Hanoi - A worthy place to live
Gaspard, a French digital nomad, shares why he and his girlfriend chose to leave Bangkok for Hanoi.
So we've left Thailand for our life in Bangkok. It was easy. Everything we own fits in two backpacks so it was just a matter of booking tickets, packing and getting a taxi to the airport. Leaving was easy, but it took us some time to decide where we wanted to go. Asia is big, and so we had a lot of options.
We wanted to find a place that would match all our needs and expectations, the perfect destination for my digital nomad lifestyle and a good start for Kristina’s new (temporary) teaching career.
Hanoi attracted us… From the start it felt like it was pulling us in like a magnet, the perfect logical next step in our journey, but we also had to think of cost of living, safety, surrounding areas, visas – even if in the end it was more about our feelings and choosing a place that felt right for us.
Visa rules – or the lack of them…
I’m really looking forward to the day when Asian countries will issue a special digital nomad visa. I’m sure it will happen… it should. We’re not taking anyone’s job and we’re injecting money into the local economy. And honestly I’ll be more than happy to pay for an expensive visa if I could stay in a country without having to worry about my status every three months. And taxes! I’ll be more than happy to pay taxes!
But well, we’re not there yet, for now I’m stuck with tourist visas, extensions, and visa runs.
A few years ago Thailand was the best place for digital nomads. In the early 2000s, staying in the country was ridiculously easy. Ten visa runs in a row without officials asking any questions; I had passports filled with Thai stamps. Nowadays the situation has changed, Thailand is not so happy with long-term visitors and it’s getting harder and harder to stay in the country. And that’s why we had to leave Bangkok after three great months in the city. That’s why we chose Vietnam.
On paper the Vietnamese rules are not so different. You enter on a tourist visa and you should leave before it expires. Or you can extend it… again, and again, and again! That’s the difference. As long as you’re showing the money, you can stay. And there is virtually no limit to this.
As much as I like Thai food, I have to admit that Vietnamese food is better.
Yes, in Thailand you can go to pretty much any restaurant and you’ll be sure to get great food. That doesn’t work in Vietnam. Here, you have to be a bit more careful if you want to avoid getting a bad meal or spending a long night in the bathroom.
But when Vietnamese food is good… it’s really good!
Vietnam’s history is an endless war against invaders. The Vietnamese spent centuries fighting for their borders. They suffered many invasions, and that’s why the country is painted with so many different cultural influences. This is something that you can feel just by walking in the streets –as you pass a Chinese temple or a French colonial building. But it’s also prominent in the food. Let’s look at the 'banh mi' for example, a mix of French, Chinese, and local influence for what is now a world famous delicacy. Three countries teaming up just for a sandwich!
The variety in Vietnamese food is amazing, and some dishes are so perfect, so delicate, that they wouldn’t look out of place in a three-star restaurant. A plate of White Roses is as good as it is beautiful. The first time you try 'banh xeo'… you won’t want to eat anything else ever again… the list of Vietnamese specialties is endless and they all deserve a taste.
Tip: If you’re on a trip from north to south, or south to north, many people will tell you to skip Hue, but be sure to spend a few days in the city as it is the food capital of Vietnam… trust me, do it for your stomach!
The cost of living
It took us 24 hours to find an apartment in the center of Hanoi: 70m2, hard wood floor, big balcony, flat screen TV, king size bed, laundry, ironing, and cleaning twice a week for the price of a dirty shoe box in Paris, for which I would have needed to show bank statements and tax forms and beg the landlord to let me live in his expensive rat hole for $500 a month (we’re actually on the expensive side), if we were here to save money we could have gone for something much cheaper.
So yes Hanoi is cheap. It’s not why we chose to live here. I don’t like the idea of staying in a country just because it’s cheap, but it sure does help.
When you live in a place like Hanoi you realize how much of your daily worries are coming from money (or the lack of it). Even when you have a good salary, money is always there, in the corner of your mind, bothering you. But here, suddenly this annoying thought disappears. You go shopping and you don’t need to count. You plan a trip for the weekend without having to look at your bank account. You don’t need to worry about money and so you can focus on what really matters.
Of course, then there is something else you think about: Not worrying about money in a country where so many people are struggling to make a living… It’s a weird and uncomfortable idea and quite frankly I don’t know how to deal with it yet.
The job opportunities
For me it’s easy, I can work anywhere. A socket to plug in my computer, to charge my camera, is all I need. Maybe a beer or two if I want to write something. That’s easy to find.
But I’m not traveling alone and when we decided to settle somewhere, last Christmas, one of the first concerns was for Kristina to find a job. We’re both diving instructors and this is the kind of certification that can get you a job in no time. So that was an option; except that I had more than my share of tropical islands, living in bungalows and spending my days in board shorts. Sure it sounds awesome (even writing it), but the diving instructor routine is far, far away from real life. And we wanted something real.
So the other obvious option was teaching English. It’s a no brainer, really. One month of training and you can find a job pretty much anywhere in Asia. And if, like Kristina, you’re a native speaker, you hold a degree (or several) and a CELTA certification, then you’re looking at some of the highest paid jobs in the field. You’re looking at a salary that will get you a pretty comfortable life in Bangkok, Hanoi, Saigon or Siem Reap. We chose Hanoi. For now.
The beautiful mess
Some people like things to be clean; they want to live in a quiet and peaceful area… I don’t. I like broken stuff; I like messy streets, busy intersections and crowded sidewalks. I like places that need some time for you to get used to. Places that need to be tamed.
The streets of Hanoi are a beautiful combination of chaotic coordination and noise. It’s a really messy ballet, a strange dance. It’s not without logic, but it takes some time to get used to the rhythm, to the tempo of the streets. You need to count your steps, to synchronize yourself with the flow of the cars and the motorbikes, so you can cross the street without getting killed.
But when you finally get used to it… what a wonderful mess! People cooking on the sidewalks, improvised hair salons on the corner of a street, old folks practicing Tai Chi by the lake. The wind smells like motor grease, oil, coffee, fruit and incense, and the streets never grow quiet.
You can’t get bored in a city like Hanoi, it just keeps surprising you.
And for family reasons…
OK, this last one is a bit personal. But I have to add it.
My mom’s dad joined the French army when he was 19, in 1947. Three years later he was sent to Vietnam with the colonial infantry. I’m not here to talk about the war or the period that came just before. We probably had nothing to do in Vietnam, but that’s not something I want to discuss now.
My grandfather cherished his time in this country, he enjoyed being in the army and he would have probably made a long career in the colonial infantry if he didn’t fall in love with a young girl back in France. He couldn’t stay in Vietnam; he had to go back home to marry my grandmother.
After that, he never really made anything of his life. He was not good at making choices for himself, that’s probably why he loved the army so much.
He lived an empty life and the memories of his time in Vietnam chased him all the way to his deathbed. As he was dying, all he could think about were the streets of Hanoi. As he held my mom’s hand, he kept asking her to tell him about the city, about the food and the smells in the streets.
My grandfather left Vietnam to start a family. He left his dreams and a life of adventure so he could raise my mom. I wouldn’t exist if he chose differently.
I think about this every time I walk the streets of this city. As I turn around the lake, I wonder “Was he here…?” Being in Hanoi is a way for me to do what my grandfather didn’t do. I know he would have loved that. It’s my way of saying thank you…
Read more Hanoi travel guide here