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Vietnam – Part 1 (Hanoi and Ha Long Bay) November 4, 2010

Posted by jorkat in Ha Long Bay, Hanoi.
5 comments

There’s nothing quite like the range of emotions you experience when arriving in a foreign country for the first time. Especially now as we travel from place to place and deal with the same range of feelings and similar challenges with unique outcomes in every country we arrive in. The best way I could describe it is “bittersweet nervous anticipation”.

The fear of the unknown combined with the sadness of leaving somewhere you have just become accustomed to and usually enjoyed, coupled with the excitement and adrenaline rush of venturing somewhere new poses an interesting dichotomy. Yup, that’s right. I said dichotomy.

You don’t know the language. You have a new currency to deal with. You have to figure out how to get from the airport to your hotel without getting hosed by a con artist. And all of this on top of the usual traveling headaches (luggage, customs, etc.). Sometimes it takes a few hours, sometimes it might take a day or so, but sooner than later it all becomes worth it. Usually after you find your hotel and start to explore the surrounding neighborhood or find that first cool restaurant just a few blocks away. You become one with your surroundings and wonder why you were ever apprehensive about visiting such a cool place. Just when you become completely comfortable you have to pack up and repeat the entire process all over again. Lather, rinse, repeat. Yup, that’s right. I just used a shampoo analogy.

Never has this range of emotions been more relevant for us than with our arrival in Vietnam. We had just become accustomed to life in Laos and said goodbye to close friends. Our flight from Vientiane to Hanoi was delayed and we had to wait longer than expected for our Visa’s to be processed in Vietnam. We found a mini-bus which would take us to the city centre and were the last to board even though every seat was taken. Katie got stuck next to a larger gentleman with questionable personal hygiene, and I had half a butt-cheek on the edge of a seat for the hour long drive to our hotel.

This might sound like I’m complaining, but I’m not. When you travel full-time, you grow thick skin and realize that these unexpected turn of events and perceived frustrations are all part of the experience. They make you appreciate the final destination that much more, especially when put your bags down, find that nearby restaurant and savor a $1.25 Heineken while enjoying the best spring rolls we’ve ever tasted. Whoever said it’s not about the destination, it’s all about the journey clearly hasn’t traveled in Southeast Asia.

Back to the ride from the airport. Holy $hitballs. Every person we’ve encountered along our travels and even friends from back home have warned us about the scooters. No matter how much you hear it, it still doesn’t prepare you for what it’s actually like.

No lanes. No stop signs. Few traffic lights. Some large intersections with dense traffic coming from all directions and no one directing anything. Some roundabouts where it’s not clear which direction you’re supposed to go in. It’s organized chaos. Cars, scooters, buses all came within inches of our mini-bus and no one would even flinch.

The only rules of the road that I was able to decipher were that you should honk when passing another larger vehicle to warn them of your presence. Rear-view mirrors and turning signals appear to be strictly cosmetic additions to vehicles here as they are rarely used. I also think the largest vehicle with the loudest horn has the right of way in all situations and everyone else must yield or stop. If you’re one of those people who gets pissed off when someone behind you honks as soon as the light turns green, then you might want to eliminate “Driving in Vietnam” from your bucket list.

Walking across the street is whole other experience in itself. The rule of thumb which we read about and heard from fellow travelers was to walk slowly out into traffic and establish eye contact with the drivers headed at you. If they can see you, they will drive around you, and when I say “drive around you”, I mean narrowly miss you by a few inches without slowing down. Within a few days, we were walking out into thick traffic after a brief glance in both directions as if we had be doing it our whole lives. Ignoring the incessant honking is the hardest part. You have to tune them out unless they’re within a 10-yard radius around you in which case you may want to pay attention. I’m also pleased to announce that we managed to break the Mulloskey’s record of going more than 2.5 seconds while walking through the heart of Hanoi without hearing a vehicle honk. In the interest of full disclosure I should acknowledge that it was on a slightly less crowded side street, so there were only a few hundred scooters in the vicinity, but we managed to count an entire 5 seconds between honks. It was pure bliss.

Speaking of noise pollution, I f%#&ing hate roosters, especially the ones that have no concept of time. For some reason, there was one living on the roof of our hotel in downtown Hanoi. We were fortunate enough to be on the top floor (Penthouse baby!) which meant that we got to walk up 4 floors of stairs to get to our room and had a front row seat for the roosters enchanting 3am performance. He performs nightly and tickets are only 2 for $17. Maybe urban Asian roosters are the rejects that couldn’t keep their mouths shut until sunrise and were unable to land a plum job on a farm. Just a theory.

Somewhere in Thailand or Laos we both acquired a parasite or some sort of bacterial infection that caused our food to make unexpected and inconvenient appearances after being consumed. Thanks to our trusty travel guide, we were able to locate a Korea-Vietnam Clinic that was within walking distance from our hotel. Despite having been away from Korea for less than a month and having only lived there for a year, I felt like we were going home. The clinic was clean and easy to navigate. The doctor and nurses spoke English and provided medication and proper documentation for us to claim these expenses with our health insurance coverage. We were in an out in under an hour and feeling better within a day or so. My only regret was that our Korean doctor wasn’t nearly as excited about my ability to speak broken Korean or the fact that we had lived there nearly as much as I was.

Me: Anyong Haseyo (said while bowing and clenching bowels)

Him: So what seems to be the problem? (in perfect English)

Me: Well it seems…like everything on my inside wants to be on my outside. Hey, did I mention that we lived in Korea?

Him: Is your wife pregnant? If not, take these.

