Dodging hundreds of bikes, watching people in pyjamas and conical hats and waiting out a typhoon in between… First steps in Vietnam…

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Asia » Vietnam » Red River Delta » Hanoi
August 1st 2013
Published: October 5th 2013
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As much as I enjoyed doing almost nothing during our last couple of days in Laos, I felt I was becoming more and more lazy by the minute. Let’s just say I was getting used the laid-back style of Lao living, I was getting used to it way too fast though, so finally the 1st of August came and we were able to head on to Vietnam. We went to the bus station a day before just to double check whether there definitely was a bus to Hanoi the next day and were told that somewhere between 7 and 9am indeed there would be a bus going in that direction. What a precise timetable! No surprises at this point though… We got to the station before 7am just in case, and of course were there way too early, a thought of spending another night in Sam Neua… well… the thought of it just made me get ready a bit faster than usual in the morning for sure! As lovely as the town was, think we spent more than enough time there – think even the people from our favourite (the only one that was actually welcoming and open all the time) restaurant were a bit surprised to see us coming back there so many times. 😉 Still didn’t mind being a bit earlier at the station as watching how they pack up the local buses is always fun! This time there was even a pig coming along in one of the buses… Thankfully not ours though! Pheeeew… There were only two of us and another guy from Chile in the whole bus when we left the station (surprisingly we left around 7.30!). It took another hour to leave Sam Neua though – looks like we weren’t informed that there was personal pick-up service included in the price of the ticket… We basically stopped every 100m in town to pick up some stuff, local people, caged birds and even a bunch of ducks that were squashed into bamboo bags and ended up dumped on the roof of our bus. We even passed our hotel along the way… Hmmm… I was slightly shocked when at one of the pick-up stops our driver took out a huge tube and started smoking from it! At first I thought it was hash or something like that but except the cigarette smell all around, there was no other smell in the air. Still it certainly didn’t look like he was smoking tobacco. Was it opium maybe then? Sure looked like it was something in this direction… I started having some serious doubts about this trip after seeing that, but it looked like we had another driver who took over after that stop. Pheeeew… It seemed like we finally picked up all the people and were ready to head off… And then the drive from hell started! Half an hour into the journey and the locals were puking already! Including two girls spilling out their guts just behind our seats… Thank God for an ipod as hearing these kinds of sounds makes my stomach a bit uneasy… The border crossing couldn’t be any easier… We had to get off the bus twice, first to get our departure stamps and then to get our Vietnam arrival stamps and to have our bags checked – as much as they were checking locals’ luggage more or less thoroughly, ours they only glimpsed on – nothing better than to put undies on top! 😉 Until Thanh Hoa it was a pretty unadventurous journey – just the usual speeding, overtaking on the curves and constant honking. Once we got there we quickly switched buses and were on our way to Hanoi. At first it looked like an upgrade to the previous trip – an aircon in the bus??? Too good to be true… And it was... as it worked for the first half an hour of the journey or so… And even though we only had 150km to Hanoi it looked like it would take a couple hours to get there. As usual we were picking up and dropping off people all along the way. And our driver was beyond crazy! Some seriously dangerous driving! At some point we almost hit a motorbike! After a very heated up exchange of words and our bus driver spitting on the biker (that’s right!) we finally were ready to continue on with our journey… well… not really as we stopped a short while after and our driver and the biker were shouting at each other again… It looked like there would be no end to it as after driving a while again the biker was waiting for us on the side of the road. It looked like our bus driver had seen him too as suddenly
even though crowded, looks peaceful right?even though crowded, looks peaceful right?even though crowded, looks peaceful right?

...bus ride from hell that was!
he hit the brakes, making everyone almost fall from their chairs and with two metal bars in hands, he and a few guys from the bus just ran after the biker! Not to mention that it was happening on the motorway and they were running through the lanes, in between other bikes and cars like madmen… Honestly it was a miracle that nobody got hurt and eventually they called it off… I was shocked to see how aggressive they were – was it a glimpse of what was to come in Vietnam? Hopefully not… Coming from laid-back Laos and seeing this was surely a huge shock… Then there was even more crazy driving and we were thrown in the air on every bump until we finally made it to our destination. That was a really tiring journey…

Nevertheless: welcome to Hanoi! We were dropped off in the middle of nowhere of course – not sure why we weren’t privileged to get closer to the old town while all the other (local) passengers were dropped off whenever they pleased… Well… At least we made it here in one piece! We got some bikers offering their services – yep! as if I was jumping on a bike with my backpack after the crazy bus ride! Think I’ve had enough excitement for a few days at least! Eventually we shared a taxi with our Chilean friend and have to say that even though our driver didn’t speak a word of English he was extremely friendly and honest as well (at the very beginning he showed us our route on GPS and as we were driving through the city he was pointing at some attractions along the way). Well, maybe not everyone is going to scam us here? When we were driving through the old district I couldn’t help but notice the lack of guesthouses and hotels – didn’t see any along the way! It was 11pm already, with an early start at 5.30 that morning, I was just exhausted and very hungry at this point so walking around looking for a place to sleep at that moment didn’t seem like fun. So once we passed along Old Street Hotel (I remembered seeing it in LP before) I was just hoping they wouldn’t ask some ridiculous price for a room there – $15 for a huge room with TV, wifi and hot shower (well turned out the boiler was broken later on, in this heat it didn’t really matter though) seemed very reasonable, so we took it without second thoughts. Already in a taxi I spotted some cart with kebabs and beer corner only a short walk from the hotel. Dinner and drinks sorted as well! And back to the room for badly needed sleep (as easy as it usually is for me to sleep on buses, with all the honking, locals puking and crazy driving I managed to sleep maybe an hour only). Still two Vietnamese red-bulls I had before seemed to have done a perfect job as at 2am I was still fully awake… Ah well… At least I could lie down and stretch my legs finally…

It was pretty difficult to drag my butt out of bed the next morning, late morning actually, as we managed to leave the hotel around 11 and it was only because my stomach was begging for some food… After walking around the streets a bit and dodging the crazy bikers we found a lovely restaurant with a balcony overlooking the surrounding streets. Wow! Looking at the streets from a bit higher up sure gave a different perspective to all the chaos around – people, bicycles, motorbikes, rickshaws, cars… you name it! And it seemed like all of them were moving in different directions! Missing each other by centimetres of course! Still the more you were looking at this chaotic way of moving around, the more smooth and sensible it seemed. Whoever was in the back was giving way to whoever was in front. Rear mirrors? Such a thing doesn’t exist in Asia I guess… Who needs it anyway, right? 😉

After delicious brunch (hmmm… banana pancake with honey and coconut shake!) we decided to go for a walk around the old quarter. We walked to the temple on Hoan Kiem Lake first. The name of the lake takes its source from a legend. They say that in the 15th century the magical sword that the emperor used to drive the Chinese out of Vietnam was grabbed by a giant Ho Guom tortoise and buried in the lake, basically once it served its purpose it was restored to its rightful owners. Therefore the name of the lake is lake of the Restored Sword (Ho Hoan Kiem lake). The temple itself was much more exciting on the inside than outside – lots of relics from the older days as well as the embalmed remains of a huge turtle (200kg!). Apparently his great granddad still lives in the lake and can be seen coming to the surface once in a while which apparently brings you a great deal of luck … No luck for us this time… Later on we walked around the old quarter, dodging the bikes, watching people and in general checking out the surroundings. Just love the conical hats! And I’m simply amazed by the colourful pyjama-resembling clothes in here! Hmmm… strange fashion! Eventually we went back to the same restaurant, well… Once you find a nice spot, why would you look for another one, right? We treated ourselves to some lovely spring-rolls, noodle soup (pho bo – Vietnamese speciality) and some tasty bun cha (grilled pork served with noodles, another speciality!). What can I say? Yum!

We were trying to figure out where to head next. We definitely wanted to go to Halong Bay and on top of that Sapa was popping into my head all the time as well… Hmmm… Decisions, decisions… Unfortunately we couldn’t do any of that at all as there was a typhoon coming this way. All the Halong Bay cruises were cancelled for the next few days and trekking through rice paddies in pouring rain didn’t sound too appealing either so we just decided to wait it out in Hanoi instead. And it seemed like a good decision as once it started lashing it didn’t stop for over a day. Even walking two blocks got you all soaked. It was amazing to see Hanoi so empty at that time! No bikes at all, just a random one here and there, many places closed… Hmmm… There was no point walking around then, watching rugby and having a few beers seemed like the best option I guess. We were lucky as they were showing rugby just at the backpackers right next to us. Since we were there already we decided to check out what kind of ‘budget’ tours they had for Sapa and Halong Bay at the hostel. Let me just say that some pretty wealthy backpackers must have been staying there as paying $120 for 3 days Sapa and $200 for 3 day Halong Bay (per person!) seemed slightly ridiculous. And we were told straight away that the Halong Bay cruise was basically focused on boozing (alcohol not included in price of course). Wow! Sooooo not into that! Thanks for the offer though... Eventually we booked Sapa through our hotel instead - $60 for 3 days (2 nights on the bus and one in a homestay) seemed like a much better idea. We crossed our fingers that it would be as good as it sounded – once again all sorts of scams were clouding my thoughts, but we decided to trust our guts and give it a try in the end. We left Halong Bay for later. After all we still had to come back to Hanoi, so hopefully there would be no more typhoons once we were back from trekking. And looking outside the window at the pouring rain we hoped we would get some decent weather while trekking as well… Realistically it seemed impossible at that moment… hopes up though!

Thankfully the following day the skies have cleared and we were able to do a bit of sightseeing again. We looked at our map and decided it was time for some history lessons and headed to the Army Museum first. We didn’t exactly look at the time when we were leaving, and since we had late breakfast again, we got to the museum just at the break time. Keep on forgetting about the lunch breaks in here! So we just had to wander around for another two hours somewhere then… We headed to see uncle Ho’s mausoleum. Not that we were planning to queue up to see him… It looked like even if we wanted to see him, it wasn’t possible at that time. The place was empty! There were no people around at all! Maybe they took uncle Ho for a holiday to Russia? As apparently he was spending a few months per year somewhere there... There were still some soldiers in front guarding the mausoleum though. This must be the most monotonous job in the whole world! And the one which requires the most concentration and patience for sure! Nope, not for me! 😉 When I was taking a picture of the complex, I seemed to have crossed one of THE lanes… Straight away one of the guards (not the ones at the door as they weren’t moving at all, but the one hidden in the bushes) started whistling at me and waving his arms at me to move away… oops! I wasn’t the only one to cause trouble though… At one point a bigger group of people came along. When they got ‘dangerously’ close to THE lane they received a whistle warning as well, but there was no stopping them at all… on the contrary, they seemed to have enjoyed this crossing over the lane and whistling game! Haha! Poor guard was fuming! Later on we went for a stroll pass the presidential palace to the big lake. We couldn’t help but notice a huge number of New Zealand flags waving all around. I guess some friendly visit must have been taking place at that time? On the way back we came across a Polish Embassy as well. Well, look at that! A little patriotic twist for both of us! 😉 We spent quite a bit of time walking around the Army Museum as they surely have a lot of war relics on display – you can see here not only all sorts of weapons that were used during the numerous wars Vietnam was involved in (including Vietnam War), but parts of wrecked aircrafts as well as some big models of aircrafts and even tanks. Really impressive collection! In the evening, back at the old quarter, we wandered around the night market for a while. As much as I love markets, this one wasn’t exciting at all. I think it was orientated more towards the locals rather than tourists as they had mostly clothes on sale there – nothing unusual at all. And it sure attracted a lot of Vietnamese as they were browsing through the stalls all around. One of stands seemed to have attracted a few more people than the others, well no wonder why… The girl working there was killing her throat shouting out the offers (I’m assuming that’s what she was doing as obviously she was talking in Vietnamese). And what an attitude she had! One hand on a hip, standing straight, eye contact with the people around – really fascinating! I wonder how long she could go on like that? Later on we went back to our favourite place for dinner and treated ourselves to some lovely bun cha again. All that was left to do now was to wait through the next day for our bus to northern Vietnam, yep! The next day would involve quite a bit of relaxing then! 😊 It looked like we might get some decent weather after all as there were no more typhoons forecasted for the next few day… Woohoo! So there it was, time to move on further… Next stop: Sapa!

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6th October 2013


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