Sunday, 16 October 2011

Why you should move to Vietnam

Two years ago today I stepped off a plane at Hanoi’s luxurious Noi Bai International Airport. It will be two years tomorrow for Nathan, because AusAID payed for my Cathay Pacific flight and Nathan paid for his own China Certain Death Airlines flight that featured a 12-hour layover in Taipei. He was quite literally a trailing spouse.

I remember leaving a note in our hotel room for him for when he arrived. It said, “I think we’re going to be happy here!”

 Vietnam has a coastline of 3,444 kilometres. And it's all hedge.

Nathan and I had never been to Vietnam when we made the decision to move here. We have talked often about what a strange mindset we must have been in at the time to make such an ill-informed and reckless decision.

I honestly don’t know what we were thinking. We had jobs, and prospects, a great apartment, amazing friends living in the neighbourhood… We certainly weren’t running from anything, which seems to be an impetus for many expats, who might be avoiding anything from the aftermath of a bad relationship to high unemployment rates. All I remember is that our friend Sophie told us about the AYAD programme, where you could volunteer overseas for a year, but you had to be under 30 to apply. At the time, I was 29 years and ten months old. 

This is the first photograph I ever took in Vietnam. Wow! Look how many motorbikes are parked here! Stone the crows! Etc! It’s been a while since I thought the sight of ten motorbikes in a row was photo-worthy.

We have also often talked about how if we had visited Hanoi as tourists there is no way in hell we would have moved here. The city doesn’t show its best side to visitors, and I’m almost positive we would have formed the same opinion as all of our overseas guests: it’s a fun place to visit, but a bit too full-on for us. After our guests say this, they usually get their foot run over by a motorbike and that pretty much seals the deal for them.

But if you are considering moving to Hanoi and you are, unlike me, the kind of person who actually does background research before making a life-changing decision, then I offer you this advice: come.

I took this photo on the same day. This is, in fact, how our water gets delivered to us every week.

If we had spent the past two years in Sydney, our lives would have been splendid. I know this because our friends continue to have extremely good fun without us and then tell us all about it, which is insensitive of them, isn’t it? I can imagine the alternative past two years we could have had in Sydney all too easily: the grass underneath our toes, and the ink of Saturday papers on our elbows.

There was a low point some time in the last two years where Nathan and I wondered why we had willingly swapped financial security, good health, green spaces, and our loved ones, for an income below the Australian poverty level, intestinal worms, exhaust fumes, and only a bunch of relative strangers for company. When we laid it out like that, of course Sydney was always going to come up trumps. And so it should! It’s our home after all.

But the good thing about having a home is that it will always be there, almost always as you left it. While I really do look forward to the day we go back, and think about it often, there is something really invigorating about being away from it.

Our life in Hanoi’s got something that Sydney just can’t touch: every day is an adventure. Every day is unpredictable. Every day is bewildering, frustrating, exciting, horrifying, confusing and dazzling. Everything you think you know is challenged. Opportunities – and setbacks - appear out of nowhere. You find yourself behaving in a way you don’t understand. What’s important to you suddenly becomes extremely clear, even if by its absence. 

Some everyday sights are still worth photographing: I'll never get used to the flowers. I took this picture on our street last week.

On my first night in Hanoi, I walked around Hoan Kiem Lake with the other volunteers. I remember thinking, “Hmm, so this is supposed to be the ‘peaceful, tranquil, jewel of Hanoi’ is it?” and yet seeing only touts with photocopied Lonely Planets and hearing only honking.

My first impression of the lake was correct. It isn’t ipso facto tranquil; it is fluorescent with pollution; and it is, let’s face it, a traffic roundabout. But I’ve luxuriated in the shade of those lakeside trees in summer, I’ve jogged along its paths in winter, I’ve cheered with the Hanoians as the giant turtle surfaced, and during the Tet fireworks display there, I’ve witnessed the memorable sight of backlit rat silhouettes running startled from the trees into the crowd. I wouldn’t trade those experiences for the world.

