[This is the fourth of a four-part trip recap; Previous Post: Dirt Roads and a Dirty River Find the Way Home [Laos]]
November 14, 2016 – From the Sticks to the Streets
After returning to the small, quaint Luang Prabang airport in the evening, we grabbed some snacks before embarking on a short flight to Hanoi, Vietnam. The flight into Hanoi was a big contrast to that of Luang Prabang because it is a much larger city ladened with lights. It was about an hour cab ride to our hotel in central Hanoi. Traffic in the quarter was absolutely insane. Lining the streets were an overwhelming amount of motorbikes. We watched pedestrians as they navigated their way across streets; it appeared a bit like paintball, instead, trying to dodge the motorbike.
We stayed at Nova Hotel, and the staff was so incredibly nice and eager to practice their English with us. We were led to our room on the fourth floor via a small and narrow hallway. Buildings in Hanoi are short and skinny, so as a 6’5″ individual, I felt like a big man living in a small world. After opening the door, we noticed our beds covered with red rose petals. This wasn’t the first time Robyn and I were mistaken as a young couple, but each time it leads to a pretty good laugh. It was getting late, so we went nearby to grab a few snacks that seemed familiar, and then came back to sleep.
November 15, 2016 – Hanoi’s Best Attractions
I had had better nights. If you were able to fathom to get through my last blog post, you might remember that skeptical decision I made to eat pho alongside a rural road in Laos. Well, it came back to haunt me. I woke up in the middle of the night “dealing with” what will go down as The Pho(k) Up of 2016. Luckily I was able to finally get some sleep before our first full day in Vietnam.
Our hotel staff was so nice, almost too nice at times. They would call and tell us to go to breakfast, usually something seen as optional in any other country. It almost felt like they kept attendance at breakfast. The meal itself was great – scrambled eggs, fresh dragon fruit, watermelon, and coffee, and they always served us a mixed passion fruit drink. One tip I took from Vietnam is the use of condensed milk for coffee creamer. Genius, right? We already put milk and sugar into our coffee. Why not be more efficient and used condensed milk?!
I felt well enough to walk slowly around the city despite having little energy. The days in Hanoi were humid and uncomfortably warm, which didn’t help matters. We first headed toward the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum complex. As you might know, Vietnam, in addition to Laos, are two of five communist countries in the world today. In Hanoi, you’ll experience a bit of militaristic rule aura, with rigid guards and propaganda-style signs posted throughout the city. (Note that it’s illegal to take photos of military officials).
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum sits behind a geometric grassy area and is the final resting place of the Communist revolutionary leader. Guards protect the grounds for anything unruly or contrary to code. We then made our way to the Ho Chi Minh Museum nearby. Hanoi’s streets are similar to other southeast Asian countries, filled with small shops selling specific products, like lights, glass, bamboo and food. The food vendors almost always have a small seating area outside of the restaurant with little kid tables and chairs mostly used by adults.
The Ho Chi Minh Museum was closing soon after we arrived, so we quickly browsed and soon left before its midday closing. Also on our map was a single pagoda monument we wanted to check out. We were having trouble locating it and apparently approached an area that is off-limits to the public. Some guards confronted us holding up their hands to stand back and go the other way. Whoops!
By this point I became near empty on energy, so we went to rest in a park near the Temple of Literature. The gardens and landscaping are beautiful in Hanoi, especially in the parks and by the lakes. After a while, we continued walking toward the old prison of Hanoi and then stopped at a cafe for some food and drinks.
In the evening, we headed toward the famous Hoan Kiem Lake, a central hub for public life in the city. In the middle of the lake is the Turtle Tower, a stone temple on an island that is home to many large soft-shell turtles. Also on the lake is a bright red bridge (The Huc Bridge) that leads to Jade Island. Many tourists find themselves here (including us) to take in views of the lake and surrounding cityscape.
Around the lake is a trail that is full of nightlife. One of the most popular street foods is Vietnamese donut holes – the vendors sell these so hard! We also saw many people on dates, doing Tai chi, reading and passing the time. On our walk around the lake, I ran into a Chicago friend and former co-worker, Chris. What a small world!
For dinner, Robyn and I researched and found a nice place called The Hanoi Social Club. The inside was super trendy and hip, with unique artwork, bookshelves, and furniture. We treated ourselves to a pistachio and quinoa salad, flourless cake, ice cream, and about six different drinks. The place also has live music and a lively crowd. Highly recommended!
After about one day in the streets of Hanoi, we were starting to understand and get a feel for the traffic and how to navigate as a pedestrian. Most of it requires quick decision making and a bit of courage, which comes more easily after six drinks :). Our hotel hosts were of course excited to see us again and wanted to know all about our day.
