Wednesday, 6 June 2012

So, you're moving to Hanoi

Thanks to this blog, which must successfully create the illusion that I know things about Vietnam, I've received all kinds of emails asking for advice over the last couple of years. Some of them I'm not well-equipped to answer - like, "Will my hair-straightener work in Vietnam?" - but for most I at least try to have a stab at an answer.

The most common type of email I receive is from someone moving to Hanoi, and who is looking for tips or advice on how to make the process easier and less overwhelming. I received an email like this the other day, which reminded me in many ways of the circumstances in which Nathan and I found ourselves in Hanoi. It went like this:

"Naturally, I am both very excited and unbelievably terrified. I know absolutely no Vietnamese, know nobody in the country except the name of my contacts, and am deferring medical school (a very straightforward/safe path) for the unknown despite not being naturally adventurous. I'm not running from anything or a natural free bird, as it were - it's a great opportunity and I want to force myself out of my safety bubble to learn something genuine."

Since this blog's retirement is imminent, I thought I should try to respond to this email here, in a last-ditch bid to be more useful to those who arrive in Hanoi, very excited and unbelievably terrified, in the future.

The email continues:

"I was wondering if you had any general advice about coming to Hanoi. I think my greatest concern is loneliness due to lack of language ability, relative youth (and traveling as a single woman without a partner, family, etc), so if you have any pointers in that realm that would be great. Also, because I have no idea where to live, if you have any advice there too (I've been told to come in a few days early, stay in a hotel, and look for a place from there, but any pre departure information would be appreciated, especially in terms of what I can expect)."

Funnily enough, I think loneliness should be the least of your concerns. Making friends in Hanoi is exceptionally easy. You'll start by knowing only your colleagues, but if you're sociable, you'll very quickly meet their friends too, and before long, friends of their friends. Young, educated Vietnamese people speak English and are eager to practice it, so not speaking Vietnamese is very little impediment to making Vietnamese friends - this is actually one of the reasons it's so easy to just give up on learning the language.

The expat community in Hanoi is small, and easy to infiltrate. There will be many other people just like you, young and single, and, just like you, looking to make friends - and fast. Everyone seems to organically develop friendship groups, but you can proactively boost your acquaintanceship by joining various clubs, sporting groups, attending all kinds of different events, or meeting up with people you know from the internet. For example, Nathan and I met two good friends of ours by joining their table at a trivia night event, and they themselves had only recently met, through a Couchsurfing group. We subsequently invited them to things, they invited us to things, cross-pollinating our friendship groups.

But of all the foreigners I've known in Hanoi, the ones who seem to have had the best time here are those who throw themselves wholeheartedly into their Vietnamese (as opposed to expat) friendship circle. It sounds like an obvious thing to do, but actually it can be hard. Amongst you there might be cultural and socio-economic differences, resulting in fundamentally different world-views; there might be different ideas about social norms and what is and isn't the "done thing"; there might be different ideas of simply what constitutes a good time. I definitely let my terror of potentially awkward social situations limit the kind of experiences I was open to, which I regret, because the Vietnamese friendships I did maintain are just so, so rewarding and wonderful, and who wouldn't want more of that? 

This brings me to the most important piece of advice I have about moving to Hanoi: Seize the opportunities it presents, using both hands, and your teeth too if necessary. This is not necessarily something you can really plan or prepare for, just be ready to recognise when it's happening - maybe when you least expect it - and then always say "yes".

I know engineers who've opened cafes; I know self-sworn singletons who've found lifelong love; I know people who came to teach English as an interim job and discovered that teaching is their passion; I know NGO-workers who sang on stage for the first time - as the star of the show no less; I know people who hated Vietnam during their first year, and now never want to leave.

If there are parts of your life here which are difficult - you might feel under-utilised at work, or you might miss home - Hanoi will always offer you another outlet to compensate for it. Take it. I had a friend who was deeply dissatisfied with her job, but started teaching swing dancing in the evenings to find some fulfilment. Last I heard, she was swing-dancing her way around Australia. Nathan and I are ourselves leaving Hanoi on a completely different - nay, better -  trajectory to that which landed us here. One we absolutely never could have predicted, and one that owes a lot to the opportunities which came our way since moving here. Nice one, Hanoi.

