There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; not going all the way, and not starting.
Welcome to the capital of Vietnam: the city of Hanoi! Also known as “North Vietnam”.
(Again, reload page if some photos are showing up as thumbnails. Especially if the “ice cream video” doesn’t show up, you can’t miss that!) 😉
North Vietnam vs. South Vietnam is quite the controversy. In a nut shell, the people don’t like each other very much for various reasons. Before 1975, they were considered separate states (communist/non-communist) until the armed forces of the north took over and seized the south-Making it a “One Party Communist State”. I do not know much about communism in general, but I also haven’t heard anything good about it.
When we were planning our trip, Patrick told me one of his co-workers had been to Vietnam and I should talk to her and ask about places to see. She gave me a lot of great info and tips, but she also warned me about “North Vietnam”. She basically said “You must be careful up there. If your camera gets stolen and you report it to the police, they will not do anything about it. If anything at all happens, you have to wait until you are out of the North Vietnam border before anyone can help you.” WTF. With that in the back of my head, I was very nervous for our time in Hanoi. I have been told by numerous people that North Vietnam are communist, but the south is not. My good friend Google has informed me that the entire country is in fact communist, so maybe the North are very old school about it? More strict? More intimidating? Maybe? What I do know: they are very, very different from the South.
Anyway, lets get back to the train ride before I fill you in on that.
Since this was officially our third train ride, we weren’t completely “clueless” as we were the first and even the second time around. The Vietnamese announcements were still a struggle trying to find the right train to board, but in the end we found it easier than the last time! By the time we boarded, it was after 9 p.m. We were so nervous to find our room and see who our “roommates” would be for the night. We walked into the tiny little room, which was completely dark because our lovely two roommates were already sleeping! I was so relieved to have some peace and quiet for the remainder of the night. Unfortunately we both had a top bunk, but hey it’s better than a soft seat! I really wish I could say “Third time’s a charm” in this case, but it wasn’t. My stomach was horribly sick from something I ate, so I was climbing up and down this very high bed- sprinting for my dear life to the nearest toilet. Besides feeling like I was literally shitting my life away (sorry, TMI) it was extremely challenging squatting over this “toilet” with the train going at full speed. Lets add the fact that there was no toilet paper as well. At one point the train curved and it sent me into a messy crisis. I was hosing everything down while also trying to clean myself. I don’t approve of hoses… Toilet paper is such a necessity, let me tell you!! That was not my last visit to this crime scene for the night…. And definitely not my finest or classiest moment of the trip! When my stomach finally settled down a bit, I tried with all of my heart and soul to fall asleep, but I just could not. My anxiety was at an all time high. I don’t know if it was the actual train itself, or maybe being in the upper bunk, but this bloody train felt like it was going to fly off the tracks at any given moment. Every turn and every bump, you could feel it. The best way I can describe it: Turbulence. Really, really intense turbulence. My tiny narrow bed had a very small bar on the edge of the bed (to keep you from falling) but it wasn’t doing a great job. I held onto both sides of the bed as though this “plane” was dropping from the sky. Having butterflies the size of basketballs and wanting to puke and shit all at once- is an absolute understatement!
As the room slowly started getting brighter for the day to begin, I was so determined to get off this train. When that moment finally came at 6 a.m. , we were hit with a different level of heat and humidity! How could it possibly be worse than before?? Hanoi Railway is like the international terminal. So many trains coming and going, hundreds of people pushing and shoving past you, and at least 50 taxi drivers lined up to get you. We always dread this moment more than anything. Two non-asian people with giant backpacks on……. GET THEM!!!!! We were completely surrounded by these men grabbing our arms and trying to take our bags off our backs. I reached in my bag to pull out my expedia booking so they could take us to our hotel. One man said “Ok this guy take you. $100,000 VND for you two!” We had no idea how far away it was…. So is that a good deal? Whatever, lets do it. Sure enough it was literally a 3 minute drive down the street. His meter read $25,000 VND so this began an argument between the guy and Patty. He continued to demand $100,000 VND and was a complete ass hole about it. Last thing we wanted was to refuse to pay him the amount and he zooms off with our bags in the trunk. Fucking crooks every which way. Ahhh…. Welcome to Hanoi guys!
