While Thai Nguyen is a relatively unknown city for most foreigners since it serves mainly as a business meeting hub and university town, living here over the course of 6+ months reveals multiple layers of traditions, personable locals, and an exhaustive list of activities to take part in. The number of expats as of 2012 remains fairly low (in relation to the population of 300,000), with about two-thirds of them involved in education and the other third involved in mining or infrastructural projects outside the city. While you may primarily attribute the city to its famous tea, most of the tea farms and culture lie in the surrounding region, though are always welcoming to visits and tours. At its core, Thai Nguyen is a raw, industrial, and fairly closed-off city. While this results in numerous “inconveniences” for expats, the flipside is that the marginal utility of every additional foreigner is that much greater, allowing you to make incredible (and rewarding) impacts on the youth and development of the city. This F.A.Q. is intended to make your transition to Thai Nguyen as seamless as possible by reducing the learning curve of adjusting to the city.
1. What is the best way to withdraw money?
You will soon notice that cash practically the only method of transactions here, even for large purchases of over 20 million vnd. Checks are non-existent, and credit cards are used primarily for withdrawal from ATMs (which are plentiful). Some ATMs allow you to withdraw more money at a time than others, thus to avoid fees, seek out branches like the popular “Tecombank”, which allows withdrawal of up to 8 million vnd per transaction.
Despite being fairly trustworthy, it is probably unnecessary to open up an account with a local bank unless you plan to cut ties with your home bank.
2. What is the level of English for typical residents?
Unlike Hanoi, Thai Nguyen has practically no tourism sector which negates the need for residents to learn conversational English. Like most developing countries, competency of the language is concentrated in the youth, and approximately one-fifth of all university students know English at a basic conversational level. Keep in mind that more determined (or affluent) students take part in Advanced Programs (AP) in which courses are taught in English or with English materials.
In the rare case that you get stranded in the city, you may seek assistance from official-looking stores such as mobile phone service providers, electronic stores, and banks, which all reserve at least one staff member to handle transactions with foreigners. Of course, it’s never a bad idea to brush up on some simple Vietnamese phrases to create a stronger bond with those that help you.
3. What is the most practical method of transportation?
While motorbikes don’t swarm you in the way they do in Hanoi, they are still the favorite means of transportation in Thai Nguyen. Second in line would be bicycles; it is not uncommon to see even two students sharing a cheap bicycle to get around. Walking is generally an unpleasant experience unless on campus or other enclosed region; the desire to avoid pollution ends up being a large factor controlling transit.
Therefore, motorbike taxis are the most economically efficient way to get around. If in a large group, reliable taxis remain on standby at gates, while buses are mainly reserved for excursions outside the city.
4. Is it practical to invest in a motorbike?
If you feel that your mind is ready to tackle something new, give motorbiking a try for yourself as it will give you the greatest degree of freedom and mobility. If you are staying for 6+ months, it may even be worth it to purchase a reliable Honda or Yamaha; just remember to have a Vietnamese companion guide you in your search. Since you’ll be selling it at nearly the same price, the economic risk is low. Motorbikes rarely break down, and mechanics are lined along every street to provide cheap service.
The best option for the first few weeks of your stay is to rent motorbikes continually to get some practice and a feel for traffic dynamics. Having significant experience in biking is more important than experience in driving a car. The cost to rent is very low at ~15,000 vnd per hour, although they may want you to leave your passport as a deposit (so get an ID as soon as possible).
5. What are the typical prices for basic living necessities?
One of the pros to living in such a “non-tourist friendly” city are the incredibly cheap prices. A filling meal costs just about 20,000 vnd. In markets, this can dip to 10,000, while in classy cafes dishes can be over 40,000. Some specialty restaurants, usually reserved for large group celebrations, can cost 100,000 per person. Fruit is fairly cheap (though seasonal) and vegetables are practically free. Don’t let the concrete jungle atmosphere turn you off - dishes are surprisingly exotic and fresh, since locals aren’t fans of preservatives and the lack of refrigeration necessitates a steady flow of groceries.
Housing prices are largely dependent on the living conditions. Some students get housing for less than 500,000 vnd per month. But a room with conveniences sufficient for an expat would cost at least 2 million per month, as air-conditioning, hot water, and general cleanliness are necessities for expats. If you can find a group, multi-level homes can be available for 5 million per month. If you require short-term stay, there are hundreds of hotels and motels (“Nha Nghis”) in the city. A hotel would be at least 300,000 vnd per night per person, while Nha Nghi’s are typically 150,000. Keep in mind that some low-key motels will reject foreigners for legal reasons.
