After saying goodbye to Chiang Mai during our fifth month of travelling, it was time for us to head to Vietnam for two weeks. I was sad to be leaving Chiang Mai as it quickly became the place that we called home, but I knew the short break to Vietnam would be nice. And plus, we had to leave Thailand for visa purposes.
It took us pretty much the whole day to get to Hanoi. We waited at DMK, my faaaaaaaaaavourite airport in the world for four hours before getting on our flight. I’m sarcastic in case you didn’t pick that up; I hate DMK.
Getting a visa for Vietnam is not that easy or straightforward. I’ll leave it to Google to walk you through the process. Online forums mentioned that there is a very long wait for visas on arrival (VOA) so we planned to make a mad dash for the visa application counter once we landed.
We were right. A lineup of people was already there despite us being the first passengers from our plane to arrive at the counter. Because we ran like there’s no tomorrow from the aircraft to the visa desk, it took five minutes for us to drop off the visas. Right as we sat down to wait, the lineup grew to be very very long.
We could have avoided this hassle by applying for visas in advance, but it turned out it was a good thing that we didn’t. Our travel plans changed so many times before this Vietnam trip that we would have had to reapply for new visas anyway.
Anxiety over immigration
Being (half) Vietnamese overseas (aka Viet Kieus), I am always apprehensive whenever I go back to the motherland. I’ve heard, read and seen the double standards that exist for overseas Vietnamese. Luckily, I don’t look Vietnamese because I’m too fat and too tall by their standards, but it’s always fun to see the reactions when the Vietnamese learn that I am one of them also (well, sort of).
As I am about to walk towards the immigration counter, I wonder how long it will take for him to realize I am (half) Vietnamese.
I go to the immigration officer and say hello. I look at his nametag and see that he has the same last name as me. Hmmm… How will he react when he recognizes that I’m from the motherland?
He half-heartedly flipped through my passport and reviews al the stamps. Then, when he turns to the page with my last name, he does a double take and looks at me with a welcoming smile. I smile back, feeling ever so glad that he didn’t give me a hard time or ask for “coffee money.”
He hands over my passport, and I thank him.
Maybe there’s nothing to be nervous about visiting Vietnam.
Being in the motherland but not looking the part
Asian people always get perplexed about my background, given that I don’t look Vietnamese but have the most Vietnamese last name you can imagine. The confusion extends in Vietnam, where the locals think I’m Japanese/Korean/Chinese, and they’re quite stunned when I start speaking fluent Vietnamese.
The funny thing is that Gary looks Vietnamese. To ensure that we don’t get ripped off by locals thinking we are Viet Kieus, we made it a point to have Gary speak some Vietnamese before asking the locals a question. All it takes are a few words out of his mouth, and they will realize he must be something else.
Encountering ATM issues at the airport
I wanted to withdraw all the amount of money that we would need for the trip so that we only pay for ATM fees once. What I didn’t realize is that there’s an ATM limit of $2 million. Ugh. So I withdrew $2 million twice, and that was that.
Of course, like all the other times I tried to withdraw money during our year of travel, we had ATM issues. There were times when my card look liked it was going to be eaten by the machine, never to be returned. After a minute or two of wishing that my card will safely be returned to me, the machine slowly slid back my card! Yay! Money AND a returned ATM card! A rare win at the ATM!
Our driver finds us, and we get in the car en route to the hotel
Because we were arriving in Hanoi after nightfall, we decided to have arranged transportation since taxi would have been the only other option. How crazy is it that there are over 7.5 million people in Hanoi, and yet they don’t have a metro?
The ride was smooth and we arrived at the hotel in one piece despite driving to the hotel at 10 pm. I couldn’t help but feel so relieved. The first time I visited Hanoi was years ago. I was by myself alone with a stranger driving me to the hotel at 11 pm. I can’t tell you how scared I was from that experience and vowed to never ever fly into a city after dark again.
We were spending quite a bit of time in Hanoi
We initially planned to fit in Sapa and Halong Bay while using Hanoi as our base. Because the weather was iffy during the time we were visiting, we were going to decide while in Hanoi if we want to go to Sapa or Halong Bay.
In the end, we decided against both because the rice fields in Sapa would be brown by now and I’ve already been to Halong Bay, so I didn’t care much about revisiting the place. Instead, we were planning on visiting Ninh Binh, the “land” version of Halong Bay.
Hanoi has this small city feel and is lively throughout the day
Night time, daytime – you name it, it’s bustling. There’s a lot of small streets, alleys, bikes, and vendors.
