It has been a little while since I last interviewed anyone for my “Where Is…?” guest interview series, so I am thrilled to be able to get this show back on the road with Sarah – the creative voice behind the travel blog, Sunkissed Suitcase.
Having returned from Vietnam in August, Sarah is currently settling into her new home in Atlanta, Georgia. When she isn’t curating Sunkissed Suitcase, you can find Sarah trying a new restaurant, exploring different neighbourhoods and meeting new friends in Atlanta, of course all with her camera in hand! Sarah is an amateur photographer, lover of travel coffee table books, strong Vietnamese coffee and an avid foodie.
Today she will be sharing with us her experience about life as an expat in Hanoi, Vietnam – a place which brings back many fond memories for me!
Hi Sarah! Moving to Hanoi must have been quite the adventure! What was it like?
I spent a year teaching English in Hanoi, Vietnam! I arrived at the beginning of September 2015 and returned this past August. Although my home base was in Hanoi, I took any chance I could get to travel throughout Vietnam and Southeast Asia.
I arrived in Hanoi alone. I didn’t know a single soul in the city but thankfully I’d been to Vietnam about a year before on a graduation trip after college so that made it a little less intimidating knowing what I was getting into. And Vietnam can definitely be an intimidating place at first. Hanoi is a very bustling city with motorbikes everywhere and street food stalls cramping the sidewalks. Just walking down the street can be an adventure.
What was the weather like in Hanoi?
Whoever is perpetuating the lie that Vietnam is always hot needs to be stopped! Northern Vietnam can be very cold. I was not expecting any sort of winter so when everyday was around 40°F, cold, grey and rainy, it was a big shock.
I know 40°F isn’t super cold but Vietnam’s infrastructure isn’t built for cold. Buildings have little to no insulation and there’s no central heating. After driving my motorbike to work or to see friends, it would have been nice to warm up inside but it took a while to heat my apartment. It made Hanoi’s winter seem colder than it actually was.
I was also shocked by this when I visited in January! Where was home during your stay?
The first three weeks living in Hanoi, I stayed in a budget hotel near St. Joseph’s Cathedral. It’s just outside Hanoi’s busy Old Quarter so I was close to everything but not in the tourist centre.
I then moved into a three-bedroom apartment with a British and a French girl. We lived together the rest of my time in Hanoi. Our apartment was in the Ba Dinh district, which is a popular expat area but also has many locals living throughout. Our apartment was on the 8th floor of a tall apartment building so we had really great views of the city.
What were you favourite activities to get up to?
While I was in Hanoi, I loved to scout out coffee shops. Vietnamese coffee became an addiction for me from day one. It’s strong and is sweetened with sweetened condensed milk. My favourite coffee shop was Gardenista, which was about five minute walk from my apartment.
I also loved exploring Hanoi’s street food scene. Vietnam is famous for it’s street food. Each city or region has a dish that it is famous for. Hanoi is famous for bún chả, a noodle soup with grilled pork paddies and greens. It seems simple but the broth is so flavorful.
It was difficult navigating street food at first because there is a large lack of English in Northern Vietnam, plus there are rarely menus at street food stalls. Instead, each stall usually specialises in one or two dishes. One of my favourite dishes is bún bò nam bô. Go to 67 Hàng Điếu to find it. It’s a dry noodle dish with lettuce, peanuts, and peanut/fish sauce.
If you want to learn about Vietnam’s history, spend an hour or two at the Hoa Lo Prison and the Women’s Museum. The Temple of Literature is a gorgeous space and is Vietnam’s oldest university. If you’re up for a late night, or an early morning, go to the flower market. It’s a wholesale market that runs from about midnight to 6am and is teaming with gorgeous and cheap flowers!
I agree that Vietnamese food is delicious! Can you recommend any other fun activities for travellers visiting the city for the first time?
Hanoi is a city that can be hard to get to know. As I said previously, it can be overwhelming at first. I had friends and family visit for a few days at a time. They left liking Hanoi but had a hard time understanding how I could live in such a hectic city. But that’s what I loved about Hanoi. Almost everyone that lives there would say it’s a really easygoing city. It just takes time to see that.
Be sure to spend a few days in Hanoi past just seeing the sites. Sit on the sidewalk at a coffee shop for a few hours. You’ll notice that the same group of local friends that sat down when you did, will most likely still be there hours later. Hanoi is a super slow paced and social city. There are so many quiet nooks and crannies just waiting to be found.
I’d also suggest renting a motorbike, only if you are comfortable! I can’t stress that enough. From the outside, driving in Hanoi looks like a death trap. But once you’re in it, you realise it’s a lot more manageable than it seems. Plus, you get to experience the city like a local.
Lastly, Hanoians love to be outdoors when the weather allows it, which means before the sun comes up and after it sets. Locals are outside during the coolest hours of the day working out. Running, badminton, zumba class, you name it! The city is alive and there is fantastic people watching!
Hanoi is also a really great jumping off point to explore the rest of northern Vietnam. Go hiking through the rice terraces in Sapa. Stay on a junk boat in Halong Bay. Ride bicycles through small villages in Mai Chau. It’s all within a few hours of Hanoi and each is amazing.
Where in the world are you now?
I just moved to Atlanta, Georgia at the beginning of November! My dad is originally from Atlanta. I still have family in Atlanta, which was a huge draw to moving here. Additionally, before I lived in Vietnam, I attended the College of Charleston in South Carolina and spent one more year there after graduating.
I absolutely adore Charleston but it began to feel small to me. I wanted something similar to Charleston but on a larger scale: southern charm, great shopping and restaurants, history, outdoor activities, music, etc. So I chose Atlanta!
What three items do you always travel with and why?
I recently upgraded my camera. I now shoot with a Canon 6D. I almost always have it with me, even if I’m just running errands. You never know where you’re going to find inspiration! I also always have Burts Bees chapstick and I’ve recently started carrying an external phone charger.
And finally, what has been your favourite destination so far?
I obviously adore Vietnam. I loved my time there and wouldn’t change it for the world. However, my two favourite destinations are Charleston and Barcelona! Charleston for all the reasons I named above and Barcelona because I studied abroad there in the spring of 2013.
It felt like home from day one. I loved the different neighbourhoods, acquired an addiction to patatas bravas, easy access to the beach, unique Gaudi architecture and the vibe of the city. It just always felt magical to me. I haven’t been back since my semester abroad but it’s always on the back of my mind.
If you’re a travel blogger and would like to take part in this guest interview series, feel free to send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org