“New Saigon” is a term sometimes used to describe the part of the city which has been “modernized” over the past decade or two and sometimes refered to as ‘expat districts’. It includes District 1, Phu My Hung in District 7, Thao Dien in District 2, and parts of Binh Thanh. “Old Saigon” refers to the remainder of the districts, which are generally more “local.” The other evening, I went to dinner with some of my friends at a widely-known bánh xèo street food restaurant in District 11. Afterward, I was gushing about how great it made me feel to be back in Old Saigon after years of having lived in District 7. The friend I was talking to said he felt out of his element when so far out of New Saigon, however, he liked the convenience, the ease with which he could get around and find organized activities. Old Saigon is not for some of us. The question is, which Saigon is best for you? We’ve put together a list of the pros and cons of the New vs the Old in order to help you decide.
New Saigon is generally built with all the modern conveniences in the West. They are the most popular districts for an expat in Saigon, in particularly ones with children.
- English is widely spoken — This is a biggie, and it means both English-speaking expats and tourists have a much easier time getting around here. The downside is that expats who live here and want to learn Vietnamese will have a harder time unless they are exceptional self-learners.
- English services are more widely available — Delivery of meals and groceries, repair services, movers… they are much more accessible in New Saigon via apps like bTaskee and Market Oi.
- There are more expats — For expats who like to socialise with their neighbours, this is extremely important.
- “Western” activities are easier to find — Bars, foreign restaurants, and English-language social clubs will be easier to find in the neighbourhoods of New Saigon.
- People tend to work harder — Vietnamese culture is traditionally very laid back. People take their time working, seldom resorting to straining themselves in order to make an extra few bucks. In New Saigon, a more Western mentality of “work hard, play hard” has permeated the culture. This often means better service.
- More local work opportunities.
- Expensive — From food to rent to clothes at the market, everything costs more.
- More discrimination — This may be surprising, as one would expect areas with more foreigners to be more “integrated.” In my experience, though, locals in New Saigon tend to be accustomed to the protocol of “how to treat foreigners” and do just that. Elsewhere, they have a customer, notice he or she is a foreigner, do not know how to treat them, and so just end up treating them like a normal customer. For example, people won’t default to giving you a fork in a restaurant rather than chopsticks, just because of your skin colour.
- It’s more “antiseptic” — People are less friendly and public interactions feel oddly sterile.
- You’re not pushed into the local culture — It’s important for expats living in Saigon to familiarise themselves partially with the local culture. This is usually difficult to do in New Saigon, because you are not pushed. Instead, you will have to take initiative and engage in your own travels.
Although many expats don’t see much of it, Old Saigon takes up most of the city’s area. Its ‘hems’, which are small streets that you can barely get a small car down, sneak through the districts with each having its own interesting identity.
- You’re invited to join the local culture — There are more opportunities to learn skills that make your life in Vietnam smoother, from language to mannerisms. Feeling you are a part of the local community can be a big factor in general happiness as an expat.
- People generally seem happier — Maybe because most do not work as hard, people usually seem more relaxed and friendly.
- It’s more peaceful — Things are quainter and quieter. There is not as much congestion and there are fewer high rises.
- The food — It tends to be better and more authentic.
- Everything’s cheaper — This includes cost of living and everyday goods.
- Services like Vietnammm are not available — Not in English, at least. You’ll need to DIY more often. However, with grab food becoming very popular it wont be long before you can get food delivered from the expat districts.
- Distance — It’s a long way from things like foreign cuisine restaurants, although there are shopping malls with upscale shops. Also, it’s highly unlikely friends or business partners will be willing to meet near your place if you live far from the city centre.
- If you don’t speak any Vietnamese, you’ll have a hard time in many places. Something as simple as going to the bank can become an ordeal.
- Small expat community — If you like fraternising with other expats who live in your area, you’ll have trouble finding that in Old Saigon.
Living in the old Saigon is adventurous and has it’s charm, and if I was single without any kids then I would consider living there. However, the access to international schools and hospitals, western eateries and an English speaking community is far more appealing as I get older. Maybe after my daugter finishes school. I will escape the expat districts and find the older places more appealing.
After a recent trip to District 5 with my daughter to buy some gold fish, we were sitting at a small cafe owned by a nice old couple. As we were ordering, the said people took it in turns to pinch and pull my daughters face in a show of affection. As much as they were being nice, I have never seen my daughter ask for the bill so quickly and abruptly said ‘lets get back home to Phu My Hung Dad!’.
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