November 16, 2016 – Different Points of View
Our morning routine of being called by our hotel staff continued. This day, we decided to walk in the other direction toward the history museum. I was feeling much better, so we kept walking alongside a main highway and crossed into a much poorer village to see the Red River. Families and kids looked and smiled at us, potentially excited to see foreigners visit their neighborhood. Chickens and dogs roamed the streets, and many people were out and about doing the day’s work.
For lunch, we stopped by a cafe for a smoothie and some rice. Next on our walk was the Vietnam Military Museum. I am not too well-versed in military history, however, I was interested to review what the museum had to present. I’d assume that when most Americans hear the word “Vietnam,” they think about the war. The museum consists of several buildings. The exhibit captions depicted a one-sided story of the Vietnam War using phrases like “total victory,” “Americans killed people,” and everything the Vietnamese did was “in defense of the country.”
Outside of the museum is military equipment from the war including tanks, planes and trucks. All equipment is labeled as “seized” and used against Americans who sabotaged. The museum obviously is not representation of the full story, but, as with everything, it’s important and eye-opening to hear the other side of the story.
After the museum, we walked north to Ho Tay Lake, a quieter lake with men playing board games in a public area nearby. We visited yet another one of Hanoi’s trendy coffeeshops, and carried on east to Cau Long Bien, a bridge that only pedestrians and motorbikes can use. My Fitbit at this point was hitting all-time highs and my blood pressure was likely as well! We walked out at a train station on the tracks to get some neat pictures in the sunset and then walked on the pedestrian bridge, which was a bit flimsy and shook with each wave of motorbikes that whizzed by.
We made our way back down to street level to the Dong Xuan Market which was pretty similar to most markets we had seen throughout the trip. Traffic was absolutely insane at this point of rush hour. There are nearly 4 million motorbikes in a city of 7 million people. The crazy thing is, I never saw any wrecks or injuries. The term “organized chaos” really does exist! Most motorbike drivers wear masks to avoid taking in the pollution. At times, you’ll see an entire family on one motorbike, like koalas hanging on the backs of each other.
Dinner was at 96 Restaurant, where I had some chicken with lemon sauce and some rice. There’s also something about a Coke abroad that tastes extra special. Robyn and I spent some time shopping the small stores on the street in the Old Quarter. Some of the most common goods to buy in Vietnam include silk garments, Do paper (made from local trees), snake wine, military stuff, bamboo crafts, lacquerware and varieties of teas.
After looking at a couple stores, we walked outside on a busy corner and were approached by a women carrying bananas in a bamboo-made balance and wearing an Asian conical hat. She did not speak English but was trying to put her hat on Robyn to be funny. I of course took a photo and then the woman did the same to me, so I put on the hat and Robyn took my photo. After that, we planned to move on since we didn’t need any bananas, but she screamed and yelled at us to buy bananas from her. I gave her a little bit of money since we took the picture with her, but then she grabbed my forearm and demanded more money. At this point, I was laughing because she was so crazy, and we continued on, only to get cornered to buy some of those donut holes. I guess we should send anyone going into a sales career over to Vietnam to learn the tactics!
As mentioned before, there is propaganda posters around the city, celebrating the military and making it seem like life is great. All of my experiences with the Vietnamese (besides banana lady), were so pleasant, and everyone was so smiley especially with Americans. We caught many locals taking pictures of us or asking to take pictures with us as well. Despite the tense history between the U.S. and Vietnam, it was wonderful to feel so welcomed and safe in the country.
November 17, 2016 – Ha Long Bay, Day and Night
A few days prior, we worked with the hotel manager to book a cruise on Ha Long Bay, a popular destination and UNESCO World Heritage Site in northeast Vietnam. The bay is well-known for its thousands of limestone isles of various shapes and sizes. A bus picked us up at our hotel, where we joined a bunch of other tourists who would share the Scorpion Cruise with us. We were the only Americans on the bus, and many asked us if we voted for Trump (who they humorously called Donald Chump). Of course we were embarrassed by the question, but it was really peace of mind that the world understood that Trump was seen by many (including us) as a laughable choice.
It was a 3.5 hour crammed bus ridge to the bay. Even though it was a long trek, it was neat to see the Vietnamese countryside and agriculture (rice fields). In the afternoon, we arrived at Ha Long Bay and boarded our wooden cruise ship along with two Mexicans, two French, one Dutch and a family of seven Malaysians. We had a room on the main floor, the same floor where we would eat lunch in a common room with windows allowing a clear view of the bay.
After taking off, we went to the sundeck to take some pictures of the limestone isles and to lay out in the sun a bit.
The first activity was to either kayak or take a group boat out on the bay in an inlet of isles. Robyn and I chose to do the tandem kayak, which was a highlight of the trip. We oared toward the isles and saw small monkeys jutting in and out of the cliffs. The monkeys were so comfortable with humans that they came pretty close to our kayaks without being scared. The inlet was incredibly quiet and calm from both a noise and water current perspective. Quite the opposite than the busy streets of Hanoi!
