Expat life in Saigon vs Phnom Penh

After recently moving to Saigon after 2+ years in Phnom Penh, I’m now being asked what the differences are between life in the two cities. This got me thinking – what are the pros and cons to living in each? And which is the better place to live? Having only been in Saigon a couple of months I don’t have a full understanding of how this city ticks, so my observations may change after living here a little longer. But for now, these are the main differences I’ve encountered:
Phnom Penh is like a big country town and Saigon, an Asian NYC! In Phnom Penh (let’s just call it PP) everything is close, there’s no ‘commute’ as such, and five minutes after leaving home you’re at your bar/restaurant/shop/market/friend’s house of choice. Assuming you don’t live in Toul Kork or over the Japanese Bridge, that is! Meanwhile in Saigon, the crazy traffic and vast distances mean you can sit in a taxi forever just trying to get from A to B. Which brings me to my next point…
After grappling with motos and tuk-tuks in PP (and having to bargain each and every time – it gets so old), Saigon has a refreshing alternative – metered taxis! Not only is an air-conditioned taxi much more comfortable than a breezy, bumpy tuk-tuk (the fun factor dries up after the first few rides) but I no longer have to deal with the bargaining issue. And unlike Thailand, you don’t have drivers who try and get out of turning the meter on.
There are marked differences between Cambodian and Vietnamese people, but not wishing to offend I’m not going to go there. Instead, let’s talk expats. In PP it seems easier to meet people. Just go to a first Friday party at Elsewhere or prop up the bar at Rubies and you’re bound to form some fast and firm friendships after not too long. In Saigon, though, the sheer number of bars and expat hangouts means the scene seems more disjointed than PP’s. Where to even begin?! There are also a lot more NGO workers, creative souls and wandering hippy types in PP, while Saigon seems to attract a more professional, business -minded breed of expat. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it also changes the vibe of the cafes and bars. Saigon’s don’t have as casual a feel as PP’s.
Food & Drink
Both cities are excellent ‘food’ places. Vietnam’s sheer number of options are overwhelming and there’s much better street food here in Saigon, but PP has some truly excellent cafes and restaurants (that I miss!). More Saigon sampling is required before I can really compare the two!
Both cities are over-priced (in my opinion) – rents can be similar (or more) to those in Sydney, which doesn’t really make sense. In both places it can be hard to find a place that’s not badly designed or ridiculously tacky (think ugly patterned tiles, even uglier chandeliers, kitchens with no windows…). In Saigon there are lots of tall skinny houses that sound great in theory (5 bedrooms! 5 bathrooms!) but may also have 5 levels of steep stairs to contend with and again, no windows in the kitchens or bathrooms. I’ve come to a compromise with the bathrooms (both ours are windowless) but now have a kitchen with lots of bright natural light flooding in via a room length window – yay!
I could go on and on…but basically, Saigon wins in terms of transport (but I wish there was also a subway) and street food, while it’s a tie for other food and housing. And PP wins for people (for now!) and size – although I usually love large cities so perhaps Saigon’s size will grow on me. I think I’ve been spoilt (or become really lazy) living in a smaller place where things are easier to find and get to. At least the two cities are close enough that I can visit PP when I get too homesick for all my old favourite haunts!

9 Responses

  1. Brown2lip December 4, 2008 / 7:35 am

    i always think Saigon is quite easily accessible and no where is too far, of course not in jam hours from 4h30 to 6h30. I would take motorbike taxi more than taxi to get around town. Easier…
    Come check out some nice nightlife places like Alibi bar, Vasco, La Habana, Cantina Central, Q bar… It would help if you are on facebook, there are lots of handy info for you to review ^^

  2. alisonincambodia December 4, 2008 / 8:54 am

    Interesting comparison. I’ve never been to Saigon but looking forward to getting there one day. Do you speak either Khmer or VN? Do you think one place is easier than the other for a non-speaker? I speak Khmer but it seems like PP is a pretty easy place to live for non-speakers too.

  3. A Girl in Asia December 4, 2008 / 2:57 pm

    Brown2lip – thanks for the tips, I love Q Bar and Cantina Central, need to check some more places out though!

    Alison – I speak basic Khmer and next to no Vietnamese (except how to say turn left and turn right – so useful!). I’d say PP is much easier as a non-speaker – many more people seem to speak English there than Saigon. Anyway, I know I need to make effort to learn some Vietnamese!

  4. Anonymous December 4, 2008 / 7:05 pm

    Since you haven’t mentioned Vietnam’s number one attraction….Pho…..

    In downtown Saigon, the best pho, in my humble opinion at Pho Hao on Pasteur Street in D1

    Another option is Pho 2000 near Ben Thanh Market…not as splendid but AC and good if and when your child insists on escaping from parental oversight. PW

  5. Prêt à Voyager December 12, 2008 / 3:40 am

    very interesting! i was a big fan of PP when i was there (although there was a major trash problem when we were there, and it was hard to see all the poverty at almost every corner). haven’t been to saigon…yet 😉


  6. A Girl in Asia December 12, 2008 / 6:24 am

    There’s still a fairly big trash problem in PP – Saigon looks so clean in comparison!

  7. Shanti Wallah January 5, 2009 / 3:52 am

    Hi Liz, I’ve just discovered your blog and I love it. It makes me think about what kind of blogging I could’ve done had the internet not been as slow back when we lived in HCMC (My husband and I left about 3.5 years ago for Japan before coming back to NZ this past year). The changes in HCMC are amazing. I also loves your attitude towards Bangkok as it sounds the same as our. We call it our “living room” because that’s where we go to get Western size clothes, go to the dentist, etc. I have to warn you that the taxi drivers don’t necessarily try not to turn on the metres in Saigon, but they do fix them so they turn over quicker. Make sure you ask around for a reputable company and stick with it. Also, we had an excellent tailor called Kim My who worked on the street alongside the park perpendicular to Pham Ngu Lao. Sorry I can’t think of the name of that street off-hand, but look for her, she’s really good. I hope you enjoy Saigon as much as we did:-)

  8. A Girl in Asia January 5, 2009 / 5:47 am

    Hi Shanti
    Thanks for your comments and tips – I try to mostly use Mai Linh taxis as they seem the least dodgy! I’ll keep my eye out for that tailor too as haven’t found one in Saigon yet. By the way – I also wished I started my blog earlier – I was living in Phnom Penh for about 2 years before I started blogging and there’s so much I could have written about during that time!!! I’ve just checked out your blog too – it looks great, I’ll subscribe!

  9. xpicassox July 11, 2009 / 5:25 am

    GREAT BLOG !!! Makes me want to go back to Saigon and PP. Keep up the GREAT Work.
    Dan in New York

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