So happy Hanoiversary to us! It’s been an adventure. And we’ve learnt that actually it doesn’t hurt that much to get your foot run over.


  1. Happy Hanoiversary! And if you'd never moved to Hanoi, you wouldn't have become the famous Miss Tabitha spouting witty yet poetic Hanoian accolades :)

    I too, must shortly compose a Chileversary and it will include the thought that neither Chile nor Vietnam were ever on my game plan. Definitely the road less travelled.

  2. As usual, another great read that totally wouldn't have existed if not for your ill-informed and reckless decision making :) So, yes, Happy Hanoiversary to you!

  3. Lani: Thank you. Chileversary doesn't sound as good, does it? And thanks to your constant references to my work as Ms Tabitha I now feel compelled to write a post about it.

    Wendy: Thanks Wendles! It just goes to show that the decision-making model they taught us in PD is completely pointless. Everyone should just make decisions randomly.

  4. Maybe it's the hormones. Or maybe this post of yours is a little too close to 'home'. But I actually got teary.

  5. Nothing has made me miss Hanoi as much as your post just did. *sad*

  6. Kshyva/Justyna: This post isn't supposed to make you miss Sydney! It's supposed to make you move to Hanoi. So, move to Hanoi.

    Uggclogs/Meke: See, that's the response I'm after! Surely there's some adventure tucked deep away in Canberra somewhere, right? Right...?

  7. I also did zero research before moving to Hanoi (unless frantically reading the Lonely Planet on the plane ride up counts). It's crazy how easy it was for me to figure out a life here (and enjoy it) with such little knowhow and general life/survival skills.

  8. Happy Hanoiversary for you! Your post reminds me of what my English teacher said to me on our first lesson: "Living in Hanoi is like playing a video game. You never know when you're gonna die". He meant it in an upbeat tone, of course, but I have never been able to get it out of my mind. Upon hearing that, I took him for a crazy dude who doesn't know how to value civilization, due to my pessimistic outlook on Vietnam and its lack thereof. But slowly, after I came to the Netherlands for studying abroad, I understood what he had meant. By looking back what I had been through in Vietnam, I realized Vietnam is truly full of "adventures", from physical adventures to mind-challenging one. You might constantly have to learn and unlearn in order to make sense of your staying. Sometimes you have to defy your common sense, and sometimes you have to wear "that shit doesn't apply to me" attitude. But I see that, in the end, all's well. Perhaps your staying in Vietnam has provided you with one-in-a-lifetime experience.

  9. Sarita: Once we got here we actually had a lot of hand-holding thanks to the volunteer programme. I'm super impressed by anyone who moves here on their own.

    Chi: Thanks for comment! Your perspective is really interesting. After I've finished my Hanoi adventure, I get to go home to somewhere easy and comfortable where I can reminisce about my exciting youth, but for you, the most adventuresome place is your home! You're a full-time professional adventurer, born and bred. :)

  10. I would gladly accepted my new title "professional adventurer" lol, but full-time in my country??? Nineteen year in uncivilization would be more than enough my rebellious streak can ask for. Now I all I need is to take a break and focus on suppressing my (unwelcome) slapdash tendency where I'm currently occupying. :)

  11. This post bought a tear to my eye. I read this post just as i finished writing a email to a friend where I wrote, "I love living in Hanoi. I don't ever want to leave...not for a while anyway". I couldn't have explained my reasons why any better than what you have written.

  12. Tabitha: there sure is! Now, if only I could get an internet connection sorted at home... I miss my free WiFi everywhere dearly.

  13. Chi: Embrace the slapdash! Do your country proud. :)

    Joanna: Yay! Let me know if you'd like to outsource to me the writing of all your emails in future. Rates are reasonable.

    Uggclogs: Oh man, I am already dreading the return to the slow lane of the Internet Super Highway (aka Australia).

