I arrived in Hanoi on a Sunday afternoon with Nate who was traveling with me from Hong Kong. It is always nicer to do travel days with someone else because it just makes everything go by much quicker. We took a budget airline to get there and you could tell. My knees were jammed into the seat in front of me. I cannot even imagine any tall person trying to jam there way in there. We took a bus from the airport to our hostel which was called Tomodachi Hostel. This was such a nice hostel! I thought I was staying in a hotel because that is the type of treatment that we got for only $9/night! I was greeted when I entered the front door and offered a welcome drink while I talked with one lady as she pointed out on a map everywhere that I could go in the city. My bed was again the cubby type bed where I had curtains all around, two shelves, hooks, a power outlet, towel, and even flowers, a toothbrush, and a bottle of water. The rooms were cleaned often and only the bathroom situation was a bit funny. The showers are just on the wall with no tub or curtain or anything so they get the whole bathroom wet. I noticed though that this is the style in the whole of Vietnam. Throughout out stay and even when I came back they were just so helpful.
Nate and I just took the methodology of the wander when we were in Hanoi. It is a crazy city with all kinds of traffic, especially motorbikes. It is hard to maneuver around the streets because the sidewalks are all filled with either motorbike parking or with makeshift restaurants or people just fixing things. Therefore, you basically had to walk on the side of the street and watch out so you don’t get hit by a motorbike. To cross the street you basically just have to start walking and trust that all the motorbikes are going to go around you. This definitely took some getting used to. I could never get my bearings in the city and every time I thought that I needed to go left I really needed to go right.
We never found the recommendations of the hostel for dinner that night, but we did find a beautiful wine bar where they sat us on a balcony outside and we were able to people watch on the street. The portions were tiny and it was expensive, but the atmosphere was very nice. Then, we wandered into the night market which was very vibrant, but I didn’t see anything that I would like to buy.
Finally, we found the lake where most of the tourist activity takes place and where we saw the only typical fast food places that I have seen in Vietnam. In the middle of the lake we saw a bridge lit up bright red and an island with a temple. Of course, we had to go there. It was beautiful at night with all of the lights and the way the trees came down as well was just spectacular. Finally, we wandered around for quite awhile until the streets were starting to shut down and it looked like a new city. The sidewalks were being swept, the restaurants and mopeds were gone and you were able to walk on the sidewalk again.
The next day, I had breakfast that was included in the hostel which was really good! Lots of choices as well! Then, we again just decided to wander. We went the opposite direction as the day before and first saw the tomb of Ho Chi Minh. It was really pretty, but even though you can enter it we never quite figured out how. We continued to wander because I think the appeal of the city is that you never know what is going to happen next or what you are going to see next. Just day to day life was very interesting.
We found the other bigger lake and began walking around it. The trash in the water was just astounding and you could tell that is what the fish were eating. No wonder we saw no one fishing. We passed this area with these restaurants that were on the lake, but everything looked abandoned. It was almost as if its heyday was passed and everyone just left and never returned. There were even just swan paddle boats sitting there waiting to be used, but just rusting over instead. Such a bizarre place.
Then, we came across some exercise equipment that we really enjoyed because it is the type that you find in the park, but none of it really had any actual benefit. To top it all off there were a couple of old Vietnamese women using this equipment which was really funny to see. We tried to find another couple of things on our map, but were unsuccessful so we just gave up and went back for a rest. For dinner, we found a Pho place that was recommended by our hostel and had our first Pho. So good!!! A lot of the restaurants here serve food on the sidewalk on tiny table and stools and you need to be ready to also share tables with whoever is already sitting there. If is very family style. Yet, you have to be careful. Nate added a bit too many red chili peppers and sat there just sweating the entire time. So careful what you add!
On Tuesday, we wandered a bit more, but in a systematic type of way. We wanted to see the Hanoi prison museum so that was our first stop. Nate is an American as well so it was interesting to see this museum with him because of the portrayal of Americans during the Vietnam War. The prison was first used by the French to imprison political upraises and communists. They even sentenced some to death by the guillotine, but not before keeping them chained to a table for a year giving them little food and making the sit in their own feces. The museum also had one escape through the sewage pipe, very Shawshank Redemption. During the war, the museum was used to house the American pilots who had been shot down including senator McCain. There were many pictures of the pilots and of McCain and their life in the prison. It seems that they were well treated, but the portrayal of Americans and the war is very different than what I learned in school. In school, we learn that we were fight with the Democratic south against the Communist north and that the south were our allies. This portrayal made it seem that we bombed and attacked the south first and conquered it and then turned our guns on the north. Yet, the north held us back and they were victorious. They call the war, The War of American Aggression. Just a bit weird. Also, I am surprised that the Vietnamese don’t hate American tourists after what we did to their country.
After the museum, we went over to the lake because we wanted to see the water puppet show. When I arrived, the women told me that I had to go see the show and I had no idea what to expect when I walked in, but it was absolutely wonderful in every single way. I didn’t read a thing about the show ahead of time and I think that is what made it better because I had no expectations. The show started out with a band playing some music and one women was playing the instrument that you would associate with typical traditional asian music. I had never seen the instrument and it was a string but she changed the pitch and note with a stick in a type of hole. I have no idea how it worked, but it was great. Then, the puppets started. There was a curtain and front of the curtain there was a pool of water. It started with just one male puppet just wandering around. The puppeteers were in the water behind the curtain controlling the puppets. The show accelerated quickly and we had fire breathing dragons, babies in baskets that then did a weird water diving dance, a giant turtle, some phoenixes who had a baby, a fisherman that kept catching a woman’s head instead of the fish, and ladies dancing. It was the most bizarre thing I had ever seen and I had no idea what was going to happen next. Nate and I were just giggling the whole way through and I took a million videos. It was a great time.
