Memories of Hanoi, Vietnam: Backpackers to Expats

Memories of Hanoi, Vietnam: Backpackers to Expats

Kach Umandap - Howe Asia, Travel Blog, Travel Guides 42 Comments

As a backpacker-turned-expat, Hanoi is one of the best cities in the world to stop and try your hand at living and working abroad.

The majority of backpackers tend to treat Hanoi as a necessary transit point to get to Halong Bay and Sapa; stopping only for a night or two and getting drunk on tourist-quality Bia Hoi in the Old Quarter and visiting Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. But if you stick around for long enough you’ll soon discover that there’s a lot more on offer here than cheap beer and the preserved carcass of a communist idol!
Check out some of the cool and cheap tours you could do in Hanoi, Ha Long, and Ho Chi Minh.
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Here a just a few of the reasons we loved living in Hanoi and the reasons it continues to grow as hot-spot for foreigners to live a life they may not have believed was possible:

1. Live like a King! 

Memories of Hanoi, Vietnam : Backpackers to Expats

If you’re new to Hanoi then you’ll most likely be staying in a cheap hostel in the Old Quarter while you get your bearings, look for a job and a place to live. There are a few options on accommodation, all varying in price, quality and ‘Western’ness.’
The most expensive and by far the most Western has to be Tay Ho by Westlake. Here you’ll find classy bars and restaurants, modern apartments and balconies with sunset views of the lake. However, if you’re looking for a much more Vietnamese experience, then look for somewhere in Ba Dinh.  Here you’ll find large spacious houses with courtyards and terraces, centrally located with easy access to most major routes through the city at much lower prices.  Everything else is cheaper here too – food; drink; mechanics; furniture; electronics….everything you need to kit out your new place.
When Jon first arrived in Hanoi, he and three other guys found an excellent four bedroom house, with a large courtyard, outdoor terrace, three bathrooms and a fish pond for $800 a month – $200 per person! If you’re on your own then don’t worry; there a plenty of house shares available on various expat groups online, which also gives you a ready made group of friends!

2. Hot Wheels!

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If you want to enjoy Hanoi and the surrounding area to the fullest, you’re going to need a way to get around.  In Vietnam, the number one way to travel is by motorbike. It’s pretty much the first thing you see when you arrive- bikes, bikes and more bikes! Having your bike isn’t just useful, it’s essential. Because motorbikes are ridden by absolutely everyone here, they are also super-cheap.  You can find anything from 100-150cc manuals to auto/semi-automatics at as little as $250.

Many English-speaking shops are selling/renting bikes to foreigners, and most of them are in the Old Quarter, which means more tourists, higher prices and a lack of after sales care.  Our advice, get out of the tourist area and go to the Vietnamese bike market on Chua Ha Street, Cau Giay.  There you’ll find Quang Minh Motors.  We bought all of our bikes from Quang Minh, and he soon became one of our best friends in the city.  He’s the only person I would feel confident recommending to the right friends and family.  He’ll even provide you with a helmet, map and driving lessons if you need them! Telephone – +84 944948316

3. The Vietnamese Food

 I can proudly say that Vietnamese food is some of the best food we’ve ever had.Bun Cha; Bahn My; Pho; hot pots; fried tofu (it’s better than it sounds!)…the list goes on.  There’s enough food here to keep you busy trying new dishes every day of the week!
If you’re looking for good quality western food, then head over to Commune by Westlake. They’ve got a great bar/cafe on the ground floor and one of the best views in Hanoi on the roof terrace.  You’ll never eat a homemade chocolate brownie from anywhere else!  The owner, Jeremy, is also the man responsible for the new, but already legendary Quest music festival held in Ba Vi national park.

4.  The (secret) party scene….shhhh!

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Our favorite bar was Alley Pub, located right next to Hoan Kiem Lake.  Run by two great guys, Tuan and Tun, there’s good times, great music, and even better people.  They’ve even opened up a new one in Tay Ho away from the busy streets which stay open until the early hours.If you’ve passed through Hanoi before and tried the local bar scene, then you may have been disappointed to find that everything shuts down before midnight….or does it? Yes, the police come round and close down the Bia Hoi’s and the bars pull down the shutters, but where there are expats in need of booze and music, there’s always a way!

Check out some of the cool and cheap tours you could do in Hoan Kiem Lake.

If you find the bars closed, just hang around on the street and look out for a Vietnamese guy with his phone or radio in his hand and tell him where you want to go.  When the cops are looking the other way, they’ll lead you through a tiny corridor, up some steps, through someone’s office and down a ‘hidden’ staircase into the bar you thought was closed!  It’s much more exciting than a typical night out back home.

5. ‘People will pay me to teach their children?!’

Memories of Hanoi, Vietnam : Backpackers to Expats

Teaching English is the lifeblood of the ‘backpacker-turned-expat.’  With a TEFL certificate and a little experience, you can quite easily find a job paying $19 to $25 per hour.  It’s possible without, but you may have to deal with less reputable employers at the beginning until you have some experience.
Working hours are usually about 20 hours per week, which is more than enough to live, eat, party and even save a little!  We worked nearly double that as we were saving to move to South America.  Jon had a 6-month contract with a bonus at the end, as well as other jobs to increase our savings.  As a Filipina, it took me three months to land my first job, but once I did the work didn’t stop rolling in!  I had four jobs including two private students, and my last pay was $25/hour!

