Expat Life in Hanoi and Phnom Penh: Comparisons and ContrastsJune 8, 2014
Lauren Quinn reflects on her expat experience in two culturally distinct Indochinese cities.
Two years ago, I rode the Phnom Penh-Ho Chi Minh City bus with all my worldly belongings—admittedly not much—shoved into bus’s luggage compartment. As we crept into the traffic of Ho Chi Minh City, I saw something that almost made me cry: an electrical company employee working on a pole, wearing a uniform, hardhat and safety harness. I felt like I’d returned to the developed world.
I wish I could tell you what had happened to me in Phnom Penh, something definitive: I was robbed, I was threatened, I got sick. But nothing that concrete and explainable happened. I left Cambodia convinced to my core that it was not a safe place for me, and washed up in Hanoi, broke and beaten and wondering what the fuck I’d done with my life.
I spent my first few days in a shell-shocked daze. I took long evening strolls, alone with my loneliness. Hanoi is a shit city to walk in, worse than Phnom Penh, sprawling and choked, with some seven million motorbikes zooming around. But I was relieved to be there. I marveled at the landscaped parks, the neon-lit overpasses, the lumbering city buses, the way the motorbike drivers could read the addresses I handed them and actually deliver me to my destination. I also marveled at the things that weren’t there—trash, beggars, blatant girly bars. I came up with a tagline for the city my first few days: Hanoi, Refreshingly Free of Prostitutes.
Of course, there is prostitution in Hanoi. It’s just more under wraps, as is most of the nefarious activity in the city. It seems in Asia there’s always a conversation under the surface conversation. For reasons I can’t totally quantify, I found that deeper conversation unsettling in Phnom Penh. In Hanoi, I found that underlying layer impenetrable but oddly more livable.
On the surface, Hanoi can seem gruelingly unpleasant. I knew about the traffic, the winter, the perceived rudeness of the people. But I didn’t know that there’s a kind of humidity so intense that it causes your clothes to mold, even when you run AC all day. I didn’t how difficult it could be to secure solid information when living in a communist country. I don’t know what living in the capital of one of the world’s top-ten most polluted countries does to your body—chest infections, chronic diarrhea, a grayish pallor that only fades when I leave the city.
By comparison Phnom Penh seems downright pleasant. The air quality, the gentle breeze, the tuk-tuks, the way Cambodians are “just so lovely.” Yeah, you’ve got your power outages and potholes, but once you learn how to navigate all the developing world aspects, Phnom Penh is kind of a foreigners’ paradise. You have a relatively high access to foreign goods. As one of the easiest countries in ASEAN for a foreigner to own a business, international cuisine and boutique hotel swimming pools abound, and at reasonable prices. And Cambodians are so damn nice, you can pretty much act however you want. You can be a condensing snippy asshole, or a waster burnout, or a missionary on a crusade to save the poor brown people, and very few Cambodians will tell you to fuck off.
Start digging beneath those surface layers, and well, in Hanoi you hit a cement wall. The city doesn’t inspire much question asking or rabble rousing among its expats. There’s an impenetrability to Hanoi culture, a way in which a foreigner can never truly grasp or enter it. Northern Vietnam has been occupied or at war for most of its history, and its culture reflects that closed protectiveness. When the country opened up in the 1990s, foreigners were trailed by the secret police, had wiretaps and official files. This created a culture of disengagement. Friends who’ve lived here over a decade still come up against things they fundamentally don’t understand.
As the capital city of a growing middle-income country, Hanoi has a much bigger embassy and business crowd, as well as an ensuing ladies-who-lunch scene. Because there is a high demand for English teachers and enough wealth to pay them well, there’s also a much bigger ESL scene. These are very different motivations under which to enter a country than say, the journalism and NGO cultures that have dominated the Phnom Penh expat scene, or the emerging entrepreneurial scene. In Phnom Penh, you get the feeling most everyone is engaged, reads the newspapers, has discussions about the goings-on in the country. A lot of Phnom Penh’s expats are quite invested in the place and care deeply about it. Of course, there are drawbacks to that level of investment. No matter what you say in Cambodia, there are two-dozen people waiting in the wings to tell you why you’re wrong. There’s that kind of intense provincialism in which every asshole has an opinion and thinks the greater world is interested in hearing it. This was one of the reasons that my writing about Cambodia didn’t get any good until I left the country: when I was living there, I was too worried about what people would say to actually say anything of value.