This is all very wishy-washy, I know. But for all the practical stuff, such as what to bring, and where to buy things, and how you find flatmates or a place to live, plus information on what clubs or groups you can join, it's all on The New Hanoian website, a Godsend for new arrivals. For events, there's the Hanoi Grapevine.

The only other thing I would add is regarding where to live. Something I've heard newcomers say a lot is how they want to live in a "Vietnamese neighbourhood". I totally get this desire for cultural integration, but actually, I think you'll find pretty much every neighbourhood in Hanoi will be "Vietnamese" enough for you, even the areas popular with expats. We live in a building that houses only foreigners, yet our neighbourhood is... well, you've read about it on this blog. You couldn't mistake it for being anywhere other than Hanoi. 

But what do I know anyway? I'll hand it over to The People. Is there anything you wish you knew before moving to Hanoi? Would you have done things any differently? Or do you just have a solid gold piece of practical advice for new arrivals?

Mine? Well, start a blog. Obviously.

25 comments:

  1. You are moving Tabitha? Please say no. Or that you are moving to Saigon :)

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    1. Sure am! Only twelve days left before our last ever visit to Noi Bai Airport. We're going back to Australia, with a bit of a holidaying in-between first.

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    1. Nice try. Thanks for pointing out this great resource btw - Mien's Hanoi tips for newbies:

      http://phamhoangmien.wordpress.com/hanoi-for-newbies/

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  3. No matter how many place you've been to,there's only one place called Home isn't there?.Don't worry you still got Little Cabramatta and Marrickville when you want some Vietnamese Iced coffee

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    1. True, I'll probably eat more Vietnamese food back in Australia!

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  4. I am starting to get stabs of panic and fear about you leaving.

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    1. As well you should. GOOD LUCK TO YOU.

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  5. As I am moving to Hanoi in less than two months (AYAD) this post is inspiring me for my first comment.

    Since discovering your blog about a month ago I have been reading with much enjoyment and laughter and I am sorry to hear that you are leaving before I arrive. I just wanted to say thanks for the excitement you have instilled in me for what will no doubt be a crazy adventure. Reading your blog has certainly given me a more realistic impression of what life will be like, I hope I can take it on with half the humour than you appear to.

    Being a former Inner Westie (now a Melbournian) I hope you pick up your Newtown blog again... if only to keep reading your great insights.

    Still deciding whether to start my own blog - from the number I have seen it is almost like it is a compulsory AYAD requirement these days.

    - Yvette (Intake 34)

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    1. Thanks for your comment Yvette! I am totally confident that Hanoi will deliver on the promise of a crazy adventure. Since I won't be here to tell you in person, I'll give you the advice I give every AYAD I meet - try to expand your circle beyond only AYADs! Because you arrive with a ready-made social group, there's not so much incentive to go out and meet more people, but it's definitely more fun if you do.

      You should start a blog! Everyone should start blogs! I met some tip-top people through this one. And it will keep your parents happy. I'm off to Canberra after Hanoi so that will be my next blogging challenge.

      Good luck in Hanoi!

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  6. It's the end of an era, but I am glad you and Hanoi are leaving on good terms!

    Some practical advice from me - a singleton at the time who was very excited, unbelievably terrified and fearfully shy moving to Hanoi for 2 years - just say yes.

    In your first few weeks in Hanoi you will get invited to this and that by your colleagues, you will join every possible group on the New Hanoian, and there will be innumerable events on offer to you - so just say yes. Even if the last thing you could possibly ever want to do is stand on a street corner with dozens of strangers drinking beer from questionable sources, just say yes.

    I find unfamiliar social situations really stressful, but I realised pretty quickly that this was the best way to meet people, make friends, and do the out of the ordinary. Even if you're tired, you've already eaten, or you are down to your last dong, just say yes.

