Hanoi, Vietnam Report of what it's like to live there - 05/04/16
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?
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?
Home base in Northern Virginia. Flying Korean Air via Dulles to Seoul onward to Hanoi is a long flight, but actually enjoyable. Korean Air is amazing, and if there is a layover at Incheon, they offer free showers in spa-like private bathrooms, as well as a lounge to sleep in. Another good flight is on Japan Airlines - but Korean Air is a pleasure. And good with pets...
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, military, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Please listen carefully when I recommend that despite your position, tenure or family size, insist on living in one of the apartment complexes. The stand-alone houses/villas are maintenance nightmares, dark, moldy with on average 90 stairs. If they have a private pool, they're rarely used because the pool is cold, dark and under the house. In the houses, bedrooms are on many different floors - so your kids will likely not be on the same floor as you. There are zero closets, pantries, storage, parking or outdoor space. Bring armoires and shelving. Single family homes are also in and amongst locals. Sounds fun, until they sit outside of your gate and monitor your comings and goings. Some of the homes are connected to loud restaurants, bars and such. Constant noise. Conversely, the apartment complexes have amenities, are modern, have green space, are bright and people seem generally very happy at all options. They're great for singles, couples and families alike. They also don't seem to have that "fish bowl" lifestyle. Work has morning and afternoon shuttles to all housing locations. Insist on an apartment - while post told us they didn't have 4 bedroom apartments, there are actually many.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
More expensive than we expected (about US$40/night for dinner groceries). Availability is such a nuisance and you will need to go to many stores to 1) find what you need, 2) find what you need and make sure that it's not from China (contaminated). We ultimately hired someone to do our shopping, food cleaning and cooking. Well worth every penny.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
We would ship fewer consumables. Everything is available here or through Amazon Prime. Do bring a lot of Nyquil and cough/cold medicine, as well as feminine products. Also, medicine sold in stores is often fake, so bring the real deal with you.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Unfortunately, US fast food chains have found their way to Hanoi...
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Tiny kitchen ants that want your sugar, big cockroaches that generally leave you alone, geckos that we love, and mosquitoes that may or may not carry dengue.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Very good quality, honest, hard working. We pay about US$600 a month for full time cook, cleaner, pet minder, house fixer, translator (you will need this). We pay more than we should (average is US$450 - $550) - we only wanted one person to work for us, so we paid up.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Most of the apartment complexes have workout facilities. The Rose Garden has an ancient gym. Those in single family homes will need to find a gym to join. Yoga, pilates are readily available
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?
Easy to use but make sure your bank waives international ATM transaction fees. Otherwise you will spend US$8 each time you withdrawal money.
5. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
You actually do need a fair amount of Vietnamese. You will most likely take taxis everywhere, and they don't speak English, nor do the local shop keepers.
6. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Able bodied individuals risk life or limb daily in Hanoi. I can't imagine navigating this city with a physical disability. There are no sidewalks. Rarely elevators. Houses have multiple, narrow stairs.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
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?
Hardly anyone brings a car to post because there is NO parking anywhere in all of Hanoi. Those who have brought a POV typically have an infant and want it for the car seat. But then you have to hire a full time driver at US$350 a month to drive your car (too dangerous to drive here) and to stay with your car when there is no parking.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes - again - this is included at the apartment complexes, but if you're in a single family home you will be paying about US$200 a month for several routers to ping through your concrete walls. You will also need to pay for TV whereas it is included in the apartments.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
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?
No. Minimal vet care available.
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?
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Many through orphanages and NGOs
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Same as DC. Although the locals often dress very provocatively at work. Skirt barely skimming their backsides.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Okay - here's the dark side of Hanoi: Domestic dogs and cats are stolen and eaten here in the most barbaric way. I thought this was fear mongering when we researched coming to post, but there are actually streets in the Old Quarter that sell dog and cat meat. Pets are stolen during Tet because some locals believe that by eating your pet, they will have good luck for the new lunar year. We live in the expat area, and have 3 dog meat "restaurants" within 1 mile of our home. Humans are plenty safe in Hanoi. Your pets are not. It's really dampered our tour. We worry about walking our dog. Dog nappers will grab your dog with a hook on a bamboo, and throw them into a ruck sack while zooming away on their motorbike. If they don't sell them for dog meat, if they're a "breed" they'll sell them. Google it. It's all true.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Yes. The air quality and motorbike accidents eventually take everyone down. Very minimal hospital care in Hanoi. Med medevacs almost all cases to Singapore or Bangkok.
