Hanoi, Vietnam Report of what it's like to live there - 09/27/08

Personal Experiences from Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam 09/27/08

Background:

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

No; Bangkok, Beijing, Jakarta, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taipei, and Tokyo.

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2. How long have you lived here?

Two years.

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

U.S Government.

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

Connections to/from Hanoi are very limited with over 80% of international air traffic taking place through Ho Chi Minh City. From the the east coast of the U.S. to Hanoi is about 28 hours total travel time including lay-overs. Most common routes from Hanoi to the U.S. are via Seoul or Tokyo. Flightss leave Hanoi at mid-night and 1 a.m. with early morning arrival in Japan and South Korea. Lay-overs in Tokyo can be 8-12 hours and Seoul are about 5 hours. Flights back to Hanoi generally arrive late in the evening. Some fly through Bangkok but this requires an overnight stay in Bangkok before connecting to Tokyo. Flights through Hong Kong and Taipei are also available but due to lack of competetion are expensive and often cost as much as a ticket to the U.S. or Europe.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

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

Housing can be spacious but problematic. Hanoi has only opened up to the international community in the past 10 years so the pool of housing that most expats would expect is very limited and new construction slow. Coupled with limited supply and an increase in expat population due to Vietnam's economic growth, there is high demand for housing with new units often rented in days at high prices above the normal value of the unit. Construction quality is poor (one person said houses in Vietnam age in dog years) and even brand new homes require extensive maintainence. My house is less than two years old and there is at least one repair needed daily. My driver has become a full time handyman and would recommend anyone with a house find someone that can be available part time to take care of problems. Electrical outlets are not grounded and six months ago the transformer outside our house failed surging power across the powerlines into our house. Any electrical appliance plugged into the wall was ruined including the stove, frig, microwave, water pump, all a/c units, tv's, dvd players, stereo, phones, cell phones on chargers, etc. The only item saved was the computer as it was plugged into an expensive surge protector. Vietnamese like wood for doors, windows frames, shutters, floors etc however the wood is green and untreated so wooden elements warp and crack quickly. New doors and windows quickly become jammed and will not open. Selection of Embassy housing pool is very limited. While most people are satsified, few are impressed. Embassy housing is a mix of apartments with unusual lay-outs and free standing homes. Hanoi is relatively small and one person said a commute to any location is about 15-20 minutes. However traffic is becoming increasingly worse and the small old French alleys which are most of the roads in downtown are Hanoi are quickly becoming jammed. Twice in the past six months our normal 20 minute commute home has taken 2 to 4 hours.

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

Unless you are shopping for tourist items, shopping in Hanoi is limited. There are no moderngrocery stores although there is a Metro and Big C which are something like a Wal-Mart with some food items as well as clothes. There are a few very small gourmet-style stores in Hanoi with importanted items from Europe and the U.S. which are about 2-3 times the price. In addition, they receive their shipments every few months qnd items can be out of stock. We like one shop that imports good cheeses from France and Europe but once supplies are out they may not get another shipment for months. So if you like it and they have it, buy it. Local Vietnamese stores carry a moderate variety of mostly off-brand items (mainly from China) which are very inexpensive and of questionable quality. We bought a kitchen knife from one that shattered the first time we used it. For the U.S. Embassy Vietnam is a consumables post and would recommend using the allowance to purchase all your basics. We brought everything including diapers, baby-food, baby-formula, shampoo, your favorite wine/beer by the case, over-the-counter medications, baby meds (a must as there are none here), mustard, Tabasco hot sauce, pasta sauce, cannned goods, paper towels, household cleaners, chips, breakfast cereals, and any other item with a long shelf life. In addition, Embassy staff are allowed to be members of the commissary at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok and dedicated commissary flights from Bangkok come about once every 2-3 months. Otherwise Hanoi is an APO and Netgrocer.com is an option to get food. Local produce and meat is inexpensive but there are questions about sanitation. Meat is typically slaughtered and sold that day in open stalls on the side of the road. Imported beef from Australia is available at one shop. Local fruits are plentiful, cheap, and safe to eat, however are usually sold only when in season. Name brand detergints, soaps, and shampoos are available on the local market but selections are limited.

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

We used our full 3,000 lbs of consumeables so we have had everything we have needed. I would do a consumeables shipment again and include more mosquito repellant.

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

Very limited fast food options. KFC just arrived a few months after we came here and now has about a dozen outlets. Lotteria, a Korean chain, is also making inroads. Save these two there are no other major fast food franchises in Hanoi. Outside French food Vietnam also has very few other international specialities available. Finding a good hamburger, steak, sandwich or salad, is difficult as well as restaurants with good Italian, German, or even Chinese. However, this is not a problem as Vietnam cuisine is terrific and generally cheap. There also is no Starbucks but Vietnam has developed their own version called Highlands coffee which serves Vietnamese coffee and in some ways ise superior to Starbucks in terms of decor, location, coffee, and price.

