Month: January 2015

Impressions of Hanoi

My anti-pollution mask

Wearing my anti-pollution mask

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.

Everyday Life in Hanoi, Vietnam

Oriberry Coffee Shop

Working at a local coffee shop

Same same, but different.

My life in Hanoi is pretty comfortable. And in most respects quite similar to my life in the states. I go to cafes, hang out at home, run errands, work out, attend various social functions.

Here are a couple of un-edited videos showing what my day actually looks like.

The video below is of me riding my motorbike to a nearby coffee shop. (I hadn’t been to this one before so I wasn’t quite sure where to turn.)

This one shows me shopping at the Fivimart supermarket at the local mall. You may see the cashier give me a bewildered look towards the end of the video. This is probably because she notices the camera mounted on my forehead. I guess she’s not used to that in her culture 🙂

Driving in Hanoi

Traffic in Hanoi

The streets of Hanoi

My first time driving a motorbike in Hanoi was a pretty nerve-racking experience.

It was my fourth day in town and I had never driven a motorbike before. My main concern was learning the controls of the bike. Figuring out how to start, stop, turn and signal was my primary focus. Only secondarily did I consider the actual other people on the road.

After a couple of sessions on the bike I got a better feel for the handling. I also developed a sense of when to yield and when to go.

Now riding my bike is something I actually enjoy. You have to be alert at all times, but the roads seem surprisingly orderly once you understand the traffic patterns and rhythms. Maybe I’m kidding myself, but at least it seems that way. It’s all mostly instinctive, anyways.

The video below is of me taking my bike for a spin around town, beginning and ending at my house. It was around 11 AM on a Wednesday. At the end you can see a brief tour of my house.

And don’t worry mom, I’m wearing a helmet!

Bonus: Check out this really cool video of traffic in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Fresh Off The Boat

Packed for Asia

All packed and ready to go

New year, new continent.

I arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam around noon on Friday, January 2. It took a while to get here – over 42 hours of total travel time! That included a 14 hour flight from Chicago to Seoul, Korea and a 17 hour layover in Seoul.

I took only two bags – a carry-on and a personal bag. I lucked out a bit because I didn’t have to check my largest bag, which at 11.7 kilograms was over Air Asiana’s 10 kilo carry-on limit. I wasn’t aware of the weight limit, but thankfully the employee at the counter did not bust me for the extra 1.7 kilos. Instead, she just slipped an “allowable size” tag on my bag and smiled at me. About an hour later I saw the same lady at the gate where my flight left and she greeted me with “Happy New Year, Mr. Anderson.” Highly commendable customer service! Although I hadn’t yet left American soil, the trip was off to a good start.

The flight itself was pleasant with an open middle seat. I had the window and an older Thai lady was on the aisle. There was ample leg room and it was pretty quiet the whole trip. The only thing that wasn’t so pleasant was sitting for over 14 hours, but I managed to sleep a bit and get some reading done.

The Seoul airport was pretty modern and offered a lot of amenities. It had free lockers and free showers as well as large daybeds in a special “transfer” lounge to sleep on. It is probably one of the best airports to have an extended layover.

Arriving in Hanoi was pretty routine considering how excited I was to finally set foot in Asia for the first time (outside an airport). The airport was clean and not very crowded. After getting my Visa stamped I exchanged some of the dollars I had brought along. Much to my delight, I become an instant multimillionaire, pocketing over 6 million Vietnamese dong from the $300 I handed over.

After changing my money, I found the taxi company recommended to me by Florian, the German whose room I was taking over in a shared house in the Tay Ho district. I asked about the price, which at 350,000 dong (about $16) was what I had been quoted by Florian. The taxi driver didn’t speak much English, but I had simple directions: “It’s right by the Sheraton hotel”. After about 30 minutes I reached my new home. (I had found this place in an online classified listing in the middle of December and arranged to move in at the beginning of January.)

I rang the doorbell and was greeted by Jade, my new French roommate. She helpfully showed me around the house and gave me a map of the city. I have a room on the third of four floors. It is a basic room with a bed, desk, closet and bookshelf. It has a nice verdant view overlooking an alley. All for $240 per month plus one million dong (~$47) for expenses like Internet, cleaning lady, bottled drinking water, and other miscellaneous items.

So far, Vietnam is treating me very well.