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?
Please, please do your research on this. The U.S. Embassy in Hanoi just posted an alarming report (2016) stating that the air quality in Hanoi is 7 times worse than what the WHO recommends for safety. We came here with healthy children and 2 are on inhalers now. Most people in our community are constantly sick. Despite air purifiers put in our homes, the air is scientifically toxic and filled with carcinogens. Locals wear face masks when outside. In addition, the smell of raw sewage throughout Hanoi will knock you over, even in the expat Tay Ho housing area. Because of the pollution, 10 months out of the year Hanoi is "skyless". There are no blue skies or clouds, just smog.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Seafood is in almost everything.
5. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
There are seasons. I didn't believe this when we landed in sweltering August, but come December you can wear winter jackets through March. The houses are not insulated and most are cement. It gets cold. (No need to bring jackets, NorthFace is made here and cheap). There is a mild, short spring and the temperatures spike around May.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
Most use UNIS or Concordia. I have experience with UNIS and recommend Concordia for academics most similiar to the U.S. curriculum and style of teaching (they have a new campus opening this summer). UNIS has amazing facilities and is terrific for elementary. The middle and high school curriculum does not seem to be transferable to other IB or U.S. schools - they're about 2 years behind. Please keep in mind that UNIS typically has a wait list and does NOT give preferential enrollment to USG students. They receive no funding from DoS and could care less about embassy enrollment.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
HIS, UNIS and Concordia all make accommodations - UNIS will put your kid(s) and you through the ringer and they typically have a wait list and use "special needs" as a way to wait list your family. If your child has special needs, I recommend Concordia for a loving, positive experience.
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?
Too many quality schools to list. Many options - they all seem darling.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Yes. Many except baseball, American football
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
All over the place. Don't be fooled by the extension rate. Most have to extend within a month of arriving at post, and do so willingly after spending a year back at FSI learning VN. After about 6 months at post, many regret extending. Morale is medium. Those with health/air issues are counting the days.
2. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Those happiest seem to be families/singles/couples living in apartments - all seem to have a fantastic, supportive community with a lot of fun activities. Those families/singles/couples living in the Tay Ho single family homes spend most of their time trouble shooting their latest housing crisis. There's a marked difference. Please think carefully before bringing children here - the air quality is almost like Beijing.
3. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Yes. Our current Ambassador is openly gay is married.
4. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
I'm aware that some African Americans have encountered prejudices - kids called the "N" word by locals during a school sports tournament.
5. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
We enjoyed traveling out of Hanoi to Danang and Hoi An - charming little town and beautiful seaside village with pristine beaches. We have also been taken aback by the honesty of the Vietnamese. It's by far the most honest culture we've experienced. Yakushi! Weekly massages and facials at Yakushi. $15 for a 90 minute massage has been decadent.
6. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Most spend their time in Hanoi in or around the Old Quarter shopping and eating. If there's a 3-day weekend, flights out of Hanoi are cheap and most take advantage.
7. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Baskets are gorgeous, tribal fabrics from Sapa, pottery....
8. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Hanoi is a difficult place to live. We have served at 4 previous 30% hardship posts, and Hanoi seems so much harder than those - even without the crime element. We have enjoyed the food. But there are roughly 4 main dishes that you will be served repeatedly. With both spouses working, it's possible to save money. Some enjoy having clothes custom tailored, but by the time you choose fabric et al, the final price is similiar to what you would pay stateside for a better product. Household help is affordable and generally honest. But you'll use them more for home repairs and running to 6 stores to find dinner items.
9. Can you save money?
Yes - if you choose not to explore South East Asia.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
I wish post would have been upfront about the air quality. We wouldn't have come here.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
No. We're sorry that we came. This is the first posting that we've every felt this way. It's not been a good experience for us or our kids.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Love of the outdoors, green space, clean air, quiet, long dog walks and freedom of driving where ever you want to.
4. But don't forget your:
Bug spray and linen clothes.
5. Do you have any other comments?
This is a great post for first or second tour officers. Work is robust, high profile and you get to touch a lot of cool stuff that you otherwise wouldn't. But don't be intoxicated by "Hanoi". And certainly don't link here!