At Home in Hanoi on $1,500 a Month

The sing-song chants of vendors cut through the morning mist, offering fresh-baked baguettes and baskets of tropical fruits. Cauldrons of pho bò (beef noodle soup) and the savoury smoke of grilling pork entice the early morning breakfast crowd. City parks fill with ladies practicing tai-chi as the men huddle together playing cò tuóng (Chinese chess) and cards. By 8 a.m., the streets are packed with thousands of motorbikes and a cacophony of honking horns.

It’s impossible not to get caught up in the whirlwind. The first thing you notice when you arrive in Vietnam’s capital city is the energy.

This is not a laidback city; even before the sun comes up, Hanoi comes alive.

When my husband, David, and I first came to Hanoi, we were overwhelmed by the traffic, the intense stimulation and the energy. In those first days, we wondered how anyone could want to live in this city. But we soon changed our minds.

We made friends almost immediately. Our week-long visit turned into two weeks, then a month, then longer.

We left, but kept returning and we began to realise that Hanoi had become comfortable…we imagined ourselves living here.

The chaos seemed to have a strange sense of order about it, the energy was invigorating and we grew to love the people, the bizarre architecture and the food. In 2012, we moved to Hanoi, and it has been our home ever since.

We live in Ba Dinh District. Quite a few expats live in this part of town. It’s away from the tourist zone but still convenient to the city centre. We are the only foreigners in our little neighbourhood. Living here provides us with a more local experience.

We are living a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle. We rent a 250-square-metre house, eat almost every dinner out and own a motorbike. We run the air conditioner when it’s hot and the heater when it’s cold, buy a mix of local and imported groceries and have a housekeeper who comes once a week. Our monthly expenses average around $1,500. Even when we take a holiday or splurge on an expensive dinner or two, our budget rarely exceeds $2,000.

The cost of living is a big plus. A bus ticket costs less than 45 cents and buses go practically everywhere in the city. Metered taxis are also inexpensive, with prices starting at about 50 cents per kilometre. You can get unlimited mobile phone data plans for $4.25 per month, 3G internet plans for around $15 per month and fresh beer on tap that costs less than 50 cents a glass. A doctor’s visit at a local hospital costs about $5, and a consultation with an English-speaking specialist at the excellent, JCI-accredited Vinmec International Hospital costs less than $40.

I don’t spend a lot to eat well in Hanoi either. Vietnamese food is fresh, light and delicious. It’s widely regarded as being one of the healthiest cuisines around and it’s one of the most varied. The traditional markets often have fresher fruits, produce and meats at lower prices than the supermarkets; a bag of fresh vegetables costs around $1.25.

Hanoi is famous for having some of the world’s best street food. Just $3 buys a large bowl of bún ngan, a delicious dish of duck, sliced bamboo, rice noodles, broth, spring onions and assorted leaves and herbs. For a delicious breakfast or lunch, I love Hanoi’s famous bún cha, with two types of char-grilled pork, rice vermicelli and greens for about $2.

A full Vietnamese meal for two, including drinks, at a midrange restaurant costs less than $15, or you can splurge at one of the many excellent buffets for about $25 per person. I love the seafood served at Sen 60 Lý Thái Tô, which is located in the French Quarter just steps away from the Hanoi Opera House. For a more typically Vietnamese dinner, I like the food and hawker-centre atmosphere at Quán An Ngon, which has a few branches around Hanoi.

One of my favourite Western restaurants is the Moose & Roo Smokehouse, a Canadian-owned establishment that serves a satisfying selection of smoked meats, burgers and sticky wings. They also have the most extensive bourbon and single-malt whisky selection in Hanoi. A hearty meal for two, with drinks, costs less than $50.

It’s not hard to understand why we’ve made our home in Hanoi…

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