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Daily Life:

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

Hanoi has APO/FPO access which is a godsend. The local Vietnamese post is slow and unreliable, with packages broken or lost. Fedex has just begun service to Hanoi for priority packages.

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

Domestic help is cheap but annual inflation of 35% has impacted on the local popluation and begun something of a wage-price spiral. Full time maids/nannies/drivers all cost about US $200 per month (for a limited English speaker) but have local workers been demanding higher salaries due to inflation. Part-time or cooks that only work afternoons are about US $100-150 a month. There is also growing wage gap as those that speak English demand about 20-50% higher wages than those that do not. We have fired three maids and interviewed about a dozen before finding one that would work full time for a reasonable wage. Many wanted to work short hours of 9-3 including lunch and one hour siesta for full time wages.

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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?

Outside major hotels and a few restaurants or tourist shops, credit card use is limited as Vietnam remains largely a cash-based economy. Items are billed in both U.S. dollars and Vietnamese Dong and either are accpeted for payment. ATMs are common, however frequent fraud has been reported when using ATMs associated with Vietnamese banks. ATMs for larger non-Vietnamese international banks are generally safe, but less in number.

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

Yes Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, and evangelical donominaitons have limited services available.

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

All press is controlled in Vietnam. The one English newspaper is the mouthpiece of the government and is cheap. International publications are available in very limited locations and limited supplies about 10-20% more expensive than outside Vietnam. Cable television with CNN, BBC, ESPN, MTV, STAR (world, movies, sports), HBO, Cinemax, Discovery, NatGeo, Hallmark,CCTV (4 and 9), TV Monde, Arirang, and some Russian channels, are all available and uncensored. The price for expats is about US$50 a month but if you can register in the name of a Vietnamese the price is about half.

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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?

Get as much Vietnamese language as you can get. You can function in Vietnam without the language but you will be severly handicapped. Business contacts, landlords, workers, employees, electricians, plumbers, cable guys, internet repair technicians, taxi drivers, bill collectors, and other individuals upon which you will rely on a daily basis only speak Vietnamese. You will eventually need a maid, driver, or staff who can be available to translate for you in order to get routine tasks done. We took only three months of Vietnamese which covered only th basics (learning the basic sounds and tones takes a month) and it was not enough to be able onvey simple ideas other than directions to taxi drivers.

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

Yes; there are no provisions for those with physical limitations. Due to the small space and high density population most residences are narrow units with several sets of stairs. Sidewalks are uneven, broken, or nonexistant. Crossing walks are not clearly marked and not heeded.

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Transportation:

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

Vietnam drives on the right side of the road with the steering wheel on the left of the car.(The same as the U.S. and continental Europe.) Cars with steering wheels on the right are not allowed.

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

There are no mass transit trains in Vietnam's cities. Train travel between cities is acceptable and many expats have enjoyed using trains to see the countryside. Buses are crowded with limited routes and long waits. Petty crime is also a problem so few use buses for transportation. Taxis are reliable and inexpensive. Use of larger well known companies is advised as smaller independent taxi operators have been know to rig the meter or take passengers on longer routes. Even the drivers from large companies have been know to take the long way there but customers can call and complain with the taxi number to seek redress. Preferred companies are CP Taxi, Hanoi Taxi and Mei Linh Taxi. Taxis from these companies must frequently be called as the generally prefer to wait near large hotels or other tourist areas and do not roam the city looking for fares. Business cards with addresses for destinations are very helpful as taxi drivers do not speak English.

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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?

Roads in downtown Hanoi are small and better suited for a smaller cars. However, road quality even in Hanoi is poor and most people prefer SUV's due to large potholes or poorly maintained roads. Popular models are Landcruisers and locally made Ford's SUV's. Again due to the boom in expats there is a waiting list for new Landcruisers. The second hand car market is currently limited as the number of cars in Vietnam is just starting to grow. Small 125 cc engine motor scooters are the preferred method trasport for most Vietnamese as well as a few adventurous expats. Traffic is utter chaos and few traffic laws are obeyed even though there are limited attempts at enforcement. Expect your car to be involved in an accident and that scooters with scrap you doors, fenders, and mirrors as they inch by in the congestion. So would recommend against bringing a new car. One U.S Embassy officer brought a new Ford Mustang and his apartment garage decided to paint the ceiling without telling anyone dripping paint on the shiny new sports car. Not to worry as the workman used gasoline and steelwool brushes to remove the spilled paint. In an effort curb traffic congestion, the Vietnamese government has placed high tariffs on car imports as well as a high sales tax which is now at 80%.These fees are waved for diplomats. Mirrors ornaments, lights, and other exterior components must taken to a local shop to be modified and bolted to the car as thieves frequently steal them. We had two hub caps stolen and one officer had both sideview mirrors taken. Gas tanks must be secured as thieves will siphon gas if the car is left out over night. Car theft is rare and carjackings unheard of. Parking is also a problem, as there is little to no designated parking in downtown Hanoi. This is another reason expats frequently employ drivers who will drive the car to a side street to wait and watch the car while their employers are dining or shopping. Car repair and maintainence is reasonable and reliable.

