I wanted to give you an update about life in Hanoi, after about 4-5 days of living here, and some random meditations about life.
How life is as an expat in Vietnam
As an American, I wasn’t very familiar with the term “expat” (until I met a lot of my British friends who lived overseas). I guess the phrase means “ex-patriot” — meaning that you no longer live in your home country, but somewhere else. Cindy told me that the term originated from the war.
Anyways, the first thing I realized is my privilege. As an American, I earn “American” wages — which is much much more than any of the locals living here.
In terms of the cost of living here, it is remarkably cheap compared to living in the states. For example, a 30-minute Uber ride only cost us $3 (that is with 1.3x surge). A meal inside a mid-tier restaurant only costs $2-3. Staying at a clean and comfortable mid-tier hotel (like what we are staying in) is only $15 a night (breakfast included).
Cindy and I have been spending most of our days like this:
- Wake up (around 7-9am)
- Drink coffee in the room, make a few phone calls home, do some logistical work on the laptop, answer emails
- Go downstairs at the hotel for breakfast
- Talk to our new friends, the hotel and breakfast staff (where I practice most of my Vietnamese)
- Decide the plan for the day
- Go to a coffee shop and do work (me writing, blogging, uploading videos, and Cindy organizing her research work).
- Maybe meet a friend, Cindy goes to library to do work, or just walk around the city to get to know the area.
- Possibly go to another coffee shop, drink more coffee, and do more work.
- Walk around some more, and then have dinner together.
- Walk around the lake in Hanoi (Hoan Kiem lake), talk, and observe the street life.
- Go back to hotel, shower, wash clothes in shower, chat a little, maybe watch a movie (we watched “Porco Rosso” last night) and go to sleep.
What have I been photographing?
Most of my photography hasn’t been of “street photography” — even though I walk around all day with my Ricoh GR in hand. Rather, most of my shooting has been of Cindy, to continue the #cindyproject.
The city is a fantastic place for street photography, as there is tons of people, tons of action, and lots of interesting things happening. But strangely enough, I don’t really feel a strong urge or drive to shoot ‘street photography’ here. Why? Perhaps because I’m not drawn to photographing Asian people as much. Perhaps because when I’m back in America, I shoot more “street portraits” of people I see on the streets with interesting fashion and swagger.
I had an idea of shooting portraits of strangers in Hanoi — but quickly dismissed the idea. Why? I just don’t find the faces of the people here that interesting to me.
I also tried experimenting shooting more layers (like Alex Webb) while I’m here. I haven’t got any good shots yet, but I figure with enough effort and practice, I can get a couple good ones.
So what will I photograph? Who knows. Perhaps I’ll continue to make portraits of Cindy. And whenever I see random interesting street scenes (perhaps once a day) I will make images.
But I think above all — this experience living in Hanoi is going to be less about photography, and more about blogging, meditation, thinking about life, learning Vietnamese, learning the local culture and eating delicious food, as well as sharing my experiences.
I also took the suggestion from my friend Josh White to shoot more color. I’m also currently studying the work of Guy Bourdin — and think color might be a more fun challenge while here in Vietnam. Will keep you posted.
I love fast wi-fi
At our hotel, the internet is blazing fast. So it is in many of the coffee shops we visit.
But some of the coffee shops have much slower internet (like the Highlands Coffee I’m currently at— which is like the Starbucks of Vietnam).
Which made me realize; fast wifi speeds is such a privilege.
When the wifi is fast, I am able to be incredibly productive. I can quickly upload images to this blog, I can upload videos quickly to YouTube, and also do research. When the wifi is slow, I feel like I’m choking. I hate waiting for pages to load — and I find it ruins my stream of consciousness.
It also made me realize that our wifi in America sucks. I was talking to my friend Josh White on the phone yesterday, and he told me how ridiculously fast the internet speeds in Korea are. For example, he could download a 1gb file in around a minute at home (it might take him 5 minutes at a Starbucks in Korea).
As a random thought, I wonder how much having fast wifi speeds helps individual entrepreneurs or society as a whole. I wonder if there are lots of people out there severely limited by slow local wifi speeds.
Or perhaps it is the opposite— by having fast internet speeds, we spend more of our attention playing video games, downloading movies, and wasting time on entertainment.
I’m not sure — but man, having good coffee and wifi are the two biggest contributors to allowing me to be productive and happy.
Why I don’t like being around other expats
For some weird reason, I don’t like going to places where there are lots of expats, foreigners, or tourists. Why?
I generally find a lot of the expats or tourists to be really loud and disrespectful. The other day, we went to the Hanoi Social Club (a lovely expat coffee shop/cafe) but my experience was ruined by a bunch of foreign travelers who were boisterously loud, and also insulting the poor English accent of the servers working there.
Perhaps why I don’t like the sight of expats is because it is a reflection of myself. Perhaps I don’t like looking at myself, and recognizing my privilege in the faces and actions of others.
I feel for the most part, I blend in here in Hanoi. I look Asian, I wear all black, and even some people mistakingly thought I was Vietnamese. Cindy speaking Vietnamese fluently also helps.
Perhaps it is because I am craving some sort of “authenticity” in my living in Hanoi. As a traveler, I always like going off the “beaten path” and I hate touristy activities and places. I like to do what the “locals” do.
But then again — what is really “authentic” in any place you visit, or when you live in a foreign place?
I have no idea; I need to figure it out the longer I live here.
Food and coffee is phenomenal
For the most part, the food and coffee here is absolutely amazing. I love walking the streets of Hanoi (small and dense streets) and we can be choosy.
For example, when we want to eat something good, we often walk in the streets and just see where it is crowded. Then we often eat there. Or we might find some fancy restaurants via Google Maps.
