Hello! As I type, I’m sitting at the kitchen table, admiring the coral-pink roses I found here upon returning home from Vietnam (thanks, Sean!). I’m reflecting on how different/interesting/fascinating Vietnam must have been for a city like Bangkok — so very different from the cities I once called ‘home’ — to feel safe, comfortable, and routine.
Hanoi & Ha Long Bay: Days 1-3
Now this is not to say that there were not moments when I felt like Vietnam was safe and comfortable, but most of those moments were on the central coast and in the south. North Vietnam was the most different place I’ve ever been. Think of Pleasanton, California. Now think of its polar opposite in every regard. That’s Hanoi. To say that the city has a lot of motor scooters is a grand understatement. They are everywhere — on the streets going every direction, on the sidewalks, in little alleyways, in foyers of hotels, I mean EVERYWHERE. I traveled to Vietnam with four new female friends with whom I work. We were happy to be in a group of five; power in numbers felt very real. We were warned of pick-pockets and scams, and we were warned of the millions of motor bikes. I scoffed when a Thai person told me to watch out for all the motor bikes in Hanoi. How could there possibly be more there than in Bangkok? Well, I took back that scoff real fast. The trick to walking across any street is to wait for a bit of a lull and then just go. Don’t stop. Don’t look. Don’t run. Just walk briskly, and like magic, they will go around you.
The only times when the five of us Americans felt uncomfortable in Vietnam was at the Hanoi airport and at the night market we went to. A woman at the airport tried to rip us off (asking for one currency and giving incorrect change in another, etc.) and was just altogether rude. We felt very unwelcome and very nervous about exiting the immigration line. We were stared at more than I’ve ever experienced. Being a brown-eyed brunette generally makes me less interesting than my blonde friends in Asia, but I got my share of stares this time. At the airport and again at the market I mentioned, we were looked at, sneered at, and even yelled at. The mean ones were usually the older women. Little kids were the opposite. We found them to be far more friendly and outgoing than Thai kids. Later in our trip, while in South Vietnam, we learned from our Vietnamese tour guide that older people in North Vietnam tended to be the most anti-American, and we found this to be true. Although sometimes we felt like they were actually just anti-tourist. Our Americanness was just an added reason for dislike. Tourists disrupted life in Hanoi, and I could see that being a bother. Thailand seems to have fully embraced westernization, but Vietnam is clutching to its Vietnamese-ness. While this made people in Hanoi a little less friendly than Thais or Vietnamese people in the southern parts of the country, it also made my friends and me really appreciate Vietnam. We didn’t feel like we were in just another tourist trap. We were in Vietnam.
So while older women were rude to us, we found the younger generations to be super friendly, eager to practice their impressive command of the English language, and very down to earth. Our waiters and waitresses were genuinely kind, curious about who we were and what we were doing, and open to describing their lives. They all learned English at school, which we learned was new-ish for Vietnam. They gave up Russian a couple decades ago, and have made great strides by focusing on English.
After one day and night wandering the streets of the Old Quarter of Hanoi, the five of us slept soundly in an 8-person all-female dorm-style room in a hostel. It was my first hostel, and I had a great experience. We met people from all over the world, which was one of my favorite parts of this trip. In the morning, we got on a bus for Ha Long Bay, along with 30 or so other people who were all staying at our hostel. We had a choice between the party tour and the regular tour; I lost by being the only one in our group of five to vote for the more quiet one. But even though I was essentially attending a frat party on Ha Long Bay, I did have a pretty good time. We met people from Australia, England, Ireland, Scotland, the U.S., and South Korea. The bus took us to the docks at Ha Long Bay, which is a big bay chock full of big and small limestone islands. Once on our boat, we sailed for 4-5 hours before arriving at our hostel’s private island. The ride was fun and beautiful. Some of the islands are really just big rocks sticking out of the sea, and all of them were interestingly shaped. The water was greenish, and when the sun came out it looked a gorgeous teal. The weather was pleasant — around 70F, maybe 75 when the sun came out.
The island was quite big, but the part that was actually flat enough to stand on was quite small. It was just big enough for a few picnic benches, bathrooms, and five huts. We slept in a hut with a total of 10 people, open air with mosquito nets (that were, thankfully, unnecessary). The night was, like I said, just a big frat party, drinking games and antics aplenty. I didn’t sleep until about 3AM when the techno music ceased. Luckily, while traveling and exploring new places one does not need much sleep. The adrenaline of going kayaking right after sunrise on Ha Long Bay, while the drunk slept off their stupors, got me off my little mattress around 6:30AM. One girl with whom I was traveling came along, as did a guy from New York whom we’d met the night before. We got in our kayaks and glided across the glassy morning water, in and out of coves, and around the limestone islands. It was one of my favorite times on this trip.
After a quick breakfast, we were back on the boat. Luckily, hangovers prevented our boat mates from wanting to play their iPods super loud, so we got to enjoy the silence of the bay that morning. The islands seem to go on forever. We got back to the dock, back on our bus, and drove the four hours back to Hanoi. I got a book at our rest stop called There’s No Toilet Paper…on the Road Less Traveled, which I found to be an entertaining and apt book for our travels.
Back in Hanoi, we showered, re-checked in to our hostel, and then went out to eat at a restaurant close to our hostel. It was amazing. The waitstaff were super friendly, the food was delicious, and the company was fun. I loved getting to know my new friends better. I’m sad to say that they’ll be moving back to the States in April. I’m glad we had this trip together to solidify our friendships and experience something new together.
A note about the food: I like it better than Thai food. Don’t tell any of my Thai friends! Vietnamese food seems fresher and healthier. The flavors are similar to Thai, but less oily. I loved the rice noodles in particular, and I really should devote a whole post to the coffee. Seriously, the best I’ve ever had.
So after dinner and another stroll around the Old Quarter, we went to bed, knowing we had an early morning with more travel the next day. Tam biet, Hanoi!