And so, with heavy heart, it was time for me to leave Hong Kong, and Sarah, the travelling companion with whom I’d shared so much after the previous epic 2 months together.
Hong Kong is undoubtedly a comfortable bubble, and Vietnam possibly its Asian polar opposite. I think back to my 2010 trip to Vietnam when, arriving in Ho Chi Minh City Airport, I was subject to one of the most ridiculously persistent ripoff attempts by a taxi driver of anywhere I’ve been. Despite agreeing and fixing a (relatively high) price before leaving he attempted to extort a huge amount more money at the parking lot exit gate, then on the way kept talking about higher fares to the extent that I forced him to stop on the hard shoulder, grabbed my bag from the boot and waited until he backed down and agreed the first price was alright.
So, it was slight trepidation that I booked the flight arriving late into Hanoi’s new airport via Jetstar Pacific, an airline I haven’t flown with before and probably wouldn’t want to go long haul with, but nonetheless did the job for a 2 hour hop.
I arrived at 10pm at the shiny new airport and joined the long immigration lines. Vietnam currently has a scheme running whereby no visa is required for most EU/Western citizens up to a 15 day stay. This didn’t stop me and the other travellers nervously eyeing up each others hands though to see any arrival cards or immigration paperwork, it all seemed too…easy.
But, it was fine. Quick passport check and a stamp, good to go! Consider me surprised.
Not really wanting to endure taxi muppetry again, I’d looked up various minibus services from the airport- Unfortunately I’d missed the most ‘official’ and therefore easy/cheap one, however with the aid of a friendly tour guide on a private minibus I got a lift for the 20miles into town for a couple of quid which seemed alright.
I’d decided to try my second Couchsurfing experience here. For the uninitiated and with suspicious at-home blinkers on, this sounds like a stupid idea. Basically strangers host you in their homes, and the ‘spirit’ of the site is that you endeavour to do the same. It’s backed up by profiles and references from previous guests but still sometimes feels like a step into the unknown. There’s the facility on the site which enables you to post up when you will be coming to certain cities and hosts then proactively offer a bed. I was surprised and naturally suspicious having got several offers, but genuinely it’s a function of how friendly Vietnamese people are, and how much they value interactions with people outside their country.
My host, Tony, had given me instructions to find my way into town and to then ring him for a pickup. I’d bought a local SIM from the airport (Ridiculously easy, and less than a fiver for the SIM including unlimited internet!) and so rang him where I was dropped off in town. Good to his word, he and a friend turned up 20mins later on scooters. I felt instantly bad as I’d been harassed incessantly at this spot by moto taxis and so initially waved his friend off before realising who they were!
The next issue was 2 rucksacks and pillion on a small scooter. This too turned out to be fine, Tony was a careful rider and we made it in one piece. Phew. I’d forgotten how intense Hanoi traffic was though…
Couchsurfing is something which, at its best, can bring mutual benefits to host and guest. In this case it was definitely true, as Tony was studying for his IELTS English exam that week and therefore needed to practice speaking, listening and understanding as much as possible.
IELTS is a common standard set by Cambridge English which basically opens many doors in terms of jobs, visas and the like. It, however, seems a very high standard! In the case of the speaking examination students are asked really deep societal questions and expected to formulate and deliver fluent answers in English. It’s definitely not about being able to parrot off phrases, rather to operate and argue points in English. A big ask from a language as dissimilar as Vietnamese!
Tony, Vinh and I settled into his comfortable flat off a winding, mazey alleyway and chatted about life, language and the plans for tomorrow whilst I desperately tried to maintain consciousness in the face of limited sleep the night before and a very long day to get there.
The next morning we headed out to a local place for a bowl of the classic Vietnamese Pho, noodle soup. It will never stop feeling odd eating noodles for breakfast, I suspect, but the addition of a doughnut-style roll to dunk in it did help somewhat. This was washed down with some nice ice tea. It seemed quite an upmarket place as there was choice as to how you wanted your meat cooked- Tai (raw) or chin (well done).
I explained to Tony and Vinh that I’d seen quite a lot of the city on my last brief visit, however it was good to revisit some previous sights and see new things… Having people with me who actually knew what the explanatory signs in Vietnamese meant certainly help!
Our first stop through the hectic traffic was the first University in Vietnam, the Temple of Literature founded in 1070 on Confucian principles. I really appreciated the extra explanation from Tony and Vinh, imagining what it must have been like studying back then. Vietnamese education seems to still be stuck in the past, with an emphasis on high theories and complicated maths, for instance, in engineering, with little attention to vocational requirements meaning that many students remain in training for several years after University to gain the skills needed for a career.
Here you can see the old and new Vietnam flags. There’s also a group of modern-day students having their graduation pictures.
The descriptions of ancient University sounded pretty tough going, with lots of Confucian-dictated themes to contend with. Still, I imagine it passed the time. Suitably educated, we set off for a pavement-side cup of coffee. Vietnamese people love their coffee very thick, strong and black, and who am I to argue? One of the most popular combos includes coffee, condensed milk and ice, to be sipped. And very pleasant it is too.
