Culture Family Stories Travel 

Family Life in Sanya: Sun, Sand, Water Galore!

This new series Life for My Family is going to explore what life is like for different families all over the Mandarin-speaking world, from Beijing to Xining to Singapore to Taipei. It’s meant to give you a taste of the prospective city you’re thinking of relocating to and check if the grass is greener… or rather.. if the jiaozi is better in another flavor.

This week, meet April who shared with us about family life Sanya. 

I’m April, an American most recently from Minnesota, and I live in China with my husband and our three children, a 10-year-old girl and two nearly-9-year-old boys. We’ve been in China since December 2011, when we moved to Tianjin to fulfill a long-standing dream of living in China. We lived there for almost 4 years before we decided we just couldn’t take the pollution anymore, and sought out a life in the best possible place we could live in and still be in China. It’s been more than six years now since we’ve gotten another stamp in our passports, and we are so happy to be here.

Tell me the most interesting or funny experience your family has had in Sanya.

The only funny thing that comes to mind is when I accepted a motorcycle taxi ride only to discover the man had advanced Parkinsons and had very little control of the bike. I was very, very scared but did not want to hurt his feelings.

Then he stopped at a traffic light and pulled a business card out of his pocket and told me he was an acupuncturist, and he would be happy to pick me up any time and take me to his office to do acupuncture.

Our most memorable experiences have been our first swim in a mountain river, watching a solar eclipse on the beach, going in search of the stone forest and discovering instead a beautiful path between forest and rice paddies (and finding out that there are leeches who live on plants in the forest and wait for unsuspecting passersby), eating the “auspicious golden ball” that is a Hainan specialty (basically a balloon made of glutinous rice flour slowly fried and fried until it expands to the size of a soccer ball, and is just an empty ball with a thin crispy crust that tastes like a donut), meeting the camels that inexplicably show up on the beach at times, swimming at the base of a water fall in water so deep that it was just black, and getting stuck in water buffalo traffic jam.

How much longer do you see yourself living in Sanya? Why?

If it were possible I would like to live here forever. We love China and we want to live in China at least for the rest of our children’s childhoods, and after living in Sanya, I don’t see how we could go back to life in any other city in China.

We are surrounded by greenery and clean air and blue skies, and there is not one other major city in China where an expat could find work that isn’t touched by pollution in some way. We have left Sanya once each summer to visit Tianjin and Beijing again, but each trip has only served to make me love and appreciate our life in Sanya more.


Tell me about your friends and favorite thing to do in Sanya.

We have been lucky enough to befriend some professors from the Tropical Ocean University who know some amazing, unmarked hiking trails discovered by a botanist at the school, and these friends of ours are also a rarer type of parent in China who take their children on adventures and aren’t afraid to have them try risky things.

On the weekends, we follow them to spots in the mountains just north of Sanya and then hike through mango and palm groves to mountain rivers where we climb from rock to rock up to beautiful waterfalls. If we don’t go with them, we like to go to quiet beaches with big rocks for climbing around on, but beaches where we are sure there are no sandflies.


(Sandflies are so tiny that you cannot see them, and you cannot feel them biting you unless you are ultra-aware that they might be there and are on the lookout, and you do not see the marks until the next day, but then they itch viciously for the next week, and some beaches, like Sanya Bay and Houhai, are infested with them. You can even encounter them in smaller numbers at Dadonghai, and they are worst in the winter.)

We also have a great group of expat friends, and in some ways, because there are so few of us, we all just have to stick together. If you have a birthday get-together, it is feasible to invite the entire group of expat families, and it doesn’t seem like too much. The kids all get together and play—there’s a significant group of Spanish-speaking families and a significant group of Russian-speaking families—and if the kids don’t speak one another’s language, they can usually get by with Chinese to communicate with each other.