You can really see the French influence on Vietnamese culture — from the coffee culture, to the “banh mi” Vietnamese sandwiches made with baguettes, and also lots of delicious French/Vietnamese fusion cuisine.
Anthony Bourdain wasn’t kidding when he talked about his “love affair” with Vietnam — and how Vietnamese food was one of his favorites.
What I love about Vietnamese food is how it is so fresh, has tons of herbs and veggies, and is filling— yet not too heavy. There are tons of different textures in the food (crispy, slimy, crunchy, soft, and chewy), and multi-layered flavors (spicy, sour, sweet, and smoked). You can never get bored with the variety of food here. Vietnamese food is definitely my favorite food in the world.
The absurdity of brand-named goods
Also living abroad— one of the big revelations to me was this: just how absurd brand-named good are.
For example, we value high-end brands like Louie-Vuitton, Coach, Prada, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Porsche, Polo, etc in America (and many other places in the world).
You see a lot of rich people in Hanoi, driving fancy cars, and wearing fancy clothes. But then again you see a lot of normal people on the street with obvious knock-off designer clothing. Not only that, but you see lots of knock-off Under Armor, Nike, Adidas, The North Face, Patagonia, and other clothes/backpacks that are sold on the streets.
Which made me realize— a “brand” is nothing but a concept in our minds. We only value the symbolism of a brand. The actual clothing or material it is made out of is cheap. Most of it is made in Vietnam anyways and sold overseas for a 1000x markup.
Also the thing about living in Hanoi is that having a car (especially a high-end car) is a horrible idea. The traffic is so bad, and the likelihood of getting your car scratched is high. In America, I always fantasize about getting a fancy sports or luxury car. But being here in Vietnam, I just realize how absurd it is.
And no matter how fancy the branding of clothing you wear abroad, nobody cares. The local style in Hanoi is pretty low-key. As a foreigner or an ex-pat, you might feel high and mighty wearing trendy clothing from back home, but here, nobody cares. Which makes me wonder, why try to show off with your clothing and external accessories when you’re living abroad? Or why try to show off when you’re living back home?
I love walking
One of the best parts of living in Hanoi is that Cindy and I walk everywhere. We bought some motorcycle helmets (thinking we would buy scooters), but probably we won’t. Because walking everywhere is pleasant, and often less stressful (and faster) than being stuck in traffic.
There is something truly wonderful about walking. I think it is part of our biology. Walking allows me to clear my mind, brainstorm new ideas, and release stress.
Living in the suburbs of Orange County for about 3 months (just driving everywhere and barely walking) feels un-human. Walking on the streets helps me feel connected to other people, and to society.
I also realize that I prefer the hustle and bustle of crowded cities, with narrow alley-ways, narrow sidewalks, low buildings, and the hustle and bustle of activity on the street.
Today Cindy and I went a little further away from downtown Hanoi (about 30 minutes south by taxi). And this entire area (Yen Hoa) is famous for catering to Korean/Japanese businessmen. They are apparently trying to make it like another Singapore — with wide streets, super-tall high-rise apartments and buildings, and restaurants/stores.
But the whole area of Yen Hoa is so alienating. It reminded me of being in Korea and Singapore — where you just feel so tiny looking at all these sparse skyscrapers. I much preferred the intimacy of being near the downtown area (near Hoan Kiem lake — where our hotel is currently).
Looking for a serviced apartment
Okay so the reason we spent all day of today in the “Yen Hoa” area is that Cindy (in about a month) is going to do research at one of the archives here for her research.
Currently we are living in a hotel close to Hoan Kiem lake (because there is a library there). But after a month of studying at that library, we need to go to this new archive.
So today we spent some time looking for a “serviced apartment” in the area — which means that someone cleans your room once a week or so.
The prices are around $500 a month for a nice serviced apartment.
Why look for a serviced apartment instead of just living in a hotel in the area?
While I prefer the convenience of a hotel, the serviced apartments are slightly cheaper, often have faster wifi, and are a little bigger and more cozy. We plan on having some friends visit us in Hanoi, and it might be nice to have a larger place where our friends could crash with us.
Otherwise, it makes me realize how pleasant it is to live in a hotel. I love going downstairs, and just having breakfast served to us (one less thing for us to worry about). Not only that, but the chance to talk to the staff is always fun. Living in an apartment with nobody to talk to can really be alienating and lonely.
We found a nice serviced apartment today, which might be good. The lady who works there is super friendly — I think her and her mom run the place. I can imagine talking to them on a daily basis, instead of just living in a modern apartment with nobody to chat with.
Which made me think — when it comes to living situations, I think I prefer to have a more social living situation rather than having a super fancy place.
I think about all these millionaires who live in these huge villas, but are so lonely.
Even though nowadays we say we value our “own space” and “privacy” — I think humans are happiest when we are around other humans.
I think about how society used to be close-knit with the local community and family, and how alienating it is now with suburbs and huge houses.
I also never understood why people like to live in huge houses. I prefer smaller apartments, that are less stress to maintain. I think above all, the location of where you live is probably more important than how big your house is. Because the closer you can live to work, the more time you have in your day. And time is the one currency which is the most valuable.
This upcoming week
So this upcoming week, Cindy is going to start going more to the library to do research. Which means more time for me to blog, write, read, and think.
I have been pretty productive blogging lately — I have them schedule out to post once a day. I actually have around a month-worth of blog posts all queued up and ready to go.
I’ll keep these diary entries (and video blogs) real-time (posting them around when I finish writing them). But the exciting thing is that there will always be something new when you visit the blog.
Thanks for tuning in, lots of love!