Bikes are EVERYWHERE – either zooming by or parked wherever possible, to the point where you have to walk on the road
Most of the city smells like gasoline, probably because of all the scooters in the area.
Sidewalks aren’t meant for pedestrians
It’s also tough to walk on the sidewalks thanks to parked motorbikes and endless amounts of stuff all along the roads. You have to watch out where you are walking to avoid not walking into a pole.
Crossing the street is tricky at first
There aren’t many streetlights here, so you cross the street whenever there is a gap in the traffic flow. The key is to be predictable – bikes won’t stop, but instead, they will weave around you. So walk slow and make eye contact.
Before leaving for Ninh Binh, we didn’t do anything special
We took our time to explore our surroundings and take in the sights and sounds of the city. Not much has changed since I last visited Hanoi.
Just standing on a street corner to see all that is happening is overwhelming to the senses.
The weather was surprisingly cold
Hanoi is the first place where we’ve experienced cold weather since we started our year of travel. When I say cold, I mean it’s been around 10 degrees Celsius. I’m reminded of all the things I hate about cold weather. My skin gets dry, my hair falls very flat and limp, and it’s cold.
We ate a lot
And I mean a lot. Gary still talks about all the food we ate in Hanoi (and repeats the same terrible jokes!)
We had delicious banh mi (pronounced bun-me)
I’m a little bit scarred from my previous experiences in Vietnam
Ok, not a little, a lot. From scams to rip-offs, I’ve been there and seen that. Add to the fact that my family loves to scare me with the worst of the worst, and you have one paranoid traveller.
But I’m trying to see Vietnam in a different light. And I’m hoping for a more positive experience this time around. The first one happened over a spoon of fish sauce
Too much fish sauce for Pho
I poured too much fish sauce in my spoon by accident for my pho and had no place to dump it. A lady tapped me on the shoulder and told me to drop it into her untouched side soup. That was nice to her, and it meant that her soup is now unedible. Although I wonder why I didn’t get a side soup despite ordering the same dish.
I realize later that even though we pay the same price as the locals, we will always be paying for less food because we are foreigners. Not getting soup is one example.
Hoàn Kiếm Lake on the weekends
Every Friday to Sunday from 7 pm to midnight, the roads around Hoan Kiem lake close and locals and tourists alike come to the area. Unlike other night festivities in the rest of Asia, the road closures don’t have many things marketed to tourists. Instead, you’ll see groups of Vietnamese people singing songs in a campfire style way while others dance to Vietnamese music.
Strangers were playing and socializing with strangers. It’s just how things used to be when I stayed in my parents’ hometown.
My parents always noted how that was a huge transition for them when they first moved to Canada. In their hometown, neighbours would leave doors open so that children could run from one home to the next. They would transform the whole neighbourhood to be their playground.
This road closure had that same vibe, except on a much larger scale.
We then wandered to the beer street where we heard incredible live music
The area is very lively – the streets are also closed to cars and bikes as restaurants extend their seating area to the streets. Some places were so packed that it took us a while to get from one place to the next.
I can’t help but notice how safe I felt in Asia
The hotel manager had an amusing comment when we asked him how safe it is to walk around Hanoi at night. “No guns, no bombs – Hanoi is very safe,” he said with a smile.
How very true.
And yet, people are scared to travel.
Preferential treatment over crappy crepes
I was going to write about what happened and share details about the story and decided against it. All I can tell you is that Gary experienced his first preferential treatment because of the colour of his skin (in Asia, no less!) and he wasn’t a happy camper. In fact, he was so angry that he wanted to take all the napkins from the vendor and stomp on the crepes while the lady (well, a poorly aged millennial upon closer inspection) ran off with his crepe. I don’t know what’s worse, the Asian Asian racism or the fact that the lady (aka poorly aged millennial! Do you not use face cream!) KNEW she was given preferential treatment! Ah, the characters you meet while you travel!
But of course, there were the interesting people that we meet along the way.
Meeting Bryan from Pho Your Eyes Only
I will write a separate post about Bryan, but I’ll give you a summary here. Gary and I kept joking about how cool it would be to meet Bryan while in Hanoi. Clearly, the universe was listening because we ran into (well, I ran after him like a crazy person) Bryan on his LAST day in Hanoi before he returned home to Canada! We were also heading to Ninh Binh the next day and could have easily missed him! How crazy is that?
Our days in Hanoi flew by
Before we knew it, it was time to head to Ninh Binh to look for…KING KONG!
Spoiler alert: We didn’t find him.
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