Hanoi, Vietnam Report of what it's like to live there - 12/12/17
Personal Experiences from Hanoi, Vietnam
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
No, have lived in nearly a dozen cities throughout East Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Near East.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
Northeastern USA. Traveling to New England takes about 26-28 hours total and is a two-stop journey (Korean Air to Seoul, Delta to Detroit, then Delta to any other city) and traveling to Washington, DC is a one-stop journey if you take Korean Air (Delta codeshare) via Seoul.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
US embassy assignment.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Larger families have the option of living in large, older stand-alone houses in the Tay Ho community, about a 40-50 minute rush-hour commute from the embassy. These buildings sometimes have a pool but rarely have much yard space. Other expat families live in the area and there are plenty of Western/Asian restaurants and small grocers nearby. My small family lived in one of the several apartment complexes located closer to the center of the city. Our apartments were smaller than the houses, but still huge compared to Washington, DC standards. And, you're much closer to the restaurants, parks, and sights of the inner city. Finally, maintenance and amenties that come with the apartments (often there are small gyms, pools, and/or a concierge) aren't available with the houses. I'd recommend opting for one of the larger downtown apartments, even if you have a family of four.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
You can buy just about any Western product (including cheeses, meats, and wines) you want at one of the small foreign grocers, but you'll pay 25-50% more than U.S. prices. Hanoi has an increasing array of local, relatively modern medium-sized grocers where you can buy plenty of Vietnamese, Thai, and Korean products of reasonable quality and cheap price.
In the suburbs there are several warehouse stores (Big C and Metro - think a cross between Costco and Walmart) where you can buy Asian goods in larger quantities. Produce isn't as great in the supermarkets, however.
The best produce comes from either the local wet markets where Vietnamese shop (but you risk the possibility of pesticides or products of Chinese origin) or through specialty or on-call grocers who sell organic, "clean" produce, including arugula and other Western salads! Overall we were pleased with the variety of fresh produce available, as Vietnamese cuisine incorporates many fresh vegetables. The CLO can help broker an introduction. If you like Korean or Japanese groceries there are specific grocery stores catering to those communities (i.e. K-mart) throughout the city.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
We shipped a lot of Costco and warehouse store items, including wines (much cheaper in the U.S.), toilet paper, heavy-duty paper towels, baking/kitchen supplies, and pet food. You can get a lot of items via DPO/pouch. We probably didn't need to ship all the toilet paper and paper towels, but what you can find on the local market is of slightly lesser quality.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Hanoi has incredible food options and great delivery services (including via smartphone apps). Vietnamese food (both hole-in-the-wall and fancy) is plentiful and tasty. There are large Korean and Japanese communities in town so there's excellent food from both cuisines near their expat enclaves. French food is plentiful and tasty, as is Thai and Chinese food (if you know where to look). There's a few decent pizza places, and if you want American fast food there there's Popeye's, Pizza Hut, Burger King, and a few independent burger/BBQ places. A cheap local meal will be less than $5, and a nice French dinner for two with wine can be had for less than $50-60. There are lots of nice hotels around town that do fancy buffets and dining options if you're willing to pay more, and there's a nice bar scene too. The food scene is one of the best things about living in Hanoi.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
We had ants, which traps took care of fairly quickly. You'll see the occasional roach or spider even if you keep your residence clean.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Never used the local post. DPO and pouch take about 2-3 weeks and are reliable.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Plentiful. US embassy families tend to use the same pool of maids/nannies -- on the one hand they (usually) are experienced, but on the other hand are overpaid compared to wages from other expats (at $300+ a month full time). If you speak some Vietnamese and don't mind training up your own help, you can find excellent employees for $200-250 a month who speak limited English. Some families had drivers as well.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
The embassy's downtown apartments typically had at least a small gym for free. There are nicer, Western-style gyms downtown, but monthly fees were expensive from what I heard ($100 a month or so). The embassy annex has a decent gym for less than $300 a year if you don't mind working out before or after work.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
