Hanoi, Vietnam Report of what it's like to live there - 04/05/18

Personal Experiences from Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam 04/05/18

Background:

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

Yes.

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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?

DC. About 24 hours travel time. Connections through Seoul or Tokyo.

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3. How long have you lived here?

2 years.

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

Spouse of a diplomat.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

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

We like our housing, but it’s kind of a mixed bag. Sizes can vary dramatically; it just depends on what is available when you arrive. Embassy housing is spread out. Each has its own perks.

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

You can definitely live on the food available here, but there are times you spend all day looking for something (say, tahini) can’t find it, and then happen to see it weeks later. Cost is all over the place. Produce is cheap (more so if you have a local buy it for you). Grocery stores are “normal” prices. Nothing is a great deal. If you want quality, you pay for it. (We think local ice cream tastes like jet fuel, and a pint of Hagen Daz will set you back about $10). Household supplies are available, but who knows what’s in them or if they actually work well. Paper products are available, but poor quality.

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

This is a consumable post. Ship brands if you are particular. If you’re particular about quality, or content (added fats, sugars, chemicals), ship it. Cereal is either muesli or Fruit Loops. I’m happy I shipped raw honey, maple syrup, plain Cheerios, quality select-a-size paper towels, and laundry detergent. Water is also very hard. I use a hard water treatment (Charlie’s Hard Water Booster) in the laundry. It’s helped tremendously with preventing clothes from becoming “crusty."

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

Eating out is cheap. Ordering in is cheap (and so convenient). You can get local food for under $2/serving. Fine dining restaurants are well-priced as well (compared to the US).

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

I’ve seen only one roach. Geckos make their way inside but don’t bother us. Sugar ants are persistent and creep out of who knows where to find crumbs and left behind snacks. But they also seem to disappear quickly when the mess is removed.

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Daily Life:

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

We use pouch and DPO. Liquids are okay. We use Amazon, too. No experience with the local postal facilities.

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

Available, but quality totally depends on luck. We’ve had some not-so-great experiences. After a few trials, we’ve found help that makes us happy. Cost varies wildly depending on employer, job description, hours, language, and quality; there’s no real standard. In my mind, most are overpaid, and it ruins the market. There’s a nanny mafia and they ALL talk and make ridiculous demands. Nannies/helpers (regardless of quality) earn an upper-middle class living and earn more than locally employed staff at the embassy. Salary can range from $300-$550+ USD (hopefully paid in VND, not USD)/month, plus an annual month’s pay bonus for Tet. The end-of contract bonus of an additional month’s pay and annual raise (of up to 10%) are negotiable items. We’ve been happy for the help for shopping, cleaning, and watching our kids, but I haven’t been overly impressed.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

Gyms are everywhere. Western type and lots catered to the Vietnamese. Cost is $50/month for local gyms to $100+ for western. Most of the housing areas (apartments) have little gyms (ours is a joke). Many people ride bikes outside, but the air quality and/or heat can be a hindrance. It is also not easy or safe to run on the streets. It helps to have a treadmill/bike/rower in your house you can use without breathing the air outside.

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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?

I have never used an ATM in Vietnam, but rely on the embassy cashier heavily. Credit cards are not widely accepted. We have only used them for travel and major purchases at some bigger stores (maybe twice in a year). This is definitely a cash society.

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

Some is necessary. You can pick up what you need rather quickly, e.g, numbers, directions, etc. I get by on very little. Depending on where you frequent, many Vietnamese will speak English. But I have found that if they don’t, in my experience there is no effort made to try to understand you or work with you. They won’t talk with their hands, or draw pictures, or use Google Translate. They just wave you away and ignore you. This is when hired household help comes in handy. It’s nice to have someone take care of some things I can’t. The embassy offers language courses for family members. There are also some classes available in the community, although I can’t comment on price.

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

It depends on the disability. Walking down the street can be a nightmare, especially with small kids. Cars and motorbikes are everywhere. The pavement is uneven and cracked. You can’t walk straight; you need to weave in and out and up and down and watch your head.

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Transportation:

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

I would never take local mass transit. Taxis are relatively affordable. You’ve got your nicer/expensive ones, and not-so-nice/cheap ones. We tend to use Uber/Grab (although Uber is no longer available),as the cars are nicer and the fare is half the cost of a taxi. You then don’t need to carry those small bills around to pay them, if you link to credit card. The only downside is waiting for it to arrive. From our housing to embassy is roughly 40,000 VND in Uber and 80,000 in a taxi.

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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?

