A hotel owner’s life in Hanoi

We had been in this small hotel for a couple of days. I enjoy this area because it’s full of daily life in Hanoi, even if that means it’s also really noisy.

We came downstairs for breakfast and were greeted by the owner as usual, but this time I noticed his eyes appeared bloodshot. His movements lacked their usual energy, and the smile that was almost always on his face was noticeably absent.

As we began eating, I asked if he enjoyed running a hotel. When I was growing up, the person who gave birth to me had managed hotels. Well, she checked people in and ordered things. I did the rest. I have a deep appreciation for how tough it can be.

life in hanoi, hanoi, vietnam

“It’s been good. It runs well.”

I said nothing hoping that he would continue.

“It can be hard,” he admitted.

“Yes, it can be very hard.”

“It’s very hard getting reception staff with the language skills. If they have the language skills, they want to work at the big hotels.”

That made sense to me. I’m sure a hotel charging $100 a night might pay its front desk staff better than a small place charging $15.

They are both from the countryside but moved to the city for school and for better job opportunities.

“Do you live here, or do you have a separate home?” I asked. I’ve seen both he and his wife here during different stretches of the day, and they have an almost 2-year-old child, too.

A weary hand swept over his face. “We live here,” he replied with an added measure of exhaustion.

“So you never really get a break.”

He almost chuckled. “No, there are no breaks. We both do 4 or 5 jobs around here,” his hand sweeping outward indicating the neighborhood. “We work every day, and it’s often 20 hours of work.”

“Twenty hours a day!” I repeated.

He nodded his head, forcing his drooping eyelids open as he continued. “Last night I went to bed at 2, and I was up at 5.”

“Three hours of sleep.”

“There is no break,” he said softly. “There is no holiday. Once, a year ago, I went to visit my father on his land, but that was part of the day. There is no whole day off.”

life in hanoi, hanoi, vietnam

“Do you enjoy living in Hanoi?” I asked.

His smile and distant gaze told me more than his words. “We worry about life here. There is more violence among young people. They watch it on TV, and they want to try it. It’s too easy for them.” He pauses before continuing. “And the food is not good. There are vegetables, and no poison is used, but the people are small. They eat more meat, but they are still small.”

There’s probably enough food, but it isn’t good enough to provide the nutrition they need. As we walk around, I do note the lack of fruits and vegetables that we’ve seen in other Asian areas. A friend explains to me that it is hard to grow food in the north. The main agricultural area is in the south.

life in hanoi, hanoi, vietnam

Our brief conversation remained with me the whole day and into the next. Curious, I researched and discovered that the average monthly income of a person in Vietnam recently “surged” almost 20% to a whopping $150 USD per month. Utilities can easily take a third of that.

A popular relocation website lists the average monthly rental of a 1-bedroom apartment in the city center to be about $50 a month more than what a person usually earns.

As I write this, I glance around our hotel room with its walls that by typical Western standards are in serious need of a paint job. Scuff marks cover much of their surface. The base of the walls show signs of water damage, and mold is visible in the tiny bathroom. Street noises penetrate the ill-fitting windows as we endure a long power outage.

But, I feel as if I’m sitting in the lap of luxury.

In the States, I made more in an 8-hour shift than the average Vietnamese will make in an entire month.

To say I feel humbled would be an understatement. I can’t even feel annoyed at the loss of power, which also means no Internet access, and therefore no work.

Hours later it still isn’t working. This is life in Hanoi.

Travel teaches me a lot of things.

It also makes me incredibly more grateful for my amazing life and the life I can offer my son.

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  1. Why didn’t you empower the hostel owner to break into travel writing/photography? In one hour he could make more than what Vietnamese people make in one month…

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  2. Okay, nnw I want to stay there, when we visit Hanoi in Dec I want to help him and even paint his walls. 🙂 thanks for this Talon.

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    • Such a sweet family. I really enjoyed visiting with him, and it was sure an eye-opening experience.

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  3. Well said, Talon. Travel expands our horizons in so many ways, and not all of them are “awesome” and “amazing”.

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  4. So true. Traveling and seeing different parts of the world and how people REALLY live puts things into perspective and can and should help you appreciate things – even the bad. Driving through a small town in Brazil gave me a new appreciate for roofs. Seemed everyone had a satellite dish and TV but no roof. When I got home – in a rain storm – I was thankful for something I never really gave a second thought to before.

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    • That’s interesting. You’d think a roof would be more highly valued than a satellite dish. I saw something similar in the Philippines. They lived in VERY humble bamboo huts on stilts but had satellite TV. I found that curious. Of course, I guess a bamboo house is much cheaper to maintain, rebuild, and expand, but . . . so fascinating.

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  5. Really humbling. What a meaningful post! Feel sorry for their tough lives but I’m sure it meant a lot to him that you listened. And we are really blessed. Our trivial problems are nothing compared to real tough issues that others face.

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    • I love how travel puts things into perspective. Each place has affected me in some different way. I’ve learned so much, and my interactions with locals are some of the most priceless moments.

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  6. What a great post. As campground managers who live/work onsite it definitely is a 24/7 job. And some days the re are no breaks. We love our life of living/working on the road yet sometimes it would be nice to be able to go home and no one comes a knocking or a calling because xyz – you fill in the blank.

    Like your blog. I look forward to reading it.

    Have a great day!

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    • I helped at a campsite for a weekend once and planned on not doing it again. LOL I think you have it rougher than many hotels.

      Glad you enjoyed it, and hope you enjoy the future posts as well.

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  7. It was once a dream of mine to own a youth hostel, but in Europe. A friend of mine opened a place in Seville, and it’s a round-the-clock job. Being in a developing country has to be a totally different type of job, of worry, of stress, mixed in with not understanding habits or customs of others. Great perspective piece.

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  8. Very interesting to read – thanks for making a typically impersonal experience more personal.

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  9. What a life… What can you say to that?… It sures makes us realize once more how blessed we are…

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  10. Wow. I cannot imagine working in a hotel at all, or really in any of the customer-facing services we use as travellers. Poor guy.

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  11. and you feel so helpless, don’t you (generic you, not you you) – when faced with this? i am, too. thanks for the insight.

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    • Yes. You do feel absolutely powerless. I mean, sure, our being there helped, but it’s such a small dot in an ocean.

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  12. Bless his heart, and the heart of his wife and family. It is incredible that you can share your insight and give us a glimpse of their life there.

    Hugs to him and those who love him.

    And to you and Tigger <3

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    • It was incredibly humbling to hear his story and know there are so many more out there that are similar.

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  13. We should never take anything for granted or complain about the small things when there are people out there slaving away for a few dollars a day. I am so very grateful for the life I am living and when I read posts like this it reenforces just exactly how good I have it. I will never complain again!

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  14. We in the USA take so much for granted. Even here in Cuenca, Ecuador that is a low wage. I shared this post – great as always!

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  15. Really interesting to read, especially since we live/work in our inn. Some interesting comparisons between his life/business and ours. I so appreciate what we have.

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