-Where were you born?
-In which country and city are you living now?
-Are you living alone or with your family?
-How long have you been living in Vietnam?
-What is your age?
-When did you come up with the idea of living in Vietnam?
While working as an engineer in Boston, I met a Vietnamese gentleman who took me under his wing. He had offered to put me up in Vietnam if I ever decided to visit, and I accepted in 2004. After touring a place so different from home, I went home to Boston certain that I was going to go back to Hanoi. It took me a year of planning, but in 2005 I ended up moving there, and it's been an amazingly fun challenge since then.
I've also always loved language study, and I thought Vietnamese would be the most phonetically challenging choice, and I was right.
-Was it hard to get a visa or a working permit?
I moved to Vietnam to study Vietnamese, and was granted a student visa from the Faculty of Vietnamese language and culture of the Vietnam National University of Social Science and Humanities. It was quite easy. All I really had to do was sign up for some classes and they processed my student visa, which I then picked up in Laos. They do, however, take a $300 deposit, and it’s not exactly clear on how the student can get that money back, because they don’t issue a contract or receipt. It is possible to get a work permit to teach English in Hanoi, and most of the foreign-owned language schools do the process for their teachers. You must have credentials though, including either an undergraduate degree and/or experience, as well as a CELTA. I hear it’s easier to get a visa/work permit in Saigon.
-Was it difficult for you to get medical insurance before you went there or when you first arrived?
I buy international medical insurance so that I’m covered if I go home to the US, but Vietnamese insurance is available at Bao Viet company. There are a few different coverage levels, up to emergency evacuation, at reasonable prices.
-How do you make your living in Vietnam? Do you have any type of income generated?
When I first moved here, I studied Vietnamese full time. I taught English on occasion, and when I had experience and a TEFL certificate I applied to work for ACET Hanoi, an Australian-owned academic English center, with a good reputation for its treatment of both teachers and students. It’s quite difficult to find NGO work unless you have years of NGO experience. Working with foreign companies is also tough, unless you are a civil or construction engineer or speak Korean or Japanese as well as English and Vietnamese. Even work as an engineer for a Vietnamese company doesn’t pay enough to cover a foreigner’s high living costs (rent is 28% higher for foreigners and utilities pricier). If you want to do something other than teaching, then I would suggest looking while in your home country, or be prepared to wait. The best way to find jobs is the same as anywhere, networking. Stop by the higher-class bars that cater to long-term foreigners. You can also check out Vietnamworks and the New Hanoian.
-Do you speak Vietnamese and do you think it's important to speak the local language?
Language is a window into culture. The way the Vietnamese express themselves in their native language offers a great deal of insight into the Vietnamese mindset. Also, so very few Vietnamese actually have access to English instruction (0.8% of Vietnamese study at university), so being able to talk to people from all walks of life, so to speak, has added a lot of depth to my experience here. I sometimes wonder how anyone could get along without knowing it. But people do. People generally speak enough English in Hanoi to sell you things at the market, but outside of the city it’s a different story. It you’re not shy about using a lot of body language to communicate, it’s no problem. You really should learn the numbers and a few basic greetings, though. I realize that I may be in the minority in my love for language learning. Vietnamese pronunciation is about as different from English as it can get, and proves downright frustrating to just about every Vietnamese language learner (people who speak Chinese tend to have an easier time). The Faculty of Vietnamese put all new students in what I call “pronunciation boot camp” in the first two weeks of class, but it takes about 3-6 months before most students can identify and correctly pronounce the tones. I’ve been here for almost 2 years and I still mess up my tones a lot. But, thank goodness, written Vietnamese is phonetic and uses Latin letters, and the grammar is simple compared to languages that have verb inflection. Learning Vietnamese is tough, it involves memorization and sounding like an idiot, but it’s definitely worth it!!
