On November 24th, we took a short flight from Hong Kong and arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam. We knew of course, it would be different to Hong Kong. What a massive understatement that is. Walking out the arrivals gate at the airport, swindling taxi drivers greeted us, attempting to guide us into their taxis, buses, anything that would earn them a dollar. Thanks to Lonely Planet, we knew it was best to avoid them, unless it was our wish to end up in an imaginary hotel.
So we got on the Vietnam airlines bus into Hanoi, thinking that would be the safe option. It wasn’t. The young Vietnamese woman collecting the fares triggered arguments with an English couple and a pair of Aussies as they refused to pay until the bus actually started going somewhere. We of course being Irish and not being so argumentative just laughed along. When we got going, our jaws dropped at the absolute chaos that is the Hanoi road system.
Traffic lights – rare and not important. Lanes – common but ignored. Indicators – unused. Horns – actually used in excess, not to signal annoyance or to alert someone, but to signal your own presence and it appears sometimes, just for the craic. Oh and 90% of the vehicles on the road are scooters. We got off the bus and had a fair walk ahead to the hostel, so we followed two Norweigan girls who seemed to know what they were doing. Unfortunately for us, the walk entailed crossing roads.
How do you cross roads with no lights or crossings? Thank God for my cousin Feargal who had taught me ‘Road crossing in Vietnam 101’. Just walk slowly and the scooter drivers will gauge your position in time to veer around you. If you stop, they will become confused and BANG. If you speed up, BANG. The first couple of times are nerve-racking. But in time, you begin to wonder if is this really chaos? Is it only illogical because it is different? In fact, once you get the hang of it you see that actually, in a strange way, it makes sense.
So we arrived at our hostel and checked into our 3 bed dorm at Hanoi Backpackers, quite a step down from our 4 seasons like Hong Kong hotel room. Soon enough, a guy walked in and incidentally he was Irish. Hanoi was his final destination after 4 months in South-East Asia and his route had been just like ours would be, only backwards. We asked him a million and one questions including of course – ‘was there anywhere you didn’t like?’. He answered ‘No guys, there’s no place in this part of the world I didn’t love’. That certainly eased our anxious minds, hopefully we could tell others the same 4 months in the future.
We then headed out to taste some of the local food, we were ushered into a Vietnamese restaurant and had a nice meal which cost us about a euro each. I thought we were part of some kind of Ashton Kutcher joke. Then of course we went for a few beers which cost us a euro for a round. It then became clear, we could live like Kings here in Vietnam. Diarmo and I made the mistake of going out in jeans to wine and dine. We weren’t sure what the backpacker etiquette was. As we drank our wonderfully cheap beers we looked around at young tanned Europeans and Aussies with shorts, singlets and flip flops and felt a bit embarrassed. The jeans went to the bottom of our bags the next morning.
So the next day, we wandered around the city of Hanoi, attempted a walking tour of the city and spent most of it turning our heads at the different sights and sounds of the city. It’s nothing like any city we had ever seen before. Shops in Hanoi extend out into the street, while walking the footpaths, you may have to avoid restaurants where the locals sit at tiny tables, mechanics at work on scooters, cheap clothing and phone stands, even guys trying to put 40 inch flatscreens on the back of their scooters, basically footpaths aren’t really for walking in Hanoi. It is great to just look around and see the Vietnamese way of life.
We went to the large lake which is the centre of Hanoi’s old quarter, a turtle’s haven we were told. Apparently, you are very very lucky to see one if it happens to come above the water to have a look around. We didn’t see one. In the evening, we hunted down an Irish pub, to see if we were able to get a proper pint. We did find an Irish pub, but the pints were average. Fair play to the Vietnamese though, there were pictures of Jack Charlton and Bono on the walls.
Most pubs were fairly quiet or full of locals and we were eager to make some new friends. We settled in a place called the Cheeky Quarter purely because they had a poker set for customers. The two of us started a game of heads up between us, but before long there was an Aussie, an older Yorkshire man, an American suit and ourselves having quite a serious game. The music was electric, the drinks were flowing at a price that didn’t even register, the ashtrays were filling; the scene was just brilliant. Diarmo and I had to smile at each other, this was the beginning of something. The American and I went heads up at the end and he beat me in a thriller, I was devastated as he picked up the wads of cash on the table. Diarmo and I laughed afterwards, what looked like a lot (400,000 dong) was actually ten euro.
We visited the War History museum in Hanoi on our final day there. The museum housed many photographs and artefacts from Vietnamese history and it was extremely sad to see what the people here had been through, the Americans and the French were ruthless and cruel in their treatment of the Vietnamese. Millions of innocent people died over the past two centuries at the hands of the Western World.
The city of Hanoi really has a wonderful charm about it. As I said, on first impressions it is terrifyingly chaotic. However, after a few days wandering the city, we began to appreciate that in spite of the thousands of scooters zooming around, the streets crowded with stalls and shops, there is in fact an incredibly tranquility amongst all of this. On our wanders, we encountered many groups of Vietnamese huddled playing board games or having a meal while the world zoomed by. And in their peacefulness, we were inspired to feel it too.
Surprisingly Hanoi is a giant wifi hub. A lot of the restaurants and bars had super fast wifi and we took our iPods on our walks. It was just nice to keep in touch with sports news, girls we’d left behind and of course our mothers. Sapa was our next stop, a hillside town a few hours inland in North Vietnam and we encountered our first night train.