But I often find myself missing that culture of discourse here in Hanoi. As a foreigner, you exist on a funny kind of island—in certain ways you have more contact with locals than in Phnom Penh, but in other ways completely cut-off from the underlying conversation of the place. I spend more time interacting with Hanoians than I did Phnom Penh-ers. Vietnamese dominate the majority of cafes and restaurants I frequent, and make up more than half of my yoga class, including the instructor. But I couldn’t really tell you about anything going on in the country. That snafu with the Chinese over the South China Sea? Pretty hazy. That time Typhoon Haiyan was barreling towards the city? Didn’t find out until it hit. “Don’t ask me, I just live here,” has become my new tagline.
But while it’s easier to know what’s going on in Cambodia, I found it harder to interact with the culture. “Most of your interactions with Cambodians will be transactional,” an expat told me when I moved to Phnom Penh, and it proved to be true. In Hanoi, there’s less division. Northern Vietnam is one of the hardest places in ASEAN for a foreigner to run a business, so aside from a few excellent exceptions, everything done in Hanoi is done by Hanoians. There’s no cute boutique hotel swimming pools, no exciting restaurants, no good ice-cream. The upside is that the best things in town are done by locals. A robust middle-class further dissolves the intensity of the foreigner-local divide. I’ve often heard Brown Café defended with the justification, “But Cambodians go there!” I’ve never heard this kind of statement made about a Hanoi café, because Vietnamese also patronize most of the cafes foreigners patronize. I encounter overall less stratification in Hanoi, both between foreigners and locals, and between different classes of foreigners.
When I first moved to Hanoi, long-term expats kept telling me, “You don’t have to like Hanoi culture, but you have to respect it.” I never heard anyone say a statement like this about Phnom Penh. At times, in fact, it felt the opposite: the culture is so accommodating, Phnom Penh can at feel like White Folks Gone Wild. Hanoi’s aggressiveness serves to keep the expat ego in check and put a damper on the These Poor People syndrome.
Old Hanoians are a salty breed, and they aren’t shy about putting you in your place as a know-nothing foreigner. There’s this look that old Hanoians will give foreigners. On the rare occasions that I do something “right”—haggle successfully or cross a tricky intersection—an old Hanoian will unabashedly eye me up and down. Then they’ll give a curt little nod. It’s not exactly a nod of approval, but more to say, Hmm, okay, you might not be the biggest idiot Westerner I’ve ever seen. I guess you’ll do.
I love this look. It’s not even a look I get very often, but I love that it exists. I love that Hanoians are that proud. The pride can make it frustrating to live here, as can the impenetrability and the lack of wide-aisled, Western-stocked supermarkets, but at the end of the day, I’ll take it.
The top layer of Phnom Penh, the day-in-day-out, is more livable. But underneath that I never found a way to fit. The only safe way I found for myself to exist in Phnom Penh was on an insulated expat island. Maybe that’s because as a foreigner, you know more about what’s going on under the surface of Phnom Penh, can read about it in the newspaper and the online forums, can discuss it with your friends—it’s damn near impossible not to know about all the crazy shit going on, and to not get a little freaked out. In Hanoi, I can spend most of my day doing things the Hanoian way, but I have no clue what’s actually going on.
Or maybe it’s that I just didn’t try hard enough in Phnom Penh. Or I didn’t try the right way, or I couldn’t try the right way. Maybe it’s just that some cities fit and some cities don’t. It’s funny—after two years in Hanoi, I still care more about Phnom Penh. I feel more of a connection to Phnom Penh than Hanoi, but it’s a connection that couldn’t sustain itself. And weirdly, Hanoi sustains.
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