Other services such as mechanics, electronic repairs, household items are a mixed bag. It depends on demand and availability; i.e. if many locals really need some things (sandals, mechanics) they will be cheap. Other household items such as thick blankets and heaters will be nearly western prices since locals are conservative with their spending and typically won’t buy anything they don’t need. In terms of availability, if there’s a section of the road selling similar goods, you’ll be getting fair prices.
6. What is the best way to meet locals?
Thai Nguyen is a “word-of-mouth” city, and when you’re a foreigner that can mean great things for establishing connections. In most cases it’s too easy to make friends; after a couple weeks you may find yourself overwhelmed with offers to go out and make friendships, though it’s a good idea to accept most of them as you never know when you’ll need help with something. Your initial group will be university-related staff and students, who will arbitrarily invite you to go out to planned events (weddings, karaoke, home visits) while they bring as many friends as possible to show you off. This is the point where you would selectively choose which friends and connections to keep; some locals are more “in-tune” with the foreigner lifestyle than others (for example, those who have worked or studied abroad). Through these chains, it’s possible to make friends with people completely unaffiliated with the university.
One of the greatest things about Vietnamese culture is their formal concept of “invitation.” Don’t be embarrassed when they offer to pay for all expenses when going out despite obvious financial differences. Make sure to repay the favor by giving them the attention they deserve, and at the same time be prepared to foot the entire bill when formally inviting others out.
7. What are the main safety concerns in Thai Nguyen?
The main danger factor that locals will be sure to hammer into your head revolves around motorbiking and traffic. While this is a cause for concern, it is still fairly rare to see accidents, especially fatal ones. Small mistakes are still bound to happen, which will re-prioritize health over speed and thrills.
Thai Nguyen is otherwise an extremely safe city, attributed mainly to the conservative nature of locals’ personalities and the shutting down of facilities before 11pm. Keep in mind that many residential gates close early as well for the protection of students and material goods. After this unwritten curfew, there may be an air of uncomfort, but unlike Hanoi, reports of muggings and thievery are practically nonexistent. While the city has a reputation for its drug scene, its prevalence has decreased significantly in recent years and should not affect foreigners. Another issue that should not be of concern to foreigners is the presence of gangs - although all locals are aware of them, they stay out of foreigners’ business, and gang-related events are amusing at most.
8. How concerned should I be about the police or other legal issues?
Many locals will be unnecessarily paranoid about police issues, but for the most part the existence of a police force is primarily a façade. Even for vehicle-related incidents, confrontations are rare and every situation has a gray area that you can escape from if you are adamant enough. Security guards exist mainly for the protection of vehicles, residential areas, and high-end institutions throughout the night. However, they have no real authority to fine or detain you, and generally neither group speaks English.
It is best to carry an identification card with you at all times, preferably one that affiliates you with the university or other institution that is sponsoring your stay in Vietnam.
9. What leisure activities are available in Thai Nguyen?
Despite the initial monotony, after a few weeks it becomes clear that Thai Nguyen has just as many community activities available as the typical Western city. Everything from gyms, 3D cinemas, swimming pools, beer gardens, yoga centers, parks, and guitar cafes can satisfy in the evenings or weekends. Obviously, don’t expect the style to be on-par with Western cities as it is all build from the ground-up by locals (rather than foreigners infiltrating the scene and setting up businesses). Again, locating these activities is the most difficult part, where reliance on locals will get you farthest, though sometimes even students’ knowledge of these facilities is limited. Above all else, however, cafes are the pride of this city: possibly hundreds of cafes are scattered throughout Thai Nguyen, each with completely unique architecture and atmosphere. Due to the fame of Vietnamese coffee, it’s only fitting that cafes play such a large role here, and additions such as wifi, air conditioning and food vary depending on location.
In addition, the city hosts a number of performances and festivals at various times throughout the year, although advertising for them is spotty and again foreigners must rely on word of mouth for awareness. When you do attend such events, you can expect to receive VIP attention and possibly a backstage experience.
10. What regional attractions exist outside of the city?
For weekend excursions, there are a number of ways to escape to an area with some open space. Nu Coc Lake, 20 km beyond the tea plantations, is an extensive (though domestic) tourist attraction with many divisions including a theme park, swimming pool, zoo, and stages for events. The Phoenix Cave is one hour northeast of the city and is a refreshing day-long excursion with streams of water flowing throughout the two-story cave. Tam Dao is a satisfactory alternative to Sapa, where a 2-3 hr drive takes domestic tourists to a modern and rapidly developing haven along a mountain valley, filled with unique plants and animals. Finally, Ba Be Lake, a solid weekend excursion 160 km north of the city, is a beautiful, open, and relaxing cruise along rivers and lakes that take you to a waterfall and a quite admirable cave. Its base, a humble town of less than 500 residents, attracts more foreign tourists than the aforementioned sights while still retaining a quiet atmosphere.
We hope you enjoy your stay in Thai Nguyen!