Leaving behind a modest budget and a quiet life at home, retired expats are tapping into this country’s potential and learning what it means to live the good life in Vietnam. By Dana Filek-Gibson. Photos by Vinh Dao.
When Ern Marshall left his job in 1996, he had few expectations for the future. The former painter-decorator imagined retired life in his small Australian town to be quiet and relatively uneventful. There would, perhaps, be afternoons on the veranda, books to read, holidays, hobbies and plenty of time for other leisurely pursuits. This was, after all, the picture most people seemed to paint of life after work. But retirement, Marshall maintains, is something you can’t know about until you’ve lived it.
As it turns out, the 65-year-old’s vision was, in many ways, accurate: Marshall’s days were free to fill with whatever activities he chose. However, while his modest military pension allowed him to make ends meet, Marshall found himself unable to spring for a spur-of-the-moment trip or get involved in too many activities, often for financial reasons. More and more, he began to feel like his retired life in Australia was not all it had cracked up to be.
“It was … difficult,” he sighs. “It was very limited.”
Until, that is, Marshall arrived in Vietnam. In 2000, he returned to the country for the first time since the late 1960s, when he was stationed in Vung Tau with the Australian military during the American War. Thirty years later, the difference was remarkable: scores of hotels dotted the coastline, paved streets bustled with motorbikes, buses and taxis, and a string of waterfront bars played music well into the night. The sleepy seaside Vung Tau that Marshall remembered was now a popular weekend getaway for working Saigonese and, as he made subsequent trips back to visit, he became more and more enamoured with the town.
“Each time I came I was more impressed with the country and the people,” Marshall recalls. In 2004, he finally decided to move to Vung Tau where, by his count, another 20 to 30 retired veterans live. Today, Marshall devotes his time to the Vung Tau Victims & Friends Children’s Fund, an organisation which works to renovate schools around the former Australian task force area, and is able to stretch his dollars much further here than at home. Indeed, moving to Vietnam has allowed him not just the time but the means to pursue new things, including charity work.
“You’ve got to have an interest here rather than sitting around all day doing nothing,” Marshall explains. “You’ve got to have an interest to keep the mind working.”
For many Westerners, the picture of a happy retirement has long been bingo halls and golf courses, bridge games and book clubs. While this lifestyle suits many, not every retiree is ready to spend their days in a rocking chair on the veranda. In fact, as Western economies shrink and the cost of living in developed nations continues to soar, a growing number of retired and nearly-retired expats are setting their sights overseas, where more affordable cities and new adventures await.
For this reason, Southeast Asia boasts its fair share of retired foreign residents. Thanks to a warm climate and rich cultures, not to mention a host of nascent, still-developing economies, countries like Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines provide a reasonably high standard of living at a fraction of Western costs. While Vietnam is not home to as many expat retirees as some of its neighbours, the country’s appeal lies in its ‘newness’: it wasn’t long ago that Vietnam was emerging as a tourist destination, let alone a place Western expats would consider living. Only in the last decade or so has the notion of retiring on the shores of Nha Trang or Vung Tau, Danang or Hoi An surfaced as a possibility.
Nowadays, however, the country has firmly established itself as one of the most affordable places to retire overseas. Hop online and you’ll find several lists, published by news outlets like CNN, ABC News and the Huffington Post, that rank Vietnam among the best destinations for expat retirees. One such article, featured earlier this year by US News, estimated a monthly budget of around USD $650 for expat residents in Nha Trang.
For Marshall, this was a large part of the reason for his move. Though his military pension was enough to get by, it didn’t allow for much beyond the essentials.
“While I could live in Australia, I could only just live,” Marshall says. “But over here the money goes a lot further. You can virtually do what you want, within reason.”
An Unlikely Expat
Technically speaking, Mary Lower has had two careers: first, as a schoolteacher and administrator in her native Canada, and again as part of the international school circuit, working as an administrator in Mexico, Egypt and Vietnam before retiring in 2012. The 72-year-old expat’s second career began almost as soon as her first ended – a year after leaving the elementary school in her hometown, where she had worked for over a decade, Lower visited a Queen’s University, Ontario recruiting fair and found herself considering a job offer from the American School of Tampico, Mexico.
“I guess I was bored,” she says. Though Lower hadn’t had much time to adjust to retired life, she missed the dynamic of a school. Things were quieter at home and, though she still managed to get out to the theatre or take a few holidays here and there, life after work left her feeling like there ought to be something more.