As far as respecting Vietnamese culture, there’s just so much to say, so you should see my weblog for more. People here have a different world view, a more Confucian outlook. That means that friends, family and education have a huge priority in people’s lives and people are amazingly loyal to each other, but Westerners often think the Vietnamese treat strangers disrespectfully. Keep in mind that their view may be different, perhaps even wrong from a Western perspective, but that their outlook is more based in Confucian ethics and spirituality while Western morals are based in Europe’s Judeo-Christian history. Both are equally valid, right?
-Do you miss home and family sometimes?
Of course I miss the comforts of home, understanding all of what people are saying around me, and buffalo chicken fingers dipped in bleu cheese dressing. But I take comfort in junk food, of which there’s plenty in Hanoi. There are quite a few great Indian restaurants around too. Check out sticky rice for the best ever Hanoi food scene website, and the New Hanoian for reviews and an interactive map of Hanoi. Recreation is a little more tough. The water park is overcrowded (like all the other parks), the gyms more expensive than those in the US, and there’s no trail running anywhere near the city. The motorbike riding is excellent, though, and there is an active Minsk motorbike club that has trips out of the city on a regular basis and a yearly Minsk Olympics. I prefer taking my little scooter over horrible roads in search of mountain scenery and ethnic minority villages, which are only a 6 hour ride north of Hanoi.
-Do you have other plans for the future?
Optical engineering is a little difficult in developing countries, so now I’m going more for writing. I’ve submitted a few articles to US magazines and papers, but it’s slow going. I’m teaching while I try to get a portfolio put together, which pays the bills just fine and gives me plenty of free time to bang at my keyboard.
-What about housing, have you bought, or are you renting a home? How much do you pay for it?
Rent in Hanoi is cheap. I have 2 bedrooms, 1 bath, kitchen and washing machine in a house with a few other people and pay $150. You can get a room in an older house, or far from the city center for under $100/month, but if you want new and convenient it’ll cost $150 and up.
Apartments (studio) are self-contained and pricier, usually from $200 and up. Semi-apartments in a Vietnamese family’s house are cheaper. If you’re social, sharing a house is the best route, with one bedroom and communal kitchen and living room can go from $100-$300/bedroom, depending on facilities. Finally, there are neighborhoods set up for foreigners with gym, pool, etc. and a 4-bed house starts at $1000/month.
-What is the cost of living in Vietnam?
Hanoians can get along on $100/month or less, and a slim-living foreigner can make it on $400. This means renting a small room, eating Vietnamese food, and pretty much living like a student. $1000/month is more than enough, unless you insist on isolating yourself from the fact that you are living in Vietnam, live in a gated community and only eat imported European food.
-What do you think about the Vietnamese?
I mentioned that the Vietnamese worldview can seem odd from a Western perspective, with a few people seemingly unconcerned with scamming and stealing from strangers and foreigners alike. The Vietnamese are extremely wary consumers, and newcomers should learn this skill ASAP. The memory of poverty is still fresh even in developed areas and a lot of people are concentrating on making a fast buck. This often translates into a poor service industry. If you don’t want to be treated like a walking ATM machine, stay away from the backpacker areas and get a room near a university. The students tend to be open-minded, friendly, and eager to interact with foreigners.
In the rural places where there are no foreigners, it’s a different story. You’re just another face and you’ll run into fewer hassles. People are open and friendly and absolutely LOVE joking, especially about romantic affairs.
-What are the positive and negative aspects of living in Vietnam?
Vietnam is incredibly different from the US. I learn something new every day, and have the opportunity to study an amazingly expressive language which up to 100 million people speak every day. Of course it has its hassles, but every place has the good and the bad.
-Do you have any tips for our readers about living in Vietnam?
It takes a while to get to know Vietnam, and I doubt many foreigners ever do (myself included). If you want to get a feel for Hanoi, plan on staying here for a while, and try your best to learn some Vietnamese.
-Do you have any favorite Web sites or blogs about Vietnam?
My Website - awesome, of course!
Sticky Rice - a great Hanoi foodie site
New Hanoian - has everything you need to know about the Hanoi social scene
Vietnam Works - online job listing and resume posting service