HCMC Dining Guide

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Upper Crust

Since I'm no longer teaching I have a dramatically different weekly schedule: weekends and evenings off, the complete opposite of my old hours. This has given me the chance to go out on Friday and Saturday and see how the other half of the expat community - business people, long-term residents, professionals in various fields - in Saigon lives. The differences between the way they live and the way most English teachers live are stark. Nearly all of my friends are teachers, but the magazine I work for targets wealthier expats, so I have the chance to observe both sides in action.

The perception among locals here is that all Westerners have a lot of money. While I would be lying if I said English teachers aren't well paid, they don't make anywhere near as much as engineers, development specialists, corporate executives, or business owners. I would estimate that your average English teacher, working 25-30 hours a week, makes roughly $2,000 a month, give or take a few hundred. I have no idea how much the white-collar workers make, but it's significantly more than that. While 2 grand is plenty to get by in the land of $2 street food and $1 beers, teachers don't live a life of absolute luxury. Most live in apartments or houses in crowded Vietnamese neighborhoods and save money by eating and drinking at local establishments. Sure they splurge on Western food or a trip to a nice bar every now and then, but that's not the norm. The teacher's favorite area for a night out is Pham Ngu Lao, home to $2 liquor buckets and dangerous happy hours.

For most business-oriented expats, things aren't as ascetic. They live in rented villas or spanking-new apartment towers in the less congested, greener confines of Districts 2 and 7, where there are gourmet grocery stores, international schools, high-end restaurants, and gated communities. A night out would send them to places like Pacharan or Vasco's, where drinks cost 4 or 5 times more than in the Pham. A friend of mine was recently talking to some employees of RMIT, an Australian university in District 7, and they had never even heard of Pham Ngu Lao, had never met someone who lived in District 3. (This is the neighborhood I live in, in the heart of Saigon's chaos.) They would probably be hard-pressed to respond when asked how long it's been since they've eaten a bowl of pho or a plate of rice and pork.

A couple weekends ago a few friends who did the bike ride (and are teachers) and I decided to have a classy night and went to a bar/restaurant/club downtown called Blanchy's Tash, which is aiming to be the country's premier nighttime address. The sleek, modern interior was straight out of Manhattan, and we quickly realized that we simply don't know how to behave in a place like that anymore. We're used to spending a night sitting on a lawn chair, watching the tapestry of humanity that calls Bui Vien home, drinking mediocre bottles of Saigon Red before stumbling home just as the sun's rays begin to light the sky.

The clientele at Blanchy's Tash (where cocktails cost close to $10) represented the 'upper crust' of Saigon society, both Vietnamese and expat: people in suits and stylish dresses, people with perfectly coiffed hair and perfect skin, people with expensive jewelry and people wearing expensive sunglasses inside at night. It was a place to see and be seen, and everyone was dressed the part. A far cry from us lot, who had just finished riding our bikes the length of the country and usually wear flip-flops and t-shirts with sweat stains in the armpits. Predictably, we didn't last long before deciding to just go to the Pham instead.

This divide between the expat community is glaring once you look hard enough: there is practically no interaction between the English teaching sector and the business sector. Sure, this can partly be attributed to differences in schedule - Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday nights are three of the biggest ones for teachers to go out, whereas Friday and Saturday are when all the business people go out. But the gap in income and the differing life priorities - many teachers are here to travel, not necessarily set up a long-term living situation - are bigger reasons. While many of our Vietnamese colleagues may think all Westerners hang out at the same places at the same time, the reality is quite far from that.


  1. From my experience in China, there are two types of expats: the type that go abroad for the cultural experience and traveling, and the type that simply go abroad for the money.

    The first type usually want to experience something considerably different from their lives back home. These types seek to be out of their "comfort zone." They also tend to be lower-middle class people in their homelands, and sometimes they are even economic refugees.

    Usually the second type have no interest in the local culture, cuisine, etc. (local women are the exception). They were just transferred out of their home country to a new country to simply make more money. They usually want a mirror image of their lives from back home as well. These types are often upper-middle class people back in their homelands.

    I'm not trying to say one type is better than the other, but these two types of expats have very little in common - other than the fact that they are both foreigners in a far away land.

  2. I think those are pretty good characterizations of the two different groups - basically what I was getting at.