Most families have small SUVs or minivans. In theory smaller is better as not much space in the city is allotted to parking, but you can make do with anything. If you have a car, you will likely hire a driver (I'd say 20% drive themselves). If you drive, you need patience and tough skin.

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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?

Internet is available. I think high-speed is a joke. We started with the second to highest speed available for about $120 a month. We gave up on it and downgraded. Now we pay 1,300,000 VND (~$60) for 4 MBPS. We get about 2. It’s usually enough to do what we want. We stream videos and shows without much problem most of the time. Every now and then it just doesn't work. Plan on using a VPN, and set it up before you arrive.

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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?

Bring an unlocked phone. Sim cards are easy to come by. There are a few major carriers, but it can be difficult to understand what you are signing up for or purchasing. I got a SIM card and fill up with scratch-off cards occasionally, but I still have no idea what I spend for calls/text/etc. I probably spent $40 to get the sim card, and about $10/month for data/text/calls. Much cheaper than the US.

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Pets:

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?

We don’t have pets, but I know friends with pets have had trouble leaving town due to the lack of and poor quality of kennels.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

There are quite a few different organizations. You can definitely find something that fits your interests. HIWC (Hanoi International Women's Club) is a good starting point.

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

The Vietnamese always dress up. Or walk around in matching pajama sets. So, almost anything goes. Active wear is not very common. Only expats walk around in tank tops and yoga pants. Choose cuts and fabrics that will allow you to survive the humidity.

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Health & Safety:

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

It’s generally pretty safe. Occasionally we hear of crimes. In my opinion, the biggest danger is "opportunity theft." We’ve had money stolen out of our bag by a tour guide, but that’s the extent of it.

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

The air quality is tough for those susceptible to it, e.g., those who have breathing problems, allergies, sinus issues, etc. There are good international clinics for the basics. Any complex or “life threatening” issues should be addressed in Bangkok or Singapore.

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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?

The air quality is horrendous and it seems like it sucks the life out of you. I can count on one hand the number of times I have seen blue sky. During the summer the air quality is better, but the weather is hot and humid. During the winter it can be really bad. I feel it in my lungs, and my head (perpetual migraines), and my kids and I have persistent coughs. Several times the air quality has been “hazardous," and it's not fun. We really appreciate the "moderate" days when they come around.

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4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?

Peanuts are common in Vietnamese dishes. It’s easy to go gluten free, as so much is rice-based. There are quite a few vegan and vegetarian restaurants around.

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

Hot and humid summers and warm spring and fall. Cool and pleasant winters. It can get “cold” in winter, if you consider 60F cold (the marshmallow jackets come out in force). I find it a great time to wear jeans and light sweaters.

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Schools & Children:

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

A handful to choose from, but no direct experience. It seems the embassy kids are split between UNIS, Concordia, and St. Paul, depending on the best fit for the family.

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2. 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?

Many preschools are available, but they are very expensive. The top international schools (UNIS, Concordia) may run up to $14k/year. The dedicated international preschools (Morning Star, Hanoi International Kindergarten, Systems Little House) are approx. $9k/year, not including summer terms.

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3. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

For older kids, yes, through the schools and some community-based. Not much is available for the preschool age.

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Expat Life:

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

This is our first overseas experience, so I can’t compare it to much, but the expat community seems very large. A lot of Americans and Europeans. Australians. Plus a ton of tourists passing through. From what I can tell, most people enjoy their time here and morale is good.

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2. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

Vietnam and SE Asia is travelworthy. There is a lot to see. Sapa in the north is beautiful. Halong Bay. Ninh Binh. Phu Quoc. HCMC. You have easy regional travel, and a major hub through Singapore.

The food is pretty good, too.

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

We wander around Old Quarter and Tay Ho a lot. There is something about watching the people and traffic go by. If the weather is nice, visiting the botanical gardens or Temple of Literature is in order. The malls also have indoor trampolines.

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

I didn’t think I would want to buy much, but my list keeps growing. There’s the cheap tourist souvenirs that make good gifts for children back home (I doubt much of it is real, and have a feeling it's made in China). Lacquer boxes and furniture (even in more modern styles), pottery (dishes/ tea sets), and oil paintings (even custom). Nothing is as good a deal as you think it should be, but there a variety of things to add to your collections.

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5. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

Affordable household help. Most people have at least a cook/cleaner, some have 2 nannies and a driver. Reasonably priced dining options (Vietnamese, Indian, Western, local). Close to lots of regional travel.

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Words of Wisdom:

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

Yes. I would come again a first time, but I wouldn’t extend. 2-3 years is enough.

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2. But don't forget your:

Western-sized clothing and shoes.
High quality N95 face mask.

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