There are little and big things that I have already come to appreciate about our new city. A few of these will be discussed more in future blogs, but I wanted to provide a brief overview of some of our early “Greatness” highlights.
Greatness 1: Prices
Day-to-day activities in Ha Noi fit with a life on a budget. A trip across town in a taxi costs a few dollars, and a hearty street food meal is usually less than $2. Even eating in a casual restaurant might only cost $5 per person. Real estate is also cheap considering we live in a major urban center.
In just 10 days, I have gotten acclimated to these reduced prices and find myself thinking – $1.75 for large coffee in a fancy shop? That’s is so expensive! I may never spend $6 at Starbucks again.
Since we are currently surviving on David’s salary, I am very glad to purchase the basic necessities of life cheaply.
Greatness 2: Sunny Days
During our first 6 days in Ha Noi we barely saw the sun. Several days had unrelenting downpours that made it difficult to leave the hotel room. Then, last Sunday, the sun came out. It has been clear and hot since.
The rain wasn’t unexpected (it is monsoon season after all), but seeing the sun was a welcome change of pace. Absence makes the heart grow fonder right? It almost makes it hard to complain that it is in the mid-nineties for the sixth straight day.
Greatness 3: Expat Forums
Facebook is the medium of choice for Vietnamese companies marketing to expats, and it is also home to countless forums aimed at this community. Hanoi Massive is the most famous offshoots focused on housing, jobs, complaining, and selling household goods.
I am most excited about WhereToGet Hanoi. Several people I hardly know have suggested this as a great resource for getting crowd-sourced support to find what you need. Today I even learned where to buy our favorite pastime – board games. Want a particular plastic container? Ask WheretoGet. Need a custom bookshelf made? Find a recommendation on WhereToGet. This is going to be a lifesaver.
Greatness 4: Coffee
Den da (black coffee over ice) is a Ha Noi staple. It is available in thousands of coffee shops around town. You can order your ca phe den with milk, but the local preference appears to be with a dash of simple syrup. As a recent coffee convert, the black version (which has a distinctive espresso kick) can be a bit too much for me, but with a small splash of syrup I am ready for my caffeine jolt. Coffee shops also serve as a great place to enjoy some A/C and catch up on emails and blogging activities.
Greatness 5: Vietnammm
For nearly a decade I have lived in the suburbs with limited food delivery options. I fondly remember my days in Washington and Cape Town, when I could get food quickly and efficiently delivered to my door. Back in those “stone ages” you had to pick up the phone and call the restaurant to get food delivered. Occasionally you could go to a website and find a handful of options with online ordering.
In our first few days we discovered Vietnammm. This app might be the most useful thing since sliced bread to an expat without any reasonable command of the Vietnamese language. Dozens and dozens of restaurants have English-language menus on the app. Automated ordering and English-speaking customer service agents assist restaurants in communicating with the clientele. Order through the app and less than an hour later you are eating.
Many restaurants have $2-$5 minimums and if they charge a delivery fee – it is usually less than $1.25. Tipping is not a practice here. The combination of those factors makes it practical, affordable, and damn convenient. We have only indulged once so far. However, I can already envision David ordering food when I am out of town – or both of us indulging in delivered Thai curry after a hard day of work.
Greatness 6: Lakes of Ha Noi
I anticipate writing several blogs about the most famous lakes of Ha Noi. Each of the large lakes have their own character. Hoan Kiem is the city’s most famous – located near the Old Quarter. West Lake is the largest, measuring more than 10 miles around. Ha Noi’s hectic traffic and crowded sidewalks makes the visual break of even the smallest lake a welcome relief. Their pathways are some of the easiest terrain to walk in the whole city. When the heat breaks I look forward to walking around as many of them as possible.
A early favorite is Truc Bach – a small lake located next to West Lake. Truc Bach shares its name with a tasty beer and a street filled with delicious cafes and restaurants – including the best Indian food in town. At night you can see people fishing on its shores, a stark contrast to the neon signs on storefronts and the persistent staff of restaurants “encouraging” your patronage for dinner.
The lakes of Ha Noi are one of its defining characteristics and I am excited to learn more about them.
Greatness 7: Bia Hoi Ha Noi
I have only been to one so far – but bia hoi (beer halls) are all over this city. David and I stumbled into one while desperately seeking quick food on an epic day of apartment hunting. It was about 1 pm – but I wasn’t going to turn down the beer from an innovative keg. The food was fast, cheap and plentiful. The beer almost free and served with peanuts and a pork-stuffed banana leaf.
What is not to love?
Ha Noi, in addition to being the name of the town – is also the predominat local brew. Saigon has its own basic lager beer. Most beer halls advertise with brewery signs. Next time we will go with friends – so we can sample and share more food and linger awhile to enjoy a few more cheap brews.
Greatness 8: Grab
During our first few days, I kept seeing men driving motorbikes around the city’s wearing bright green jackets and helmets labeled Grab. I didn’t give it much thought until we met up with one of David’s colleagues. He explained Grab as the best rival to Uber in Ha Noi. Since then, Grab has been the heart and soul of our transport around the city.
Grab has several travel options:
- GrabCar – basic cab replacement
- GrabShare – gives the option to the system to add additional riders (usually about 25% cheaper)
- GrabBike – the confidence of a GrabCar with the thrill of a scooter ride
- GrabTaxi – taxi instead of a private car
- GrabCar 7 -van for your large-group transportation need
David is currently using Grab to get to school most days (unless they are charging a surplus for rain or traffic that makes them more expensive than a cab). They allow us to tell the driver exactly where we want to go without relying on our limited Vietnamese (or their limited English), and we know the fare before we ever sit down. David and I are both racking up major reward points too, just to add to the fun.
Greatness 9: Fruit and Fruit Juice
When friends asked what about Ha Noi had me the most excited, I usually answered fruit. It does not disappoint. Dragon fruit, known as thanh long, is a highlight of the Vietnamese fruit scene. If you are lucky enough to find them in the states, they are usually expensive and shriveled. Here, they come in at least two varieties – white and red. The small football shaped exterior is a vivid fuchsia with thick green leaves. The flesh dotted with small black seeds. The texture of the flesh is similar to that of a kiwi, and the flavor mild but satisfying. It is best served cut in half and eaten with a spoon. Red versions are sweeter – and be careful because the red juice dyes everything like beet juice does.
In addition to thanh long, I have also enjoyed several fresh fruit juices on warm days. Passion fruit, pineapple, lime, kumquat, avocado and other juices are readily available freshly-pressed or in a yogurt-based smoothie. Usually for about a dollar you can watch the barista peel, chop, purée and strain whatever your heart desires. What’s not to love?
Greatness 10: Honking
Not every visitor to Ha Noi would put this particular phenomenon on a list of great characteristics. There are even moments when I would probably rather people honk less, but usually, I find it a fascinating communication structure between drivers.
We usually think of honking as being a sign of frustration and anger. Here, it is often more of a signal drivers use when:
- Passing a blind corner or alley
- Signaling an approach from right, left, or behind
- Warning another vehicle is too close
- Saying, “I see you, go ahead and turn in front of me”
Once the brain stops associating the noise with negative emotions, it is easy to see the value in having a way to share thoughts with other drivers. I remember in South Africa that a quick blink of the flashers is a way to say thank you to a car that allows you to pass on a small highway. I often wish there were more ways to do this in America.
To add to the honking hilarity, some horns are a short little musical extravaganza – with an electronic bounce to them that lasts 2 to 5 seconds.
Keep an eye on this blog for more information about some of these great things of Ha Noi.