American retiree Wendy Justice wakes up each morning to the sound of the rooster that lives in her neighborhood. That’s how she knows it’s time to head to the market to shop for the ingredients for breakfast. “I buy fresh-baked baguettes for 2,000 dong each, about 10 cents, and 10 large brown farm eggs for 20,000 dong,” she says. “For a change, I might pick up a dragon fruit for 9,000 dong.” These bright pink fruits with pink and green tendrils look forbidding on the outside, but the tender white fruit on the inside is sweet and delicious.
Justice is an unusual Westerner living in Nha Trang, Vietnam. Living there is helping her retirement savings to stretch much farther than it would in the U.S. Justice’s overall cost of living is about $750 per month, including $350 per month for rent for a furnished two-bedroom house with high-speed Internet and cable TV. “I can’t imagine a more enjoyable place to be retired or a more affordable one,” she says, especially now that the local vendors have come to know her. On a recent shopping trip a vendor she patronizes frequently informed her that prices would be 5 percent less going forward. “I realized I’d reached the point where haggling is no longer necessary,” Justice says.
Despite the low cost of living, the quality of life is high. There’s a long and pretty park that runs almost the entire length of the town’s six-mile-long beach and the bay is gorgeous, with several small islands easily visible just a short distance from shore. The low prices allow Justice to eat out often. Although there are dozens of restaurants in Nha Trang serving Western foods, Justice is working her way through the menu of a Vietnamese restaurant where few things on the menu cost more than 40,000 dong (slightly less than $2). Her current favorite is Hoi An-style mi quang, a bowl of thick noodles, pork, chicken, a hard-boiled quail egg, and various cooked and raw vegetables all soaking in a mild curry-based broth.
Living in a place where temperatures reach the mid-80s on a typical day, Justice appreciates that American styles of dress are acceptable. “No one minds that I wear shorts here,” she says. “Even the Vietnamese in this town wear them, unlike in many parts of Asia where modesty often takes precedence over comfort.” It’s appreciated by all when the ocean breeze cools things down a bit.
Justice says the modest size of Nha Trang is ideal for retirees. “Chances are that I'll run into someone I know and we'll make plans to get together later,” she says. “This is a small enough city that, after you've been here awhile, you are always running into people you know.”
She also gets the opportunity to immerse herself in another culture. “Street sweepers, real people with brooms and dustpans, clean the streets here three times a day,” she says. “Fields are maintained with hands and hoes, roads are built with buckets and rakes.” The minimum wage in Vietnam is about $100 per month and workers have not been replaced with modern machinery.
Each month on the night of the new moon, houses and stores set out beautifully arranged tables on the sidewalks filled with offerings of rice, fruit, wine, cakes, candies, and incense. The Vietnamese believe that their ancestral ghosts choose the night of the new moon or full moon to visit their families, so, on these days, people set feasts outside their homes for them. The family eats whatever food the ghosts leave behind. This is one of the many traditional practices Justice sees respected on a daily basis in Vietnam.
The cultural gap is giving an added richness and challenge to Justice’s retirement years. At her favorite restaurant, “The waitress knows me well and always takes a few moments to practice her English with me,” she says. “In return, I attempt to stumble through a conversation with her in my clumsy-but-improving Vietnamese.” But, so far, living within a different culture is not proving stressful. “However I choose to spend each day, I know that I will have no stress,” Justice says. “The weather is near-perfect day after day, and day-to-day life is forever relaxing.”
Kathleen Peddicord is the founder of the Live and Invest Overseas publishing group. With more than 25 years experience covering this beat, Kathleen reports daily on current opportunities for living, retiring, and investing overseas in her free e-letter. Her book, How To Retire Overseas—Everything You Need To Know To Live Well Abroad For Less, was recently released by Penguin Books.