Saigon vs. Chiang Mai. The best city of location independent Entrepreneurs.

I used to think Chiang Mai, Thailand was the best and only place in the world for digital nomads and location independent entrepreneurs to live and build their business.  Chiang Mai seemed perfect, it's cheap, the weather is fantastic, there are great co-working spaces, the food is incredible and there are tons of other entrepreneurs to meet and network with.

I've heard of other hubs such as Berlin, Germany and Bali, Indonesia but none of them had the appeal of living in Thailand in terms of balance.  Berlin is cold, and Bali is expensive and the internet sucks. But then I discovered a utopia for digital nomads in Vietnam known as Saigon.

chiang mai vs saigon

Pros and Cons of Saigon and Chiang Mai

First off, if you are somewhere cold, expensive and don't meet other entrepreneurs at least on a weekly basis, get off your butt, book your flight and come to either hub.  You'll be better off in either city especially if you are bootstrapping your business and wanting to live cheaply while having free time to build your business.

However there are both upsides and downsides to each city which I'll highlight in today's post.

ho chi minh saigon apartment

Cost of Living:

Chiang Mai is at least 25% cheaper than Saigon, which by the way is officially named Ho Chi Minh City.  The cost of rent for a basic, non-shared room with an ensuite bathroom can be had in Chiang Mai for around $200US and a comparable room in Saigon is $250. I've lived in both.

For those wanting a more baller pad, the average cost of a 1 bedroom suite in Chiang Mai ranges between $400-$667US per month.  For a comparable place in Saigon the price will be between $650-$1,100 per month.  In either city, you can also find places that are much more than that but these are nice places in good locations that are decent finds.

Apartment Video Tours:

My $200 a month room in Chiang Mai.
My $250 a month room in Saigon.
My $667 a month 1 bedroom suite in Chiang Mai.

Winner of Costs of Living: Chiang Mai

vietnamese food costs

Cost of Food:

Both cities have great food and both have a wonderful selection of local food as well as expat friendly western food which everyone ends up missing if you've been living in Asia for over six months.  In either city, you don't need a kitchen or to ever cook for yourself as it is normal and affordable to eat out 21 weeks per week.

Street Food:

If you're eating local food at stalls or stands the options in Vietnam are mostly Pho which is Beef Noodle Soup, Banh Mi which is Vietnamese Sandwiches and pre-prepared food.  Costs range from 60 cents to $1.50.  Tastes great and is super cheap.

In Chiang Mai you won't find tasty Vietnamese sandwiches on the street but you will have tons of BBQ meat on a stick, Pad Thai, Chinese Noodle Soup, and made to order Thai food, all for around $1 to $2.

Tied.  Both Chiang Mai and Vietnam have super cheap street food.  The small upper hand goes to Chiang Mai for having more Paleo friendly street food and more variety.

vietnam paleo

Restaurants in Saigon vs. Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai has so many incredible restaurants that you won't get tired of them.  I've been here for over a year and am still finding new favorites all of the time, especially if you are making a western wage and can afford to venture out into normal US prices.  My favorite restaurants include high end Thai restaurants that cost around $5 per dish, to the Carvery Buffet at Kantary Hills Hotel that gives you all you can eat New Zealand Lamb, Baked Salmon and Prime Rib for $18US.

Saigon also has a ton of good restaurants.  Good Vietnamese food to great Japanese food and a few all you can eat buffets scattered around as well.  My favorite places to eat were Tokyo Town which is grilled japanese style bbq, which I liked better than BBQ Garden, and the Sushi Bar. The best breakfast I've had anywhere is at Phatty's.  L'usine was my favorite lunch spot and the beef stew at M2C Cafe was incredible.

Winner for Best Restaurants: Chiang Mai

This was a close call as both have great restaurants, and Saigon has better Japanese food than Chiang Mai, but overall the restaurants in Chiang Mai are slightly better and are cheaper.  It's normal to spend $15US every time you go out for dinner in Saigon, but for that you get decent food but usually not something incredible.

