Expat Life in Hanoi and Phnom Penh: Comparisons and Contrasts

Lauren Quinn

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.

Lauren Quinn

Lauren can also be found on twitter

20 thoughts on “Expat Life in Hanoi and Phnom Penh: Comparisons and Contrasts

  1. Son Of Moses Reply

    Not much to learn or gain from this article, author sounds really inexperienced with travels to other countries. Disappointing really because her last article was good, this one was a total snooze-fest and poorly written.

    • Marco Reply

      I totally disagree with you. Thanks for this awsome, though a little unpolished article Lauren! Keep up the good work and don’t listen to the malicious people who can’t even write more than a stupid sentence criticizing you. I find this article much more interesting then the usual insignificant articles that appear here. Finally an article that reflects some intelligence and interest me. Hope to see more articles like this and not the idiocy from people like Gavinmac.

    • Thomas Nutterfield Reply

      Not really, they can actually be very welcoming and nice, but they aren’t simply going to welcome you just for being a foreigner. Assuming there’s no language barrier, they can actually engage you in a decent and interesting conversation about many different types of topics.

      It seems that the Vietnamese are more “mature” for lack of a better word than the Khmers. The Khmers like joking around, horseplay and having fun, and don’t necessarily talk about serious topics all that much, whereas the Vietnamese are more practical and matter of fact. The cultural differences are quite significant – the Vietnamese culture is heavily influenced by China and Confucianism, whereas the Khmer culture is Theravada Buddhist and Indian influenced.

      The Vietnamese, especially those from the north are said to be “harsher” and less friendly than their southern counterparts. I think what it comes down to is that on an everyday level, the Vietnamese people (especially northerners) don’t care about strangers but if you get to know them they will help you out a lot. The Khmers seem to be more civil, there’s little horn honking (and if anyone does engage in excessive horn honking Khmers start to stare and become offended), they can form lines better etc. but the Vietnamese you are friends with are much more likely to be able to help you if you’re in trouble or just in general. Khmers will try but you have to push them. While I haven’t lived in Cambodia (though I visit regularly and have come over 20 times) I feel that Cambodia can be a lonely place if you need help and it doesn’t matter if you’re requesting help from local Cambodians or expat foreigners (exceptions exist of course). In Vietnam, friends and acquaintances are eager to help if you need it.

  2. Marco Reply

    You raise a couple interesting points. To me it seems that Vietnam is not as open to foreigners as Cambodia, and that’s why you feel that you’re not understanding what’s going on. Also information in Vietnam is much more supressed than Cambodia. I think Vietnamese tend to have strong feelings about foreigners, especially Americans due to their history. They’ll let you live in your little bubble, but they probably don’t want to let you into their world. Cambodians on the other hand don’t have strong feelings about foreigners. I find that Cambodians and Thai will let you into their world, but it’s so different than ours, that only a few white people can do it and “go native” or even just have real Cambodian friends. The other point you raised is that you got freaked out by Cambodia. That’s unfortunate, but it’s a given that you have to deal with tough issues when you decide to live in a country like this. Some people can deal with it, other people apparently get oppressed by it. Lastly, I’m wondering how long you’ll be able to stand the conditions that you describe, such as the smog, traffic and humidity. They sound terrible. I’m sure I could not live there because of those things.

    • Thomas Nutterfield Reply

      I disagree. I find that in Vietnam it’s easier to make local friends (even if it takes a bit of time) than in Cambodia and Vietnamese these days, especially the younger generation harbors absolutely no resentment towards the Americans.

      Cambodians are a nice, but weird bunch. I don’t really know what it takes to become friends with them because either they are too shy or you as the foreigner doesn’t know how to break down the barriers. Perhaps it’s also a lifestyle thing though. As the author correctly states, in Phnom Penh one can go to places like Sorya, to say the Swiss bar or even Freebird (one of my perennial favorites) and rarely see Khmers (except the occasional well to do family) inside, it’s mostly an expat and tourist crowd. Foreigners will thus be uncomfortable with the easy going, simplistic eating noodles on the streets hanging out with family lifestyle of the Khmers. In Hanoi (and HCMC), the population is more entrepreneurial, is much larger, more educated and has been exposed to western ways for much longer, hence there are more opportunities for them to start businesses, frequent western-style businesses such as cafes etc. than in Cambodia. Therefore I find talking to Vietnamese there’s less of a social or cultural barrier than in Cambodia (and they like doing the same things as us westerners). If I’m speaking to a Cambodian, most of the time they will have no idea what I’m talking about or what I’m doing (I’m a manufacturing engineer BTW) but most Vietnamese will. In fact, I find it quite easy to hold a conversation with them because either they, their clients or their friends will also be engineers and may even be able to help my business. Of course this should not be surprising given Vietnam’s rapidly ascending economy and given that Cambodia has very little manufacturing to speak of, but my point is that irrespective of the topic, the Vietnamese are much more well versed in the ways of the world than the Khmers. You might say that the Vietnamese have less access to information but I disagree. Vietnam is not China, so most western websites are accessible, including Youtube, although Facebook is periodically banned. Khmers, even if they have access to nearly all websites, books, articles etc. are not known to be avid readers – young Khmers like social media, but they don’t like reading. The Viets however are…they love reading and gaining knowledge.

  3. Josh Reply

    What I take away from this is a.) both cities are very different. [Well, duh!] b.) Lauren never had a strong enough reason to be in PP and other things managed fill that void in a negative way.
    c.) Hanoi doesn’t sound like a place I’d want to move to due to the climate & health issues (went there 15 years ago and loved it).

