find one that you feel is to your liking you can take her on full time, for cheaps and she will serve you well. Those girls are not local girls, so there is usually no problem. This is not well known. This service is available in almost any restaurant, but the outside ones are rarely frequented by anyone other than locals are the gems.
You can find all shades of skin in HCM, too. White is preferred but all the rest are there, too, just not visible in the downtown, or international areas.
Country Vietnam is just like the old days that we heard about from our fathers. The roads are shocking to say the least, but well worth traveling by motorbike. Though slow you'll eventually find you way as the maps are pretty useless, and you'll be most welcome. You might arrive in a town, and not know here to go so you just find the market area and make yourself obvious and soon you'll have the red carpet rolled out. Some old veteran will come out of nowhere and take off to his or a friend's restaurant. Best to dress down for country jaunts and it is very safe, perhaps the extreme opposite to HCM. Dressing down will avoid the rip offs as that they will do it more out there. Always ask the price before you order is best.
Although I was spat out, as it were, I'd love to go back and live in Vietnam, and they say the North is even better. You just got to go through the orientation period however long that may be and stay away from tourist traps.
Go back, Stick. Go explore and you'll love it. Other than HCM and a famous seaside resort Vietnam is the safest I believe. Visas are now very easy to get, best place is with a travel agent but getting one at the border or airport is so easy. You don't need a lot of money either but of course you'd be best to have your own supply. Teaching pay is quite good in Vietnam too.
So remember, for the male havens,"Cafe da and bia hoi."
Great to see you are still live and reporting.
Rodney (Aussie in Hong Kong)
Very interesting perspective on Vietnam and yes, I do intend to go back for another look later in the year and intend to get a little further afield. I have to say I was enamoured with the place, I liked the people and their drive, ambition and willingness to roll their sleeves up and do the hard yards – something I don't always see in Thailand.