In contrast for a decent meal in Chiang Mai at a restaurant you'll spent $6 or less and anything in the $15+ range you get an incredible meal worth writing home about.  But the main reason why Chiang Mai wins on this is because I've been in Chiang Mai and Thailand now for 4 years and still love the food, while in Vietnam, I really loved it for the first few weeks then started getting a bit bored of their selection.

$6 dinner in Chiang Mai (filmed 1 year ago)

Gyms and Fitness:

Saigon has a bunch of prison style gyms around the city that are cheap, but if you're looking for a western quality gym the best place is Vincharm gym.  Great location, facilities, and an incredible steam room, sauna and cold dip plunge pool.  Price is ultra expensive at $150 - $250 a month.

Chiang Mai has health spa memberships at all of the 5 star hotels for the same price, but there is also Muay Thai, BJJ and CrossFit which are better workouts.   The only thing that Chiang Mai is missing is a ice cold plunge pool to jump into straight after the Sauna.

 Winner of best gyms is Chiang Mai.  

coffee shops saigon

Coffee and Coffee Shops:

Chiang Mai has great coffee.  Ristr8to on Nimmanhaemin Rd has international award winning coffee and there are local organic coffee farms just hours away that deliver fresh coffee to tons of great cafes around Chiang Mai.

Most places have free wifi, but many are limited to 1 hour. Saigon however has really good Vietnamese coffee which is roasted with butter oil and tastes almost too good to be healthy.  The best thing about coffee shops in Saigon however is the free, fast wifi and the fact that they encourage you to hang out all day and not feel like you have to order food or drinks if you're not hungry.

Winner for best coffee shops, Saigon.  

Vietnam wins because of the usability of coffee shops as a mobile office for entrepreneurs.  If you're looking to work out of a coffee shop, Saigon is the place to be although Chiang Mai is starting to have more and more options and super fast wifi hotspots through cell phone carriers such as AIS and True.

punspace coworking chaing mai

Co-Working Spaces

Chiang Mai is fast growing with the number of great co-working spaces to choose from.  PunSpace is my go to, which has two locations both open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for members. There is also a few others including a new one called Camp in the Maya mall which is free.

Saigon has the Saigon Hub (now closed) as well as WORKSaigon.

The Saigon Hub is good for seminars, and good for heads down work in a quiet environment but terrible for networking or socializing.  WorkSaigon is beautiful, but offers too little seating room and is in an awkward location with no restaurants nearby.

Out of the 60 entrepreneurs I've met in Saigon, only three of them worked out of coworking spaces regularly.  If you're looking for a place to go daily, Chiang Mai and in particular, PunSpace Nimman is the place to be.

Edit: Dreamplex Saigon opened recently and Saigon finally has a good working space. Unfortunately it's not open Sundays so I couldn't check it out when I was in town last.

Saigon wins hands down.  The internet is blazing fast in Saigon.  However, the internet is fast enough and stable enough to Skype in Chiang Mai so I've never had any real complaints aside from wanting to stream HD video.The internet speed in Saigon is a lot faster but is also a lot less stable as they only have one main connection that runs underwater from Hong Kong and goes down every few months when eaten by sharks. (not a typo)

The internet speed in Chiang Mai is slower at the time of writing but is getting faster and is good enough to skype. The reason why CM still gets the edge is because there are multiple providers and places like PunSpace subscribe to all three so if one goes down you can just switch to another network without even log back in.

Winner for Best Co-Working Spaces Chiang Mai.  

entrepreneurs digital nomads

Networking with Other Entrepreneurs:

 Chiang Mai is the first place in the world I've ever met this many location independent entrepreneurs. I'd meet them randomly at coffee shops, at Couchsurfing meetups and at coworking spaces.  There are tons of facebook groups, meetups and random places you can meet other like minded people in Chiang Mai.