Next stop was the town’s war museum. The yard contained the usual array of interesting junk from the ages, and a historic flag tower.
I’d like to say that the inside was interesting, however I would be lying. Most of the inscriptions were in Vietnamese only, and it was a distinctly old-school museum with interesting artefacts such as Major-General X’s right shoe, etc.
I did, however, find one statue and accompanying photograph quite poignant. Mothers reluctantly waving their sons off to war… A reminder that love is love, and people are just, well, people whichever side we are on or which religion we follow.
Well past lunchtime at this point, we headed to a local restaurant to try the Hanoian speciality Bun Cha… Basically rice noodles in a fermented sweet sauce with grilled pork. It’s good. Really good. There’s something about the combination of sweet sauce and the pork. As well, naturally, as the pile of fresh leaves and limes you get with it for seasoning.
…and naturally washed down with a cold Hanoi beer. At this point however I should give honourable mention to one of the bleakest toilet/kitchen combos I’ve encountered in my trip, at the above restaurant. The toilet is simply a wall at the back of the kitchen, separated from the cooking area by a small screen, and stepping over dishes on the floor to get to it. Yep, you basically just piss in the corner of the kitchen. Blaaaaaaaargh! Food was good though, and didn’t kill me. BONUS!
After a brief siesta back at the flat (great tradition, although possibly it was just Tony and Vinh) it was time to head back out. Out into the bonkers traffic. Now, I’ve got a couple of videos which I’ll try to post separately but none of my pictures worked particularly well… Therefore have a library shot or two…
You’d probably call this fairly normal traffic on the smaller Old Quarter streets.
And this is rush hour. In fact, I experienced this traffic at very close quarters the next day en route to the railway station. Right in the middle of the fumey mass, on the back of a scooter, jostling for position with the rest of the population. I now understand why lots of people wear face masks!
It’s strange how traffic works here. It does, despite the volume and the apparent chaos, just work. There’s very little road rage, refreshing when coming from one of the grumpiest island nations going. People do just generally find their way through, whether that means driving around someone, (rarely) giving way or just taking to the other side of the road. But, with the exception of proper rush hour as above, traffic does keep moving and people get where they need to go.
The real hazard according to Tony is the buses. They are an absolute menace and pay no attention whatsoever to smaller traffic, simply heading straight to the kerb at stops regardless of what’s on their inside. Apart from that though, scooter-borne commuting isn’t as hazardous as it might seem owing to everyone’s avoidance instinct and the generally low speeds.
However, I think the more pernicious hazard to Hanoi’s free-flowing legions of scooter riders is more complex… As Vietnam’s middle class grows, people earning more money want to better their lives, and so they decide to buy cars. Interestingly, since my last visit in 2010 I really noticed more private cars on the roads, and not just the elite Rolls Royces and Mercedes bought by the super-rich despite the massively punitive luxury car import taxes, rather small Korean hatchbacks.
This is what will plunge Vietnam’s cities into gridlock. The roads and infrastructure just isn’t designed for lots of cars. There’s no room for everyone to park, much less room on the roads for each scooter to effectively take up 8 times more space. The malaise of affluence…
Anyway, I digress. Back out in the evening with Tony and Vinh to have a motorised wander around Hanoi’s lakes and parks. In the second photo you can see a statue of the King who helped to found the first University. As with all open spaces and parks in Vietnam, they are well used by people and the evenings have a real buzz about them with everyone out and socialising, as well as groups of older women energetically dancing to Euro Pop! It’s one way of working out and making friends I suppose.
Legend has it that there are nationalistic turtles in the lake who emerge at times of struggle for the nation. I couldn’t say either way. We did however catch the 9pm ceremony to lower the flag at Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. This is an enduring sign of respect for a man who is clearly beloved by the Vietnamese people and whose image adorns numerous posters and billboards throughout the country. Despite the ceremony being a twice-daily event it was very well attended by local families.
The next day marked Tony’s IELTS speaking test at 2.30pm. We’d been gently practising over the previous day with some general conversation and some ‘targeted’ conversation. The next morning, over a late breakfast, we continued this- And an ace breakfast it was too, not a bad approximation of a “full English” for an entirely Vietnamese dish!
Suitably refreshed, I set out to explore the Old Quarter and a rather more relaxed Tony set off for his exam. I really enjoyed helping out with the preparation, it’s good to try out new skills and to try to understand what English learners need to develop. I reckon I’d do alright at this teaching malarkey.
The Old Quarter is the touristy bit. Naturally this does come with its annoyances such as the over-pushy sellers of every product you could possibly imagine. Against my better judgement I’d decided that I would, in fact like a doughnut. So I asked the wandering seller how much one was. She immediately began stuffing around 10 assorted small doughnuts into a bag and simply not listening to me asking the price until her stuffing was complete, whereupon she quoted something ridiculous. I then asked the price for 1, whereupon she quoted 1/2 the ridiculous price. I just walked off. You have to draw a line!
Amazingly though I finally saw silk sleeping bag liners for sale, having been looking for one for ages to ease my passage into skanky hostel and train beds. The price?
Happy days. Next stop, the Reunification Express down the coast…