While the country is still primarily a cash economy, credit card use is growing quickly in Vietnam. Credit cards are accepted at hotels, most grocery stores, at higher-end restaurants, and at an increasing number of fast food or chain stores (both Western and local). ATMs are common and it's safe to use them if you take the usual big-city precautions. Most embassy personnel withdrew cash from the embassy cashier.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
There are a few large interdenominational Protestant services throughout the city (some with modern worship and others with traditional music), English-language Catholic services, Mormon/Latter-Day Saints services, and even a small Jewish community that holds Shabbat weekly. There are lots of missionaries working quietly in the city so there are lots of little Protestant house church communities as well. There's a mosque in the center of the city and plenty of temples catering to the Buddhist community. I think there's even a Ba'hai gathering, though it may be in Vietnamese only.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Younger Hanoians often understand basic English. Nicer restaurants and most places in the touristy area also can converse in English. Having at least basic Vietnamese (particularly food, money, number, and taxi/directions-related vocabulary) will help a ton, however. The embassy's post language program is excellent and affordable, and puts on language-learning outings for the whole family as well.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes. Vietnamese streets are chaotic. Many sidewalks are poorly maintained and have potholes. Officially, the Vietnamese government is very supportive of disabled persons organizations and policies related to disabilities (in part to show support for its populace disabled as a legacy of the Vietnam War), but in reality has spent little money on physical infrastructure. There also remains a societal stigma among Vietnamese families about physical and intellectual disabilities. This is gradually improving societally though.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
There are lots of transport options available. Buses are cheap and (despite what the RSO may say) relatively safe -- but the bus network is limited and not so convenient. Hanoi should be getting its first elevated metro line in a couple of years, so stay tuned on that. Taxis are plentiful, but make sure to choose the right companies/colors if you don't want to be scammed/cheated (a growing problem especially in touristy areas of the city). The best option is to use Uber, which is reliable and has cleaner cars than taxis. There are also plenty of private car services that provide excellent, clean service, including for airport pickups -- as a colleague or the CLO for details. It's easy to rent a minibus and driver if you have family in town and want to do day (or even overnight) trips outside of the city.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
You can have a fine experience without a car in Hanoi -- we didn't have one. But I regret not bringing a car because we missed out on day or weekend trips to parks, cultural landmarks, and other attractions outside of the city. I recommend bringing a small SUV -- while parking is difficult in Hanoi, having an SUV will help outside of the city and on Hanoi's sometimes bumpy streets. Any one of the "usual" brands (Toyota, Honda, Ford) should be fine. Some colleagues had motorcyles and loved it -- it's a great country for motorbike touring. I bought a local scooter and got a local license, which I found to be an incredibly fun and liberating way to travel around the city. After all it's what the locals do! But, traffic is crazy and takes getting used to. If you have a car, you may want to consider hiring a driver.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Decent high-speed internet is available, and the cost is zero to $50/month depending on where you live. Ours took a few days to install with the help of our apartment concierge. Internet speeds are DSL, so a bit slower than typical cable internet in the US.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Bring an unlocked mobile phone and use a SIM from Viettel, the most reliable provider. The embassy local staff can set you up with a decent plan (less than $30/mo for a decent chunk of minutes and 2-3GB high speed internet) but you can get even cheaper rates if you do a bit of your own research. Smartphones are incredibly useful here for getting around, as Google Maps and several local food rating sites work very well throughout the country.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
Vet and kennel services are widely available (there are multiple providers throughout the city) but we would rate the overall service as so-so. Our dog got fleas during one stay, and the facilities at some of the places (which cater to expats and rich Vietnamese) are spartan. No quarantine for pets. Vietnamese increasingly have pets (influenced particularly by Japanese and Korean trends in having pets) so there's a growing pet culture around the city. You'll still see plenty of roast dog meat stalls around the city so avert your eyes if that makes you uncomfortable!
