-Where were you born?
I was born and grew up in rural Missouri in the United States.
-In which country and city are you living now?
I'm currently living in Hanoi, Vietnam, but also spending considerable time in Saigon.
-Are you living alone or with your family?
I live with my wife, Linh. We just recently bought a home and are excited to get moved into it.
-How long have you been living in Vietnam?
I've been in Vietnam for about three and a half years, with the vast majority of that time in Hanoi.
-What is your age?
I'll turn 33 later this month.
-When did you come up with the idea of living in Vietnam?
I'd been in East Asia for about four years when I decided to move to Vietnam. I'd lived in Seoul, South Korea for a couple years and was in Kaohsiung, Taiwan when it was time to move on. I'd never been to Vietnam, but from the people I knew who had been there, I had a feeling that it would be a good next stop. I spent about a month traveling up the coast from Saigon to Hanoi to see if I wanted to stay, and if I did, which city would it be. I was in Hanoi for less than an day when it became clear that I'd be staying there.
-Was it hard to get a visa or a working permit?
Getting a visa is really pretty easy. If you're willing to pay, you can get about anything. Work permits are a bit more difficult, but most respectable businesses will take care of it for you. If you have to do it yourself, the most important aspect seems to be to get all your needed paperwork (diplomas, a criminal background check, etc.) taken care of in your home country.
-Was it difficult for you to get medical insurance before you went there or when you first arrived?
Insurance is readily available. It's not difficult to get for anyone interested doing so, though I know many people who go without given the relatively low cost for health care. In trauma situations or emergencies requiring evacuation, however, costs are quite high. It's not a bad idea to get it.
-How do you make your living in Vietnam? Do you have any type of income generated?
There are a lot of opportunities in Hanoi these days. Like in each of the other countries I lived in, I landed and started teaching English. It's a reliable way to get started. There's such a teacher shortage in Hanoi these days that anyone with qualifications can walk into a couple schools and have a job in less than a week. After that, just look around and you'll find something else to get involved in, if you don't fancy yourself a teacher for life.
Once I got settled, I started working with some friends to put together a community website (www.newhanoian.com) to address the relative lack of online information for Hanoi. It went through many stages, but my business partner (Tom Lancaster) and I weren't under any real pressure to take short cuts to rapid commercialization. We let the site take shape as we got feedback from our community and moved on to each new step. We've always got new developments in store for it, but we've reached a point where we're happy with the direction it's heading and will be rolling out some of its commercial features. It's already taken up the vast majority of our time up to now, but it will now also provide our main source of income.
-Do you speak Vietnamese and do you think it's important to speak the local language?
My Vietnamese language skills are pretty rudimentary. My wife speaks English so well that I've allowed myself to rely on her a bit too much. I speak well enough to get around and take care of what needs done, but I'm by no means a "Vietnamese speaker." Hanoi makes it easy, however. You can get by fine without, but each level of ability you develop greatly accentuates your experience and ability to understand the subtleties of the Vietnamese experience.
-Do you miss home and family sometimes?
Sure. I'm lucky in that I've had loads of friends come visit, and my parents have been out three times in the last couple years. There are still other people I'd like to have in my life, but that's the sacrifice of living abroad. I put up with it. I couldn't really bear to live in the U.S. these days given the political climate and general attitudes. Still, I do miss good live music, art house cinema (though the Hanoi Cinematheque goes a long way to compensating for that loss), and basketball. Watching hoops is probably my last unabashed tie to mainstream American culture, and only getting to see a game or two a week seems like a crime.
The New Hanoian keeps me pretty busy these days, but when I have a little extra time, I frequent several establishments dedicated to public intoxication. When it's time to get out of Hanoi, my wife, friends and I occasionally head just outside of town to do a little fishing. For longer trips, I can't wait to head for higher ground...Sapa or Tam Dao typically.
-Do you have other plans for the future?
Well, we just incorporated our company in Hong Kong under the name Xemzi Limited. With the new overarching company, we were able to expand to start doing a similar site for Saigon (www.so-saigon.com). The So Saigon site has been up for a couple months and going through the early stages of developing a community. We're excited to see it develop.