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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?

ADSL high speed internet is available. It is reliable and speeds are acceptable but not as fast as in other more developed locations. The internet is not censored. The price for expats is about $60 a month but if you can register in the name of a Vietnamese the price is less than half. Dial-up is also available at much lower prices but quality is poor and the number of users dropping.

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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 plentiful, cheap, and readily available, and most people have and use cell phones for their communication needs. However they are generally limited to calling and text messages and do not have the more advanced options of internet surfing or email. Most use prepaid phone cards. There are seven local cell phone providers with Mobiphone and Viettel being the most popular. Cell service is generally not bad but there are a few locations such as inside buildings or the remote countryside where coverage is weak. International roaming is only available for cell phones with contracts. In order to sign up for a contract service one must have identification indicating residence in Vietnam and go to the main post office to fill out the paperwork and make a substantial deposit. The Embassy provides cell phones to all staff but requires certification of all international calls.

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

Vietnam has the most expensive international phone rates in Asia. Almost everyone uses Skype, Vonage or some other internet calling option to make international phone calls. The U.S Embassy has a tie-line available to the staff.

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Pets:

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

Poor. A local kennel lost the dog of one Embassy family and killed the puppy of another Embassy officer. In both cases foul play was suspected in that the dogs may have been sold instead of returned to their owners. There are no dog parks and few places for dogs to play. Strays with a number of diseases are also common and Vietnamese often allow their dogs to roam free. Vietnamese also regularly eat dog. Cats are less of a problem.

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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?

English teachers are in demand although wages are not high stating out at less than $800 per month. Other expats have tended to carve out their own employment with some writing freelance journals, others starting distillaries, and some opening their own restaurants. Work permits are relatively easy with the help of a Vietnamese lawyer and some well placed

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

While business suits are worn for the most important meetings, business attire expecially in the summer months can be more casual such as no ties, no jackets, and open collar dress shirts. Dress in public is similar to other developed countries although highly revealing clothing may provoke disapproving looks and some temples do not allow shorts.

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Health & Safety:

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

Good to moderate. Some dust from massive ongoing construction and vehicles. Compared to other Asian cities it is good.

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

There is some minor petty theft from pick-pockets. Much safer than similar size U.S. or European city though.

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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?

Health care in Hanoi is generally considered poor. Chlorea and H5N1 bird flu is endemic to Hanoi. Dengue is a problem during the summer months. Tap water is not potable. There are problems with fake drugs in the local pharmacies. There are two clinics in Hanoi with staffs of expat doctors; Hanoi Family Medical Practice and SOS.These clinics are quite good for average medical issues however they are reluctant to address chronic medical problems or serious emergenies. The U.S. Embassy prefers to medivac individuals to Bangkok or elsewhere in case of serious emergency in which travel is still possible. The French hospital is also considered not bad and has acceptable levels of care. However one Embassy officer was forced to negotiate the price for his treatment with his doctor while the doctor was stitching up his forehead.

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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?

Hanoi has four seasons which is often a surprise for new comers who assume it is tropical. Fall from Nov-Dec is best. Winter is easily tolerable but can get wet and cool down to around 10 C in the early morning from Jan-Mar .So bring a jacket. Spring from April to May is short and generally wet. Summer begins in June but the months of July and August are the hottest (28-32 C) and the most humid. More humid and uncomfortable than in Ho Chi Minh City. The humidity drops and weather cools a bit to 24-26 C by September but it is still warm until Nov.

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Schools & Children:

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

Hanoi International School and the United Nations International School (UNIS).There are also French, Korean, and Japanese language schools. The U.S. Embassy only accredited the HIS and UNIS with meeting U.S. standards for the first time in 2006. Prior to that families with school age children were not encouraged to come to Hanoi. Education is still the number one concern among the U.S. Embassy community. Parents feel the curriculum is not challenging and that children are studying material covered in earlier grades in the U.S.In addition and like housing, demand is growing and supply is limited so getting children into these two schools is increasingly difficult. As of this writing there are over 200 students on the waiting list for both HIs and UNIS so get your application in early. There are no summer activities associated with the schools.

