I debated for a long time whether I wanted to write about this or not. Partly, because I was afraid of other’s feedback, but also because I don’t want to discourage people from visiting an… interesting… corner of the world. Living in Hanoi, Vietnam was somewhere between a unique cultural experience and cultural shock in its rawest form. Before I go further, I want to clarify that this is not my first travel “rodeo”. Vietnam is my 40th country, and not the most underdeveloped either. Throughout our world travels, travelers would tell us how enchanting Vietnam was. A “must visit”, they would say. After living in Hanoi, Vietnam for 2 months, here are my 2 cents.
Living in Hanoi, Vietnam- First Impressions
Shortly after landing in Hanoi, Vietnam I was immediately enthralled by the chaotic city life. Thousands of motorbikes barely missing each other on the highways, and loud Vietnamese chatter filled the streets. My husband, Daniel, and I started looking for an apartment to live in Hanoi for 1 month and a motorbike. Since we are YouTubers and Digital Nomads, we wanted to find somewhere “vloggable” and with good internet, so we decided on Hanoi’s Old Quarter.
After 4 days of apartment hunting, we were able to find the apartment of our dreams! For $400 USD for the month, it had everything we wanted:
- It was right across the street from the Old Quarter
- Was a studio apartment with a kitchen
- Had a strong AC and hot water
- The hosts were the sweetest humans on earth
- Was near local markets
- Had a washer on property
- It even had a rooftop view of the Old Quarter
You can actually watch our apartment tour down below:
Needless to say, we were amped! We started taking free Vietnamese lessons and got integrated with a small community of teachers at a local bar. Within days, we were able to buy a motorbike (which was Daniel’s dream) and found a local karaoke bar (which I LOVE)! Everything just felt right. In the beginning, we had even considered making Hanoi our home base, and traveling around from there- It felt that perfect! So, where did things sour?
If you’re wondering the cost of living in Hanoi Vietnam, watch the video below:
2 Weeks into Living in Hanoi, Vietnam
The original enchantment with Hanoi started to fade about 2 weeks into living in Hanoi. Because we are YouTubers, we have a mission to unite the world by showing how kind people are. So, to fulfill that mission we learn the language, try the local food, and converse with locals to get a true understanding of the culture. Usually, our excitement and curiosity for a specific culture is enthusiastically welcomed by the locals. In Hanoi, this was far from our experience.
Walking into a side street store, we would greet the employee with a friendly, Chau Ang or Chau Chi (depending on whether they were male or female). And about 20% of the time, this was met with surprise, excitement, and/or kindness. Unfortunately, the other 80% of the time we would get one of the following responses:
- A scowl swiftly followed by an eye roll
- “What do you want?”
- A hand to the face yelling at us in Vietnamese to leave their shop
- Severely ripped off, and then angry when we wouldn’t fall for it
Unrelated, but helpful: Travel for Under $1000 a Month: The ULTIMATE GUIDE
I Couldn’t Understand Why We Were Treated So Poorly
We were in shock. We did not understand why the locals disliked us so much. When I asked my host about it, she told me that the Vietnamese are taught in school that all of their problems come from the west. I’m assuming much like Americans are taught to be anti-communist. Well, this was quite the reality check. We decided that we were going to keep trying to look at the good in the city, instead of focusing on the bad. Especially since we still had 2 more weeks to go in our apartment rental and we really wanted to showcase the beauty of Hanoi for our YouTube Channel!
Living in Hanoi and Encountering Continuous Culture Shock
Hanoi’s Dong Xuan Market
Our first vlog in Hanoi took place at the Dong Xuan Market, the largest wholesale market in Hanoi. Living in Hanoi, we had heard that this was the place to get the best deals on everything from souvenirs to fabric. We thought, “Man, this is a great place to showcase!”. We were so naive.
Walking in, we immediately got stares of “you don’t belong here”. For a moment, I even thought the locals were going to kick us out. The hustle and bustle of the narrow market walkways had me overwhelmed. Regardless, we pressed on to see what the market was about. People online were right! This market had EVERYTHING. Souvenirs, shoes, fabric, toys, jewelry, kitchen wares, and even makeup! But it wasn’t until I walked passed a particularly racist Vietnamese woman that I was ready to leave the country.
Story of One MEAN & Racist Vietnamese Woman
I walked through one of the narrow walkways talking to Daniel when suddenly an older Vietnamese woman slapped my arm and then shoved me out of her way and into a pile of shoes. As she walked away, she laughed and muttered what I’m assuming was something nasty in Vietnamese. That aggression was met with giggles from the other vendors that witnessed the event. As you can imagine, I was livid, hurt, and confused. What did I do to these people to make them hate me so much?
