Hanoi, Vietnam Report of what it's like to live there - 12/23/19

Personal Experiences from Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam 12/23/19

Background:

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

No, we have lived in several places across six continents.

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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?

Prague, Czech Republic (via the USA). From Central Europe, you can do it in one stop via various connections; from Paris and Frankfurt there are non-stop flights. We typically took either the Turkish flight via Istanbul or Emirates flight via Dubai, with the former being the go-to flight of late. From the USA, you can do one-stop via Seoul, but the flight to the USA is brutal - a fairly short four-hour red-eye from Hanoi where they wake you mid-flight (3am) to feed you, and then trying to stay awake for five hours in Seoul until the connecting flight. It's easier on the way back.

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3. How long have you lived here?

Two and a half years (2017-2019), with previous long-term stays in 2004 and off/on work in country since the late 1990s.

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

International organization.

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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 is a mix of serviced apartments and stand-alone houses. We had a serviced apartment right in the middle of one of the main expat areas (Tay Ho) that was well apportioned and close to shops and restaurants. A 150-200 m2 (~1500-2000 sq ft) 3BR serviced apartment will run around US$1,500-2,000/month, depending on location, amenities, and quality, but there's lots of choice in that segment. You can occasionally get a 4BR in that price range. Smaller flats are naturally cheaper. Serviced apartments come with cable, internet, and cleaning (2-3 times per week) included in the rent. Stand-alone houses are more common in Ciputra (the other main expat area close to UNIS, one of two main international schools) and are large to massive. Even the newer ones there tend to have a reputation for more maintenance issues, though wherever you are, something will always need to be fixed from time-to-time.

Tay Ho has all walks of expat life, and is generally more singles-oriented, with a recent influx of real English teachers (and faux "teachers" - think burnout 20-somethings that would be unemployable otherwise were it not for their native tongue) in shared or studio accommodation throughout the neighborhood. But the neighborhood itself has lots going on and is very convenient. Ciputra is more family oriented. Many expats from Asia live in Ba Dinh or in the new housing complexes off the center (e.g. Times City). Commute times vary. It took me 20-30 minutes in the morning from Tay Ho to the center, and 30-45 minutes in the evenings, with the occasional one hour plus if the taxi/Grab driver decided to chance it on Thuy Khue at 6pm (not a good idea).

Construction will be a big issue no matter where you live. Sooner or later, there will be construction near you that could take a few weeks or finish by the fifth of never.

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

On average, cheaper than both the USA and Europe, but quality is a mix. Imported goods can be really expensive, so if you have a snack cracker habit, you'll need to pay for it. Likewise, the quality of meat is pretty poor unless you go to one of the specialty shops, and even then it's not great. You can save some by having your household staff do the shopping for produce, etc. in local markets, just be sure to wash it well (there are plenty of cleaning mixes you can buy). Local beer is very cheap (not very good though), while wine is ridiculously expensive, easily double or more of US/European prices, and poor value.

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

On trips home, we usually bring back comfort snacks, maple syrup, quality olive oil, hot sauces, wine, and Thanksgiving fixins (pumpkin pie mix, stuffing, etc.). Most non-food items are available on the local economy, though maybe not the quality that you might want.

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

VietnamMM is the food delivery service of choice: a huge range of options and generally reliable (sometimes a bit slow). This is a great place for food. Local food abounds and is usually cheap and delicious, though you can splurge too. There are a few good pizza/Italian choices (Pizza Belga, Mediterreano, Luna d'Autumno, Pizza 4Ps), lots of Korean places, not so much Thai (Tasty Thai is excellent), a mixed bag of Indian places, and a few more eclectic choices, including a West African place and an Egyptian restaurant with pretty passable koshary. Mexican is not bad - Non La is a bizarre (but good) Viet-Mex fusion concept, while Anita's Cantina is more authentic. There are also a host of craft breweries that have opened up of late - Furbrew, Turtle Lake, Pasteur Street, Hanoi Cider - which are generally excellent.

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

We had the occasional roach that was usually guillotined by our cat, the odd influx of ants when seasons changed, and a mouse (or two) that we sometimes heard on the ceiling, but on the whole generally not too bad.

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Daily Life:

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

Through the office and usually DHL. Never used regular mail. Lazada - a sort of Amazon/eBay type shopping service - will courier things with payment on delivery. Using local mail services to send to international addresses did not have a good reputation.

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

There is lots of household help around. We had a great housekeeper/nanny that was excellent with our kids. One of the more recent posts summarized this issue well. Rates depend on knowledge of English/experience/full vs part time. A ballpark figure would be US $400/month (+/- $50) full-time for an English-speaking housekeeper/nanny with experience, maids might be slightly less. Many will want payment in US$, which can be a major pain if you don't have ready access to dollars.

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

Yes, but didn't use.

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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?

ATMs are no problem.HSBC allows the largest withdrawal amounts per transaction. We typically reserved credit card use for doctor offices and hotels, and used cash otherwise.

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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?

Not much - taxi Vietnamese will help with getting around town, as will pleasantries, counting, etc. There are plenty of courses if so desired.

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

Yes, as sidewalks are few and far between, traffic is chaotic, and the sharing of space between pedestrians, bikes, motorbikes, and cars is challenging to say the least.

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Transportation:

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

Grab (Asia version of Uber) is the main game in town. It generally works well, though their surge pricing algorithm occasionally goes bonkers and what's charged doesn't make any sense at all. It has helped curb the occasional issue of pirate taxis with funny meters that you'd get in the past. Even normal taxis aren't too expensive, though. A 30-minute drive to work was typically $3-4.

Buses are much, much cheaper, but I have no experience with them.

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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?

A car would be handy to have freedom to leave the city, but unless you are with an embassy, they are cost-prohibitive. A new little hatchback will cost more than US$20,000 for instance. And the hassles of ownership, traffic, and so on are probably not worth it - stick with Grab.

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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?

Ours was included in the rent. Bandwidth is haphazard. I found our wi-fi pretty erratic (at home and work) and typically used 4G on important calls.

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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?

Cheap and easy. Prepaid Viettel is $8 for 15 GB over 30 days.

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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 used Asvelis and were pretty happy with them. They do a nice job taking care of pets when kenneled. Entry into Viet Nam was a bit a maze from office to office to get various forms stamped, but otherwise was not a major hassle. No quarantine. There has been a boom in pet supply stores in the past couple years, and it's fairly easy to get certain brands of imported pet food (particularly Royal Canin from Europe).

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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?

Varies - there are opportunities out there, although more corporate or teaching these days. The NGO sector is not what it used to be, and development work based in Viet Nam is rapidly decamping to other parts of Asia (Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia) or outside of Asia altogether.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

Many if you network, I suspect.

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

Varies. For me, business causal was just fine. You see all styles and fashions here.

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Health & Safety:

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

Almost none. Occasional petty theft but for a city of eight million, Hanoi is very safe.

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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?

Yes. Outside of the Indian subcontinent and Mongolia in the wintertime, Hanoi has among the world's worst air pollution. In a week-long stretch during early December 2019, we had AQI readings regularly exceeding 400. The quality of air has rapidly deteriorated over the 2+ years we've been in Hanoi, to the point where I would not recommend anyone with young children to come here under any circumstance. Our young daughter has already developed asthma since arriving here and has a terrible cough that we hope goes away when we move shortly.

Aside from the air quality, Hanoi is reasonably OK health-wise. It is leaps and bounds cleaner than it was than when I started traveling here in the late 1990s and tummy bugs are now fairly uncommon. Dengue was an issue when we arrived in 2017, but has been fairly quiet (knock on wood) since. There is no malaria to worry about.

Medical care is OK for basic/GP type stuff and simple ER issues (nebulizers for one's kid, tummy bugs, colds/flu), but if one had anything halfway serious, I'd get on the first plane to Bangkok or Singapore. That includes giving birth - Hanoi would probably be OK for a routine delivery, but I wouldn't want to chance anything complicated.

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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?

See above. Air quality is catastrophic from November to March and only bad otherwise. It is slightly better for a few days after a good rain.

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

This is not the place to have a nut, mold, or dust allergy. If that's you, do not come.

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5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?

If not seeing the sun or blue sky for months on end bothers you, then this is not the place for you!