Me: Kamsa Hamnida (Thank you in Korean said with veiled disappointment while being escorted out)

Traffic, scooters and stomach viruses aside, Vietnam had quickly gone from the country where that war happened to one of the favourite destinations in Southeast Asia thus far. And not just because of the couture, but we’ll get to that later. On our way back from the clinic we made an unexpected discovery. After having visited so many temples in the past year I almost forgot what the picture below was called when we ran into it less than a block from our hotel.

After two fairly uneventful days exploring Hanoi and the various bathrooms throughout the city, we boarded a bus for Ha Long Bay, a must-see tourist attraction and vying to become one of the 7 Wonders of the World. We were part of a tour group that would travel together on a 3-hour bus trip to the coast where we would board a Junk Boat that would take us around the Bay and be our home for the next 24 hours.

We made two very interesting discoveries before we had even arrived at Ha Long Bay.

1) You may want to sit down before reading this. They have basil and garlic flavoured Pringles. I know, I was as shocked as you are. We made this discovery at a rest stop en route to Ha Long Bay and I’m still angry about it. How the hell are these not available to North America? Shame on you Frito Lay or whoever owns that stupid chip company which I’m too lazy to look up. This is an outrage.

2) I have grey facial hair. Katie made this discovery on the bus ride as well. This wasn’t nearly as traumatic as the Pringles thing but it didn’t help. Not a great 3-hour stretch for yours truly. Anyway, back to our voyage…

A lot of people prefer to avoid organized tours when traveling and I tend to agree with them to some degree. We avoided being herded around like cattle for our trip to the Great Wall in Beijing and it was probably the best decision we made that entire trip. But sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith and trust that you’re going to have a good experience. Ha Long Bay has become such a major tourist attraction with so many junk boats and travel companies servicing tourists, that it’s hard to go wrong. As long as you do some research and ask the right questions, you’ll be fine in most cases. The biggest variable that you can’t control is what the people in your tour group will be like. Much like my overall traveling mantra of keeping expectations low, I assume everyone in our group will be a pompous windbag or a whiny bitch. So far, we’ve been pleasantly surprised almost every time, especially on this particular trip.

There were some whiners in the larger group on our bus who were questioning every detail of what our guides were attempting to explain and flummoxed when they said that the group would be split into two and be on separate boats (they wanted to ensure that they were on the BETTER boat?). I calmly pointed out that I was pretty sure they were going to the same place and that there were hundreds of similar-type boats in the bay. To make a long story short we ended up in separate boats from the complainer and ours WAS better, both in terms of the actual vessel and the quality of people aboard. A few people on our boat even acknowledged after the fact that they were relieved not to be with Cranky McWhinealot.

Our eclectic  group included  a pair of older gentlemen (Bob & Terry) who were old friends and were traveling with a Vietnamese professor who they had befriended years ago. It turns out that Terry had actually served in the Vietnam war along with the Vietnamese professor. Needless to say, it was pretty amazing to hear some perspective from men who served on opposite sides of a conflict that happened before I was born and were now returning to the site of said conflict as friends. Both Bob & Terry were very engaging and made an effort to include everyone and learn a little bit about them. It brought the whole group together and created an ideal atmosphere for this kind of adventure. Our group also included two girls and a guy from Montreal, two Brits, two young American guys, an Aussie couple, a Dutch couple and the Stanford Researcher from California. A pretty unique group to say the least. Throw in a crew of 4-6 Vietnamese who love Karaoke and we were bound to rock the night away until the wee hours of 10:30pm(?). Here are some pictures from an unforgettable 24 hour excursion. As you’ll see, our accommodations were the nicest we’d experienced thus far. I even got a hot shower out of it…Katie wasn’t so lucky.

After most of the older folk retired to their sleeping quarters for the evening, the crew cranked up some karaoke. Everyone was a little shy at first, but it was nothing that some reasonably priced beverages couldn’t help overcome. Highlights included a 5’2″ vietnamese crew member singing in extremely broken English and doing eccentric pelvic thrusts which I was quick to mimic. I also sang a stirring rendition of Zombie by the Cranberries which ended up receiving the high score of the evening. When we finally called it a night and got back to our room, we fully expected it to be sometime after midnight, maybe even 1am. It was 10:30pm.

As I alluded to earlier, the whole point of the trip was to see Ha Long Bay. It was a little cold and overcast so you can only imagine how breathtaking the surroundings would be on a warm clear day. I highly recommend doing a Google Images search for “Ha Long Bay” or just click here.

(Editor’s note: Someone actually lives on that small floating raft at the bottom of the last picture)

We also did some kayaking and visited some nearby caves which were an obvious tourist trap but still worth seeing in person. These pictures really don’t do them justice.

It looks like I’m going to have to break up our Vietnam Post into two or three parts, but before I bring this one to a close I just wanted to share a few brief observations.

-To the lovely women of Vietnam, welcome to the Top 3! I’ve been amazed at the buzz created from the disclosure of my previous rankings. No one has actually said or written anything to me, but I know people are talking. I expect to be receiving quite a few angry emails from our female Japanese readers who’ve been bumped to 4th place. And for the record, Katie has given her input and signed off on the current standings.

-Vietnam is the first Asian country we’ve visited which uses most the characters from our alphabet along with a variety of unique accents, some of which were surely influenced by the French.

I actually wrote a significant portion of this post on the 13 hour overnight bus ride from Hanoi to Hue. As usual, I expected the worst on our way to the bus station not knowing what a sleeper bus in Vietnam would look like. I was relieved to discover that it was much better than anticipated (or so I thought at first) and I guess the best way to describe it would be “tolerable”. I wrote this paragraph about two hours into the drive so I might be singing a different tune in the morning and at the beginning of my next post.

Stay tuned for Part 2 which I’ll hopefully finish before 2011.

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