Best of which, you can basically just show up at Punspace or the Weekly Nomad Coffee Meetups and be plugged right into the network. Saigon is the mecca of entrepreneurs, it seemed like every other day I would be hanging out with 30+ digital nomads who I previously had only known through their podcasts.  The problem however is finding them.  Once you're plugged in, you'll meet 50 others. But meeting that first person is nowhere as easy as it is in Chiang Mai as people work out of random coffee shops that change on a daily basis.

Winner for best networking for Entrepreneurs is Chiang Mai.  

This was a very close call and I originally wanted to call it a tie.  Saigon wins for having higher level entrepreneurs who have million dollar businesses, and during the month of March where it is burning season in Chiang Mai, the scene is booming in Saigon.

However, unless you're already plugged into the community, you can't just show up and expect to meet anyone in Saigon.  If you're already part of a networking group and know people in Saigon, go there.  If you're just starting out and want to surround yourself and meet new people, go to Chiang Mai.

Edit: Chiang Mai is starting to fill up with more and more million dollar business entrepreneurs.

location independant

Stress and Safety:

Chiang Mai is a safe haven compared to Bangkok and the rest of Thailand.  There is always going to be some crime, but life in Chiang Mai is far safer than any city I've been in the U.S. and safer than 99% of the world.  You can pretty much leave your laptop and iPhone on the table at any cafe and more than likely it'll be there when you come back from the bathroom.  You can also accidently overpay for something and get chased down the block with your change.

Saigon however, although much safer than the rest of Vietnam, is one of the few places in the world I've constantly had to worry about being robbed.  Every other day I hear about someone getting ripped off, robbed, or witnessing someone getting robbed.  Once you learn what you should pay for things you won't get ripped off as often, but it's still an everyday occurrence to watch out for.  Saigon is also a place you always have to hold onto your phone tight and wallet even tighter as snatch and grabs are common.  

Chiang Mai is the clear winner for safety and stress.  

The longer you live in Saigon the more aware and jaded you become, so it is possible to never had any issues.  But there is a constant stress of watching your pursue, laptop and phone from being stolen.  In the three weeks I've been there I've personally had friends with their purses stolen, had people see bag snatching and laptops being stolen, as well as being ripped off by taxis from the airport.  You can find reports of these things happening in Chiang Mai if you search for it, but it's not something you have to worry about yourself.  

The only big benefit of Saigon is always being on your toes keeps your hustling hard and motivated to go go go.

saigon ho chi minh vietnam
Watch your back while walking, there are no sidewalks.


Chiang Mai is relatively small, but unless you live on Nimmanhaemin road and don't often go into the main city, you'll need a motorbike.  Taxis are available for $1 during the day, and $5 to get home after a bar at night but most people rent a scooter as it is really easy to get around.

Saigon is huge and spread out.  Luckily most things you'll want to go to are around District 1 near the Norte Dame Cathedral.  You can walk to most places however be warned that walking is stressful as motorbikes drive on the sidewalks.  You can rent a scooter but traffic in Saigon is 20x worse than Chiang Mai so it'll take some getting used to.  Luckily taxis are everywhere, almost like a New York of Asia.  The only problem is only two taxi companies are legitimate Vinasun and Mai Linh. All other taxi companies will change you 10x the price and possibly try to physically rob you.  

Best Transportation is TIED.  Chiang Mai wins if you are driving a scooter.  While Saigon wins if you insist on walking or taking taxis.  

Edit: Saigon now as Uber which is awesome.

chiang mai thailand

Nature and Weekend Getaways:

Chiang Mai has a ton of nature and things to do on weekends.  Best of all you can get away from the city and breathe clean fresh air in the mountains just 20 minutes away.  You can also take short trips to places like Pai, or even hop on a short direct flight down to the islands in the south for $100 return.

Saigon has nowhere to escape to.  The best thing I found was the rooftop pool parties on the weekend but even then you are still surrounded by pollution and noise.  There are a few beaches an hour away from Saigon especially if you fly but they aren't anything like the ones in Thailand.

