When I got to the China/Vietnam border, I met a guy called Duccio from Italy in the exit queue for China who’d been on the same bus. I wasn’t sure how I’d not noticed earlier, seeing as he was the only other Westerner, but it was way early at the bus station and I was WAY tired. In any case, we stuck together for the rest of the process, not least because we were both going into Vietnam on the 15 day visa-free stamp with nothing but an email printout to prove our exit by the correct date. So if we had trouble, at least we wouldn’t be alone.
We spent an hour in the border queue and after a tiny bit of confusion over his entry (but none over mine strangely) we were through and back on another bus towards Hanoi before too long. Duccio had been studying Chinese for 3 years and was just on a break from his University programme before flying back to Italy for a while. We had a good chat on the bus, during which he mentioned how difficult it is to travel in China alone. Even when you know a bit of the language! I felt vindicated. I WASN’T just being a whingy wimp for the past week, it really was quite a task to handle solo.
The bus stopped for super cheap, tasty lunch at the side of the road somewhere, and then 2 hours later we were pulling into a bus terminal in the south end of Hanoi during rush hour. We had very little cash and the taxis at the station were likely complete ripoffs anyway so we decided to make the 3km trek to the old quarter on foot. (This is probably the last time you’ll ever hear me say something like this on this trip because once I left Hanoi, everything got way too hot to be walking with a massive backpack for 3km.)
And thus we were welcomed to the terrifying process of crossing the street in Vietnam. Utter chaos. Motorbikes and cars coming at you from every direction. Lanes are not really A Thing. You just have to walk out and keep a steady pace so they can judge your speed and get around you. It takes some adjustment, but you do actually get used to it. Crosswalks are going to seem so luxurious when I get back to the UK.
The weather in Hanoi was a bit grey and rainy, and that didn’t change the whole time I was there, but I didn’t mind. The locals were all bundled up in huge coats, but I was walking around in a t-shirt for the most part because 12C is pretty warm as far as my recently-in-Siberia body is concerned. But people never stopped asking me if I was cold.
My hostel was lovely and small and friendly and quiet, tucked away in an alley off one of the old quarter streets. I really got lucky in Vietnam with hostels. All three places I stayed were perfect. Excellent breakfasts were included, the staff were super helpful and friendly, and the other guests had the same non-party travel style I do.
This was a marked contrast to Duccio’s hostel. I went to meet back up with him so we could wander around and find some dinner and he was staying in the epitome of a party hostel. I walked into the bar and was there 5 minutes before the American bartender got on a microphone and informed the entire bar we’d be getting a free shot as he taught us the Vietnamese equivalent of ‘cheers’. After which he announced the happy hour and ladies night specials and proclaimed, ‘let’s get fucked up’.
It was like a bad college frat party movie. I was SO happy I wasn’t staying there. It was really amusing to watch the drama outside these sorts of places from the street though, so at least they had entertainment value.
Anyway, we went and found a little street food hotpot BBQ place and had a pretty incredible dinner plus beer for next to nothing. All the beer here is pretty much lager, but the Hanoi beer has been my favourite so far, and there was plenty of it. At 50p a bottle I could pretty much afford to drink as much as I wanted. There was also Bia Hoy, which is fresh beer that’s brewed to be consumed the same day. It’s about 3 or 4 percent and nothing special, but it’s also the equivalent of about 15p a glass, it’s cold, and it’s cheaper and easier to buy than water. (There are ladies selling it on the street everywhere in the old quarter.) So I did not turn my nose up.
One of the biggest shocks of arriving in Vietnam was that after nearly 2 months of encountering very few Westerners, they were now EVERYWHERE. It was bizarre and slightly comforting yet unsettling all at once. I immediately knew traveling in Vietnam would be easier, but potentially also more irritating as things got more touristy.