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
The embassy has a good number of EFM positions. While there is no bilateral work agreement between the US and Vietnam, there are plenty of opportunities to work informally off the economy, whether as a teacher at one of the international schools, as an English teacher (demand is high), or for one of many NGOs or international organizations working in Hanoi. Local salaries are low but expat-oriented jobs typically pay higher than the local scale, and wages are rising year by year in Hanoi.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Plenty -- orphanages, English teaching, working with disabled persons, religious charities, sports groups, environmental organizations -- you name it. Despite being an authoritarian state that continues to crack down on civil society, there are lots of grassroots groups popping up around town that need dedicated volunteers.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Diplomats typically wear business -- sometimes business casual in the hot months. Vietnamese men typically wear business casual to work, while women tend to dress up a lot. After work, Vietnamese dress very casually at home or on the street. Bring a tux/gown to use at the Marine Ball and/or at one of the other formals that take place throughout the year.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Crime is about average compared to the typical American city. Stay aware of pickpocketing in touristy areas, but otherwise Vietnam is a very safe place to live. Risk of terrorism is almost nonexistent due to the heavy security presence in the country (you see uniformed policemen/guards/military everywhere!).
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Health care quality is growing but still subpar compared to the United States, so you will be medically evacuated to Singapore or Bangkok for any surgeries or major diagnostic tests. Avoid the public hospitals if you can - they are overcrowded and appear to have poor hygiene, even if they are conveniently located. That said, there are some new private hospitals cropping up that are of better quality for routine matters (i.e. Vinmec) and several small clinics with foreign doctors that cater specifically to the expat community that provide decent non-emergency/critical care. Routine dental care at one of the expat-oriented practices is adequate and inexpensive.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
One of the biggest drawbacks to living in Hanoi is the poor winter air quality. It's not as bad as China or India, but is starting to get there. During the summer the air is wonderfully clean, but from October-April, a combination of industrial pollution, agricultural burning, and weather patterns can bring the AQI scale up to the 200-300s on some days. Outside of the city, the air is generally very clean. The embassy provides high-quality air filters but individuals with significant asthma issues may not want to live here.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
There's not a lot of awareness in Vietnamese society about food allergies (peanuts, eggs, gluten) so you'll have to be very specific/careful about asking about ingredients in restaurants. That said the food options in Hanoi are so plentiful and varied that you probably won't have too much difficulty avoiding food allergens, especially if you cook from scratch. Pollen isn't an issue but winter air pollution can exacerbate respiratory allergies.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
Daylight is relatively consistent during the year so SAD is not a huge issue. I would say one mental health issue that affects some people is the fact that life in Vietnam can be overwhelming in some ways. Hanoi is a busy, noisy, chaotic, and sometimes messy city, and it can be hard to "get away" from it all and find quiet personal space. Thankfully, regional travel options and flight connections are plentiful so it's only a few hours away to a quiet Southeast Asian beach or mountain resort.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Vietnam has seasons -- a hot, humid summer (90s-100s), short but pleasant spring and fall (70s-80s), and a cool winter (50s-60s). Rain is scattered throughout the year. Overall the climate is similar to southern Georgia or Lousiana.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
We did not have school-age children, but based on what colleagues have said, there are two main English-language international schools: UNIS (one of only two official UN schools in the world -- uses the IB system) and Concordia (a smaller, American system-based school). Both are good and yet are different, so it's worth asking around. Both have good facilities and plenty of school activities and events for kids.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
Expat preschools are available but expensive. Local preschools are plentiful and cheap and several families sent their young children to private Vietnamese preschools. Your child will be well taken care of and will pick up some Vietnamese phrases (and mannerisms)!
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Yes, at the international schools. Hanoi has little open green space (the park space that exists is often pretty crowded already) so it's not a great city for extracurricular sports and outdoor activities. Embassy events at the American Club (which has a small basketball court, a volleyball court, and a grassy lawn) take place from time to time and are great for families to come together. If you poke around you can find tennis/golf/sports instructors at the various club facilities available around the city.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
The Western (English-speaking) expat community is moderately sized and growing. There's one general community of backpacker/young English teacher/missionaries who congregate, and another tier of diplomats/NGO workers/international workers that exists as well. The Korean and Japanese communities are big and active but also stick to themselves for the most part unless you have a cultural/linguistic connection. There's also a small Spanish-speaking community which can be fun for those with EFMs from Latin America.