  14. hi tabitha !
    im speaking english not good so i want to join in foreigner live in vn club :D to make friend with you, whos foreigner living in vn to improve my english skills. i sure that when you read my comment, you'll laugh.
    if you do not mind, let contact with me by email :
    or mobile phone : 0909681988
    thanks you so much! ^^
    PS/ im very favorite your posts on dantri newspaper
    xin chào và hẹn gặp lại ( vietnamese) :))

  15. Hi Tabitha,

    Your perspective about Vietnam is really challenging to most of Vietnamese but it's worth reading your articles. I can learn a lot with your perspective.

    But you know, ethnocentrism is popular to most of countries not only Vietnamese. You must have a lot of hard experiences. I wish it would decrease if you could spend more time exploring Vietnam. But honestly, Hanoi is quite hard to live and enjoy somehow. Even to me, some Vietnamese are really annoying. They are not as truly friendly as they're often proud. I'm not a good writer as you, I am not able to describe them. But trust me, I can share my feeling with you in some senses. I'm living in US now, and it's really easier than my experiences with Hanoi. Small towns are more peaceful, you should go there. I love my hometown :D.

    However there are always some positive, some negative. Fortunately you have found many smiles in your adventurous trip. I wish you could have taken more shining photos as the flower-man photo :). If you still want to be back to Vietnam, bring an open mind and discover good points in weird things. And take a Vietnamese with you, your trip would be more meaningful. Challenge yourself one more time ;))


  16. Cuong: Thanks for your comment! You should check out some of the groups which already exist for foreigners and Vietnamese to meet and learn from each other.

    There's this one which organizes motorbike trips:

    And this one which is a cultural exchange:

    And this one which is for language exchange:

    Good luck!

    Nhung: Thanks for commenting. I definitely try to have an open mind about Vietnam, and take pleasure in the differences: that's pretty much the whole idea of this blog! I really do love Vietnam and have very positive feelings about it, and I do hope that comes across. Also, we have had lots of great experiences traveling around Vietnam, but I write only about Hanoi on this blog. :)

  17. A good post Tabitha.

    Wow, a little over 2 years since we all arrived in Hanoi. I still have pretty vivid memories from those first few weeks - like the day we all wanted pho and ended up at Pho 24 (couldn't we have done better, really?)

    Keep up the good work.

  18. Hi Nathaniel! Yes, Nathan and I had a good old reminisce about those strange early days. What about when we went to that rice wine place and accidentally all ordered mango smoothies...

  19. thank for sharing of you. I fell very happyly because good comments about our country. my English is very bad, I hope you sympathetic...thank

  20. Thanks for your comment Xuan Giang! I'm glad of any opportunity to share my love of Vietnam.

  21. I had read some of posts of you. How long did you get married??? I look you wear wedding dress very nice. Are you happy?

  22. We had our Vietnamese wedding party two weeks ago but will be having our official wedding in Australia at the end of January (over Tet). And yes, we are both very happy! :)

  23. oh! I'm sorry because now I can write for you! I'm busy! I hope you sympathetic. I wish you are alway happy!!!good luck!bestfriend. Giang

  24. this article made me smile. thank you. can't wait to visit vietnam :)

  25. This article is really helpful, i will come to visit vietnam soon.
    thank you

  26. Ah this blog post is just excellent, and so beautifully written. I just moved to Hanoi and am not yet sure what to make of it, but something in me is saying 'Stick it out, there's something here for you' even though I too am already missing green spaces and tranquility. Thanks for this, it was exactly what I needed to read this morning.

  27. So glad to come across this. I am planning to move to nha trang in maybe about 10 months. 10 months because I need to save some money. One of my concerns is my English deteriorating to broken English. But I think it will be fun and I will pick up Vietnamese.

  28. I just accidentally read this article while searching for some reasons to visit Hanoi & give them to my friend. I've been impressed by your thoughts and your feelings :) And more interestingly, your article's theme is one of the most annoying features in Hanoi :))) Only a subtle tourist can recognise that kind of painting :) It is an advertisement of concrete cutting and drilling service. Anw, I'm so glad that you enjoyed your time in Hanoi. Make me so proud of my hometown :)


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