After returning to our cruise ship, we went to a nearby beach to spend some time watching the sunset. I forgot my phone/camera on the boat, but it was kind of nice to be completely detached from technology and enjoy the moment.
Back to our ship we went, where we would spend the night anchored in the bay with a ton of other boats. The crew hosted a quick happy hour on the roof deck and then prepared a barbecue on the main deck, which included local seafood, vegetables, fried rice and noodles. By this point, we had become pretty good friends with the ship guide, and he made the comment, “You better go eat first because the Malaysians eat a ton!” Never had I heard any culture besides America notoriously labeled as people who eat large portions. We also made friends with the lone Dutch woman traveler Angelique and the two Mexicans, Daniel and Nayale.
After dinner, we had several Cuba Libres (rum and Coke) drinks while having great conversation with our new friends. One activity the captain had us partake in was squid fishing on the side of the boat. To attract the squid, a spotlight was placed at the bottom of the boat. I caught a squid right away, which was super exciting, but for the next two hours, we caught nothing. It was a beautiful night out on the bay with the moonlight shining down on the calm bay water. Can’t get better than that! Before going to bed, Robyn dropped her water bottle under the bed accidentally, and moved over to the edge of the bed to claw at it, but ended up falling and getting wedged between the wall and the bed. We were laughing so hard at this point, and I haven’t let her forget this moment to this day.
November 18, 2016 – Exploring Caves and Back to Hanoi
After a nice spread of breakfast, our boat headed toward the Sung Sot Cave, a gigantic cave inside one of the limestone isles that is lit with colored lights. There were several stops throughout the tour where certain rock formations looked like something (animals, characters, etc.). The Malaysians were so funny during the tour – after they would see a formation that looked like something, they would go, “ohhhhhhhhhhhh look at thaaaaat.” I don’t think they meant to be funny, but it gave us a good laugh.
We returned to the boat and participated in a spring roll making demonstration, which became part of lunch. The boat made its way back to the mainland, so we spent a bunch of time on the roof deck taking in the views on the sunny day. Ha Long Bay is a must see if you ever visit Vietnam.
The bus ride back to Hanoi was not the best. We hit lots of construction and rush hour. Luckily I was able to fall asleep most of the time. We chose Lantern Lounge for dinner that evening, a really cool two-story building that is adorned with bright-colored paper lanterns. The seating area does not permit shoes, and you sit on the floor when eating. I finally mustered the courage to eat pho again after my Lao incident and ended up good this time.
That evening we spent walking through the market and enjoying the nightlife. Later that night at the hotel, we realized our flight was actually noon on Sunday instead of midnight, so we had to book an extra night in Hanoi. Luckily our hotel staff was obsessed with helping us, so they found us a hotel for the following night which was only two blocks away.
November 19, 2016 – Treat Yo’self Day
After getting to the new hotel in the morning, we rested and then set out to grab some fresh smoothies. We deemed this day, “Treat Yo’self Day,” since it was our last full day in southeast Asia. We walked around and found a nice spa called SpasHanoi, where we got an hour-long massage and a mani/pedi. The 1-hr massage was the equivalent of $11 – such a deal! The experience was a bit different, though. Robyn and my massage tables were in the same room. It sounded like Robyn was getting beat up during her massage, and at one point in my massage, I felt the masseuse jump on the table. Completely confused, I soon realized she needed to do this to get to hard-to-reach parts of my back. The mani/pedi was great. The woman helped put my shoes on, which was quite the process.
The rest of the day we went to look for some souvenirs and spent some more time near Hoan Kiem Lake, where people were playing board games outdoors. We grabbed an iced coffee and then headed to dinner at Aubergine Cafe for fried rice and spring rolls – delicious! Our last night in Vietnam was spent walking through the market and sharing some laughs from our few weeks in southeast Asia.
November 20, 2016 – Good Morning [and Goodbye] Vietnam!
We had reached our final morning in Vietnam. After a nice breakfast at our new hotel (I’m sure our old hotel missed us!), we took a cab to the airport. The airport was quite nice with many high-end stores and the classic fast food chains, however, I was quite surprised to see Popeye’s as an option. We boarded the flight and headed toward Taipei before trekking back to the U.S.
Out of all of the countries we visited in southeast Asia, Vietnam was so welcoming and warm to a couple Americans looking to have a great vacation. Its culture and traffic were nothing like we had experienced before, and I’ll never forget the time we spent at Ha Long Bay.
Overall, I highly recommend visiting southeast Asia, especially if you’re on a budget. The biggest expense will just be the flights, but everything once you get there is completely affordable. Be sure to check out the weather patterns before you go to make sure you’re avoiding rainy season, hence why we did a northern trek across Indochina in the fall. Can’t wait for my next adventure!