Here are some things I wish I’d known before moving to Vietnam. I’ll try to be as honest as possible so anyone considering the transition will be a bit more well-educated than I was before stepping off the plane.
It’s really, really difficult to get around without a motorbike.
You can do it if you really want to, but it’s not easy. I wish I’d known when moving here that if I wanted to avoid motorbikes entirely, then I would have had to live very close to work. It’s just not practical to take a bus, taxi, or xe om to your job every day. You’ll waste too much time and money on the Hanoi streets.
The only way you can entirely avoid motorbiking is by living right next to your job, and if I’d known that at the beginning, I may have picked my apartment more accordingly.
People don’t wear maxi skirts or bright colored clothing
This might seem like a silly thing to mention, but for a girl who lives in neons and patterned clothing in the States, the subdued colors of Hanoi were a bit of a surprise. If you’re walking through town you’ll typically see people in black and white, grey and beige, with the occasional pop of red or pink, which the ladies here seem to favor. Every now and then a Vietnamese woman will splash out and wear a pastel colored dress, but for the most part colors here aren’t too flashy.
And as for maxi skirts and dresses, they just aren’t practical in Hanoi. The roads here are too busy and messy for long skirts. Unless you’re willing to constantly trail your skirt through someone’s leftover lunch and road side trash left out for collectors, leave the maxis at home. Motorbikes also present an obstacle for the maxi skirt wearer, so even if you’re just visiting pack something more practical.
At first, I didn’t mind standing out in the local crowd. At 5’9” with blondish hair, I was bound to stand out anyway, but after a few months, when I no longer considered myself a tourist, bright colors seemed too over-the-top for a typical walk through Hanoi and I’ve shelved a lot of my brighter outfits in favor of the darker Hanoi hues.
Websites get blocked
Vietnam is a communist country and this does have an effect on various things, like people’s viewpoints, the local bureaucracy, and even simple day-to-day activities. One thing I wish I’d known before moving here was that websites are actually blocked way more frequently than I expected. For example, wordpress.com was blocked last week and I had to use Proxy’s to post on this blog. News websites are also regularly blocked.
It might be a minor annoyance considering some of the other way more pressing problems the people in Vietnam face, but it’s still surprisingly frustrating and way more common than I’d expected.
Vietnamese restaurants and street food is easy
My first few weeks in Vietnam I was completely lost food wise. Sitting down at a local restaurant where I didn’t understand the menu or the waiters was too daunting. Getting food from street food vendors was a monumental task. I stuck to mostly big, English-speaking restaurants and convenience store food for the first two weeks.
This was stupid.
Even at the smallest, most Vietnamese restaurant you’ll be able to order food. A lot of young people speak English, there are often English menus if you ask, and even if you can’t get English assistance a simple gesture at someone else’s dinner will usually result in the same delightful meal being sent your way. Recently I sat down at a chicken restaurant and anxiously looked at the owner who immediately turned around and left, leaving me sitting uncomfortably and unsure of myself on a tiny plastic stool. He returned several minutes later with a plate full chicken and veg, which is exactly what I’d wanted even though I’d said nothing. Vietnamese restaurant workers want your business and they try to make the customer happy even if they can’t speak the same language.
Hygiene can be suspect
Really though… it can be.
Before I left Vietnam I’d always heard that small restaurants and vendors will try their darndest to get you a good healthy meal because they want more business. Maybe they’re trying, but they don’t always succeed.
There is icky-truth ahead here, so skip ahead if you don’t want to hear the nitty-gritty.
I get diarrhea and food-poisoning regularly in Vietnam. I consider it a success if I can last more than three weeks without throwing up. I think I’m particularly sensitive, but mostly every expat I know here has had food-poisoning at least once in the last few months. I’ve also learned that big restaurants are no safer than the corner shop. One of the worst bouts of food-poisoning I’ve had so far came from a Western pizza place that seemed popular and safe. I was wrong about that.
There’s not much you can do about it, and there’s no point in avoiding the restaurants and food you think are unsafe because really, food poisoning here strikes randomly. I’ve learned to enjoy myself and the food in Vietnam while just trying not to worry about it. However, if I’d known that I’d spend the whole first month of my life here locked in the restroom, I’d definitely have been more cautious about coming to Hanoi. There’s some gross, brutal honesty for you, but it’s worth knowing.
Bartering is alive and well in Hanoi
You can barter for pretty much anything in Vietnam from fruit and meat to t-shirts and hair-clips. Half the time even if an item has a sticker price, it can be bartered down, except of course at larger super markets and convenience stores where the prices are fixed. Everywhere else when you ask for the price of an item you’ll be quoted about double what it’s worth, especially if you’re a foreigner. You’re expected to bargain and no one feels guilty about it, so learn some Vietnamese numbers or get good at miming and holding up bank notes.
In the first few weeks I was really annoyed by this bartering process and I wish someone had told me not to stress. You will get used to bargaining pretty fast and the longer you live in Vietnam the more you realize that getting charged a couple bucks extra occasionally really doesn’t hurt you any and isn’t worth getting irritated over.
Super markets and malls exist but they aren’t as common as in America and Europe
Americans are famously spoiled for choice. Walk into a shampoo aisle in a U.S. supermarket and you’ll see what I mean. I’ve grown up with that consumer mentality and when I moved to Hanoi it was a bit hard to shake the fact that I couldn’t just walk into a Payless or Walmart and walk out an hour later with every shopping item I had on my list.
Now a shopping list which looks something like this: shampoo, beef, carrots, potatoes, pencils, socks, and vanilla extract; will take an entire afternoon excursion all over the city to find everything I need. I can find shampoo and pencils at my local Vinamart (an ubiquitous Vietnamese convenience store which exists on almost every street in Hanoi), but beef and vegetables won’t be fresh here and will require a trip to the local wet market. Socks are another matter and will require a trip to a clothes shop or in my case, Hang Giay street in the Old Quarter, which is typically cheap and easy to reach from my apartment. Vanilla extract is a doozy as it’s a Western product and requires a bigger trip to either a Western shop or possibly one of the big supermarkets.
…Which brings me back to the topic of super markets. They do exist in Hanoi, but I haven’t had much luck with them. The nearest shops to my house are at Hoan Kiem lake (a 20 minute walk) or a slow, frustrating motorbike ride through the Old Quarter, not my most favorite of routes. And when you arrive you can hunt high and low and often not find what you came in for. My two most recently failed shopping attempts being a hunt for a drain cover (I eventually wound up substituting a metal coffee strainer because it’s all I could find) and a little sewing kit which neither supermarket had (I eventually found a sewing kit, but for quite an exorbitant price at a Chinese-owned shop near my apartment).
I’ve learned to save my shopping for a day off when I have the luxury of traveling all around the city hunting for a handful of items. I don’t know if shopping trips would be quicker if my Vietnamese was better or if I lived in a ritzier area of Hanoi, but I do know at the moment I’m missing good-old Target to an embarrassing degree.
The bum gun
More TMI about Hanoi, so if you’re sensitive, stop reading here and pretend this post ended on a high(ish) note.
The bum gun is the best invention. When I first moved to Hanoi I was afraid to use it, but now I don’t know how I’m going to back to the U.S. where toilet paper is your only option. Dear bum gun, I’ll miss you.
These differences were the big shockers when I moved to Hanoi.
I’m used to bartering, the bum gun, and street food now, but there are still days where I miss brightly colored clothes and supermarkets. These little differences can add up to a lot on bad days and they can amount to nothing on good days, but either way it’s worth being aware of them before packing it up and moving around the world to the always beautiful, occasionally frustrating, and totally-worth-it Hanoi.