Best weekend trips Chiang Mai.  

The main reason why I had to get out of Saigon was there was no escape or rest otherwise.  It loved the hustle of the weekdays and the energy of the city, but I need to get away once in a while as well.  Chiang Mai is a bit too relaxed sometimes for people used to the energy of New York City but if you're like me and want to focus and build business during the week and relax on the weekends, Saigon isn't a place to relax. 

Want more?

Listen to Episode 26 of the Travel Like a Boss Podcast and hear both sides of the conversation. Anton loves Saigon and is still there now, and I couldn't get to get back to Chiang mai where I am today.  

You can find and subscribe to the podcast on Stitcher on Android and the Podcast App on your iPhone or go to Travel Like a Boss Podcast Episode 26 here.  

Feel free to ask any questions down in the comment box below or voice your opinion on which city you prefer and why and we'll settle this Vietnam vs. Thailand debate once and for all.

Warm Regards,


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  1. Hi! And thanks :). I'm heading to asia next winter and your post has been helpful in getting a feel for the posibilities. Cheers! Judith

    1. Hey Juuth, I'm glad you enjoyed this post, make sure you listen to the podcast episode as well for more tips. Enjoy your time in Asia Judith.

  2. Fantastic job. I had an interactive agency in Cebu, PH in 2005. That is still a huge IT center and great SE Asia location which gets little coverage: something I don't understand.

    There are so many variables to what environment is best for independent work. Most DO point to Chaing Mai and Saigon as the best.

    I've been looking at these two and Cebu, PH as I get ready to "go back" to the ex pat remote work. So much depends on priorities. For me, social life is critical. I'm in my mid 40s but working hard and very accomplished in the digital world. The "nomad" world is more 20s and 30s. So for me I want to meet more people native to the country that may be closer to my age. With that comes the language is which you didn't address. If my language learning ability is lousy (like many going to SEA) what "wins"? I'd guess is pretty equal for your article. But Cebu, PH is 50x better her due to English being the language in Uni.

    SO, for me, language makes 1/3 the choice. Also there is the issue of dating, both for guys and women "nomads." I think that's better in the PH than Thailand for guys and gals who want to date Asians. Thai culture is not as accepting of Westerns from my travels and IMHO.

    1. Hey Boston, I'm glad you enjoyed the interview.

      I've never had a problem communicating in Thailand as I try to be clear and concise. I know all of the words for my favorite Thai dishes, and have gotten by with around 10 key thai phrases.

      As for dating, Thailand is a great place for westerners to meet each other, both male and female. I met my girlfriend who is from South Africa out here. As for dating locals i'll leave that up to you guys. =)

    2. I also lived in the Philippines - down in Davao. I think that the key difference is that there are local startups rather than expats ( ). Some of them are really doing very well and are totally open to hanging out with anyone. It's also very easy to find a team to help you get your startup going much quicker.
      The food in Davao is very good although more like Saigon prices than Thai. Accommodation can be a little bit expensive as well, although if you find the right place it's crazy cheap.
      The gyms are pretty cheap and great.
      It's also the safest city in Asia, although a little dull after dark.

    3. Hey James, thanks for the info on Davao. I agree that if a startup is looking to hire a team of local talent then places like the PI are a great place to be.

  3. I've just been traveling 2 weeks in Vietnam (HCM, Danang and Hanoi) and for me Chiang Mai is 100% above any city i've been in Asia (except Ubud maybe). Hoi An would'nt be too bad i guess, more laid down like Pai, but still far from being as confortable as in Thailand.

    Vietnam is too crazy, noisy, polluted. I had my rental bike stolen (locked in front of my hotel). They wanted 600$ and after 3 hours negotiating i put it down to 350$

    Anyway a big +1 for CM :)

    1. Hey Simon, glad you have had a chance to go to both Saigon and Chiang Mai to make the comparison yourself. Sorry to hear about the theft in Vietnam, it's so common that it's almost like having a Vietnam visitors tax to get ripped off at least once. +2 for Chiang Mai =)

  4. Good comparison of the two cities.

    I've been in Saigon for a month, and would like to add that Uber and Grab Taxi - both are apps for smartphones - are the best way to get around town (and not get overcharged).