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

Hanoi has six weeks of nice weather (mid/high 20s C daytime, an occasional sunny sky) separated into two blocks: one in late Nov/early Dec and the other around Easter. Between then (Dec-Mar), it is cold (10-15C, but you feel it without central heating), damp, and humid, and you will not see the sun then, just a grey fog (that is now more a blue-grey fog due to the soot and heavy metals in the air). April and May are hot (35C) but dry, while June-Sept is muggy and rainy, not unlike the Washington DC area at that time of year, but with more rain and flooding. You do not come to Hanoi for the weather.

Hanoi is very humid year-round - using dehumidifiers or running your A/C constantly is a necessity no matter what it does to your power bills unless you want your apartment/clothes/stuff to resemble a Petri dish.

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Schools & Children:

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

UNIS and Concordia are the two main International schools. Both have good/excellent reputations, but unless your employer covers most/all of the $25,000-$30,000 primary school tuition fee (and it rises even more for high school!), are not so affordable. Unfortunately, after those two, the quality/choice drops off a bit, and I wouldn’t send our kids to any of those other alternatives. For younger children, there are plenty of excellent preschools that come highly recommended: Systems Little House, Acacia (French/English bilingual), and Hanoi International Kindergarten among others, and we were happy with our choice in that list. Within the preschool segment, prices range from fairly reasonable ($4,000-5,000/year) to quite high (over US$1,000/month).

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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?

Yes, see above.

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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 but changing. It is more of a corporate and English teacher crowd now than it was even 10 years ago, when there was a larger NGO/development presence. The faux English “teachers” love it here - it's like their undergrad days of partying and not going to class never ended! There are a lot of families and morale seems generally good as Hanoi is a very easy place to live, though those of us with kids really worry about pollution.

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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?

Various - many Facebook and other groups exist to find one's niche. Plus bars, restaurants, clubs, etc.

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

Good for all, though the deteriorating air quality does not let me recommend it for any families with small children. It is a very safe, easy place to live.

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

Yes, no issues at all, but Ho Chi Minh City might be slightly better.

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5. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?

Vietnamese people are pretty friendly, direct, and open to foreigners, much more than other parts of Asia. A smile and a good sense of humor go a long way here, and friendships can be pretty long-lasting.

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

Minor ones perhaps. Gender equality Is more of an issue, with local women often doing much of the work and men drinking the money away unfortunately.

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

Lots of cool places to see domestically - Halong Bay, Sapa, Danang, Hue, and Hoi An. Nha Thang - not so much. Great food, great friends. We have had a good time overall, much of it because of the people and friendships.

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

Around town, there are countless things to do, whether touristic, shopping, and culinary (too many to list). There are a lot more festivals, fairs, concerts, and other events than there used to be - be sure to join one of the many Facebook groups to be in the loop. One challenge with kids is a lack of green space - you'll spend many weekends inside shopping malls at one of their play areas which gets old after a while.

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

Yes - great (and cheap!) fabrics/tailoring, ceramics, woodwork, embroidery (though the paintings are not as good as they used to be), silk, propaganda posters, and various knock-offs of your favorite brands (if you are so inclined).

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

It's dynamic with lots happening, good restaurants, and close to many parts of Asia. It's also very easy and safe.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?

We came in eyes open, with no surprises, though I would have liked to have foreseen how rapidly the air quality was going to deteriorate.

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

No. For those working in the development/NGO sector, Hanoi (and Viet Nam) is yesterday's news. It's developed (or getting there rapidly). On one hand, it has been refreshing to see a city that 20 years ago had one traffic light and mostly bicycle traffic transform into a crazy urban jungle with office blocks piercing the sky and even the presence of a new Maserati dealership. But in the process, with the influx of tourists, teachers, and nomads, it's lost a lot of what once made it so charming. Don't get me wrong - that charm is still there, but it's a lot harder to see than it used to be. And with the toxic air, it's just not a livable place anymore, even if it is on balance safe and easy. So, for me and my family at least, while Hanoi will always have a special place in our hearts, it's time to move on for new challenges, clean air, and blue sky.

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

Thoughts of ever seeing blue sky more than ten days per year.

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4. But don't forget your:

Air purifiers, nebulizers, and dehumidifiers.

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