Hanoi, Vietnam Report of what it's like to live there - 05/17/08

Personal Experiences from Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam 05/17/08

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

I've lived in San Jose, Costa Rica.

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2. How long have you lived here?

2 years.

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3. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

I am assigned to the U.S. Embassy Hanoi.

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4. Travel time and best routes to this city from Europe or the US:

20+ hours regardless of which direction you go or what city in the U.S. you go to. You can gateway through Tokyo, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Korea or Taiwan.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Few stand alone houses, usually assigned to section heads, most others are assigned to various apartments, condo style housing.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Most everything you want or need is available, just not necessarily at the same store. Depending on what you are looking for, you may need to go to 3 to 5 stores to find it. The 2 main super markets are Metro, which requires membership and is cash and carry only, and Big C. There are several smaller stores, Veggies and L's Place that carry a lot of western foods, not just American brands, but are very expensive.

We also can order out of the embassy commissary in Bangkok several times a year. In conjunction with support flights for the DOD office that coordinates the location of military remains from the Vietnam War, you can join the commissary in Bangkok for US$40 upon arrival and the CLO coordinates with the support flights. This is a consumables post, so in hind sight, I would recommend using it prior to arrival, this will give you the chance to figure out the shopping scene once you get here. Local fruits and vegetables need to be washed with a chlorine solution prior to consumption. Local beef is not very good, there are at least 2 butchers we use with very good results for pork, chicken and Australian beef. Both also deliver at no charge. Both also offer lamb, various sausages and luncheon meats.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

Use your consumables prior to arrival to help you get settled without having to bust your butt on the local market while your still trying to get over the jet lag.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

Pizza Hut just opened a couple months ago here in Hanoi, no other American fast food is available. Ho Chi Minh city offers others if you're willing to fly 1200+ miles to fulfill your fast food craving. There are also some decent restaurants, cost and quality vary greatly.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

Vietnam does have an acceptable postal system, though the embassy does have both pouch and an FPO. FedEx and DHL courier services are also available.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Maids are plentiful, they will find you shortly after your arrival, most will have worked for a departed expat. CLO also maintains lists of maids and drivers on file. Average cost, about US$150 per month, full time which may even include cooking. Most also have at least limited English. We pay ours US$170 a month, she started at US$120 2 years ago. She is extremely reliable, extremely honest, very protective of the children and has truly become a part of the family. Live-in maids are extremely rare.

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3. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

You can use credit or debit cards in all the Western hotels without a problem. Most ATM's are not part of the international banking systems so you get charged any where from the usual US$2 transaction fees up to US$5.There are no U.S. banks doing business here with the exception of Citi Bank and they are strictly for corporate customers. There a couple of Australian and European Banks but they do not have many offices. Most Vietnamese banks are at least partially government owned and do little international business nor offer services to foreign customers.

Many businesses may show the Visa or Master Card logo's in their windows, especially in the more modern malls, but they may not necessarily accept the credit cards. I once tried to buy an item with my credit card and the cashier looked at me very strange and tried to say they did not accept credit cards, then another employee pulled the card machine out of a drawer, still in the box and attempted to set it up without success. Basically, they did not know how to use it.

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4. What English-language religious services are available locally?

Yes, do not know which denominations. No LDS.

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5. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?

One English language newspaper. Star Network, CNN International, Discovery Channel, National Geographic, ESPN on the cable. No charge through my apartment complex. Other bootleg satellite system also available.

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6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

None, unless you want to travel extensively out in the country.

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7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Many, the sidewalks are used as parking lots for motorbikes and street vendors are numerous, all of which minimizes the use of the sidewalk for its intended purpose of walking, much less someone having to use crutches or a wheelchair.

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Transportation:

1. Do you drive on the right hand side of the road or the left?

Right, left, middle, sidewalks, wrong way, right way. It doesn't matter. Officially, they drive on the right. In reality, just about anything goes.

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2. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Taxis, yes. Trains and buses, no.

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3. 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 really do not need a car here. Taxis are plentiful and inexpensive. You can also hire them all day long to run you around or even out of town. Buses are crowded and the RSO does not recommend using them. There is train service to one mountain resort.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

High speed is a relative term here. I pay US$100 a month for 3MBs ADSL but have never gotten more than 1MBs out of it and there are times when it dips below 100kbs. 80% of the time, the service is good enough to run Sling Box on my laptop and watch U.S. programing from my house in Florida over the Internet. I pay about US$100 per month since the service package I have is based on downloaded usage. Most people pay an average of US$30 to US$50 per month.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

Cell phones are a dime a dozen here. Limited CDMA service, everything else is GSM. Embassy will issue a cell phone for the employee. Prepaid SIM cards are available everywhere and service is dirt cheap. I am not aware of anyone using their cell phones for long distance so cannot comment on costs doing so. The embassy issued phones have roaming enabled for all surrounding countries, so calling home when TDY within the region is no problem.

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3. What is the best way to make phone calls back home?

IVG, or any VOIP.I use Vonage, no problem. Most embassy people use VOIP, those more computer challenged still rely on the Embassy IVG lines.

