Vietnamese food: A banh mi, not quite a footlong sandwich, but a decent-sized sub packed with meat and veggies costs me 10,000 VND from the banh mi lady at the bus station. That's $.50 US. For a decently satisfying lunch. For $2-$3, a hot meal from a cart, with plastic chairs and tables to eat at for the true HCMC ambiance, consists of rice, two meats (I had grilled chicken and pork today), a hot vegetable, and a cup of cabbage soup. We typically feed all three of us at Vietnamese sit-down restaurants or the Vietnamese booth at the mall foodcourt for around $10-12. That includes three drinks,
Lots of Other Cuisines: We've found some great bargains eating out at Chinese, Thai, Indian, dim sum, Korean, and sushi restaurants. At the Indian place we like, a meal for three that would have easily been over $50 in the US was around $20 here. As you'll see below, this does not apply to every restaurant, but even those that are pricier are still usually cheaper than the US equivalent.
Soda, Coffee, Tea, and Beer: I don't drink much alcohol, but the common beers here run about $1-2 a can, with lots of bars slashing prices for happy hour deals (one place was unlimited beer from 4-7 PM for around $10). A bottle of Coke from a convenience store will run you $.25-$.50, and that same bottle might be $1 or $1.50 from a street vendor or at a restaurant. While it's possible to get prices like that in the US, you really only see them when buying 12-packs of cans at a supermarket. Coffee on the street is around $.50 a cup, and iced tea in a restaurant is about that price as well. Coffee can get expensive in Starbucks-style coffee shops. Vietnamese style coffee is generally a better deal than the European versions.
Books: New books at the bookstores here are quite inexpensive. A manga volume that would be $8-10 in B&N back in the States goes for around $1 here. In the US, you can make up for that price by buying used or bargain-shopping online, and I haven't found any used book dealers here, but the prices in the bookstores are so cheap that I don't feel like I need to seek out alternatives.
Transportation: I pay about $.25 to ride a bus even with two buses each way, it amounts to $1 a day for commuting to/from work. Cab fare into the center of town from where I am is around $5-6. The usual taxi scams do happen here, but cab fares are quite good if you stick with a reputable taxi company. My understanding is that bus, rail, and air transportation within the country and to other countries in the region is pretty reasonable in terms of price. For private transportation, motorbikes are the preferred way of getting around and they are inexpensive to own and operate.
Cell/Internet/Cable/Utilities: All significantly cheaper than the US equivalent. It helps that there are no cell service contracts. Everything is pay-as-you-go here.
Services: Housekeeping and nanny services are, well, let's put it this way: They are affordable on a teacher's salary. We haven't used these kinds of services ourselves, but a number of co-workers we know have hired nannies or housekeepers.
Tourism: The Saigon Skydeck at the Bitexco Financial Tower costs around $10 per person, which is less than half of what you would pay at a similar attraction in the US or Europe. We went on a full-day private guided tour on the Mekong Delta, lunch and fresh-fruit-snack included, for $50 per person for a group of five. Hotel rooms are very reasonable, even in beach/tourist areas. Admission to museums and attractions is quite reasonable.
American/Fast Food: A value meal at McDonalds here costs a bit less than the same meal at a US McDonalds. Generally speaking, I spend about $5 here when I eat fast food, whereas I would typically spend $7-8 in the States. But with all of the great Vietnamese food at such good prices, fast food never feels like a bargain here. Restaurants serving American-style comfort food tend to be a bit pricier than other restaurants that we've found here, but again, still a bit less expensive than the same meal would have been in the US.
Rent/Housing: This is a difficult one to quantify, because it can vary so much by region back in the USA. But considering the size of the city, and the fact that we are in a very nice neighborhood, our rent is pretty reasonable.
Clothing: Some friends got some custom-tailored garments. It was not cheap, but this was good-quality custom work, and a great deal compared to the same service in the US. There seem to be some great bargains on off-the-rack clothes, but also a lot of stuff selling for pretty much the same price as in the States. Clothes for bigger folks like myself can be harder to find here. I'm not really a clothes-shopping enthusiast, but my impression is that it is possible to do well here if you put in the time and effort.
Groceries: There are some good deals, but a lot of food at the grocery store sells for about what you would expect to pay in the US. Street vendors and markets are not really a bargain unless you're willing to play the haggling game. While cooking your own food is still cheaper than eating out, the costs are considerably closer here, and we find ourselves eating out a lot more (it helps that we live in a neighborhood full of great restaurants).
Fine Dining: This depends somewhat on your definition of fine dining, but the really expensive cuisine here is expensive by any standards. That being said, we've found plenty of places that, while not four-star or whatever, certainly rank as great culinary experiences and were on the inexpensive side.
Not A Bargain
Electronics: Pretty much expect to pay at least what you would pay in the US, maybe more if it's some hot newly-released gadget.
Toys: Toys are either more expensive than their American counterparts, or are of extremely low quality,
Household Goods/Furniture: Again, pretty much the same price as you'd find in the US. We've had some success with waiting for sales in this category to take advantage of temporare markdowns, but those kinds of deals are common in the US as well.
Overall, the cost of living here is, in fact, significantly lower. The fact that we no longer have a car has also really helped to reduce expenses. There were significan up-front costs associated with getting settled in (the American standard of paying first/last/security to rent an apartment is the standard here too), but now that we are past those we can get a better understanding of what our budget is truly going to be like. We are looking forward to enjoying some of the true bargains we have discovered over here.