Thursday, May 13, 2010

Hanoi at One Year

On May 10 of last year, after a week in Thailand, I arrived in Hanoi to begin what I knew would be at least a one-year adventure. One year later, I've extended my work contract two more years, and as I've come to know Hanoi, my relationship to the city has deepened. Below are some random notes on Hanoi, as I see it today.
Past First Impressions
As I wrote in My First Two Hours in Hanoi, my first impression of Hanoi was that it was "like being inside the buzzing element of an incandescent bulb." Like most visitors, I was initially based in Hanoi's Old Quarter, where the energy is non-stop. I found life among the vendors, street touts, backpackers and motorbikes exhilirating...and exhausting. As soon as I found my first apartment, my sense of the city began to change.

Judging Hanoi by the Old Quarter is like judging New York City by Times Square. It's an important component, but by no means representative of the city as a whole. As I wrote in Correcting the Record on Hanoi, "Hanoi is an intimate city, a city of neighborhoods." The visitor who doesn't leave the Old Quarter entirely misses the point. It is this intimacy, this sense of the "neighborhood as village," which gives Hanoi much of its flavor and charm.

Development and Change
Whether you see Hanoi as poor or rich, as developing or decrepit, depends on where you come from. Flying in from Europe or the U.S. one is apt to notice the crumbling facades, the broken sidewalks, the tangled skeins of electrical wires knotted around weathered wooden poles, and conclude that Hanoi is underdeveloped.

In the year I've been here, however, I've seen the Vincom Towers open for business, the city's western edge push outward, more and more luxury cars appear on the roads. New construction projects are coming on line every day, and the government plans to double the existing amount of hotel and office space over the next five years.

When you remember the poverty and devastation this country faced at the end of the 1980s (vestiges of war and government mismanagement), it's easy to see that Hanoi has taken great strides. Judged by its history, Hanoi doesn't represent underdevelopment. It represents modernization on steroids.

Expat Life
There are many ways to live the expat life in Hanoi. Some foreigners nibble around at the edges. I've chosen to jump into the center of the pie.

Take language, for example. A year ago I spoke no Vietnamese. After 10 months of language lessons, daily contact with salespeople and neighbors, and mingling among the majority-Vietnamese social circles I travel in, I'd place my language ability at a pre-intermediate level. I believe this has opened the door to understanding Vietnam in a way that many foreigners, even those who have lived here longer, cannot.

As a prototypically high-context culture, Vietnamese social relationships rely on a strong nexus of shared assumptions and unspoken "in-group" understandings. But while Vietnamese share a strong sense of common identity, by no means have I found them to be unwelcoming, xenophobic or chauvinist. What I have found is a strong sense of well-deserved cultural pride. I call it self-respect.

What this means, to the foreigner, is that to enter Vietnamese social circles, you need to do it on their terms. A basic knowledge of the country's language and history, and an appreciation for the cuisine, open the door. All you need to do is show a little interest, and respect. If you're not ready to do that, then why the hell are you here?

Annoyance and Acceptance
To be sure, no place is perfect, and Hanoi at its worst could test the patience of a Buddha. Traffic, smoking, pollution, and unhappy Westerners all rank high on my list of annoyances. But beneath it all, Hanoi today feels to me like a calm city.

There's little I enjoy more than strolling past a modern architectural ruin – a crumbling Vietnamese Imperial gate, or some decaying monument to French colonialism – or alongside a neighborhood lake. The city comes to life in vignettes: a conical hatted woman setting up to cook bún riêu on the street, two old men playing chess in an outdoor cafe, children kicking a beat-up soccer ball down the street.

These intimate moments, set against the backdrop of a city that breathes history, are what come to mind when I think of Hanoi today.


  1. I love this article, is very well written. Thanks

  2. Beautifully put and it's lovely to read someone who thinks about Hanoi the way I do. I got called delusional by an expat this week simply because i love the place.

    I mostly work from home but usually take a break over lunch and take a whizz around in the sunshine - I love it. So much to see - so many layers.

    There's beauty in the crumbling parts - even in the grey of the skies.

    I agree about the old quarter - I still love it but if tourists spend two days in Hanoi and spend the whole of that traipsing around the old quarter well, no wonder they find it stressful.

    Long may you continue to love Hanoi.

  3. Hi Steve -

    Thanks for the comments. Your blog has been inspirational to me as well, my friend. I agree - it's nice to know another expat who gets the beauty and charm of this well as the madness!

    As for delusional - what can be more delusional than a privileged Westerner who cannot take responsibility for his or her own happiness? With such a wealth of options, the best this person can do is land his fat ass in a place he doesn't like? Puh-leeze.

    My answer to this is always the same: go home; it's nice there.

    To your continued happiness as well. :-)


  4. Hal, I was turned onto your blog by MB and B, who used to live in Seattle. Speaking of Seattle, your old stomping grounds have generated a new opera called "Amelia," parts of which are sung in Vietnamese:

    Thanks for sharing your insights with us.

  5. This is beautifully written. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    Your blog has been in my bookmark folder for a while now and I enjoy reading it very much. Hope to read more of what you have to say about Hanoi :)

  6. Hal,

    Just to let you know - I came across this article - and a couple of pieces by me here:

    They do link back and ordinarily I might be more forgiving but the site does appear to be commercially orientated. I've asked them to remove my blog posts. You may want to do the same.

  7. Lori - Thanks for the interesting link about the Seattle Opera's foray into the Vietnamese language. Sounds like a helluva challenge for the singers. I enjoyed reading the article, and thanks for your kind words.

    Lan - Thank you so much; that's so sweet of you! I'm glad you enjoy my scrawls about life here; it gives me inspiration to keep taking notes on life in this fascinating city. All the best to you.

    Steve - My man: thanks for watching my back. Public shout out: everybody, please check out Steve's blog "Our Man in Hanoi" (link on right); it's one of my favs.

  8. here's a Vietnamese phrasebook for your survival :); yes, I also agree with others your writing is getting better as time goes on. probably, it has to do with the beef noodle soup you've eaten during the past year hehehehe :), your first several articles were a bit chunky and sporadic, but now there's a smooth flow in your writing... probalby it's a sign of getting over the hill :)

  9. Lovely article- Ha noi is a truely fascinating place. Frome the "old quater", markets, beautiful lakes, traffic, flower markets, and even the bread roll vendors who trade on the side of the major roads, i loved it all. Can't get rolls like them anywhere else. Let the city consume you.

  10. Facinating insite to Ha Noi life and to "trying" to understand the Vietnamese culture.

  11. Just read this post again, and got tears in my eyes. I love your city. Like some commenters have already expressed, long may you continue to love Hanoi as you do - and tell us about it, we faraway people who thus catch a glimpse into what life there may be like. Thank you again, Hal, and a belated Happy Birthday!

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