Our only saving grace in this city: Happy Moon Guesthouse. When we walked into the lobby, I was a bit hesitant and nervous because of the last hotel we showed up at during the ass crack of dawn. What a night and day difference. This lovely man was so welcoming and happy to see us- at 6:15 in the morning! He apologised that our room wasn’t ready (that’s a given) and offered us some coffee. He gave me a map of the city and pointed out all of the places we should see and do. When Patrick needed to use the toilet, he said “Oh yes, just go upstairs. First room on the right.” When he came back down, I simply asked “How was it?” Patrick replied: “Umm.. yeah it was ok. There’s a person sleeping in the same room, so it’s a bit awkward when I’m shitting, but yeah not bad.” Wait, what??? I kind of figured he was being overdramatic. About 20 minutes later, my bubble guts came back and I ran up the stairs to find this bathroom. I entered a very dark and muggy room, cluttered with various things. On the bottom bunk bed, sure enough there was a woman sleeping/snoring so peacefully. I entered the bathroom and shut the very small door separating me from this sleeping woman. I do not know how she didn’t wake up after that ruckus! haha! Vietnamese food will be the death of me, I swear. We hung out in the lobby until 8 or so, changing clothes and booking a tour for the following day. We have two days and two nights here, but Patrick is already getting the vibe that it’s too much time. He was very insistent that we go see some stuff today and then get the hell out of the city the following day. I was a bit skeptical about it, but I finally gave in. Since we couldn’t fit Sapa ( Far North Vietnam- the rice paddy mecca of the country) into our trip this time, we found a tour that would take us 3 hours north to a very scenic area. (Hold your pants on, that’s the next post!)
Still dirty as all hell, but fresh clothes on, camera bag packed, camera charged and hanging from my neck…. We are ready to go! The nice man from the hotel went home around 7 a.m., so another woman helped us with planning and figuring out what we were doing. She was absolutely lovely, I wish I had taken a photo of her! As we were about to leave the hotel, she cautiously looked me up and down and said “You’re taking all of that with you? Please please be careful.” ……..Hmmm.
We walked around the downtown area for a few hours. This city is very similar to Ho Chi Minh City (sorry if I offend you) in the regard it’s very busy, scooters every which way, people constantly asking you to buy things, lots of restaurants to choose from, and very narrow streets. Even with a map in hand, it is so stressful and confusing trying to find the street names. Nothing says “Tourist” like a white girl with a backpack, camera, map in hand, and the look of fear and excitement all at once. We eventually found one of the places I really wanted to see: Hoàn Kiếm Lake. This beautiful place has a temple sitting atop a grassy platform in the middle of the lake! We walked the giant loop, snapping photos and constantly getting stopped by kids wanting to practice English with us, or people wanting a photo with us. Constant stares, getting your photo taken, people pointing and staring… I think I am getting a slight taste how celebrities feel. Although they aren’t doing all of these things because they idolise you….. they just think you’re a bizarre looking alien and want to laugh about it with their friends afterwards. When we were trying to catch our breathe under the tiniest amount of shade, a woman walked over with her little girl and sat next to us. Apparently the little girl was meant to sing a song for us, but she had a bit of stage fright. We politely smiled, and then got up and left. We were so grumpy, sweaty, dirty, and exhausted.. I could not be bothered with all these people stopping us.
One thing I quickly learned about spending time in the city here: The main attractions are museums. We are not really museum people, so that doesn’t leave us with much to see/enjoy in the city.
By 1:00 p.m. we tried to find our way back to the hotel for a quick shower. My cargo shorts were literally soaked. I felt like I had gone swimming in the lake. UGH. When we stopped on corners to cross the street, people were constantly staring at my camera. I became a bit paranoid like a mom with her little girl- men eyeing her and looking like they may grab her at any given moment. And then I couldn’t do a damn thing about it…. NO, NO, NO… Not my baby! Stop staring at my camera! A woman carrying two baskets walked over to me, put the basket contraption on me and said “Picture! Take Picture!” I instantly tried to give it back to her, because if I have learned one thing here, it’s that the Vietnamese are are all about the hustle. They don’t do anything for free. I politely said “No thank you…” but she wouldn’t let up, she continued to push it back on me and demand a photo. I finally gave in (Patrick snapping our photo) and handed it back to her. She then put it on Patrick (same thing again, he kept saying no) I took his photo and suddenly there were two of these women putting bags of cut up pineapple in my hands demanding money because we took a photo. I was at my wits end at this moment. I pushed the bags of fruit back at them and we quickly scampered off.
When we finally found our hotel, I was instantly calm and relieved. An ice cold shower and a fresh pair of clothes truly give you the best attitude adjustment. We set back out for more exploring and hopes to find some food for our first meal of the day. (No wonder we were so crabby… You don’t mess with hungry Kylie and Patrick).
