Depending on where you’re coming from, relocating to Vanuatu may be a pleasure or a shock.
For our family of four, moving from Tonga, there were lots of lovely surprises in moving to Vanuatu. And few unpleasant ones, primarily to do with costs. This account is my very fresh perspective after just one week. Yours may of course differ. Hopefully this will help you ‘keep it all in perspective’. And I’d love to hear your experience too, feel welcome to comment below.
People – in the vast majority locals are very welcoming of newcomers. Learning Bislama and French will definitely help you assimilate, however English is widely spoken on the main islands. Alliance Francaise, below Central Au Bon Marche, offers group and private lessons in Bislama and French.
Money – when figures are often in the thousands and millions, it helps to imagine a decimal point for rough currency conversion. ATM machines are dotted along the main street of Port Vila, however do occasionally run out of money, especially on public holidays and weekends. Some restaurants and stores accept AUD and USD. Bank accounts in Vatu (VUV) and main foreign currencies can be set up at Westpac, ANZ, National Bank and BRED.
Transport – Buses, marked with a B on the number plate, are 150 Vatu for trips within town, and 300 Vatu for further afield. Just flag one down, state your destination, and they’ll either let you board and take you there, possibly via other locations, or wave you away. Taxis are more expensive and less frequent. If you are heading to an appointment or flight, allow time for non-arrival or ask someone for a reliable contact. Car rental is relatively expensive but readily available, via Avis, Budget, Europcar and World Car Rental. Be aware roads can be very pot-holed, busy with buses, and driving is on the right side of the road, which some new arrivals find very intimidating. My husband and I found it relatively easy to adjust, however I did enjoy having an automatic for the first seven days – not having to change gears being one less thing to think about when finding my way around. There are a handful of vehicle yards for car purchase including Asco Motors, Thrifty Auto Centre and Carpenter Motors. For reliability and clearance we had to spend 2.1 million Vatu for a 2011 Hyundai Tuscon, twice as much as we’ve spent previously on a second-hand car. Third-party and comprehensive car is in line with policy costs in Australia, available via AON, QBE and Dominion Insurance.
Clothing – Vanuatu is hot and humid November to April, and cool to warm May to October. We arrived in mid-July to day time temperatures of mid-20s and overnight temperatures of 18-22C – this is apparently very warm for this time of year, perfect temps! While there is acceptance of bare shoulders and legs, Ni-Vanuatu generally wear loose clothing that covers shoulders and to below the knee. Coming from more conservative Tonga, I feel quite comfortable wearing strappy dresses in Vanuatu, and allowing our girls to wear shorts. However, wearing light clothing over arms and legs helps reduce mosquito bites, as dengue and malaria are a risk.
Schools – there are three main primary school choices in Port Vila – Port Vila International School (PVIS), Central School and Ecole Francaise, the later being in French. All were very full when we arrived, despite having been on the waiting list with PVIS for some months. Thankfully PVIS were able to accept us, and our girls are happily settling into day two of PVIS, with adjustment to their correct grade level as space becomes available. Distance education is also very popular, particularly for high school. There is also a newer school, Pikinini Playtime, currently offering the first four years of formal schooling. Childcare is available, as are live-in nannies (very popular).
Housing – at time of writing there are many houses for sale, but very few for rent. Cyclone Pam in March 2015 damaged many properties, making some unliveable and repair efforts continue. There are four main real estate agencies in Port Vila – First National, LJ Hooker, Island Property and Caillard & Kaddour. We chose to rent a holiday house for the first three weeks so we could see rental properties for ourselves before committing, and would recommend that approach. Villages are scattered across the south of Efate, and road conditions make ‘distance’ almost irrelevant. Rental properties are usually 6 or 12 month terms, however may be shorter or longer. Be prepared for an initial cost of one month rent, plus one month bond, plus stamp duty. You may also be connecting utilities such as power, water, gas and Internet in your name. When considering a property, take into account climate, access, security, level of furnishings required (range from non- to part- to fully-furnished), size, cyclone shutters and extra expenses (garden and pool maintenance, Internet installation, gas bottle purchase).
