In no particular order, these are some things I’ve noticed in my first month of living in Hanoi. I should note that it’s my first time in Asia, so I have no points of comparison to other Asian cities. These impressions are based on my personal experience as well as from talking to other people.
- There are lots of cafes and coffee shops
This is probably a legacy of French colonial times. Most are small, local mom and pop shops that offer Vietnamese coffee, tea, juices, and smoothies. The more “upscale” places also serve espresso drinks like lattes and Americanos.
- Beer is popular
Light lager beer seems to be a common beverage. There are bia hois throughout the city, where people go to sit and drink glasses of beer. Beer is also served at cafes alongside coffee and tea.
- People are respectful and considerate
Vietnamese people seem generally polite. I haven’t noticed anyone being outright rude or aggressive. (Maybe this is because I don’t speak the language and can’t hear all the nasty comments people are making.) People are generally calm and I haven’t noticed any “obnoxious” behavior. At least apart from one time when a guy at a cafe was playing a video on his cell phone very loudly without headphones. That was a little annoying.
- The streets are sort of dirty
When I first arrived here, the streets seemed dirty and unkempt. Not in a hopeless, depressing way, but dirty nonetheless. Now that I’ve been here a while, I realize what I thought of as dirty was more disorganization and lack of development. There is some litter and garbage laying around, but not that much. There are plenty of street sweepers and garbage collectors that keep the city relatively clean. The “dirtyness” appears more due to a lack of money for public works than neglect or apathy. For example, the street sweepers I’ve seen use basic, inefficient straw brooms.
- The air is really dirty
This is definitely my least favorite thing about the city. All the fumes from the motorbikes, cars and buses make the air thick with pollution. Sometimes it feels like you’re smoking a cigarette just by walking around. When you drive your motorbike it can feel like you’re chain smoking. The polluted air even stings your eyes. Lots of people wear masks covering their face to block the dirty air, but I heard it doesn’t make much of a difference. I usually try to breathe through my nose and not open my mouth, but I also doubt that really matters.
- It’s developing fast
I can’t compare it to the past, but I’ve heard that Hanoi, along with the rest of Vietnam, is “growing up” quickly. Cell phones with Internet access are everywhere and people appear to be adopting Western ideals of clothing and material comforts.
- But it’s still pretty traditional
Despite some economic growth and outward flashes of prosperity, people seem to maintain quite traditional values, which place emphasis on family and society above the individual. Hanoi is probably more “modern” than rural Vietnam, which is still the majority of Vietnam. Also, those pointy straw hats are a common sight around town.
- Money is important
People aren’t obsessed with money, but Vietnamese people work hard and appear to strive for material wealth. And because money is relatively scarce, it is highly valued. I have also heard that Vietnamese people tend to save a lot.
- It can be cold
January and February are the two coldest months of the year. By my Minnesota standards it’s pretty mild, but nights and mornings can be especially chilly. It’s been mostly pants and long sleeve weather since I’ve been here.
- It’s humid
Within a day of arriving here, the pages of my passport had curled up because of all the moisture in the air. One time I checked the weather and it was 96% humidity! (The average is 78% in January.) It hasn’t been too uncomfortable but I bet it would be if the temperature was higher.
- It’s flat
I haven’t noticed any hills or major changes in elevation to speak of.