If you want to see our experience in the Dong Xuan Market in action, this was all of the positivity we could muster in one video:
But the Racism and Disrespect Didn’t End There…
After that experience, I was ready to leave and never come back. I adopted the mentality of, “if they don’t want us here, we don’t want to be here either”. But again, we still had so much to see and vlog in Vietnam before we could just leave. We had heard there was another market in town that was overnight. This sounded like such a cool experience and we wanted to share it with the world. I continued studying Vietnamese, practicing with the friends we made at the local bar and mentally prepared myself for another cultural submersion.
The Long Bien Overnight Market in Hanoi
We stayed up until 3 AM to visit the Long Bien overnight market. It’s the second-biggest market in the Red River Delta Region and it provides supplies for all of the businesses in Hanoi. I’m not going to lie, seeing the number of people and scooters pressed up against each other was cool! There were literally thousands of people inching their way through with hundreds of pounds worth of groceries on their scooters. Even women, in the classic conical hats, with their carrying poles, carrying anything from flowers to pineapples. People were shouting at each other, hitting each other, and threatening to run each other over. It was total chaos. And all of this was happening right outside of where we were living in Hanoi.
The Abuse Continues
While we were vlogging, we had vendors making fun of us, mocking us, yelling at us, and refusing us service. One woman, however, was extra special. While we were in line to leave the market, this one lady with a carrying pole, hit me and pushed me so hard, my friends had to hold my arms and one leg so that I wouldn’t fall over this other vendor’s Mangosteens. The vendor’s reaction? A giggle and an eye roll completely amused that I was being pushed around and annoyed that I was in front of her fruits. My reaction, “xin dep qua” (“you are very beautiful” in Vietnamese). It didn’t matter how nice I was to these people, it didn’t overcome my white skin and round eyes.
Want to see what I’m talking about? Watch the ridiculousness below!
It didn’t matter how nice I was to these people, it didn’t overcome my white skin and round eyes.
They Eat Dogs and Poison People’s Pets
I wish this was a joke. Walking through the streets of the Old Quarter, we commonly saw dogs roasting on BBQs. Since we were warned about this beforehand, this wasn’t the culture shocking part. It was learning from our host in Ninh Binh that they tried poisoning her dog to eat it. It’s common in Vietnam to have dog poachers that will murder your pet and sell it at their store. At the Long Bien Market, we saw these dogs in cages. However, in rural parts of Vietnam, we saw people killing dogs on the streets and then dragging them by the neck. Somethings just can’t be unseen. That was definitely something I wish I could forget.
The Food Was a Far Cry from Delicious (Except for Bun Cha)
Here’s the thing. The Vietnamese have a very unique diet that is highly composed of animal intestines and organs, cilantro, and soup. At least, that’s all we were able to find in the north. Outside of Bun Cha, BBQ’ed pork in a sweet broth with noodles, you have Pho everywhere, and then nothing but organs. Even Bahn Mi has pate on the inside.
If you like cilantro, you have found your heaven and Mecca. Almost every meal is covered in the stuff. If you don’t, get ready to starve or learn the very helpful, “khong co rat mui” (No cilantro). Beyond the fact that everything has cilantro, we witnessed vendors on the street putting people’s leftovers BACK INTO THE SERVING DISH for other people to purchase and eat! While Vietnamese food is world renown for being tasty, we ate a diet of Baguette with Egg, Pho, and Bun Cha. After two months, even the most delicious Bun Cha got a little old (even though we ate it every.single.day).
Everything is More Difficult Living in Hanoi
English is not Widely Spoken
After spending 4 months in Thailand, we expected things to be similar. But we realized that was not the case. For as many English teachers and expats that live there, I expected English to be widely spoken. Thankfully, I had taken Vietnamese lessons and that helped tremendously. Which, for the record, I really encourage everyone to learn as much of the language as possible before visiting, regardless of the country. It’s the best way to get to know the locals and culture. But I will also warn that Vietnamese is hard to learn and has 5 different intonations that drastically change the meaning of each word. For example, the word for pork is lon, but if you say it wrong it means p***y. Pho (pronounced Phuh) said incorrectly (like Foe) means prostitute. Speak carefully.
There are no “One-stop” shops
Living in Hanoi, there are very few “one-stop shops” and basically none in the Old Quarter. Streets in Hanoi get divided by category. For example, if you’re looking for kitchen wares, there will be an entire street dedicated to kitchenware vendors. If you’re looking for lamps, there is an entire street dedicated to lamps. The hard part is that there is no map that designates which streets are for what. So, you just need to get lost until you find what you’re looking for. If you live in the Expat area by Tay Ho, that might be a different story. But you will definitely need a form of transportation. That leads me to my next point…
The Traffic in Hanoi is Insane
I really don’t recommend any of you out there to try and learn how to motorbike in Hanoi. You can die, or get seriously injured. We met over 10 travelers that sustained life-threatening injuries on the Hanoi roads. Some even had to stay in the hospital for weeks. As a matter of fact, we’re pretty sure we saw someone die in the Vietnamese roads. You can learn more about that here:
If you followed along with our Instagram stories, you would have frequently seen me saying, “OMG!” every time I thought a car was going to hit me.