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

UNIS offers special needs education but have limited resources and no dedicated teachers. HIS has no program for special needs. Therefore U.S. Embassy does not recommend families with speciaL needs consider Hanoi.

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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?

Unlike primary and secondary school there is a large supply of preschool options at reasonable rpices ranging from less than US$100 a month for the lowest quality to US$400 a month for half day and US$550 for a full day at the best schools. Our son attends preschool for half-days and we are very happy with the cost and quality.

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Expat Life:

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

Small and mostly diplomatic. The international business community is centered in Ho Chi Minh City.

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2. Morale among expats:

Good altough most have the usual complaints about traffic, quality of goods and services and lack of activities.

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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?

Social life is limited. There are enough restaurants to avoid monotony and new ones are opening quite often. However, you will frequently find yourself going to the same old favorites. People also entertain at home as an alternative to visiting the same locations every weekend. That said parties are often attended by the same crowd as the community is small. Local Vietnamese restaurants are endless but quality (noisy, crowded, no A/C, poor food, smells) and sanitaton often deter people from dining in these establishments. There are about a dozen small but decent bars/nightclubs available but they close at midnight. Actually midnight is when the staff goes home so last call is usually 11 pm. There are one or two underground locations that remain open past 12 but they are not open on a regular basis. There are only one or two real discos. Local coffee shop bars, karaoke lounges catering to Korean/Japanese/Vietnamese are abundant but seedy. There is a dingy bolwing alley and electronic casinos (slots and electronic blackjack) in some major hotels but only foreigners can enter. There is one movie theater that shows recent movies in English, but pirated DVD's from China are plentiful so most watch movies at home. There are seedy karaoke bars that cater to Korean and Japanese businessmen and small roadside coffee/tea/beer shops frequented by Vietnamese.

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

Decent for families but there is a lack of activities for children and teenagers complain of few options for entertainment. There are limited parks, playgrounds, or amusement centers for small children and playing outside a house or compound dangerous due to traffic. Singles have also expressed disappointment claiming Hanoi is equivalent to a small town atmosphere with limited social activities for them. Couples find more activities to fill their time such as going to restuarants, playing tennis or golf, shopping, etc.

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

There is a GL community in Hanoi however like others they complain there is little in terms of social activities and options.

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

Vietnam is a male oriented society and there are minor complaints of sexism. Ethnic Vietnamese returning may also experience some wariness or expectations that are not the same for non-Vietnamese. There are some limited religious activities/services available for buddhists, catholics, christians, and muslims. There is not overt discrimination but there have been recent conflicts between the government and catholic community over land disputes.

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

Vietnam is still a back-packers paradise and hotels and travel inside Vietnam can still be done cheaply. Get out and experience the country and history. There are good museums on the unique aspects of Vietnam, the history, the War, ethnic groups, etc. There is the water puppet theater. There are great sites in the countryside and some of the best beaches in Southeast which are not yet cover with mega resorts or hordes of tourists. For those wanting a taste of modernity, Bangkok is less than 1 hour and 20 minute flight away and roundtrip tickets are less than US$300.Ho Chi Minh City is also modern, though not as nice as Bangkok and a great place to visit. Women find that there are decent hair saloons that give wonderful head massages, manicures, pedicures, and other beautification rituals at low prices.

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

Lacquerware, art work (paintings) by renowned local artists, embroidary, silk, furniture, Asian style household decorations, porcelain, ceremics, and pottery. Tailor-made clothes.

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9. Can you save money?

Yes, easily.

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Words of Wisdom:

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

Oh yes. Obviously there daily challenges with living here but that is what makes life in Hanoi fun. There is never a dull moment or a drive home without something to laugh about.

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

Winter clothes, nice cars, anything you do not want lost or broken.110 V appliances since the power is 220 V.

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3. But don't forget your:

Winter clothes, nice cars, anything you do not want lost or broken.110 V appliances since the power is 220 V.

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4. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

Indochine, Platoon, broadway muscial Ms. Saigon

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

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7. Do you have any other comments?

Some Americans are concerned about the legacy of the Vietnam War and that Vietnamese may be unfriendly or angry towards Americans in general, as well as Australians, French, Koreans, and other nationalities that took part in the conflict. However, for most Vietnamese the Vietnam War is in the past (also they are proud of the War as one must remember they won) and there is little to no resentment towards Americans or others by the average Vietnamese at this point. Over 70% or the Vietnamese population is under 30 and therefore has no direct memory of the conflict. Vietnamese are friendly, warm, hospitiable, and helpful towards all foreigners, including Americans, and are wonderful people to know, meet, and befriend no matter where you are from.

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