Exploring Vietnam. Part I – Chaotic Hanoi

It has been a month after the trip and I am still thinking how to put our experiences in lines. 16 days in Vietnam is just too much to put in one blog entry. I guess the most natural way of dividing our story is by places we’ve visited, so let me start with Hanoi.

Vietnam, Hanoi
15-16/07/2018

Hanoi wasn’t high on our “must see in Vietnam” list, by far. But it was the starting and the finishing point of our trip due to the flights we had. We only planned to spend there several hours in the beginning of the trip before we catch the first night train to Sapa and the final evening before flying back home. But the Gods of Travels (with the help of Aeroflot) prepared us a bit different plan…

The arrival

As every more distant trip, ours started with a very long and tiring travel from Madrid (12:00) to Hanoi (08:25 next day), with a short stop in Moscow. Even though our backpacks were not jumbo size this time and barely weighted 10 kg each, we had some items that are not permitted on board so ended up wrapping them up and checking-in our luggage . Those who have read our Lofoten story already know, that we have some experience with lost luggage, and yes, IT HAPPENED AGAIN. Our first flight was slightly delayed. We had very little time left to jump from one flight to another, which included some light running at the airport. Already at that moment we had a bad feeling about the backpacks (backpacks usually don’t run) yet tried not to think of it too much until we arrive.

Ready to be lostTiny backpacks, ready to be lost

The morning in Hanoi airport was quite nervous: lots of queueing for visa (around an hour of waiting), long waiting at the belt and finally filling in the forms for lost luggage. We were lucky to be one of the first to reach lost and found office. Our flight lost a lot of luggage on the way and the queue behind us grew up pretty fast . The ladies at the office were clear enough – it stayed in Moscow and would only arrive with the next flight… tomorrow. This meant our initial plan would have to be changed. To be honest, we didn’t plan much this trip in advance. We read a lot and knew the places we wanted to visit but wanted to stay flexible. We’d only booked two things in advance: the first night train and caving expedition sometime later in the trip. Obviously, we lost one of the two.

After all the unpleasant procedures at the airport were done, we grabbed a local sim card to have cheap internet on the go and jumped into the bus to go to the city center. A bit overwhelmed by the long flight, jet lag, lost luggage, currency with too many zeros and upcoming changes of plans, we spent an hour on the bus staring through the window, not even suspecting what a chaotic atmosphere we would face in a few moments.

The traffic

The bus dropped us off in the middle of a big street (quite literally). First thing that you notice there is THE TRAFFIC. I mean… you read about it before you go and kind of know what is waiting for you, but NOT REALLY until you experience it for yourself . While I was staring at the never stopping movement and beeping, Pedro quickly checked the map and said we have to cross the street. Wait, what?? Cross the street? Here?? HOW??!!

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Why do they draw zebra crossings if nobody EVER stops?

Before the panic kicked in I found myself crossing the street next to an old lady with the bike (she is local and must know what she’s doing!!). Once on the other side, Pedro announced that this was a wrong direction and we must go back, crossing this street again. I swear, this was the scariest experience in all the trip. I honestly thought I would die when we were crossing it again, this time without a “live shield”, all on our owns. But we crossed it, surprisingly – alive.

Definitely, traffic has a major impact on the chaotic atmosphere in Hanoi, but after a few hours spent there you realize that it is just a part of this big hectic city and start crossing streets like a pro. The reality is that you can’t avoid walking on the streets as sidewalks are completely occupied by local street food, motorbikes or just people working and living their daily lives, using sidewalks as their personal space. Thus, everyone is forced to move in the street: cars, scooters, bikes, people… And no one stops! They just beep and keep moving in an unexplainably organic manner.

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Occupied sidewalks

Though the first thought seeing it makes you feel extremely unsafe, the reality is that we haven’t seen a single car accident in two weeks. The only two traffic accidents we happened to see involved tourists on scooters. No wonder foreigners are not allowed to drive in Vietnam! (Yet tourists do drive scooters a lot as no one is checking your license when renting).

Having survived the first shocking hour wandering around in the eclectic and chaotic city we faced a new challenge – the climate.

One day it started raining…

Before our trip we already kind of knew that we are going there on a rainy season. Yet, the same as with the traffic – you don’t REALLY know it until you face it.

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The sky has no mercy…

The humidity was so high and the air was so heavy that you could almost chew it. I was wearing my cotton t-shirt that I put on to be more comfortable during the flight and now ended up being the only thing I had at all for the upcoming 24 hours. Cotton and humid doesn’t mix well… and if you put rain on top you are doomed to never dry out. We faced rain almost all days of our trip. Some days it rained more than others and we were lucky enough to have 2 or 3 out of 16 without a rain at all. But in general, a line from the “Forest Gump” movie sums it up very well. We ended up quoting it a lot on the upcoming days.

Wanders and wonders

All soaked till the last thread we sat down in a bar to have a beer, hide ourselves from the rain and think of what’s next. To make it even more fun we ordered something that is supposed to be eatable.

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Local beer, “beef jerky” and a very wet hat

After refreshing our minds, still with no plan, we continued wandering in the city. Surprisingly enough, in two days spent there we wandered around 35 km!!

