Arriving in Vietnam in the mid-1990s, Hanoi-based expat Marilyn Drinkwater has seen the changes to this country first hand.


When did you arrive in Vietnam? What brought you here?


I arrived in Saigon in December 1994. While living in Japan, many of the businessmen I was teaching were travelling to Vietnam for investment and development. They would return from their trips with stories, photos and an infectious enthusiasm for Vietnam and people they had just visited. I was curious to discover this country which had been closed off to the world for so many years, and when the opportunity to work as a tour leader presented itself, I jumped at the chance.


What have you been doing with your time while you’ve been living in Vietnam?


That is a long list — I like to keep busy. My first 10 years or so I worked in travel, starting as a tour leader and later moving into destination management. I have been on the opening or makeover team of several hotels in Sapa, Phan Thiet, Cai Be, Hoi An and Hanoi, opened and managed restaurants, conducted staff training sessions, coordinated events, looked after businesses while friends went on holidays.


I was there at the set-up of KOTO and have worked with several organisations local and foreign, aiding people who are marginalised, disadvantaged or affected after natural disasters.


How would you describe the Hanoi you encountered when you first arrived?


Humble, gentle, shy and believe it or not, quiet!


How has it changed since then? What positive changes have you seen? What about the negative changes?


Hanoi has electricity 24 hours per day — it used to be two hours only (but hotels did have generators). Roads were populated with bicycles, cyclos, Honda cubs or Dreams and the odd car. Now the roads are filled with motorbikes, taxis, BMWs, Mercedes and Land Cruisers. Shops have windows and doors and there are many more restaurants. The positive changes are that ordinary people have more wealth and time and places in the capital to enjoy it. On the negative side, people are pulling down the beautiful colonial architecture instead of preserving it, plus forbidding street stalls from operating on sidewalks and in alleys. These vendors were the scent and soul of Hanoi.


What about the people you meet in the capital? Are they different to how they were in the past?


A few years back the capital was enlarged and became three times the land area as well as increasing the population — this changed the spirit of both Hanoi and Hanoians. It is a bigger city now with all the trappings of big cities.


How different is the expat scene now to how it was when you first arrived?


There were very few expats in 1994 and most were either diplomats, working in the development field or UNIS teachers with a smattering of entrepreneurs. Many people lived in the international compound in Kim Ma. There were two bars — Apocalypse Now and the White Bar — where you could catch up, have a game of pool and find out what was going on in Hanoi.


Nowadays there are expats from all walks of life, some with expat careers, but most seeking the expat experience and the chance to get to know Hanoi, even if it is only for three months. It is easier to live here now — there is more information available through the internet and magazines like the Word.


What are your hopes for the future of the city?


I hope that Hanoi remembers and preserves its rich architectural heritage and landscape as it strives to develop into a modern city. Uncle Ho said “To reap a return in 10 years, plant trees. To reap a return in 100, cultivate the people.”


If there was one memory that you could take away of your time here, what would it be?


Cyclo rides around Hoan Kiem Lake when the flame trees are flowering and the evening is balmy, and all the generations of Hanoians are there to enjoy the spectacle.


If you could turn back the clock, would you change the time you’ve spent in Hanoi? Why or why not?


I don’t think I’d change anything. It is the rhythm of life — everything is the same but also different — including me.

Photo by Julie Vola

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