There are a few different organizations for diplomatic spouses that do social and volunteer activities. Because Hanoi doesn't have a huge Western expat community, we found that diplomats from other embassies are happy to meet and mingle with Americans (both families and singles). Morale is decently high, especially for those who are adventurous and don't mind the chaos and craziness of living in a Vietnamese city. Vietnam is an increasingly important player diplomatically and strategically and people have a sense that their work is meaningful. Vietnamese are also very pro-American and friendly, which is a huge bonus. The embassy community (especially among families) is pretty close-knit and people often hang out with others living in their specific apartment complex.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
There are definitely expat clubs and groups (hash house harriers, sports clubs for rugby and soccer, international women's club, etc.) and vibrant expat church communities as well. There are lots of private NGOs working in Vietnam so there are lots of volunteer opportunities which will help you meet new expat friends, as well. Vietnam's food and bar scene is fun, reasonably priced, and always evolving.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Yes for all of the above. There's plenty of social opportunities for singles -- perhaps especially for men. For couples and families there's lots of places to visit near Hanoi and also in the region. Bangkok, Angkor Wat, Hong Kong, Singapore, Laos, and Vietnam's beautiful domestic sights are all less than an inexpensive three hour flight away.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Yes, probably one of the more open cities for LGBT individuals in all of Southeast Asia. Vietnam has a young but vibrant and growing public LGBT community with tacit tolerance from the government. The embassy traditionally has been active in supporting LGBT initiatives. While same-sex marriage is not permitted, the government also does not pressure or harass LGBT individuals, and while Vietnamese society is overall fairly conservative about gender roles, media (and Vietnamese youth) have progressive attitudes towards LGBT rights.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Due to Vietnam's strained relationship with China, Chinese-Americans (or especially EFMs from mainland China) may receive less than friendly treatment. African-Americans may find it harder to date on the local scene due to racial prejudices in Vietnamese society. The Vietnamese women you work with are incredibly talented and dynamic -- but don't forget that most of Vietnamese society still remains patriarchal and sexism, sexual harassment, and spousal abuse remain common in Vietnamese families. Police aren't great about taking reports of sexual assault seriously. NGOs (and the government to some extent) are trying to change this culture.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Incredible restaurant and food culture. The warm, friendly, and pro-American Vietnamese people. Visiting central and southern Vietnam -- beaches, mountains, forests and jungles. Taking quick, cheap flights across all of Southeast Asia and East Asia. Do a street food tour and then a Hanoi architecture tour. Talented and supportive local staff at the embassy. Knowing that you're working in a country that is growing in importance to the United States and the international community from a strategic perspective.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Chicken BBQ street on Ly Van Phuc -- go to the larger stall at the end of the road. Pho Bat Dan has the best Pho in Hanoi and is located on Bat Dan street in the Old Quarter. Xoi Yen (look it up on Google) has the best Vietnamese sticky rice. Find a hole-in-the-wall coffee shop and have famous Vietnamese egg coffee. Try local Vietnamese desserts, which are wonderfully sweet and tasty. Buy a scooter and explore the city -- after a rain drive down the government quarter's beautiful tree-lined boulevards and admire the French-inspired architecture.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
You can buy inexpensive gifts from Craft Link, an NGO with several locations who profits are invested back into minority communities. Many people get custom-made furniture (but be careful because the beautiful furniture can crack when brought into drier climes). Tailors are cheap and plentiful so get lots of custom-fitted suits and dresses -- I regret not buying more suits! If you don't mind haggling you can find all sorts of interesting knick-knacks in the markets.
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
See above - food, culture, history, travel, friendly people. Hanoi is in that perfect middle ground where it's still developing (and is thus inexpensive) but is developed enough so you can find just about anything you need to find here.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
How useful a car would have been for day and weekend trips. That the winter pollution is bad. I wish I read up more on Vietnamese history and watched more documentaries on the topic.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Need for peace, quiet, and personal space. Preconceived notions about Vietnam as our "enemy" from the Vietnam War.
4. But don't forget your:
Adventurousness, appetite, and tolerance for the unexpected.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Catfish and Mandala. The Sympathizer. Watch the Ken Burns PBS documentary series on the Vietnam War. The Tale of Kieu (Vietnam's most famous ancient epic poem).