After, I had to return to the hostel and grab my things and go to the tourism office because I had booked a trip with the company to Sapa. The tourism company was called Ethnic Travel. They were a bit pricier, but they did a really great job and I read that a lot of the money goes back to the community and locals in Sapa. In my group, were two German ladies and a young couple from the french part of Switzerland. We were first taxied to the train station and then boarded an overnight train to Sapa. This was my first time on an overnight train and I quite enjoyed the experience. In each room there are 4 bed and the beds were really comfortable with nice comforters and pillows. In my room, I was the only one from my group since I was the odd man out, but I did meet another American girl from California and it was really fun the talk to her and share the experience. Its also nice to meet other Americans that are traveling alone.
I slept really well on the train and we arrived in Sapa around 6:30 and were driven 30 minutes to a hotel the works with our company. We were able to shower and clean up there, but I quickly realized upon arriving I was not prepared for the weather of Sapa. Everywhere I had been had been warm and sunny. I get there and it is pouring down rain and freezing cold. I had packed both of my pairs of leggings, but my long sleeve shirt and fleece I had left back at the office in Hanoi. Therefore, I had to buy a nice thick fleece for about $15 just so I didn’t freeze to death. Thank goodness I did pack my rain jacket. I bought a really cheap poncho to put over my rain jacket and backpack for an extra level of protection because it was absolutely pouring rain. So, we started off on our adventure in the wet and cold to the rice fields. Sapa is known for it beautiful scenery and gorgeous rice patties. Usually trekking here is an amazing experience and its beautiful to hike through the fields. The downside to the rain was that it was also very foggy and you could not see very much of the rice fields. Occasionally the fog lifted a bit, but basically we were cold and hiking with very little views and trying not to slip in the mud.
The first half of the journey until lunch a lady from town hiked with each of us and held our hand when we needed a bit of help not to slip and talked with us as much as they could. At lunchtime, they then got out all of their purses and good to try to sell to us and since they walked with you the whole way you feel like you need to buy something off them. They do this every day with the tourists and is how they make a living. In Sapa, the women to more of the work because they can speak some English and the men stay home with the kids of farm the fields.
We had a wonderful lunch and I like that they just brought out a bunch of dished to share because I get to try a little of everything. The spring rolls in Vietnam are to die for! After lunch, the rain let up a bit and I was a little warmer. The fog also lifted a little and we could see more. We took the road more than the path because of all of the mud, but it made the experience a little more worthwhile because we could look at our surroundings instead of just looking at our feet. The rice fields and the houses are just amazing. There are buffalo roaming in all the fields because they act to keep the soil loose, the grass short, and as fertilizer. It was a baby season and we saw baby chicks and baby pigs everywhere which was just too much cuteness to handle. We also had to opportunity to see a school which is always interesting as a teacher. They definitely don’t have the access to materials like I do or technology.
We arrived at our homestay around 4pm and were able to change and get off all of out wet clothing. They had a fire that we hung everything over to dry and we all huddled close to get warm. Our guide left and our host mom first made us french fries with garlic. Not typical Vietnamese, but a crowd please nonetheless. Then, we helped her roll the spring rolls which she then deep fried. For dinner again we had it family style and all of the food was so good! She also taught us how to say cheers in Vietnamese and kept making us take shots of rice wine. It was pretty nasty stuff. I called it an early night because I was tired and just wanted to cuddle up in my warm bed.
Overnight all of our clothes dried which is great, but now they all smell like campfire. We had a nice pancake breakfast (yet pancakes here are more like crepes). Then, we headed out for our morning trek. The weather was much better and we got to see much more of the rice fields and had a great view of the waterfall that was near our homestay. We saw a buffalo auctioned off and more baby animals. It was a really chill morning and gave us all time to soak it in. We stopped off in another village for lunch and then took a bus back to town. I did make the bus stop at a lookout point because the fog had cleared and we finally got a good view of what we should have seen the first day. I need to come back to Sapa when the weather is nice. My guide says that July is the best time to come.
We returned to town and had a bit of a walkabout and went and got some amazing hot chocolate. Then, we were allowed to shower again. Before we left we were waiting outside when a dog its her 6 puppies came up. The lady at the hostel said they were 3 weeks old and the were so small they had trouble on the stairs. It was too cute!! Then, we took the bus to the train station and we had one more good family style meal and then we were back on the overnight train to Hanoi. The train was similar but the second time around it was making weirder noises and rocking a lot and I had more trouble sleeping. I was also in a car just with locals.
I couldn’t find my group when I got back to Hanoi so I just walked back to my hostel. They let me in but it was so early for my room so I just sat in the lobby and watch Netflix. Then, I went to a coffee shop for some breakfast and some catching up on my blog. Finally, I could check into my room and I started working on job applications. I found another cafe for lunch and guess what more job applications. For dinner, I met back up with Nate and we went a got dinner at this tiny little restaurant. I love how cheap food is here! Then, Nate took my to this cool ice cream place that had like shaved ice cream. It is so hard to describe, but it was so good.
Finally, we went to the bar street for a drink and it was packed! Most of the street is filled with tiny chairs and tables of people sitting and drinking. There is a small walkway in between of people trying to get up and down. We heard so live music so we decided to go into one of the bars. It looked like they were full, but they beckoned us in and found us some chairs and we were the only foreigners in there. The music was amazing!! They were such good singers and there was even this guy playing an electric violin. It was definitely a highlight of Hanoi. Then, we returned to the hostel and went to bed because the next day I was getting up really early for a bus to Cat Ba Island near Halong Bay!!
So far Vietnam has far exceeded my expectations and I love the randomness of this country!