    All of SE Asia is quite tough for a single woman though. A cliche that’s just true at the end of the day.

  4. Tiggerdog Reply

    I just spent 8 months traveling the world. My two favourite places were Phnom Penh and Hanoi. I found them both very similar compared to other places I visited. They both had just the right level of self respecting cool, down and dirtiness and I loved the confidence I gained from spending time in both these place. Neither was overly sleazy like some of Thailand or overly structured like Laos which felt like life can sometimes feel in the west. I really enjoyed reading about their differences to in the article which brought back a few memories but can see why a person might move from one to the other and not settle in any of the neighbouring areas. They’re both fascinating places that can spellbind a person to think really hard about what’s happening both on and under the surface whereas other places in South East Asia tended to reveal themselves a bit more easily. Just my two pennies worth!

    • Thomas Nutterfield Reply

      Thailand overall is not sleazy. In fact, the Sorya area of PP is just as sleazy as any of the bar areas of Thailand. But both can easily be avoided if you step outside of those tourist/sex ghettos.

      In Phnom Penh though, it’s difficult to justify going anywhere far away from the city center because there’s nothing there. The malls (AEON mall, Sorya mall), restaurants, cafes, cinemas are all more or less in the central core, about the furthest away I’ve seen any cinemas or malls or anything was on Kamphuchea Krom blvd, but even that’s only 3-4km away. In the outer suburbs it’s all shantytowns, dusty streets and not a lick of western conveniences. Phnom Penh is also far dirtier and more chaotic than Vientiane, and even the infrastructure is poorer. Vientiane has a 20km dual carriageway all the way from the Thai border into town, and another impressive 20-25km road with 6 lanes (although in practice the outermost lanes aren’t useable) connecting route 13N and route 13S, thus bypassing the city. Phnom Penh has nothing like that, the main road out of the city heading towards the Vietnamese border is a mess of potholes and either dust or mud depending on the season. The road out of Phnom Penh towards Sihanoukville is better, but still not great…it can’t cope with the volume of traffic it experiences.

      I find Vientiane an easier place to get around and I would prefer living there compared to PP. The people are friendlier and not as “rough” though I might be a bit biased here because I can speak Lao and the Lao don’t speak English or other foreign languages (apart from Thai, which is very similar to Lao already) nearly as well as the Khmers. It seems you can easily live in PP without knowing any Khmer, but it’s more difficult to do that in Vientiane. I also find myself going to roadside restaurants in Vientiane or Laos in general, well away from the tourist/expat places and can find decent and clean food, but I wouldn’t dare do the same in Phnom Penh. Anyway, I don’t know what you mean by “structured lifestyle” in Laos. I disagree. Although the government doesn’t like prostitution and allowing foreign men to take home unmarried local women, apart from that it’s a pretty easy going place and there are large communities of Vietnamese and Chinese (apart from the westerners) that have carved certain neighborhoods into various cities almost like immigrant communities have done in the west. You don’t see that much in other parts of Asia except in Chinatowns or multicultural Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia.

      But sure, overall I like Phnom Penh and I also like Hanoi and HCMC. They all have their uniqueness but as a place to live and embrace the locals as well as foreigners, it seems that it’s easier to make western and local friends in Vietnam than in Cambodia. The westerners/other expats in Cambodia seem to have more free time than their Vietnamese based counterparts though – and are also more likely to be freelancing, English teachers, NGOs or running a restaurant or something like that, whereas in Vietnam they could be an employee of a multinational or something.

  5. rico Reply

    You will never ‘fit in’ or be ‘accepted’ anywhere in the worls except ‘home’.
    …but as a deluded liberal, you will keep trying…

  6. Benda Reply

    Recently moved to Hanoi as well…couldnt agree more….miss the Penh
    Know it will change with time…but PP will always have me.

  7. Thomas Nutterfield Reply

    Good article. I agree that in Phnom Penh it’s easier just to exist in an “expat bubble”. As I have pointed out in the replies I’ve made to other posters, I think that’s because in Vietnam, the locals are more likely to have the resources to do what you’re doing, eating what you like eating and doing the same things you like doing. For Khmers, mall culture, eating out at restaurants, going to bars etc. is all fairly new and may be out of their financial reach. In spite of their fairly good English, it’s difficult to get to know Khmers in PP like is the case in Vietnam where more of a language barrier exists. The Vietnamese like entertaining, going out to a coffee shop to have a chat, or to a restaurant for bonding at the end of the working day. I don’t know what the Khmers do…apart from families going out to try something new like pizza at the pizza company, but I just don’t see groups of friends heading out to eat at a western bar or somewhere like that. Nor do I see western managers/employees head out with 4-5 local friends. There’s definitely more of a structured expat/local division in Phnom Penh than in Vietnam. Expats in Vietnam are often quite busy and may need to travel a lot, tend to their businesses etc. so generally get together at pre-arranged times and places for social events such as networking nights held by Chambers of Commerce rather than getting together every other night at the local bar. Plenty of well-to-do local Vietnamese also attend these events. Cambodia is much more disorganized and after making some inquiries I couldn’t find any similar events going on in Cambodia, though they may exist.

  8. Fred Azbell Reply

    Kind of a depressing story. I’m moving to Thailand in May 2015. I had considered Cambodia because of the ease of getting a visa and staying long term. I was talked out of that notion by a horde of Thai expats whom I trust for good reasons. All of them have been to Cambodia and Vietnam and most other countries in Southeast Asia and all seem to think I would be better off in Thailand. Vietnam really seemed like a good option until I read your account.

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