    Uber is cheaper and easier than Mai Linh or Vinasun; Grab Taxi can hail you a taxi, motorbike (cheap, fun, and usually faster), or even deliver something to you.

    Side note: Grab Taxi drivers generally call you to confirm your whereabouts. This can be troublesome as they rarely speak English. Best to have a local friend next to you, choose easily recognizable addresses or landmarks, or use Uber.

    1. Hey Kyle, thanks for the heads up about Uber. I would definitely use them if I go back to Saigon. Also the new coworking space dreamplex looks awesome as well.

  5. I've got 14 years in as Chiang Mai expat and just have to say WOW! You've done a great job of covering so many important topics and representing 'exactly' what I know to be as my home city. Updates: Coffee Monster has shut-down unfortunately. PunSpace has a new (destruction first) construction project going 10 meters away that will take years (noise and dust) to complete. Bangkok people arrived in droves after big floods there 2 to 3 years ago (they bought and built on every vacant lot around the city; row-houses without planning for water, electric, parking). There is no longer off-times for traffic in the city (a digital nomad could pick a big morning and afternoon window to scooter around town to do chores; that's no more). Meanwhile, Chinese bus-tourist have descended on the city. If they find your favorite spot, that'll be the end of it. The Chinese are opening businesses, and with the Thai people's wonderful 'tolerance' to all and blood-lines connected to China, the 'aggressive' nature of people who know how to compete with 1.2 billion others for food, space and volume in public is changing Chiang Mai's landscape daily. The islanders are even begging for the Russian's to come back instead of the Chinese. Nevertheless, Chiang Mai's growth means more malls, more western food selection, more cultural folks to carry on a conversation with, and some whole foods, organic produce delivery to your home. Lots of western food delivered to your home or flat in rain, pollution and traffic. It's easy to become domesticated and venture out only 2 to 3 times per week. A VERY big need is Uber, GrabTaxi and Waze. These social-intelligence apps should help relieve traffic. We keep praying for set electric bus routes as well. One more update: you can know longer know the cool, hot/dry and wet seasons by calendar month in Thailand. The 100's of year old rain calendar has been completely upended. Also, the low-season (a 5 month sort-a-monsoon May-Sep / perfect for 20-somethings, yogis, meditators and tech-nomads) is also becoming non-existent. Traffic, traffic, traffic!

    1. Hey Marc, glad you enjoyed the write up. I updated the coworking section to indicate Coffee Monster is now closed.

      I'm actually sitting across from the construction site at PunSpace Nimman right now and thankfully it's quite right now but I can see it being annoying when they start building.

      I agree having Uber or at least GrabTaxi will be a blessing to Chiang Mai.

  6. Thanks a lot for this Johnny! So overall Chiang Mai wins right?

  7. very very informative,,,,,,,,,i m comeing in chiang mai,,,i wish to stay longer and see to open yoga center,,,should i take student visa for this or business visa?,,,,,,,surely chiang mai safer,,thanks for info johnny,,,namaste,,,,from india ,,i travelled bali,kualampur,,,,,bangkok,haitai also lets see chiang mai

    1. Hey, I would come here on the new 6 month visa:

  8. I suggest you traveling to Danang and Nhatrang, Vietnam. Saigon and Hanoi is not the best place for traveling. Air and traffic of Danang is so great, Nhatrang's beachs quality is the same with Phuket and Chiangmai of Thailand

  9. Each of these cities is good in its own way. Prices and tastes are not important. A much greater role is have by people who live in these cities. I like Chiang Mai more =) Why? In Saigon, I was not yet, and I can not compare))))) lol

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