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Pets:

1. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?

I hear, yes. But do not know personally, I have fish.

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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?

Not really, mostly because of the extremely low wages paid.

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2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

At work, depending on your position, fairly relaxed, polo's and slacks to suits to jeans and polo's. Outside the embassy, pretty casual. It does get cool during the winters, down to around 10C on average. This year we actually had a few days down around freezing.

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Health & Safety:

1. Pollution index (Good, Moderate, Unhealthy, or Very Unhealthy)?

Unhealthy, this is the land of the million motorbikes and an increasing number of automobiles. Many street vendors still use little coal fired cookers, an influence from Vietnam's Chinese dominated past. Add in the industrial pollution from surrounding areas outside the city, and you have an unhealthing situation.

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2. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

Few, there is something to be said for the strong fist of the communist government. I have heard of some minor petty theft and pickpocketing in the touristy old quarter and some minor harassment at the local Metro Mart, especially leading up to the Lunar New Year shopping frenzy.

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3. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Dengue in the country side, an outbreak of cholera this year, sporadic outbreaks of bird flu, various intestinal bugs if you decide to eat on the street, respiratory problems due to the air pollution. There is SOS, the French Hospital and Hanoi Family Practice. All offer a mixture of Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese doctors. All offer acceptable care for non-emergency health care. All imaging techniques are available, MRI, CAT Scan, X-Ray, etc., Regional med evac point is Singapore.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Summers are very hot and humid. Winters are pretty mild. short rainy seasons both in the spring and late summer/early fall.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

Yes, most diplomats from all countries have their children in the UN International School (UNIS). A few are in the smaller, Hanoi International School (HIS). Both schools have a good reputation and academic programs.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

Both HIS and UNIS accommodate certain special needs, but not as extensively as schools in Europe or the U.S.

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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?

Several preschools including one of the most popular, Mourning Star. Cost is expensive, especially for a third world country.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Large, Vietnam is the emerging Tiger economically and became a member of the WTO in 2006, there are many diplomatic missions here as well as a large contingent of business personnel.

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2. Morale among expats:

Just so-so. I do not know of anyone who loves it, but by the same token, I have not heard anyone say they hate it either. This was a 30% differential post, now 25%. It is probably one of the easiest 25 to 30 percent posts you can find, but there are still many difficulties to try and live a quality life here, between the horrendous traffic, pollution, mediocre medical and limited recreational opportunities in the north.

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3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

Some entertaining within the embassy community, bbq's, limited clubbing, the city shuts down at 11:30 pm. Major hotels all have night clubs, etc., but are extremely expensive. Oh yeah, did I mention karaoke?

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4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

More for singles or couples. We personally do not think Hanoi is a very child friendly city. The people love children and are extremely accommodating towards children, there just is not much for children to do, especially teenagers. UNIS offers some good after-school activities but unless you are comfortable allowing your 13 to 16 year old children to run around the city with their friends unsupervised, there is little for them to do. There are a couple of good movie theaters which show movies in English and one bowling alley. Otherwise, Hanoi is a good jumping off point for regional travel opportunities, though it is not cheap.

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5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

I do not know about how good the gay experience is here, but it does not seem to be an issue. There are a couple of gay individuals, both Vietnamese and direct hire Americans in the Embassy.

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6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Not that I am aware of. The only prejudice I have heard about is directed towards Vietnamese women who may be accompanied by non-Vietnamese men. People will make comments to them on the street. They Vietnamese will stare at you, especially here in the North, foreigners are still something unique to many and especially foreign women. My wife is from Latin America and she and the children draw a lot of attention just walking down the street.

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7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Here in the North, not many. As previously stated, Hanoi offers little for entertaining children. There are few clubs as we would define them in the U.S. Karaoke is very popular with the Vietnamese. If you go out with the local staff, you can be guaranteed the night will end at a karaoke club. There are many 4 and 5 star beach resorts in Vietnam but they all are in the Central and Southern parts of the country.

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8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Personally, not much. You can have clothes hand made fairly cheap. Show a craftsman a picture and they can make it, clothing, furniture.......

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9. Can you save money?

Yes, unless you jump on a plane every weekend to go to Saigon, or the beach or Bangkok or Laos.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Sure, the people are friendly, work load at the Embassy is average. Enough things to do to keep your interest.

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Ideas that the war is still going on. Snow ski's. Car, unless like me, you just don't want to get rid of it.

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3. But don't forget your:

Patience. Trying to get anything done here can be difficult and workmanship/repairs are not very good quality sometimes requiring the repair to be done several times before they get it right.

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4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

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5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

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6. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

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7. Do you have any other comments?

Ho chi Minh City (Saigon) is the economic capital of Vietnam, Hanoi is the political. There is a world of difference between the North and the South. HCMC is much more Westernized where Hanoi still suffers from that depressing, repressive cloud of the communist government. Knowing what I know now I would still come to Hanoi, but if give a choice between HCMC and Hanoi? It would be HCMC hands down.

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