Month: February 2015

Chilling in Vietnam

Hanoi fishermen

Fishermen by the lake

Before coming to Hanoi, I had heard cautionary tales of foreigners getting ripped off or even worse. After all, Vietnam is a “third world” country. So it’s supposed to be scary and dangerous here, right?

I admit that when I stepped off the plane at Noi Bai International Airport, my guard was up. I was keeping an eye out for scammers and thieves. And, beaven forbid, I did not intend to become the victim of an overpriced taxi ride.

In short time, however, these vague suspicions were replaced by the realities of my surroundings.

One of the first things that struck me upon arriving in Vietnam was the laid back demeanor of the people. The fact that I arrived at the tail end of New Year’s holiday probably had something to do with this, but people just seemed really easy going. This first impression has held true until now.

I can’t think of a time where I’ve seen someone overly stressed or in a rush. I also can’t recall anyone getting really angry. People here smile in a natural, not forced, way. Nobody appears to have an agenda or exhibit any passive-aggressive behavior. (Perhaps this would be different if I worked in an office?)

Even the security guards don’t take themselves too seriously. There were a couple of times were I thought I was in “trouble” for parking my motorbike in the wrong place, but the parking attendants showed no sign of irritation. They just pointed to where I should park and resumed their standing around.

The lack of uptightness here has been quite refreshing, particularly because it tends to rub off on you. It has the effect of lowering your overall stress level, which otherwise could easily be higher due to navigating a foreign city, culture, and language.

Impressions of Hanoi, Part 3

Evening commute in Hanoi

Evening commute in Hanoi

Continuing the theme of my previous two posts, here are 14 more impressions of Vietnam’s capital city.

  • Lots of free delivery
    Things such as jugs of water, groceries, and laundry are examples of what’s available for free delivery. This is nice for larger items and repeat purchases.
  • Vietnamese and foreigners mix well
    In my neighborhood there is a good mix of foreigners and Vietnamese people. Despite the occasional language barrier, it seems to be a harmonious mix. I suspect this is due to Hanoians’ easy going nature, which rubs off on the cities’ non-natives.
  • People are short
    This is probably stating the obvious, but you won’t find many NBA prospects here.
  • Internet can be unreliable
    When I got here at the beginning of the year, the Internet was adequately fast. However, after an undersea cable broke, the Internet became incredibly slow for over two weeks. Speeds have since bounced back, but there can be periods of sluggishness.
  • It can be hard to find basic things
    Certain “common” necessities like contact solution are often difficult to find.
  • Lots of extra staff
    There seems to be an over-supply of employees at many stores. There often appears to be double or even triple the number of staff needed.
  • It’s not that touristy
    I’ve been to the Old Quarter district several times. This is the heart of the “tourist” area and home to many hotels and backpacker hostels. Yet in the six weeks I’ve lived in Hanoi I have not seen a single postcard for sale. Which is strange because I have actually been on the lookout for postcards. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen any “Hanoi” t-shirts for sale, either. Or keychains, mugs, or any other souvenir trinkets. For me this is a plus because it means I get to experience a more “authentic” city.
  • You pay afterwards at cafes
    Cafes are like restaurants in that you order first, sit down, and have your drink brought to you. You don’t pay until you leave.
  • It’s a big city but doesn’t feel like it
    The city is quite spread out and doesn’t seem overly crowded. Although there are around 2.5 million people in the city (6.5 million in the greater metro area), the population density does not seem that high. The city feels large but not crowded.
  • The traffic is crazy, but drivers are not
    Traffic in Hanoi is notoriously hectic, but the drivers are surprisingly relaxed. I have not seen any cases of “road rage” or much overly aggressive driving. People honk out of courtesy and not out of anger.
  • The women are attractive
    I have heard that Vietnamese women are considered some of the most beautiful in Asia. I would have to concur.
  • People are friendly
    For the most part, people seem friendly in a genuine way.
  • There aren’t any alcoholics/junkies
    Although beer drinking is popular here, I haven’t noticed any crazy public drunkenness. I also haven’t noticed any drug abuse or homelessness. I’m guessing this is due to cultural taboos against anti-social behavior such as excessive drinking and drug use.
  • The city closes early
    Hanoi is alive and bustling during the day and evening, but around 11 PM everybody goes home and the city shuts down.