Everyone is trying to rip you off shamelessly
No matter how nice you are, prices are very different for locals than they are for foreigners. Foreigners are usually charged over 70% of the standard price. And if you’re used to friendly Thai negotiation strategy, get ready for a whole new ball game. Living in Hanoi, I was called names for negotiating and got shooed away. One street vendor told my friend that she was “bullsh*t” because she didn’t buy a purse. Needless to say, she never went back for the bag. Apparently, that’s just all part of it and the rudeness just isn’t my cup of tea.
How Living in Hanoi Changed Us
Living in Hanoi made me lose a lot of my naivety. In each of the 40 countries I’ve been to, I always thought that if I learned the language, I would be accepted by the locals. This was not true of living in Hanoi. Even after spending 2 months in the city, there were very few places I felt accepted. That was an important lesson for me to learn before moving forward with my travels.
Living in Hanoi also gave me a much stronger backbone. I needed to learn to stand up for myself and realize when I was being ripped off. When people were rude and nasty to me, I didn’t hold my tongue as I would have in the past. As a matter of fact, every time I stood up for myself, the locals respected me more for it.
Now that I don’t live in Hanoi anymore (or Vietnam for that matter) it’s been more difficult for me to trust people. Which saddens me, because I used to go into every interaction with love and trust. Now I see every interaction as an opportunity to be mistreated or ripped off. I feel like everyone has an ulterior motive if they’re being kind, and that’s not a healthy way for a traveler to live.
I also realized that living in Hanoi gave me a shorter temper. Since we were mistreated so frequently, I had to be quick to react. Which again, is not a healthy way to be. At the time of this writing, I’m in the Philippines where the locals are some of the sweetest people we’ve ever met. But I’ve found it difficult to trust or engage with the locals out of fear. I’m hoping that as time goes on, the negative attributes that Hanoi instilled in me fade, and that I’m less jaded about my future travels.
Why I Think We Were Treated so Poorly Living in Hanoi
Partly, I think I went to Vietnam very ignorant of their history. As a Cuban-American, I was never really taught much about the Vietnam War (or American War, as they call it). Living in Hanoi, I came to the conclusion that the war is still something they resent- with good reason. The Americans and the French did a number on the Vietnamese. Even I would be resentful, especially considering the older generations lived through it. Turns out, Hanoi was quite the battleground. Even Hanoi’s famous Long Bien bridge was destroyed during the war.
Should You Live in Hanoi, Vietnam?
Friend, I honestly wish I could answer that for you. As you can see, we had a very poignant experience living in Hanoi and if you were my best friend, I would tell you to avoid it like the plague. I would definitely stay there for 2 weeks before making any major decisions regarding long-term rentals. Vietnamese people as a whole are great people, just not always to foreigners. Keep that in mind as you go through your travel plans.
Would We Ever Go Back to Vietnam?
At this point, I don’t really know. We really wanted to see some other cities in Vietnam like Dalat, Da Nang, Hoi An, and Phu Quoc. Unfortunately living in Hanoi left us so jaded that we didn’t want to go into the other cities with negative preconceived notions. I think if we ever did go back to Vietnam, it would be a long time from now when we can go back with a fresh set of eyes.
We spent a considerable amount of time traveling to other cities in the north like Ninh Binh, Cat Ba Island, and villages along the Ha Giang Loop. The people in these regions were much nicer, so I know that the other cities would be nice to return to. I want to make sure you guys know that our experience in Hanoi is not representative of Vietnam as a whole. Because I would hate for you to read this and not go to Vietnam because of our experience living in Hanoi. It’s totally different outside of the city.
I want to make sure everyone knows that this was just my experience living in Hanoi, Vietnam and doesn’t necessarily represent everyone’s experience living in Hanoi. The nice Vietnamese people that we encountered while living in Hanoi were some of the sweetest people we ever met I just wish we had met more of them. A huge shout out to:
- Our Host, Phuong and her family who were super hospitable and catered to our every need while living in Hanoi.
- The guys at Warning Pub in the Old Quarter who always had an ear to listen when I was having a bad day and taught me how to pronounce things correctly in Vietnamese.
- The lady who served us Bun Cha every single morning for breakfast and spoke to us in Vietnamese every day even though we didn’t understand anything she ever said. But whatever she said, we knew it was filled with love.
How about you? Have you been to Hanoi and had a different experience? Let us know in the comments below!