Security – being so new to the country I’m not able to advise. My instinct after asking locals and long-timers suggests petty theft is relatively common, as it is in most countries around the world. Personal safety seems less of an issue during daylight hours, but as always, use common sense in isolated areas and after dark. Smaller islands may follow traditional customs of retribution when offence is made.
Eating out – lots of great options, from takeaway to cafes to fine-dining. And of particular delight for me, some even offer gluten-free! I’ve not yet found a cafe that offers dairy-free coffee, but will prepare a more detailed post about eating out with dietary restrictions once I know more. To begin your culinary excursions, try Au Peche Mignon for French pastries, Stone Grill for great steaks and Waterfront Bar & Grill for a lovely breeze.
Eating in – there are four Au Bon Marche supermarkets in Port Vila, the one at Nambatu being very well-stocked. Coming from Tonga it was a delight to be able to shop for everything I needed for the week in one spot. Local beef is a highlight, and for the meat connoisseur, TMels near PVIS has top quality meat. Fish I’ve not yet sourced, and hope to, as we so enjoyed the wonderful fish in Tonga. The main town market is a hive of activity, closed only on Sunday. Fresh produce is generally priced with a sign, and cheaper than supermarkets. Handicrafts and souvenir shops are also at the central market, as well as in stores around town, and in stalls along the wharf road on cruise boat days. There is also a large handicrafts market open 6 days on Wharf Road, plus Sunday if a cruise boat is in.
Water – town water is generally fine to drink, bottled water is available if you’d rather play it safe in the early days.
Alcohol – available at supermarkets and liquor stores until midday Saturday. Priced higher than in Australia, you may like to bring some duty free, up to 2L per adult of wine or spirits.
Leisure Activities – so far we know of rowing, sailing, archery, piano, horse riding, karate, dance and tennis clubs. There are also Lion’s and Rotary Clubs, and Red Cross Society. Plus of course swimming, snorkelling and exploring. There is also a bushwalking track we’ll be checking out soon.
Freight agencies – goods can be sea or air freighted to and from Vanuatu. Check whether you’ll incur duty. There are also fees for customs, terminal use and more. Aim for an inclusive quote at both ends if possible. FR8 Logistics and Transam Vanuatu are two of the freight agents. Check the customs website as to what you can safely import, keeping in mind some goods may still be confiscated even if not listed, such as our honey at the airport on arrival, which I later discovered on this useful list.
Cost of living – higher than most places in Australia. Rent is generally 85,000 – 350,000 Vatu per month, with most family properties between 200,000 – 250,000. Internet pricing depends on either usage and speed, and is considerably higher than Australia – via Telsat, WanTok, TVL and Digicel. Mobile calls are per minute or on a plan, via TVL and Digicel. Power is high, worth considering when choosing a house with standing fans, ceiling fans or air conditioning, with air conditioning using considerably more power to operate than fans. Water is charged for town properties, and may require electricity to pump out of town. Gas is via fillable bottles, the large size incurring a delivery fee, but a lower cost per kilo. Local fresh produce is low to reasonable in cost, with imported goods reasonable to expensive in cost – however being encouraged to ‘eat local’ is always a good thing, for your health, your wallet and the planet.
As to how we feel after our first week, I’d say exhausted and excited. It’s always busy with logistics in the early days, but in 9 days we’ve bought a car, arranged car insurance, set up a local bank account, chosen a rental house, my husband began work on day 2 and our children school on day 8, found our way around, sorted SIM cards and Internet connection, bought food to cook at the holiday house, had a few meals and coffees out to soak up the atmosphere, enrolled in language classes and much more. We’ve also been blessed to meet a few locals and expats, as well as checked out Port Vila and surrounds in our search for accommodation. Next weekend will be a drive around Efate, about 140km.
We’re looking forward to many opportunities to soak up the culture and the place over the next two years. It has certainly impressed us so far!
Are you thinking of moving to Vanuatu? Let me know if I can help.
Like to add your thoughts to this list? Comment below, or send me a message, I’d love your input.
UPDATE: Related post written November 2015 Living in Vanuatu