Impressions of Hanoi, Part 2

Stretching in Hanoi

Lady doing arm circles by the lake

Here are 11 more random observations from my first month living in Hanoi, Vietnam. See last week’s post for more impressions of Hanoi.

  • Lots of people smoke
    Smoking is a quite popular activity here. You can’t smoke everywhere, but it’s allowed in most public places like cafes and restaurants. As a non-smoker and air-breather, this is kind of a bummer.
  • It’s safe
    This was somewhat of a pleasant surprise. I haven’t felt unsafe here once, even while walking alone at night as a foreigner. I wasn’t actually too concerned about violence, but I thought there might be a greater risk of theft. I have heard isolated stories of people getting things stolen, but as far as I can tell this is not a huge risk. And I don’t usually feel paranoid carrying around my laptop. If you have common sense, Hanoi is probably as safe or safer than most big cities.
  • Refreshing lack of advertising
    This may be ironic because I make the majority of my income from (online) advertising, but I don’t feel constantly bombarded by commercials like in the U.S. This is definitely a positive.
  • Not much or inconsistent English
    Overall, the level of English here seems pretty low. It is also pretty hit or miss. Sometimes even the most basic communication can be a struggle but other times there is barely any language barrier. This has not been a problem because there are so few times I’ve needed to communicate anything complicated. Usually I am ordering, paying for, or looking for something. My go to move when looking for something (like a gas station or band-aids, for example) is to do a Google image search on my phone and show someone the results. They get the idea immediately and can point me in the right direction.
  • A little Vietnamese is helpful
    I learned about 100 words and phrases before coming to Vietnam, but the only words I use on a regular basis are “xin chào” (hello), “cảm ơn” (thank you) and “bao nhiêu” (how much). Knowing the numbers also comes in handy when dealing with prices and money. I haven’t made the commitment to learn more Vietnamese, but I would definitely want to if I was planning to stay here longer term.
  • Street food will not kill you
    I’ve eaten plenty of “street food” here and haven’t gotten sick once. I also haven’t heard of anybody else having any disastrous digestive issues. (Unlike in the U.S. with its $10+ billion of antacid sales.)
  • Very few people are overweight
    I suspect this is because there is not much of a fast food culture here and people eat a relatively traditional diet. (The first McDonald’s in Vietnam opened just last year in Ho Chi Minh City.) I would guess this will change in the future as cheap, processed food becomes more widespread.
  • The food is good and cheap
    You can get a big bowl of pho (rice noodle soup) for 30,000 dong (~$1.40) and a huge serving of bun cha for 60,000 dong ($2.80). For these prices the quality of the meat and other ingredients can’t be great, but hey, you get what you pay for. Bánh mì sandwiches are also often ridiculously cheap at 20,000 dong ($0.94) and under. I once paid 6,000 dong ($0.28) for a small sandwich. It is definitely not hard to eat cheaply if that’s your goal.
  • Other stuff is cheap too
    Prices in general are lower here. For example, going to see a movie costs around $3 and going the opera costs under $10. Taxis are also very reasonable, costing about $1 per mile. Cell phone service is extremely cheap, costing less than $10 for a SIM card and Vietnamese number with ability to call and text. Monthly unlimited Internet for my phone costs a whopping $3.30.
  • It’s loud
    Although I live in a quieter part of town, there is almost always background noise of some sort. Dogs barking, people talking, cock-a-doodle-dooing are all familiar sounds. Sometimes it’s comforting to be surrounded by such activity, but other times I would prefer peace and quiet. Luckily, I have a good supply of ear plugs.
  • People like to stretch in public
    It is common to see people doing light calisthenics and stretching their arms and legs. This seems quite practical and I hope it will catch on elsewhere.