    It was the best piece of advice I was given and definitely something worth sharing.

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    1. Excellent advice, Ashton. You always seemed to be undertaking crazy hijinks while I was sitting tight in my comfort zone. Sure, most of the things you did sounded awful, but they make for better stories in the end. And now you live in Copenhagen! I don't know how that's related, but I'm sure it is.

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  7. If like me you happen to be threatened with deportation within 3 days of arrival, GO TO A PARTY. Tell everyone your woes and by the end of the night you will have a new job and a way out of the visa nightmare so many people seem to go through. Alternatively you can visit a beardy engineer in a lovely cafe for a big hug and a soothing chai latte.

    Happy travels Mrs Tabitha! I can't wait to read your new blog!
    Anna x

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    1. Haha, that is an excellent story, Anna! Did you do the job interview while drunk?

      Thanks for your comment, and good luck with your own impending adventure!

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    2. Thanks Tabitha. Hanoi certainly surprised me!

      There was definitely a lot of Vang Dalat that night - actually it was more serious than the actual interview which took place a few days later:
      New Boss: "So you do the same thing as(previous employee)?"
      Me: (carefully) "yeeee... ss?"
      New Boss: "Ok start on Monday."

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  8. Tabitha
    Fantastic post although I am still dealing with the fact that you and Nathan are leaving.

    Highly recommend all your advice. As the working spouse & Mum of 2 I have many moments of wishing I had more time to get out explore, experience & make new friends in this crazy city!

    Glad you are going back to Canberra - as wel'll no doubt end up back there.

    Finally, thanks for guilting me into starting my own blog. I promise to try and a bit more regular with posts albeiit far less funny than you.

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    1. Thanks Ange. You were one of the people on my mind when I wrote about finding new opportunities where you least expect them. Who would have thought stinky, polluted, crowded Hanoi was the perfect place for developing a passion for running!

      And keep going with the blog!

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  9. Yes, technically your hair-straightener will work in Hanoi. Or instead of buying a hair-straightener at home, you can go to a salon in Hanoi 65 times. They'll give you a manicure and foot massage at the same time while you sip sweetened tea and catch up on Vietnamese karaoke. It will work even on your frizzy expat hair. These people are pros.

    Bear in mind you'll need to repeat the process at least twice a day, drape yourself in a full-body plastic raincoat for months on end during the monsoon and hold your helmet above your hair on the back of a xe om... but don't worry, this is a legal means of obeying helmet laws in Hanoi.

    Bon voyage.

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    1. That is excellent advice, Lani. Seeing women holding their helmets two inches above their head is a sight I'll never tire of. Since you've left there's also been a new craze for helmets with holes for ponytails.

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  10. Yay, you guys are coming to Canberra! Drop us an email when you get here.
    Definitely agree about seeking out Vietnamese friends. Since I've left I've managed to keep in touch with lovely ex-colleagues and the like. I'm very pregnant at the moment and I am enjoying getting Vietnamese pregnancy tips - suitably wacky - from afar!
    have a great holiday :)

    Emma

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Emma. That's great that you've stayed in touch with your friends here. Definitely a good way to stay connected to Vietnam, especially since most of your other friends have left I'm sure. See you in Canberra!

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  11. Bah, I only spend a few months a year in Hanoi and only have Vietnamese friends, but your so-called "relentlessly upbeat" (no such thing!!!) blogs and your refreshing take on things have sustained me during the non-Hanoi times.

    I think it's extraordinarily selfish of you to deprive me of that, but given the pleasure and laughter I've derived from you (without a single word of thanks from me in return) I begrudgingly wish you and Nathan happiness wherever you are.

    Anne :-)

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    1. Thanks Anne! Your comment made me really happy. Thank you for being a loyal reader and best of luck with all the Hanoi adventures that will surely come your way.

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  13. if you don't have knowledge about the place and language where you are going to trip. So I think Book your trip with a good travel company and and hire a travel guide.

    Tours Vietnam | Indochina Legend Travel Group

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