Hanoi 1   Hanoi 2

We didn’t have any plan set to see any particular buildings or visit any museums. It was more about simple wander and feeling the city, breathing it, tasting it, living it… We didn’t see any impressive buildings. In fact, the ones that were supposed to impress (meaning all nice, shiny and mostly with fences) were all colonial buildings… They looked so painfully out of place to our eyes that we passed through most of them without even stopping. It’s hard to say what kind of architecture I was expecting to see in Vietnam, but definitely not western big and fancy buildings. Asian architecture was deeply hidden, destroyed during war, or just buried between the eclectic homes of common people.

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Silent moments in a noisy city

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Architectural leftoversLeftovers of Asian architecture…

Yet the old town had its own charm in it. Even without having any knowledge about it, you can clearly see the division between streets: a street for shoes, a street for jewelry, a street for the bars, etc. They all have their own spirit, yet the same hectic atmosphere. We spent hours and hours walking those streets, running into local markets that appear in the middle of the street all of the sudden, following old ladies selling flowers, wondering about the domestic animals (we saw more hens than cats and dogs, even on a leash!), trying out tiny chairs of the street food places, smiling at their street hairdresser practices, questioning how on earth their electricity networks are actually functioning. Sometimes it felt like if a giant spider had put his electric net just above our heads. A bit creepy at the beginning until you get used to it, same as with the traffic.

IMG_20180715_180704A local market that popped out in the middle of the street

sdr sdrDomestic animals: free cats and dogs, hens on the leash??

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These wonderful flowers that I wanted to follow…

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Cozy little streets of old town in Hanoi

IMG_20180715_140413The mystery of electricity

We didn’t take many photos in Hanoi, mainly because of the rain, but also because it felt a bit too much of taking photos at every corner. We tried to stop ourselves from taking photos every two steps and respect a bit the daily lives of local people. Instead, we lived those moments and put in our minds the different perspectives and experiences…

The tastes

Something completely unexpected for me in all this trip was the food experience. I must admit that I am very picky with the tastes and spices, not to mention unconventional food like grasshoppers or snakes that I’d heard stories about before leaving. Thus, I was psychologically prepared to suffer with food in Asian country, eat very little and return home with a few lost kilos of my weight. It turned out to be quite the opposite. Hanoi was just the beginning of the discovery of Asian cuisine. The first try of that “something” we ordered with beer wasn’t fascinating but starting with the afternoon and a very local “bun cha” my stomach got pleased and it didn’t stop till the end of the trip. Also, the food was always as fresh as it can get. We witnessed ourselves the delivery of live (!!!) chicken to the local restaurant.

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First bun cha experience was not disappointing 

cofLive chicken delivery

On the second day, after getting back our backpacks from the airport and recovering our mood a bit, we went for lunch in the (at the moment) No 3 restaurant in Hanoi according to TripAdvisor – Cumulus. It was marked as a hidden pearl. It was definitely hidden yet definitely not as shiny as a pearl. In fact, when I got inside I was so shocked by its humble appearance (to say the least) that I had a few moments of doubts if I really want to sit down there. However, it was yet another cultural and emotional experience, apart from the huge amount of the tasty food.

cofEnormous amount of food at Cumulus

sdrA very simple restaurant with a very deep feeling

The owner of the restaurant used to be an orphan street boy, who was lucky enough to be supported to get education by a rich person with a good will. He grew up and chased his dream to have his own restaurant. The restaurant is extremely simple, but this now grown up street boy puts all his heart in it. Not only he serves the food personally to every client, but also takes time to interact with you, share experiences, treat you with never ending soup and have some rice wine together. We left the place quite emotionally touched, discussing how individual good acts can change the course of life of people. Driven by sentiments we bought a bunch of greeting cards from the first lady we met in the street and went to the post office to send them to our families.

edfSending a card home to our girls

The train

Probably the most interesting thing we saw in Hanoi was the train, or train rails to be more precise. First day we walked right next to it but missed it somehow (most likely because we were not looking for it). On the second day Pedro read a bit about it and took us there on purpose. The railway was squeezed in a tiny street, right next to the houses people live in. We walked on it for a while mainly meeting only tourists, hens and butterflies, passing through some old ladies cooking on the ground in the street right next to the rails… I was thinking of how much the city is overcrowded and how people are taking advantage of any space they have, living literally on an abandoned railway. Then, Pedro surprised me that it was an actually functioning railway. I couldn’t believe it until we took a train on it ourselves the same evening!

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Looks a bit like Photoshop but it is not…

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IMG_20180716_135553 Looking at the photos it’s still hard to believe this is an actually functioning railway…

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IMG_20180716_140942Butterflies were the most common wild fauna we saw in all of the trip

Talking about the train… From the moment we realized our backpacks had been lost we knew we would have to change our plans for it. When traveling in summer on the night trains you always have to book tickets at least few days in advance to get a soft sleeper. That was the main reason why we had it booked before even starting the trip. We lost our sleeper tickets as they are not refundable and had to get new ones for the next day. We only bought train tickets after we had our backpacks with ourselves and… we couldn’t get a soft sleeper having only 9 hours before the departure. We accepted yet another challenge and booked soft seat instead as we didn’t want to lose one more day in the city when our hearts were calling for wildness.

3 Replies to “Exploring Vietnam. Part I – Chaotic Hanoi”

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