For an expat, I think living in Hanoi is a little like living in Paris in the early 20th century. Even though it is a communist country, I feel like Henry Miller here-I am free. Life is affordable and intellectuals and artists and students gather at cafes over rich, dark coffee in the ruins of old French colonial villas. Photographers get together for street photography outings. The art scene is booming , with many contemporary art galleries flourishing, set in atmospheric colonial buildings and spotlighting Vietnamese artists who were oppressed for decades but now freely expressing themselves. Here you have the great luxury of time. Vietnam is on the rise and is an incredibly hard working country, yet life still is lived at a human pace . People take time out one another,
The architecture is hauntingly beautiful, and the layers of history in this 2,000 year old city would take a lifetime to explore. The streets are lined with stately old trees shading broad French boulevards. But walk away a few steps and you find yourself lost in winding alleyways that likely haven’t changed much for centuries.
Like all of former indochina , Vietnam offers much of the beauty of French life, although perhaps more that of Paris circa 1890 or 1920 than today’s France. And you can see a French aesthetic in everything from the tall yellow villas with their green shuttered windows and winding staircases to the patisseries on every corner, the French cheeses in neighborhood stores, the baguette lady selling bread on the street, and the hot roasted chestnuts cooked fresh over an open fire on the sidewalk on a wintry day. The food is delicious and healthy. I realized after moving here how much of a food desert the US is. People bring each other fresh fruits as gifts, and even the most humble dishes are loaded with vegetables, many of which I was unfamiliar with, greens gathered by the roadside or grown in a vacant lot. People shop at the market every day for fresh produce and you can easily eat a healthy delicious meal at a street side restaurant for $1.50. The coffee culture is a world unto itself, with separate cafes that only serve coffee, including the famous egg coffee.
Vietnam is very safe. There is almost no violent crime and surprisingly little petty crime . Guns are outlawed, and the biggest danger is motorbike accidents. And of course, Vietnam is one of the safest countries in the world in terms of COVID, with only 33 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. Children play outside after dark and walk to school alone. There is still a Confucian culture of respect and mutual obligation and a strong Buddhist belief in karma. So you will find that most people act honorably and with kindness, and want to help others.
I have found that in Vietnam I have had opportunities I never would have had elsewhere. Within six months of living here I had two books on learning English published by the national publishing company, which are now in widespread use at universities throughout the country. I was asked to host my own television news show on state TV. As well as teaching at a university, I started working for a government minister starting schools in apartment complexes throughout the city, so children don’t have to travel to school. I began assisting the vice minister of golf with plans to promote tourism in resorts centered around world class golf courses.. I have met fascinating authors and artists and musicians. Vietnam is a place that is rising, and it is easy to find many financial opportunities and the chance to try new things, whether it is a business business venture, a life drawing class or traditional Vietnamese martial arts
There are downsides of course. The first month I moved here I was absolutely overwhelmed, anxious and depressed.The pollution, the noise and chaos of millions of motorbikes seemed too much for me, and many foreigners leave because of the stress and find the culture too different to adjust to easily. But I soon found that despite Hanoi being a city of 8 million, life is actually gracious and gentle here, and the people are truly welcoming and care about others.
In terms of dealing with the more anxiety-producing aspects of Hanoi, I have done something I don’t usually do in a new country, which is remove myself to a more westernized environment. I lived in a very local area the first few months and it was too hard for me. But moving into a luxury high rise apartment complex provided a buffer. Although no westerners live in my building, it is populated with wealthy, well-traveled Vietnamese as well as Korean and Japanese expats who are less likely to want to touch my hair or comment on how fat and white and tall I am. I have a little more privacy, which is very hard to come by in this country, and an enormous outdoor swimming pool and a gorgeous indoor pool and spa. A Japanese bakery and Korean restaurant in the building, as well as a Vinmart and a Vietnamese restaurant. Manicured grounds free from motorbike traffic allow me to walk in peace and safety, without always dodging the appalling traffic. A live-in maid here only costs about $300 a month and having a driver, saves me from the excitement and danger of driving a motorbike in traffic except on rare occasions. Normally, I would want to live in the most local area possible and get to know the life of the average person. But in this instance, I found that having a quiet place to retreat with a few luxuries has made all the hard adjustments of living in such a very foreign place possible. I suppose it depends on your temperament.
Hanoi has about the same population as New York-8 million -and getting out of town every now and then helps too. The city is only about an hour from beautiful mountains with rivers winding through Ninh Binh province to the west and the breathtaking karst islands of Halong Bay heading East towards the Pacific. Hanoi does have four seasons, though the winter is mild and brief. But if you prefer hot weather all year round, Ho Chi Minh City may be better. And if you enjoy a smaller city or rural area , there are many breathtaking mountainous provinces where traditional hill tribes reside, and beaches and islands that can rival anywhere in Southeast Asia.
I think Vietnam is a good place to live as an expat regardless of your tastes, although I cannot speak to what it is like to live here as a Vietnamese. If you want to start a business and invest, work as an English teacher, explore ancient cultures, wildlife, contemporary art, or just lie on the beach, you can be happy here.
At the old French Metropole Hotel
west lake, Hanoi
sunset from my living room, Hanoi