I had an early night despite the availability of cheap beer and the next morning I went on the hostel’s free student tour. Three girls from the local university walked around with me for a few hours to practice their English and show me some of the main sights. We went to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum (no pictures allowed) where I saw one of the two embalmed men on the planet. (If only I’d managed to see Lenin in Moscow I’d have knocked them both out on the same trip!) Apparently Ho Chi Minh’s wish was to be cremated and spread equally in the north, central, and south parts of the country, but when he died that request was ignored. Because communism? The girls didn’t know.
We also went to the Temple of Literature, which was nice, but then it was STREET FOOD TIME. We went for Bun Cha, which was one of my favourite things in Vietnam (I had it again before I left Hanoi), and then some lemon tea, which was more like still lemonade. We sat on the standard tiny plastic stools drinking, eating sunflower seeds, and talking about how our countries were different and how they were the same and how we were all generally worried about the same stuff. It was really nice.
For that night, I’d put out a message asking for meetups on Couchsurfing and a guy called Eddy asked if I wanted to eat dinner with him and his friends. I was starting to feel a bit unwell (possibly from that last Chinese street food) but I didn’t want to say no. He actually showed up on his motorbike and was like, get on! All I could think was if my mother knew I was getting on some guy’s motorbike in a city on the other side of the planet without knowing precisely where I was going, she’d probably smack me senseless. However, he had good feedback and also a motorbike is much easier to jump off of in an emergency than a car is to be escaped from. I decided it was fine, and it was.
What was NOT fine was riding on the back of a motorbike for the first time in some of the most terrifying traffic I’ve ever experienced. In the rain, too. Eddy lived a 40 minute ride out of town and I was already feeling wonky, so that ride wasn’t exactly the most pleasant thing I’ve done in my travels. Eesh. We did stop to buy dinner supplies at a super local market where he just drove up to the stalls and bought things without even getting off the bike, which was really cool. I wish I could have taken pictures, but I was a bit too shell-shocked from the ride to even attempt to reach for my camera.
Dinner was a bizarre and wonderful experience. Eddy lives with his girlfriend in a small one-room flat, and she cooked while we had a chat. His English wasn’t the best, but we got by. He was the only one of his friends who spoke English though, so once they all showed up, We all sat on the floor around the food and I listened to them joke and talk in Vietnamese. It was really cool to see them all doing pretty much what I like to do at home with my friends, and the food was delicious. Fried frogs legs, which Eddy said was one of his favourite things, fried chicken wings, and fresh spring rolls with egg, lettuce, pork pate, stir fried beef, and rice noodles, which we all assembled ourselves. And after that was all gone, we had the nicest fresh watermelon. I wish I could have talked to more of them, and I also wish my stomach hadn’t been acting up, but in general, it was an amazing night. Luckily I got a taxi back into town. I don’t think I could have handled another motorbike ride in the dark. I went to bed early again to recover from my Day O Cultural Experience.
The next day I was still feeling a bit crap and it was rainy and cold again, so I went to the Vietnamese Women’s Museum, which was absolutely fantastic, then got some ginger tea and fried rice that arrived in a pineapple, which reversed my mood and also seemed to quiet my stomach. Later on I went out to find Pho (finally!) with a South African guy called Grant who was also staying in the hostel. We managed to find one of the best places in the city, with a queue of locals spilling onto the street and some SERIOUSLY good soup. We then went for beer with a view, followed by (much cheaper) beer on the street and swapped entire life stories the way you do when drinking with fellow travelers.
My last day in Hanoi, the temperature actually dropped even further. During the day. The locals (and Australians) were horrified at this development. And now even I needed a hoodie. I had an overnight train to Danang to wait for but it was really too miserable to walk around all day so I hung around the hostel common room watching movies, booking future dance events, writing, and periodically going out to feed myself. Lunch was sticky rice with about ten different kinds of meat on top and was once again phenomenal.
I didn’t take many pictures in Hanoi. I liked the city and it was full of lovely architecture, but really difficult to get good pictures of, not least because of the rubbish weather. It was mostly about the food though, which, along with the universe chucking me a sign it was time to seriously slow the hell down (as I’ll elaborate on in the next post), was the continuing theme in Vietnam. And I am totally ok with that.