Bangkok vs Saigon: Which Is Better for Expats and Nomads?

Bangkok and Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) are two of my favorite places I’ve stayed as a digital nomad. As two mega-cities in SE Asia, they offer a lot of the same perks, with big city energy and convenience at relatively low prices.

But what are the differences between Bangkok and Saigon? And how can you know which would be better for you? I’ll share my thoughts below on the shopping, convenience, transportation, food, social life, safety, English level, visa options, and more.

The Big Picture: Living in Bangkok vs Saigon

First off, Bangkok is generally more “developed” than Ho Chi Minh City. There are more skyscrapers filling the skyline, there are two metro trains, more big shopping malls, and more luxury high-rise condos.

Bangkok is also a bit more saturated with tourists. Especially in some popular areas like Nana, there are a ton of foreigners. (Saigon has plenty of tourists and expats, too, but not as much as Bangkok.)

Saigon is also a bit cheaper than Bangkok. You’ll especially see this with taxi and food costs, but your apartment or Airbnb will also probably be cheaper in Saigon.

So, overall:

  • Bangkok is more developed, maybe slightly safer, and has more visa options. But you’re going to pay slightly higher prices, and you’ll be surrounded by more other foreigners.
  • Saigon is slightly more “rough around the edges”—a bit less developed, and less convenient when it comes to visas. But it’s also cheaper, and it’s not as saturated with tourists.

If you really want a “soft landing” when first moving to Asia, Bangkok may be a slightly better choice. But honestly, they’re both great cities, with a somewhat similar value proposition.

Now that we’ve covered the overview, let’s take a closer look at some of the details.

Shopping (Bangkok Wins)

I’m always raving about the shopping malls in Bangkok. They’re really some of the best in the world. These include the 9th biggest mall in the world—CentralWorld—plus EmQuartier, Icon Siam, Terminal 21, and many more.

Saigon has some decent malls, too. Personally, I make semi-frequent use of Saigon Centre in D1, along with the little mall at the base of Landmark 81. I bought my last Macbook at the Vincom Mega Mall in Thảo Điền.

But none of those Saigon malls really compare to the vast selection and beautiful open designs of Bangkok shopping malls.

I’ve heard the Aeon malls are the best in Saigon—so I guess I’ll need to try those before I have a final verdict. But so far, Bangkok seems more convenient for shopping options overall.

Food (Bangkok Probably Wins)

Both of these cities have world-famous, affordable local cuisines, paired with a wide selection of international restaurants. Overall, food options are very good in both cities. But there are still some advantages I see in Bangkok.

First, grocery stores in Bangkok are generally bigger and better, with more international options. As I’ve detailed before, Villa Market, Gourmet Market, and Top’s Market in Bangkok all have great selections for an expat crowd.

Ho Chi Minh City has the Annam Gourmet grocery stores, which do have plenty of international options—but they’re a bit expensive. Aside from those, you may often find yourself shopping at WinMart, which I personally found pretty limited.

Secondly, Bangkok is famous for its rooftop bars, which are often perched on the 20th floor, 30th floor, or higher. And there are dozens of these with incredible views to explore.

Meanwhile, if you look up “Saigon rooftop bars,” you’ll find shorter lists to peruse. And more of them are a bit lower, as well—with 3rd floor, 8th floor, or 14th floor views. Not quite as spectacular as Bangkok.

Indeed, The Rooftop Guide has ranked Saigon 8/10 for rooftop bars, while Bangkok gets a solid 10/10 ranking. So, both are good, but Bangkok wins.

What about the local cuisine? It basically comes down to personal taste. Personally, I prefer Vietnamese food because I don’t like spicy food. But lots of expats prefer Thai food.

While both cities are awesome for food, Bangkok seems to have a bit of an edge overall (without taking personal taste into account).

Cost of Living (Saigon Wins)

Saigon and Bangkok are both awesomely affordable compared to living in America and other western countries. In fact, in my personal opinion, these cities are two of the best places in the world to live a “high-end” lifestyle for cheap.

Because they’re big cities, there is a “high end” available—but the “high end” is still relatively affordable on the scale of what most westerners earn.

Overall, Numbeo says that Ho Chi Minh City has a 21% lower cost of living than Bangkok. Ho Chi Minh City has cheaper rent prices, consumer prices, restaurant prices, and grocery prices. (source)

So that’s the objectively reported answer… But I’d like to share some of my personal experience, as well.

First, about hotels and apartments: Personally, I like staying in high-rise condos near the city center. Both Bangkok and Saigon have these, but there are many more such options to choose between in Bangkok.

I usually rent Airbnbs short-term since I move a lot. In both of these cities, I usually end up in the range of $30 to $55 per night for a nice studio or one-bedroom in a high-rise condo. I don’t see a big price difference between the cities there.

Obviously, if you sign a long-term lease, you can pay much less per month. Probably most of the rooms I stay in would cost $400 to $1,000 per month in that case.

When it comes to taxi prices, Saigon seems to be considerably cheaper. Of course, that is, if you’re avoiding scams, using the taxi meter or a ride-hailing app like Grab. (More about transportation below.)

When it comes to food, I think Saigon is a bit cheaper, too. The local food can be very cheap in Vietnam. I’ve been shocked to order 4 entrees (way more than I need, just to try stuff) and still only pay ~120,000 Dong (~$5 USD).

Of course, cheap local food can be found in both cities, but my personal experience has been that I usually end up paying more for my meals in Bangkok on average, compared to Saigon.

Scenery (Bangkok Probably Wins)

The beautiful “scenery” in these two cities is usually going to be based on the skyline views—maybe in combination with the curving rivers they both have.

Bangkok has a lot more skyscrapers than Ho Chi Minh City. As of July 2023, Bangkok has 110 skyscrapers over 150 meters tall, which puts Bangkok 14th in the world. That’s more than Singapore, Seoul, or Toronto. (source)

Meanwhile, Ho Chi Minh City ranks about 65th in the world in skyscrapers, with only 21 buildings over 150 meters tall, from the listings I could find. (source, source)

So, generally speaking, Bangkok’s skyline is more vast, with more impressive structures to take in. However, I do think some of the views in Ho Chi Minh City are really enhanced by the river’s presence right alongside D1.

As I write this blog post, the view from my $43/night Airbnb in Saigon is one of the best I’ve ever had in Asia, particularly at night.

So really, there are amazing city views in both cities… But Bangkok probably has more of them, with more rooftop bars, more high-rise condos, and more skyscrapers in general.

Transportation (Saigon Probably Wins)

The transportation situation is actually quite different between Saigon vs Bangkok, as of 2023. Let’s discuss the traffic, ride-sharing apps, and public transport options.

Most big cities are known for “bad traffic” of one kind or another. But in my experience, Bangkok has worse gridlock “traffic jams” than Saigon. I think this has to do with the higher amount of cars in Bangkok.

Saigon traffic is really mostly motorbikes. If you look around in a busy Saigon street, it might be 80% motorbikes, only 20% cars. But the Bangkok balance leans more toward cars.

In Saigon rush hour traffic, of course the traffic moves slower—but it doesn’t get completely stopped as much as Bangkok. Therefore, the effects of rush hour and traffic congestion don’t seem quite as bad in Saigon.

Now let’s talk about ride-hailing apps. In my opinion, these are the best way to get around both cities as a foreigner, because you don’t have to worry about language barriers or rip-off prices from normal taxi drivers.

Both Saigon and Bangkok have Grab, which is basically the Uber of SE Asia. But as of 2023, Grab prices and wait times are notably worse in Bangkok.

In Saigon, my Grab Bike driver usually shows up within ~2 minutes, but in Bangkok it usually takes more like 5-10 minutes. Occasionally, I’ve waited 15+ minutes for my driver to arrive in Bangkok.

So, as of mid-2023, Grab seems to be a lot faster (and cheaper) in Saigon than Bangkok. Combined with the relative lack of gridlock traffic, this makes Saigon a bit faster to get around via Grab Bike.

However, Bangkok has more robust public transportation than Saigon. Bangkok has the MRT and BTS trains, which are clean, modern, and quite good overall.

Saigon has a metro train coming, but as of mid-2023, it’s not open yet. As some people may strongly prefer metro trains over motorbike taxis, this could tip the scale toward Bangkok for some of you.

Taking the train in Bangkok surely seems safer than the motorbike taxis in either city. Anyone who’s taken motorbike taxis in SE Asia a lot can tell you, it often feels kind of dangerous. Not for the faint of heart.

So, overall, it depends on your preferences. But for me as a motorbike taxi fan, I think Saigon is the quicker and cheaper city to get around.

Visa Issues (Bangkok Wins)

The visa situation is always changing, but as of mid-2023, this is a clear win for Thailand. Without going into all the details, let’s overview the situation:

  • Thailand: There are various long-term visas, including the Education visa, Elite Visa, Volunteer Visa, Long Term Resident Visa (a.k.a. “digital nomad visa”), “retirement visa,” Investor visa, work visas, and I think even more. These all come with costs or requirements, but most foreigners could qualify for one or more.
  • Vietnam: There are considerably fewer long-term options. No “retirement visa.” Nothing like the Thai Elite Visa where you can just pay money for unlimited access. And the requirements to get a business visa in Vietnam have become more strict in recent years, too.

As of right now, properly staying long-term in Vietnam may require you to work in the country (e.g., as an English teacher), marry a Vietnamese person, or start a real, legit business that is legally based in Vietnam.

That said, some expats do utilize “visa runs” to stay in Vietnam long-term. Basically, you can use the short-term tourist visas (currently the 30-day e-visa) and do a bunch of them back-to-back.

Whenever your visa is close to expiring, you just need to leave the country briefly and then come back in with a new visa. I’ve heard that some expats have lived in Vietnam for years by doing these visa runs over and over.

Safety and Crime (Bangkok Probably Wins)

Both Bangkok and Saigon are generally pretty safe. Nomad List ranks both as “Good” for Safety. So you could make an argument that it’s a tie. But I would argue Bangkok might be safer.

On the issue of traffic safety: Both countries are relatively bad in that regard, and I don’t see a clear winner. Vietnam streets may look crazy with so many motorbikes, but Thai drivers seem to go faster, and you won’t be given a helmet for most motorbike taxi rides in Thailand.

Now, onto the issue of theft, pickpockets, or “snatching.” In this area, Saigon seems to be worse than Bangkok. I don’t have stats on this—but Vietnam expats and locals both have repeatedly warned me to be careful with my phone in public.

I guess it’s quite common for phones to get stolen in Vietnam, particularly from people driving by on a motorbike and snatching them. This is also an issue with bags sitting on benches, and so on.

I’m aware that such “snatching” happens in Thailand, too—but it seems much less common, or at least I’ve heard a lot less about it. So, I’d probably count this as a little win for Bangkok.

English Proficiency (Probably a Tie)

Most expats are not fluent in Thai or Vietnamese. So, the English level of the locals (and signage) could be an important factor. But is it really an issue in Saigon or Bangkok?

Let’s start by consulting a couple sources:

  • Education First ranks Vietnam’s English proficiency as significantly better than Thailand. Vietnam is scored as “Moderate Proficiency,” while Thailand is ranked as “Very Low Proficiency.” (source)
  • Nomad List ranks Ho Chi Minh City as slightly better than Bangkok for “English Speaking.” Both cities are scored as “Bad” for English, but the exact score is a bit lower for Bangkok. (source, source)

So, these sources tell us that Vietnam is a bit better English than Thailand. But what has my personal experience been?

Honestly, I’ve actually found Thailand to have better English if you’re in the touristy areas. In those areas, it seems that a lot of Thai vendors, taxi drivers, hotel staff, etc, are very familiar with catering to foreigners with English.

Of course, maybe the same could be said of touristy spots in Saigon, too. But Thailand is about twice as popular with tourists—and it just feels like some parts of Bangkok especially lean into serving foreigners rather than locals.

Meanwhile, sometimes when I’ve tried talking to staff in Vietnamese stores, I’ve struggled to communicate at all. (Obviously, it depends on the individual. There are plenty of fluent English speakers around.)

So, the sources say that Vietnam has better English… but my personal experience was that Bangkok has better English. It’s probably roughly a tie.

Dating and Social Life (Probably a Tie)

Bangkok and Saigon have populations of around 10 million each. So there are plenty of people to meet. Both cities are popular with digital nomads and expats, too, if you prefer to socialize with other foreigners.

The high population density means dating apps and language exchange apps are relatively efficient ways to meet people in both cities. Despite occasional language barriers, there are also plenty of fluent English speakers in both cities.

As an American guy in his 30s who’s dated in both cities, I’d say both are great for dating. I’ve had no problem lining up numerous dates, and ultimately finding great people to hang out with in both cities.

There’s a stereotype that Vietnam has a more conservative, traditional dating culture than Thailand, and some people say the dating process will move along a lot slower in Vietnam.

However, I’ve found that to really depend on who you meet. Whether you’re looking for a casual or serious connection in either city, you can find it.

Overall, I listed Bangkok as the “winner” for more categories in this post. But of course, the best choice will depend on your personal preferences. Personally I recommend trying both. If you love one, you’ll probably like the other, too!