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This Is Hanoi In The Eyes Of The Philippines’ Ambassador To Vietnam And The Filipino Expats

“Be careful. Drivers here don’t follow traffic rules.”

It’s sound advice from the Philippines’ Ambassador to Vietnam Noel Servigon, as we cross a busy street and dodge motorbikes in the capital city of Hanoi.

“So walang deal?” he asks me as we walk into Nhà Hàng Ngon, a traditional Vietnamese restaurant a few blocks from the Philippine Embassy in the bustling Hoàn Ki?m downtown district.

 

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“Trump said he walked away 'cause Kim asked for too much,” I tell him. I’m in town covering the second US-North Korea summit with President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un. While the talks themselves failed to yield any denuclearization deal and Trump ended the summit earlier than expected, I scored a diplomatic win with a visit to the Philippine embassy, a healthy Vietnamese meal with the Filipino ambassador, and quality time with Filipino expats in the city.

Servigon wanted to take me to Bun Cha Huong Lien, the famous hole-in-the-wall where Anthony Bourdain took President Barack Obama for bun cha, a Hanoi street-food specialty of charcoal-grilled pork soaked in sweet and slightly fishy broth, served with rice vermicelli noodles and an assortment of herbs like mint, coriander, and Thai basil. But it’s only open for lunch and it’s already 4 p.m. “I actually like the bun cha at this place better,” he tells me.

Vietnamese food is known for its use of fresh ingredients and fish sauce. Pho (beef noodle soup) is the most visible dish internationally, but the cuisine offers so much more with some assembly required. For bun cha, Servigon explains how to add herbs to the broth and soak the noodles for each bite. Next, we dig into cuon thap cam, a sampler of fresh spring rolls packed with shrimp, meat, vermicelli, and veggies. Finally, he shows me how to eat banh xeo, a crispy rice flour and turmeric pancake stuffed with shrimp, pork, mushroom, and bean sprouts. You take rice paper, top it with a piece of the pancake, cover it with greens, roll it up tightly, and dip in peanut sauce or chili fish sauce. The result is a delicious burst of various textures and tastes: crispy, salty, chewy, spicy, sweet. Each dish costs less than $3 but doesn’t scrimp on flavor.

 

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Originally from Iloilo City, the career diplomat has served for three decades under different administrations, representing the interests of Filipinos across the world, including Austria, Turkey, Netherlands, United Arab Emirates, Manado in Indonesia, and Hong Kong. Servigon was appointed in March 2016 to Vietnam, where nearly 20,000 Filipinos live and work, mostly in Ho Chi Minh City. Only a few hundred live in Hanoi, Servigon says, of less than 1,000 Filipinos in north Vietnam (a third of the number of journalists covering the Trump-Kim summit alone!), working as teachers, technical engineers and textile workers.

 

More fun in Vietnam?

“The Vietnamese government is aggressively opening up its economy,” says Servigon, who witnessed the growth of a more business-friendly environment in Hanoi over the past few years. Vietnam’s market reform model has drawn attention from global analysts and investors, who say it is surpassing the Philippines in terms of economic opportunities. One advantage, Servigon notes, is that western investors who were already working in southern cities like Ho Chi Minh City simply moved north to expand their businesses.

 

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One major disadvantage the Philippines has compared to its ASEAN neighbor is its susceptibility to natural disasters, adds Servigon. A common jest among the locals, he says, is that the Philippines’ biggest export to Vietnam is typhoons: after they hit the Philippines, they head to Vietnam.

And while the Philippines still has the edge in English language proficiency, he says the Vietnamese government is investing heavily on building language schools and attracting English speakers to teach its citizenry. The demand for teachers has meant more opportunities for Filipinos, who can earn at least $1,500 a month on average and between $3,000-$5,000 for part-time work.

Servigon connects me to Alvir Antoine, a Filipino expat who moved to Hanoi four years ago to teach English and has since launched a successful part-time singing career. He is an officer of PSH, Pinoy sa Hanoi, a group formed to bring Hanoi’s Filipino community together. They regularly meet at Mikey’s Restobar, a new Filipino restaurant, the first in Hanoi–which is where Antoine takes me for dinner with fellow Filipino expat and English teacher Steph Mariano.

 

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Mikey’s owner Catherina Nacario tells me starting the business was challenging, from finding a Vietnamese partner to dealing with local law enforcement, but it was something she and her husband wanted to do—give homesick Filipinos a social place to enjoy traditional Filipino food and karaoke, of course. We dig into pork BBQ, sisig, pancit, and lumpia, and it feels like we’re in any watering hole in the Philippines. The expats share stories of adjusting to the country, from dating to trying to communicate with people who don’t speak English to handling discrimination. All say they love living in Hanoi and have no plans of leaving.

And one can see why. Along with higher salaries, the cost of living is low and the pace is easy, making life here manageable.

 

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Worth a visit

As Ambassador Servigon wraps up his term in Vietnam, he says he’s grateful for the opportunity to help strengthen the long-standing friendship between the two countries. During his term, President Rodrigo Duterte visited twice: in September 2016 on an official state visit and in November 2017 during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. During my visit, Servigon was preparing for bilateral meetings in Manila, including the PH-VN Joint Commission on Bilateral Cooperation involving the Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Pham Binh Minh. In a few months, Servigon will move to Jakarta to be the Philippine Ambassador and Permanent Representative to ASEAN.

His advice for visiting Hanoi? Eat a lot of local food, explore the charming Old Quarter, walk around the picturesque Hoan Kiem Lake and admire the architecture of the city’s pagodas and historical buildings, such as the French colonial Opera House, Imperial Citadel of Thang Long (a UNESCO World Heritage site), Temple of Literature, and mausoleum of Communist-era leader Ho Chi Minh. Or take a break from the city and visit the natural wonders of another UNESCO site Ha Long Bay and Ninh Binh.

 

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While Ho Chi Minh City is better known among international travelers as more modern due to its western influences, Hanoi offers more authenticity and the character of old Vietnam. You can experience it in its culinary heritage, from street food to coffee culture. Servigon recommends visiting a restaurant called Nha Hang Cha Ca Thang Long, 2D Duong Thanh in Hoàn Ki?m, for a Hanoi specialty called cha ca—boneless mudfish wrapped in banana leaves, grilled and served with peanuts, rice noodles, herbs, and shrimp paste or fish sauce.  

Meantime, on my last day in Hanoi, Filipino expats Alvir and Steph take me to Coco Café next to Ngoc Khanh Lake to experience Vietnam’s national pastime. Coffee drinking here is not about trying to stay awake to do work, but to laze away at an outdoor café. You’ll find people at all hours sitting in low stools at coffee shops talking, people watching and drinking coffee concoctions like coffee whisked with egg yolk and condensed milk.

 

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We order coconut coffee: black coffee poured over frozen coconut milk. It’s so delicious I finish it fast. Next we sip on traditional drip filtered Vietnamese coffee called caphe den and talk about the Philippines and how life for them would be different there, that they would be making a fraction of what they make now, sitting in traffic and working long hours. They’re happy in Hanoi, they say, and they wouldn’t have it any other way. We drink to that.

 

 

 

Photos courtesy of Annalisa Burgos