Christa and I left our new friends and my cousin Rachie in Chiang Rai very late Monday night to meet Ruben and Elliott in Bangkok. We arrived to Bangkok around 11pm, and once there, Elliott and Ruben phoned to let us know they had a hostel for a night and that they would be able to let Christa stay there because she was would soon meet her boyfriend from Berkeley the next day to travel south to Phuket and the Phi Phi islands.
Elliott and Ruben finally arrived to Bangkok Airport around 2am for our 7am flight to Hanoi, Viet Nam. It was a rough night in the airport, but while I waited for them, I made friends with another backpacker from Germany named Johanna. As we talked, she filled me in on beautiful places to see and visit if (when) I go to Cambodia. Her English was exceptional and she had a fondness for UC Berkeley because it was somewhere she always wanted to study for her Masters. She had just been in Cambodia working on her thesis for an M.S.W.
As we walked and talked, we eventually ran into Elliott and Ruben and found a place to have a beer and catch up with them. It was great to see my friends again, and despite the late hour, we were ecstatic about our upcoming trip to Viet Nam. With momentum from our excitement, we managed to tentatively plan out our first few days with the decision to try and get to Halong Bay as soon as we could and then visit Cat Ba Island.
. . .
We later arrived to Hanoi around 9am Tuesday morning after our short flight from Bangkok. Going through customs, getting our passports stamped, and grabbing our backpacks, we found a travel agency in the airport to make our tentative plans a reality--much like we had originally intended. Essentially, we booked a two night, three day cruise with an overnight stay on a junk (boat) and another on Cat Ba Island.
Now, when I originally made the claim about Viet Nam being very different from Thailand, this was first noticeable at the airport. Those greeting us and stamping our passports had no smiles on their faces from what I could see. No hello or Xin chao. No welcome to (or GOOOD MORRRNING) Viet Nam. Nothing. I wasn't expecting the Hawaiian greeting (getting laid as you deplane), but the cold greeting in Hanoi left me feeling completely disconnected with the culture and immediately missing the Land of Smiles.
We soon found the friendly travel agent who, I must add, worked for the Viet Nam Department of Tourism. With great English, she helped us book our trip to Halong Bay and Cat Ba Island, made a hotel reservation for that night in Hanoi, informed us of the pick-up times and travel lengths/accommodations, and even got us our first taxi in Viet Nam.
Honestly, the taxi ride from the airport in Hanoi was ridiculous--if only I had a video clip of the experience! Instead, I'll try to paint you a visual:
First of all, our driver's English was not only broken but completely shattered. This isn't bad, but it definitely did not help with what then ensued. About five minutes into our drive to the hotel, he managed to explain in shattered English that he needed to go somewhere we had already PASSED to pick up his bag/briefcase. So, he came to a complete stop on the side of the freeway and further insisted he must turn around to get his bag. Uh, no? Having absolutely no luck expressing our dissatisfaction in his sudden change in plans with our taxi service, he started to BACK UP in the slow lane on the highway until he was able to make a hard left to the last exit while crossing four lanes of traffic. HOLY SH!T was an understatement as this incident unfolded.
After he parked, ran away, and then returned a while later with his "bag" (a VERY heavy briefcase according to Elliott whose lap it was placed), we were back on the road. Thank goodness, but the moments in the cab, waiting for him to get his bomb, were actually quite pleasant compared to the next twenty minutes of constant honking on the highway into Hanoi, all the while dodging motorbikes and other cars in the clearly marked lanes that mattered to no one.
Honks came from everywhere, yet we still haven't been able to figure out at what point the drivers and motorbikes decide to honk. Our taxi driver--equipped with an impressively loud horn, three tourists, and his bomb--seemed to use his horn five times more and twice as long as every other driver on the road that morning. This may not have been THAT bad, but after the night we'd just had and feelings of grogginess in full effect, we were a bit sensitive to his HONK-HONK-HONKING. It did not get much better, and Elliott and Ruben will easily attest to the fact that we had the honk-happiest driver in all of Hanoi.
Now bestowed with three splitting headaches, we eventually made it to our hotel where the staff was happy to greet us and quickly arranged us into a bedroom with three separate twin beds. This was a chance for us to unload our gear, which I might add, my backpack all loaded up has been very comfortable (thanks Mom and Dad!). We rested for a bit until we couldn't take our cravings for some food any longer, so we walked less than a block and had our first helping of Vietnamese street food.
With full stomachs but very little sleep, the next decision about what to do with our next few hours in Hanoi was lingering heavy overhead like smog now in the air . . . some SLEEP! We quickly got ourselves back to our hotel and crashed HARD for a few solid hours. It had never felt so good, but I awoke to more honking and a craving for a rolled cigarette, so we got back to being tourists and took some showers--freshening up for our first night in Hanoi, Viet Nam!
The sun was finally setting once we got back outside, so it was much cooler in the streets and less humid--a nice change--but the motorbikes still crowded the streets, and of course, so did the honking.
Standing in front of the entrance to our hotel, we were immediately approached by a few guys about getting a motorbike ride to our destination--a place called La Salsa that serves tapas and Spanish cuisine. Understandably, some of our stomachs needed a break from the local food, but once we experienced our first motorbike ride in a city with (literally) no traffic laws or observable method to driving around other than not getting hit or hitting others, we would have probably been better off just eating some Pho.
Here are a few photos and a video that might help you experience what we did on this short ride through the French Quarter in Hanoi.
As you can see, it was a quite stressful, or "sketchy" as Elliott said, and I would definitely agree, but we made it to our destination safely, enjoyed some great food, and decided to instead take a bicycle taxi back to our hotel that night.
Once there, we played some poker using our new Viet Nam Dong and had a quite evening to sleep in and rest for our three day cruise to Halong Bay and Cat Ba Island that was ahead of us.
Next up on The Dandygram: Arriving to Ha Noi, Bus Ride to Halong Bay, and a Three Day Cruise (Part 2)!