Lower’s husband encouraged her to go. “Take the job,” Lower remembers him saying, “And I’ll come be your house husband.” She accepted, jetting off to Mexico to spend three years as a high school principal. It was the best of both worlds: at work, Lower cherished her daily interaction with students but, outside of school, she was free to travel and explore a new culture, something that hadn’t seemed possible in her younger years, when kids and careers had kept both her and her husband rooted in Canada. When her contract ended in Tampico, Lower decided to continue seeing the world. After Mexico came a two-year stint in Egypt and, finally, Vietnam.
Within a few months of arriving in Saigon in 2003, Lower had already found a job with Saigon South International School, heading up the elementary school. A few months later, her son, who works in property management, also settled in the city. With her family close by, Lower adjusted quickly to life in Saigon. Though it hadn’t been her original plan to retire here, the comfortable lifestyle available, combined with a job she enjoyed and the arrival of her grandson, now eight years old, made it easy for Lower to stick around.
Now retired, the Canadian expat remains an active part of the city’s international school community, volunteering and moonlighting from time to time for an American school accreditation agency, which allows her to travel around Asia. Lower also attends networking events, like CanCham’s Hour of Power, and is a member of the International Ladies in Vietnam organisation, as well as an avid reader and traveler.
“I see retirement as an opportunity to take advantage of what the world has to offer,” she says. But perhaps her greatest pleasure is spending time with her grandson.
“I guess I’m really fortunate in that respect,” says Lower of her family ties in Vietnam. While many retired expats have to juggle their lives abroad with loved ones at home, Lower is able to see her family, who live in the same apartment complex, every day. Though stretching her pension was never an issue for Lower, being able to afford certain luxuries – fresh flowers, for instance, or regular leg massages – at a fraction of the cost back home is certainly not a bad deal.
Still, for all the benefits a life in Vietnam can offer, there are a few drawbacks. Part of the country’s appeal is the fact that it is still developing and, as such, offers a bit more adventure. But while other Southeast Asian countries have retirement or long-term visa programs – Malaysia, for instance, offers a 10-year visa and land ownership rights to those who apply – foreign residents in Vietnam are not eligible to apply for long-term visas without a work permit, forcing retired expats to navigate the tedious red tape of visa renewals on a regular basis. Thanks to her son’s job, Lower has the necessary documentation to stay in the country without a work permit, however her visa still requires routine updates.
“It’s an easy place to live if you can get the paperwork,” she says. “It would be great if Vietnam offered a retirement visa, as some other Asian countries do.”
Lower is not the first to echo this sentiment. Last year, Viet Nam News published the article ‘Irrational policies spoil VN as retirement destination’, in which it asked readers to share their thoughts on Vietnam as an option for retirement. Several respondents were retired expats already living in the country and, while each was quick to point to the culture, the people and the low cost of living as positive aspects of the country, the same negative appeared in each response: visas.
“Vietnam has such an opportunity to attract foreign retirees,” wrote Scott Shepard, an Australian expat living in Hanoi. “But I’m afraid that these chances will be missed out on. Compared to its neighboring countries, the paperwork involved and obstacles that come because of that make it so difficult for people to consider moving here.”
Beyond the logistics of remaining in-country, Vietnam’s medical facilities are also a concern for elderly expats. While more reliable in Ho Chi Minh City, local hospitals and health services remain below Western standards, meaning more serious conditions require a trip abroad, either to Bangkok or Singapore, for treatment.
Lower, who has osteoporosis and rheumatoid arthritis, gets around just fine but, in a city that is not built for people with mobility issues, there are still occasional challenges. If, for instance, there’s an event taking place on the third floor of a building withs no elevator, there’s a chance she won’t attend.
“I’ve had to pay a fair amount [for health insurance],” says Lower, “and there’s a limit to what I can have taken care of in the city.”
Still in good health, Marshall, who lives a two-hour drive from Saigon’s higher-quality medical facilities, echoes Lower’s sentiment: health insurance is a must.
“You must be sure that you have good health cover,” he says. Though he will visit the local hospital in Vung Tau for minor aches and pains, Marshall maintains that “if anything major happened to me in the health department I’d feel more comfortable going back to Australia.”
An Unexpected Surprise
While retirement has been an ongoing journey for both Lower and Marshall, one thing is certain: Vietnam was never part of the plan.
“Never crossed my mind,” Marshall says. “[I] never imagined that I would end up living in Vietnam.” Though it was a long road to get to Vung Tau – Marshall spent eight years as a retiree in Australia before making the move – the unimaginable has turned out to be a pleasant surprise. “I think it’s added about 10 years to my life,” he says.
Lower, too, could not have foreseen her life on the other side of the world. Though she’d never planned to restart her teaching career or move abroad, four schools and three continents later, Lower has no regrets.
“Life is full of decisions to make all the time,” she explains. “There’s the old phrase, ‘one door closes, another one opens’.” Lower was simply lucky enough to have the door open to Vietnam.