We found a little beer joint offering $0.50 AUD beer on tap, so of course we came here! We were observing a man unwrapping a giant slab of meat (probably 2 feet long). Don’t forget, there’s minimal refrigeration, so meat is normally sitting out in this sweltering heat. As he’s unwrapping this giant slab (on the corner of the road mind you) no gloves and all, this giant piece of meat falls into the street and then he picks it up like it’s the most normal thing in the world. He slaps it onto the cookery, rubs his hands together, and carries on about his tasks. This very same guy is the man who served us our beers. I’m no vegetarian, I absolutely love meat… but watching that scene instantly put me off of meat AND my beer. Yuck!
My skin couldn’t take it any longer….. I gave in and bought a sketchy bottle of sunscreen. The bottle said “Nivea” but I’m pretty sure they filled it with something else. For $20AUD I purchased a bottle that was not even sealed (didn’t know this until afterwards) and the moment I rubbed it on my skin, it was a very strange yellow colour that wouldn’t rub in. I was hoping this would be my saving grace for the next week of our trip- but I was wrong. I still burned. Super happy I paid that much money for whatever that “sunscreen” shit was. Yikes!
While walking down the street, I noticed a man walking towards me and pointing at my shoe. Completely confused, “Did I step on something?” Before I can even grasp what he’s pointing at, he was quick as a rabbit and literally took my shoe off of my foot! He was very insistent “Broken… See? I fix!” NO NO NO NO NO NO NO!!!!!! “I don’t need my shoe fixed, give it back!” While all this is happening, Patrick is getting harassed by this big woman shoving doughnuts in his hand and demanding money. The little shoe thief was so fast that even Patrick had no idea what happened. “Kylie, why did you give him your shoe??? No, NO I don’t want doughnuts…” “Patrick, I didn’t GIVE him my shoe you nimrod! He stole it and is now fixing it!” Now Patrick was demanding my shoe back, and I have doughnuts being shoved in my face, seriously ready to punch someone. Next thing I know, Patrick is handing my shoe back to me and we’re frantically bolting as we hear the man yelling ” I fix shoe! You Pay me! You pay me!!!!” This man was so angry, I was shocked he didn’t chase us down and follow us. PHEW… I’m starting to think one day here IS plenty. The remainder of the day we stuck to the touristy streets where we saw lots of white people (hey, wouldn’t you?) Did some shopping, drank some beer, ate some yummy food, had the coolest ice cream made right in from of us, and then headed back to the lake for sunset.
Hoàn Kiếm Lake is a popular and busy spot in the daytime, but it’s absolutely packed at sunset/night time. After patiently waiting for a bench to free up, we quickly snagged it. We shared a bag of fresh lychee and watched the sun go down behind the temple on the lake. I lost track of how many times someone approached us to “Practice speaking English” to us….. We just wanted to be left alone, so we continued to turn them away. Then this adorable boy came over and I just couldn’t say no to him. He asked me lots of questions about where we are from, what we like about Vietnam, what we have seen, etc. His English was very good! As this conversation is happening, I started noticing people walking by…. slowly…. very slowly… and staring horrifically. It was as if they just witnessed a dead body on the street. They couldn’t help but stare, but their eyes had the look of fear. Mom’s walking by were suddenly grabbing hold of their kids and staring at us like I just kidnapped this boy. I was trying to block it out, but it was getting a bit absurd. Patrick whispered to me “I think he should probably go… These people do not look happy that you are talking to him.” I asked the boy where his mom was, and he pointed somewhere behind me. I politely said “Well I think you should probably go back to her now… It was nice chatting with you.” Sunset was not even enjoyable by now. Even though it was only 7 p.m. at this point, we both agreed we were done with Hanoi for today.
The following day (after our tour that you will read next) we went to the Hanoi Night Market. Another very busy market selling lots of food, drinks, clothes, shoes, etc. with Live music and entertainment. That night I felt like I had literally lost 10 pounds…. I felt free as a bird. I used my snazzy new backpack that has very legit locks, and locked up all of my camera gear in the hotel room. It’s crazy how much weight I have been carrying with just my camera stuff alone, and suddenly having one night off from it was MUCH needed. I did bring my gopro for a few photos, but as you know, it doesn’t do justice for picture taking.
All in all, we loved our hotel. The room was extremely small and had no window, but that’s ok. It included a free breakfast, free wifi, and immaculate English speaking and friendly staff- which we thoroughly enjoyed. As for the city itself…… The people were not friendly, extremely pushy (more than usual), very intimidating with their communist propaganda every which way, and the beer was blah. Again, it’s a city. I don’t speak highly of most cities in general, but this one in particular just doesn’t have anything drawing me to it…. at all.
Next stop: Our Day tour out of Hanoi! Praise all that is holy!
Thanks for reading!