-What about housing, have you bought, or are you renting a home? How much do you pay for it?
As I mentioned, my wife and I just bought a house after years of renting. The housing market is crazy right now. Prices for renting have doubled (or more) since I arrived. We spent quite a bit of time looking for a house before we found something that seemed at all reasonable for the price. If my wife wasn't from Hanoi (and thus we'll be calling Hanoi a homebase for quite some time), I wouldn't even consider buying in this market. Before buying, we were staying in a 100-sq-meter, three-bedroom flat for about $300 a month. We locked in a two-year lease just before the explosion in prices. Most of the similar flats in the same building go for between $500 and $800 a month now. The best value is to get a big, four- or five-bedroom villa with a group of people. You can get a beautiful place for a reasonable price that way.
-What is the cost of living in Vietnam?
Even with the recent inflation, it's still very cheap for many things in Hanoi. You can go out for dinner and drinks in some really fine places without breaking the bank. Those who have been around for a while learn the ins and outs of local cuisine to a point that they can eat out 80% of the time without compromising a reasonable budget.
Getting around by motorbike makes transportation cheap, and even clothing can be tailored for prices that you'd buy off the rack elsewhere.
-What do you think about the Vietnamese?
Hanoians can be pretty complex people. On the street, they can seem rather cold or indifferent, but once you get over the initial hump and they begin to identify you with their typical day or social groups, they will go to the wall for you. There is a great deal of loyalty among those who consider themselves friends or family. The same courtesy doesn't necessarily apply to those outside those groups, so one can get the impression that Hanoians are distrustful or calculating. To some extent, those impressions are justified. However, they aren't the whole story. Given time, a vast array of interpersonal layers reveal themselves. I get the feeling that it will be a lifetime exploration.
-What are the positive and negative aspects of living in Vietnam?
The downsides are the traffic (a constant form of stress), the always ongoing construction, the summer weather (hot and very humid), the lack of transparency in official affairs, and quality control issues in some of the service industries.
The upsides far outweigh those for me. I've been around many parts of Asia and lived in several countries, but I've never really found a place like Hanoi. On top of its multi-faceted historical influences (Chinese and French predominantly), it's also a city in a process of transition between two very different eras. It's a fascinating time to be here and watch the change. The opportunities are everywhere. Anyone with a bit of entrepreneurial impetus can find dozens of potential projects to choose from. If you have the patience, there are also plenty of chances to start up your own business.
Getting on a motorbike and cruising the city at 1am is a treat in itself. Cheap beer on any sidewalks, and beer halls scattered throughout the city with brewmasters who have been trained in the Czech Republic. Great food, both local and international. Lakes and tree lined streets. And, of course, the very first thing which got me hooked on the city. It has an irreplicable combination of activity and ease. Right next to a street filled with commerce and dodging, darting motorbikes, there will be people sitting in the shade drinking tea and smoking away the hours. It's a fabulous mix that allows you to find all sorts of back street goodness to keep away the monotony.
-Do you have any tips for our readers about living in Vietnam?
Don't take the differences in street etiquette personally. The vast majority of affronts you think have been directed your way would completely baffle the suspected culprit were you to bring it to their attention. Expect to take your lumps when it comes to figuring out how and how much. Think of it all as just grist for the mill and never turn yourself off to the possibilities, no matter how uncomfortable that moving forward may be. You'll be rewarded with whole new spheres of meaning and livelihood.
-Do you have any favorite Web sites or blogs about Vietnam?
Obviously, I'm rather fond of both www.newhanoian.com and www.so-saigon.com. Independent of my own involvement though, I DO think that there is really very little to compare to the community that has sprung up around The New Hanoian. We've put a lot of work into it, but it's really the community of users and all of their fabulous contributions that make it all go. We just helped to get it started. They've taken it over.
There are always some great blogs that come and go, but the king of consistency is www.stickyrice.typepad.com. Sticky Rice is in a class of its own. Anyone who's been here for any amount of time know it and love it. They do great work.
www.hanoigrapevine.com is great for those who are interested in the always vibrant art community in Hanoi. It won't be long before the art dealers figure out what's happening and start raiding the city. If you want to get ahead of that game, that's a good place to start.