In 2009, I fell in love with Vietnam, and with Hanoi in particular. We traveled the country from south to north, we volunteered in Dong Ha, we lived like locals in Hanoi, we avoided the Old Quarter like the plague, we found our favorite restaurant, favorite bia hoi beer garden, great fresh donuts, and drank coffee on small stools all over the city. From that first visit in 2009, there was just something about Vietnam. It made me want to move there. It captured my heart. I wanted to be an expat in Hanoi. I was certain.
In 2012, we returned to Vietnam for our third visit – to see if we still loved the country. From our first foot steps on the uneven sidewalks, while looking both ways to see if a motorbike would be cruising by, while listening to the honking horns and breathing in the exhaust, it felt like home. We returned to our favorite street stall for pho bo (beef noodle soup), enjoyed our cafe sua da (iced Vietnamese coffee), and stopped for kem (ice cream) on what I refer to as “ice cream street.” We returned to our favorite outdoor beer garden for bia hoi (fresh draft beer). We even dragged our friend Mike on the tour. What did he think? He could understand the attraction.
Oh Hanoi, How I Hate Love You So
In 2013, as we get closer to deciding where in Southeast Asia we want to hang our hats for a while, we wondered, is Vietnam still the way to go? We have been telling people for almost two years that we would move here. In 2012, we moved two giant suitcases of clothes, books, and housewares to Hanoi, in anticipation of the move. We keep in touch with our friends in both Hanoi and Dong Ha who ask when we are moving.
Our first 24 hours in Vietnam this time, though, made us question our decision, in more ways than one.
We are Not Moving to Vietnam
Our Air Asia flight from Bangkok landed smoothly, we paid a whopping $45 for a visa on arrival ($45 for 30 days!!). We haggled with a taxi driver to get us down town. The costs for taxis have increased since we were last here. Apparently, there is now a flat rate to negotiate, but because the rate was higher than what we have paid in the past, we insisted on a meter, which cost us much more, particularly when the driver could not drive us to our street, which was apparently one way for cars, and insisted on driving us over a kilometer out of the way, with no idea how to back track to the street. He kept turning down alley ways searching for another route, and then turning around again, all while the meter clicked away. We insisted he turn around, and drop us off. We walked the rest of the way. Already annoyed within the first hour. The ride cost us about $22 and took about an hour. Not necessarily an easy or cheap ride to the airport on a regular basis if we lived as an expat in Hanoi.
It was hot, ungodly hot. We came from Bangkok, which seemed like a refrigerated city in comparison to the heat and humidity in Hanoi. When we finally made our way to our friend’s apartment, we just stood in front of the air conditioner to cool down.
We knew the apartment would be sparse and simple – it is really a crash pad for our friend that he rarely uses anymore. It would be the type of place we could afford to rent as an expat in Hanoi, and I don’t think it was one that we could live in long term. The fifth story of a walk up building, with a strange bathroom set up. Neither of us could sit straight on the toilet without hitting our knees on the wall. Our friend is a better person that I am. I am starting to realize that I can’t rough it like I thought I could.
We made our way out to eat. In Hanoi, prices are rarely listed in most cafes or street food stalls. Rumors and stories pervade about tourists getting ripped off in Vietnam. When we stop for a coffee, or a banh my sandwich, or a bowl of pho, we never know if we will get charged the local price or the white person price. It adds a layer of stress to everything. Although charged a normal rate our first pho was close to disappointing. It just was not as flavorful as I remembered. Perhaps I had romanticized pho, and Hanoi in general.
The sounds of the honking horns started to annoy me from the start. There is one horn in particular that gets Eric’s goat every time, with a sequential, descending honk. The chaos on the roads annoyed me too. Why can’t drivers just stay in their own lane? Why can’t they stay off the sidewalk? What I found charming before, I found grating this visit.
Having just received tattoos in Bangkok, with Eric’s a little more fresh than mine, we were trying to avoid sweating and irritating our tattoos. Fat chance. Eric was uncomfortable, and kept wincing in pain, which did not help this situation at all. For dinner, we walked about a kilometer to our beer garden, which was probably not the best idea considering the tattoo situation, but we did. We liked being back, but something just felt a bit off. We enjoyed checking out our old neighborhood, but questioned whether we could live there.
Our apartment in Bangkok was a Shangri-La – gorgeous, comfortable, well appointed, in a clean neighborhood, surrounded by orderly traffic. We had similar accommodations in Kuala Lumpur. Our old hood in Hanoi had none of these things. Are we crazy to have ever considered living here? Besides, we have no way of being able to get anything longer than a 30 or 60 day visa, and at $45 a month per person, I would rather spend that on rent some place else. What we were thinking? This will never work. Will I ever be an expat in Hanoi? Do I even want to be?