Good Morning, Vietnam!

We had a fairly smooth bus ride border crossing leaving from Nanning, China and arriving in Hanoi, Vietnam. I think our first impression of Vietnam was that it is vastly different from China. In the countryside, you could drive for a long while without seeing many people or buildings. The architecture we did see was odd, in comparison. We kept seeing really tall and extremely skinny, brightly colored houses with balconies, dotted throughout the countryside, along with small bamboo style huts and little shacks. The skinny buildings were sort of a mish-mash compared to the buildings that were next door, but there bright colors were such a change from China. En route, we stopped at a rest stop and got the privilege of eating our first bowl of Vietnamese pho and it didn’t disappoint.
Upon arrival in Hanoi, we got a free ride from a woman who coincidentally was the sister of the guesthouse we had booked before we arrived. It was a coincidence I was wary of, due to hearing about all of the guesthouse scams there are in Hanoi, but it turned out to be a true free ride and the women were actually sisters.
We stayed in Hanoi’s old quarter which is an atmospheric twist and turn of small streets with loads of travel agents, restaurants, bars and weird shops selling fruit, bike parts and every other thing imaginable.

It is also jam-packed of motorbikes. You get over your fear of crossing the street pretty quickly when you realize that because there are no stop signs or stop lights, if you don’t just take the risk and step off the curb, you’ll be standing on that same street until you’re old and gray.

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One of the best parts about the old quarter is the Bia Hoi corner. Basically, it’s a corner that has four rival convenience beer shops that are nothing but plastic chairs on a curb and serves homemade keg beer that’s pretty watered down, due to it being cooled by a giant chunk of ice inside the keg, but it’s the cheapest glass of beer on the planet. At 3,000 dong, you’re shelling out a mere 16 cents per glass. Not too shabby. You can buy 6 beers for a dollar. If you ever want to buy a round, take your friends to the bia hoi corner. It’s great because lots of travelers and locals alike hang out at this intersection due to the cheap beer and you can meet loads of people. There was even a very old, yet intelligent prostitute who enjoyed listening to books on tape while wearing a short skirt and sitting with her legs in a butterfly formation.

It was wonderful timing because we arrived on a Friday night, perfect for experiencing Hanoi’s nightlife. We ended up drinking at the corner all night and then got asked to go dancing at Dragonfly, a club down the street. We were out until 2 am, dancing to Rihanna and Beyonce with the Vietnamese locals.
The rest of our time in Hanoi was spent alternating between eating delicious things, getting lost in little alleys and hanging out at the bia hoi corner. We also worked intently on asking around for prices and input on booking a Halong Bay trip (which was all a wasted effort, but that travel disaster comes to you via the next post.)

One touristy thing we did was check out the local water puppet show. Water puppetry is a classical art in Vietnam. The puppeteers are behind a curtain, but actually are in the tank of water with their puppets on a stick. It seems like a pretty challenging art to master and I’ve heard that in history many of the puppeteers got water-borne diseases from spending so much time in the tank perfecting their skills.
The show was pretty clever with dragons that chase birds and swimming Vietnamese puppets. It would have been even better if it was about 40 minutes shorter. It wasn’t a horribly boring show overall, but 75 minutes is too long for water puppets. I think one overcomes the awe and magic of the skill after 20 minutes or so. However, if you have children and are traveling to Vietnam, they would LOVE this.

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Overall, I really enjoyed Hanoi and thought it had some delicious Vietnamese cuisine. We loved eating at Little Hanoi restaurant near the Bia Hoi corner where you pay about 2 dollars for massive plate of roll your own fresh spring rolls with fried fish and pineapple and a huge pile of herbs. Also, the Kangaroo café turns out some pretty hearty and fairly cheap Western classics like their massive pumpkin veggie burger made from scratch.

I must say though, that Hanoi’s old quarter is the kind of place that could wear on you, after the magic rubs off, due to the sheer number of rip-off travel agencies and the common confusion with the copycat syndrome that seems to be most at home in Hanoi. Basically, without copyright laws, every business can take each others’ business name. So on one block there’ll be five Kangaroo cafes or Sinh Café’s and you’re left scratching your head, trying to figure out which one is the real one from all of the copycats. It’s a little hard being a tourist and trying to plan your next onward travel step with lots of people quoting you rip-off prices and basically just seeing you as a walking dollar sign. Such a problem doesn’t completely distract from its old town charm, but it does make you worry that Vietnam may be more of a hassle than you anticipated. I think if you can handle Hanoi’s gruff approach at collecting it’s huge share of your tourist dollar than most other places will be a breeze in comparison.
With the negatives being stated, I still really loved the atmosphere of Hanoi and was happy that it was my gateway into Vietnam.


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