10 Life-in-Sanya Questions

  1. How much is a two-bedroom apartment (and estimate of size)?
    You can get a nice 2-bedroom apartment in a nice neighborhood about 10 minutes from the beach by car for 3,500 RMB. Nicer still, with a view of the harbor, for about 4,500-5,000. Many of the expats who work for hotels or airlines live in Serenity Coast, where a 2-bedroom apartment would run you about 8,000 RMB per month (and many live in villas that cost 20,000 per month). I am really not sure about the size. I think maybe our 3-bedroom that we rent for 4,500 per month a ten-minute ride from the beach is maybe 110-120 square meters, and 2-bedroom would be maybe 100.
  2. How much is a bowl of beef noodles?
    A bowl of Lanzhou Lamian is 12 RMB most of the year, but during the high season—at least six weeks around Chinese New Year—it’s 24. All the restaurants raise their prices during that time, and it becomes much better to just stay at home.
  3. How much is cheese?
    There is a hotel-supply store called Angliss that allows us to pop in and pick up things in bulk (since there is no Metro here), and you can buy 5 kg of cheddar cheese for 275 RMB or 5kg of mozzarella for 400 RMB. If you don’t want to buy in that amount, a Russian lady sells cheeses and meats and hard-to-find herbs and some other imported foods, and her cheddar is 70 RMB per 500g. Otherwise it’s one obscure store in the local market, and the Corner Deli in the Summer Mall with really high prices, so most long-term residents are very reliant on Taobao (but sellers will only ship things that need to be refrigerated from November to March).
  4. What’s the best way to get around in Sanya?
    An electric bike for sure. Or if you have a family, your own car. I never encountered so many self-driving foreigners elsewhere in China, but Sanya is such a small city, and public transportation not so frequent or convenient, and the prices and scarcity of taxis in winter make things so difficult that it’s just better to drive yourself.We don’t own a car yet, though we hope to, so we rent cars on the weekends to drive to the mountains or to more remote beaches. At 100 RMB/day, it’s very reasonable, except during Chinese New Year, when it goes up to 300-400 RMB/day for the same car.
  5. How many social events are there with expats? With locals?
    The expat community is so small here that it seems that everybody knows everybody else. If you have kids, you know all the other people who have kids, and if you’re single, you probably all go to the same few bars and restaurants on the weekends.There is a hash running group that meets on weekends and runs through the mountains, a group for expat families that has occasional meet-ups, and brunch at the Intercontinental almost every weekend. There is a group who play soccer together, and those who surf, but there aren’t a whole lot of official events that happen very often. The community is small enough that you can easily create an event yourself if you want one to happen.
  6. Can you use Mandarin in Sanya? What about only English?
    Everyone in Sanya speaks Mandarin, but the locals also speak the Hainan language, which is related to Vietnamese. Once in a while I meet someone that I just cannot understand when they speak Mandarin, but it’s very rare.English is not as common as Russian, by a longshot, but it’s kind of nice. All the locals who try to sell to tourists have learned their spiel in Russian, and not English, so you can just look completely confused and walk away.
  7. What do most families do for fun in Sanya?
    There are those who like to hang out at the beach every weekend, most preferring either Xiaodonghai or Yalong Bay to the uber-touristy Dadonghai, and there are those, like us, who prefer to climb mountains.There are so many beautiful mountains within an hour or two’s drive of Sanya, and the best, really, is just to stop by a mountain river and go up it by way of the boulders strewn across it. Jianfengling, E’Xian Ling, Diaoluoshan, Bawangling and the Stone Forest are just a few of the places that are worth visiting. People should definitely watch Hainan Adventures with Nigel Marven before they visit Hainan with kids. Riyue Bay, Shimei Bay, Qizi Bay and Houhai (but wear long pants and never sit on the sand, because of the voracious sand flies) are the more wild and interesting beaches.
  1. Is there work for expats other than teaching?
    Not really. Most expats here who are not teachers work for hotels or as airline pilots, but even the teaching jobs are not numerous. There are only two universities and one major international school (a new one catering primarily to Chinese students, has opened up about an hour outside of Sanya, as well). This is why the expat community in Sanya is so small. There just aren’t many businesses here besides tourism.
  2. What business or service is needed in Sanya?
    An international hospital (or at least an international clinic or English-speaking service at a local hospital) – right now everyone goes up to Haikou if they can (if it’s not an emergency) to see the American doctor at the People’s Hospital there. We also rely on to consult with doctors in the States about medical issues.
  3. How is the childcare/ how are the schools in Sanya?
    There is one international school that has a bilingual kindergarten, an international kindergarten, a bilingual grade school and middle school, an international section that services grades 1-8 for foreign passport holders. In grades 1-8 there are probably only 40 children, so right now grades 5-8 are combined, and grades 3-4, but each year a new class is formed, so that next year 3 will be separate and 4-5 combined, etc. The teachers are fantastic in the international school, all licensed in the US or Canada and with years of experience in public schools back home and international schools, but it’s still a small school serving a small community, and some parents don’t like the smallness of it.My husband is the principal there, so I’m probably a bit biased, but I can see the work that has gone into improving the school, and the significant increase in the quality of the teachers, so I can’t help but feel optimistic about it.I myself homeschool, which is not a reflection on the quality of the education at the school, but just because I have been homeschooling since my children were little, and I planned to homeschool them before they were born. They participate in dance and soccer at the school, and benefit from the library and the social life there, but everything else I teach them at home.There are many kindergartens just like any other city, and one other school (called Luxun) that has an international section where a few of the expats send their children for a fully Chinese education (TIS, the international school, also has a local section, where students study all day in Chinese, but the school is young and this only goes up through grade 4 at the moment).I would just say that those who choose to live long-term in Sanya are most often those who have done other parts of China, love China, want to stay in China, but really, really want to stay in a place that is beautiful and clean, and so they are willing to miss out a bit when it comes to society and culture and educational options. Sanya can more than compensate for that, especially if you like being outside.

Do you have questions about Sanya? Planning on visiting or moving? Or do you have tips to give other expats who want to visit or move to Sanya?

Click the link for the group of other China-focused parents on Facebook  or on WeChat by scanning my QR code and asking to join the WeChat group.

Vanessa Jencks founded China Family Blog to connect internationally-minded parents through semi-humorous stories and China-life-and-parenting fails. She is the former managing editor of beijingkids magazine; see her previous work here. She is also the founder of the 600+ member organization, Innovative Educators

WeChat: vanessajencks


Photos: April Back, All Rights Reserved

Related posts

Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: