My heart skipped a beat as the plane dropped below the clouds over Hanoi. The level of beauty, green and peace was overwhelming… I don’t know that I have ever seen that much green and water and city all in the same place. As I landed, the jet lag couldn’t begin to rival the excitement of finally being here. I hopped in a taxi and headed to the Old Quarter, where I would be spending most of my time in Hanoi. The driver dropped me off at my hostel, newly abandoned and in the process of becoming a massage parlor. Great way to start in a foreign city, eh? The hostel had listed the wrong address on Booking.com with no new address listed. As I wandered the streets of old town, following the points of helpful strangers as I searched for a cafe with wifi to find my hostel’s new location, I came across fellow backpackers.
Hallelujah! They found the new address on their phones and pointed me in the direction I needed to go. Ironically enough, I was already wandering towards my hostel, so I was only a half block away at that point, but these friends I made SAVED me! Who knows how long I would have been wandering otherwise. As I walked towards my hostel, it ended up being an entrance in a side alley that you only enter if you know you are going to the hostel! It was an alleyway in the middle of everything exciting and wonderful, however, and became a brilliant shortcut over the next few days. Despite exhaustion rolling in with the jet lag, I chose to fight it and go out for a beer and exploring time. I ended up finding the same backpackers who had helped me a few hours before, and we sat and talked over a few beers. They were finishing their time in Hanoi as I started mine. The girl mentioned buying a motorcycle, planting that initial seed in my head which later would lead to me buying one as well. Two went back to the hostel and David (the third) and I decided to go out for some massages. As we set out for cheap but quality massages, David and I agreed to pay no more than $8 for a massage. As these ladies tried to woo us in to their massage parlor, ladies from surrounding parlors along the street also came over, vying to entice us away. At one point, we were surrounded by women half my size shouting “massaaaaage, massssage!” while looking up at me. All of the $15 massages were suddenly $8, then $7, then $6! I got an hour long massage for $6!!!
Welcome to Vietnam….
Settled in to the hostel and relaxed, I met Tanja, the other girl in my dorm. We went off exploring the town and the rumor that there were beers available at restaurants on draft for 5,000 VND (22 cents US). THE RUMORS ARE TRUE! As we settled in at the restaurant, we were joined by two German backpackers, forming a great crew over the next few days. I tasted my first hot pot in Vietnam, and I think I still dream about how tasty they are even two months later… This can all be found in what we fondly refer to as “Beer Alley”. During the day, it appears as a small alleyway with restaurants galore. However, at night, it transforms in to bars and clubs with tables out in the street, vendors everywhere, and constant police raids. Since the businesses aren’t allowed to have tables and dining in the street, the patrons, tables, and waiters all run in a frenzied scramble once or twice and hour to clear out the evidence and stand in the alleyway as the police make a quick run through the area. Then, everyone runs back in to the streets and resumes the parties and dining and festivities.
The first few times, it was an adrenaline rush as I ran in to a separate alley, carrying my beer and bowl of food, laughing at the rush of it all. Eventually, we had it down to an art, enjoying every second of it!
Walking the streets of the Old District is amazing, death-defying, and exhilarating. The traffic laws are about as effective as using syrup instead of Super Glue to build something. Walking across the streets, the red lights, yellow lines, and right side of the road mean nothing in this organized chaos. The key to not getting in a scooter versus backpacker accident is to walk slowly, never stop, and let the scooters do the work. They will go around you in every direction in this crazy flow that defies nature.
Around town, I visited Hoan Kiem Lake, where there is a temple, Di Tich Quoc Gia Bac Biet Ho Hoan Kiem va Den Ngoc Son…. whoa, that’s a mouthful. There are also various symbols that my English keyboard cannot accomplish. Walking through the temple was quieting, watching the locals come through to pray and the fervent nature in which they did. The temple itself was extravagant! But, it was my first temple in Asia, so extravagance was based on just one temple.
In addition to the temples, the coffee in Hanoi is amazing! There are cute cafes with amazing coffees and drinks available. If I wasn’t already hopelessly addicted to coffee, this city would have sealed the deal. They have incredible coffee, great lattes, and another specialty called egg coffee. It’s made with raw egg, making the texture creamy and a very interesting taste. It wasn’t my thing, but many backpackers and travelers love it! As I like to say to myself in situations like this, if it’s there, I should probably try it. That is all part of experiencing the culture, right? I had to remind myself of that continually as I ate at restaurants where there were no mens or English speakers… I got the pleasure of eating a variety of unidentifiable meats and soups, egg coffee, jellyfish salad, and, of course, the whiskey with a cobra and all its venom inside.
Sometimes, things in the city can get a little awkward as well…. As I dove in to getting all of the massages I could, I tried out a new massage place with some other backpackers I was with. As we all got in to our little rooms, I got the male massage therapist. This doesn’t normally phase me, but that day, everything changed. As he got on top of the table and started the massage, he got a wee bit… errr…. happy. Let me tell you, it is IMPOSSIBLE to relax when the dude giving you a massage gets a little too happy. It was in the top 5 most awkward moments of my life as that poor guy hopped off the table and started massaging my arm instead. Thanks for the back massage, bro! The best part of it all? The “walls” between massages were sheets, so my backpacker friends all knew what had gone down as well. Great friendships are sealed in awkward moments and laughter, so that certainly sealed the deal for us…
Since there wasn’t trekking or mountains in the city of Hanoi, I can describe a few of the places I particularly liked in photos. Cities are tough for me. The smells (awful, coming from the mountains), the lack of space to run, and the utter lack of mountains and nature make them incredibly difficult for me to write about. However, after a month of trekking around Northern Vietnam, I had to return to sell my motorcycle. The second time around was absolutely incredible! I met up with a friend I had met in Sapa and we made the most of the last day I spent in Hanoi…
As we went exploring, looking for some street food and cheap beer, Emma and I met some locals. They shared all of their food, taught us how to roll up whatever it was we were eating, and feasted. They gave us Coronas and started asking about our home country. Both coming from the US, we had a blast comparing, answering their hilarious questions, and throwing back beers. After about an hour, they brought a cab up and started yelling something about Karaoke. Emma and I looked at each other, had that moment of “Should we get in the cab and go?” and simultaneously hopped in for the adventure. We ended up bouncing through three karaoke bars with the worst music I’ve ever heard and the funniest version of “bottle service” I have ever seen! Bottle service is a giant tub with about 20 bottles of Corona on ice. They were so excited about telling us they got bottle service that when the tub came out, we were cracking up! After a few karaoke bars, we wandered back to the hostel and made our ways to bed. It was a heck of a night!
So, there are a few things I learned in the first city in Asia I landed in…
1. Beers are 20 cents, but they are also about as strong as kombucha
2. Just keep walking and trust that the scooters won’t hit you
3. Offer half of whatever it costs
4. Google maps is a joke, just download Maps.Me
5. The beds are pads on concrete
6. Coffee is amazing. DRINK IT ALL.
7. The best plan is NO plan
Hanoi was wonderful, but back in to the outdoors I go!