6. Easy Visa Process

Before deciding to move to Hanoi, I was just using the free visa on arrival for Filipinos which allows me to stay for 21 days, then cross the Laos border and re-enter for a new visa. After a while, I decided to apply for a 3-month working visa, which is extendable for up to 6 months.  It’s a straightforward process; just take your passport to a travel agency, they get the visa for you and you pick it up within a week.
After a certain number of renewals you will have to leave the country and re-enter, but the exact rules on this change like the wind!  We always used Miss Ly’s Travel on Yen Thai Street, Old Quarter (+84 976138900).  She’s well known among expats because she’s helpful and honest.  One of my favorite people in Hanoi!
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DO YOU RECOMMEND USING THE SERVICES OF A TOUR/VISA AGENCY?

Yes, I highly recommend availing the services of iVisa, if you feel more comfortable having your application submitted by a professional organisation. They have been providing expedited processing and guidance services for any e-visa applications since 2013 so they have a lot of experience. Here are some advantages of getting your visa from them:

  1. They have 24/7 support in many languages.
  2. Application forms are all available on one page;
  3. You can get your Tourist eVisa, Medical eVisa, and Business eVisa within 24 hours if you apply for the Rush Service; and
  4. They provide a full refund under their approval guarantee in case your visa gets rejected!

Go to the iVisa website to discover how they can help you with your visa application.

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7. The Hanoians!

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Hanoi would be an empty shell of a city without its people!  Hanoi has a rich history and culture, still retaining much of the tradition and pride that makes Vietnam so different to anywhere else in the world.
They’re also super friendly. Jon has a habit of getting into long conversations with old bearded men, where neither person understands what the other is saying!
Sure if you only stay in the Old Quarter then, of course, you’ll find a certain amount of intolerance for tourists, just because there’s so many.  That’s the same anywhere, including our own countries!  But once you get to know the people here you’ll make friends for life.  Friends who will do anything to help you and treat you like family.  You’ll be invited into their homes to meet the whole family, eat mountains of food and drink obscene amounts of homemade rice wine till you fall off your chair!
During our last two weeks in Hanoi, we stayed in a beautiful little boutique hotel; Queen Travel on Hang Bac.  We had met the owner, Mr. Thuc, purely by chance as we walked through the Old Quarter one day.  His collection of vintage motorized bicycles in the hotel lobby caught Jon’s eye, and we ended up drinking beer and eating dinner with him while his son played the piano!

8. Access to the rest of Asia

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With Hanoi as your home base, you have easy access to all the major air-travel hubs in SE Asia, as well as cheap land travel to Laos, Cambodia or even Northern Thailand.  Useful when you decide to turn a decisive visa run into a beach holiday!

9. Anything can fit on a motorbike!

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You’ll see all manner of things being transported by motorbike: Live pigs; water tanks; flower shops; other motorbikes and entire families.  We’ve probably all seen photo’s before, but seeing them swerve in and out of traffic in real life on your way to the pub is an entirely different experience!
…and last, but certainly not least.

10. Hanoi Massive – The Expat’s Bible   

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This is a private Facebook group for expats and locals to ask questions, share information, ideas, complaints, gossip, jobs, house shares and anything else you can think of.  It’s a great source of joy, anguish and pure amusement for anyone living in Hanoi.
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Transportation Tip: If you’re looking for the cheapest way to book the Trains, Buses, Ferries, Transfers on this route, we use 12Go.Asia to compare the prices!

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Comments 42

  1. I wish I can see Vietnam one day with my own eyes! I’ve many Vietnamese American friends who all have shared very interesting stories about Vietnam!

  2. sounds pretty cool! I could not imagine working somewhere like that though, I love the comforts of Western life way to much. I need to be surrounded by luxury to truly thrive – blessings!

    1. Wow, you’re truly blessed then Claudia 🙂 but Vietnam is really worth the visit so I hope you’ll try to go there too someday 🙂

  3. Wow! Looks like a fabulous experience! I love living abroad but chose a more expensive country! I would love to go somewhere it is a bit cheaper.

  4. A friend of mines has lived years in Hanoi and her memories of this city are so weird but beutiful.. She says it’s like… crazy for some aspects! I wish I can see it one day and try all you write and all she says!

  5. It sounds like an awesome place to live in especially if you’re trying to figure out what to do with you life. There’s just so much to do here and it’s something that will also teach you a lot about life.

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  6. We were supposed to go this October but my parents had other plans! I should have read your post earlier haha. Oh well, another year then. That pho looks awesome though. (I would be terrified to go to the secret party if I knew the cops might come!!)

    1. Thanks Jolina 🙂 the way they keep it a secret makes the party more exciting! You’ll enjoy it for sure ?

  7. We loved Vietnam but honestly, we saw some things on motorbikes that did not seem physically possible! The food was wonderful and it is such a stunning destination.

    1. That’s good to hear Tania 🙂 We’re really glad that you enjoyed your visit to Vietnam, but I wonder what you saw on motorbikes back there. ??

  8. Hi Kach,
    Lovely blog 🙂
    I’m planning a 4 day’s trip to Vietnam this year, just wanted to ask you if I still need a Visa ( got a UAE residence visa) & I am a Filipino too.
    Thanks in advance and keep blogging.

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