Southeast Asia is one of the most popular regions for retirees in search of new experiences, a change of scenery, and a lower cost of living. While Thailand is perhaps the most well-known country in the region among the tourist and ex-pat crowds, nearby Vietnam—with its natural beauty, welcoming locals and low cost of living—is worth a second look, especially if being off the beaten track interests you Like any country, however, there are pros and cons to retiring in Vietnam.

Key Takeaways

  • There is a growing trend for Americans to retire abroad to sunny, beachy, and exotic locations.
  • Vietnam is one such top destination, offering beautiful beaches, lush vegetation, and low costs of living.
  • Vietnam lacks a retirement visa program with the U.S., and while costs may be cheaper, the quality of healthcare may also be lower.

The Pros

Beautiful Scenery

Known for its diverse natural environment, Vietnam is home to forested highlands, tropical lowlands, terraced fields, and great river deltas, plus more than 2,000 miles of varied coastline offering everything from white-sand beaches and palm trees to secluded coves with dramatic limestone pillars. Though crowded, the cities feature a thriving art scene, French-colonial architecture. and tree-lined boulevards.

A Low Cost of Living

According to the April 2020 city and country database website Numbeo.com, Vietnam’s cost of living (excluding rent) is 47.43% lower and the rent is 66.53% lower than the average data for all cities in the U.S. It’s possible for expatriates to retire comfortably here for about $1,000 a month (your actual budget could be much higher or lower depending on your lifestyle and preferences, but $1,000 is a good starting point).

Also, cars are expensive (the government has in the past instituted taxes as of more than 80% on imported vehicles), so most ex-pats (and locals, for that matter) get around on motorbikes, buses, and taxis. (Tariffs were reduced to zero in 2018, but regulations put in place caused challenges for imports.)

Healthy and Delicious Food

Vietnamese cuisine blends flavors from France (from the days of French colonization) and nearby Cambodia, China, Laos, and Thailand. Fresh ingredients—including lots of herbs, spices, and veggies, with minimal use of oil—form the basis of traditional Vietnamese cooking, and many dishes embrace the five fundamental taste senses:

  • Sour
  • Bitter
  • Sweet
  • Spicy
  • Salty

Vietnam is known for its street food, and adventurous retirees can enjoy a variety of soups (pho), noodle dishes, spring rolls, sticky rice, and Saigon baguettes.

The Cons

No Retirement Visa Scheme

A foreigner can get a one- or three-month, single- or multiple-entry visa to visit, and can then reapply and re-enter as the visa expires. (It's helpful that you can apply for a visa extension within the country by visiting a local travel agent.) If you have family ties to Vietnam, you may be eligible for a Permanent Residence Card (PRC), which is valid for three years, after which you must renew your application.

If you or your parents were born in Vietnam (or if you are married to a Vietnamese citizen), you may be eligible for a Five-Year Visa Exemption, which allows you to leave and re-enter the country over the course of five years without the need to reapply for a visa each time. Vietnamese nationals living abroad and their families are also eligible.

Congested Urban Traffic and Pollution

Even though rural Vietnam is home to two-thirds of the country’s population, the two main cities—Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City—are clogged with traffic and pollution. Estimates pinpoint Hanoi as one of the top two most polluted cities in Southeast Asia in 2019, an unfortunate distinction considering that the entire region is well known for its haze and smog.

Vietnam’s pollution is made worse by the increasing number of cars and motorbikes, inadequate public transportation systems, and widespread fires from illegal slash-and-burn practices in Indonesia made worse when the burning coincides with a long dry season.

Culture Shock

While the people of Vietnam are very warm and welcoming to foreigners, the culture shock can be considerable. As with most countries, it’s not what you’re used to back home. English is mandatory in primary schools but is not widely spoken outside of tourist areas, and learning the Vietnamese language is a big undertaking. The cities are crowded and noisy, and it can be hard to get used to the traffic. With no stop signs and few traffic lights, just crossing the street can be a dangerous exercise in patience and timing.

Healthcare

Access to affordable and quality healthcare is an important consideration for most retirees, but the Vietnamese healthcare system is undeveloped by Western standards. You may have to go to Singapore or Thailand for a serious illness or injury.

U.S. citizens traveling or residing abroad are encouraged to enroll in the Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), which provides security updates and makes it easier for the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate to contact you and your family in case of an emergency.

The Bottom Line

As with any country, there are advantages and disadvantages to retiring in Vietnam. When making the decision to retire abroad, it’s important to carefully consider the pros and cons and to form realistic expectations for what it will be like to live there for the long term, not just as a tourist. The visa situation may make Vietnam especially complicated if you have no family connections to the country.