Having been invited by Jill's uni mate Chris to go & stay with him for a few days in Hanoi, we all jumped at the chance to see another country that we hadn't originally planned on visiting & hey, who are we to turn down free accommodation?! Chris is currently living out there teaching English & assured us that we could get cheap return flights so it didn't take long for the three of us to all vote in favour of this little detour adventure.
Even better was once we'd decided we were going, we heard nothing but great things about Vietnam. Cheaper than Thailand...beer for 7p, fantastic nightlife etc - you couldn't get us there quick enough! We agreed dates with Chris & booked our flights. The day we left for Hanoi, we hadn't actually heard from Chris for 3 days but he knew that we were arriving that day & Jill had text him the flight times so we didn't let this worry us too much. When we got to Bangkok airport, Air Asia e-itinerary in hand, we were most surprised to find that our 19:45 flight was in fact billed as an 18:35, but had been delayed by a couple of hours. We'd gone to the airport extra early so had plenty of time to kill but don't like to think what would have happened if we'd taken our own sweet time. Future reminder: re-confirm all flights before rocking up to the airport & don't take Air Asia flight times as given!
We eventually landed at Hanoi around 10.30pm. Having tried unsuccesfully to call Chris a few times while hanging around BKK airport, I began to fear that we were going to end up sleeping on our backpacks in Hanoi airport & determined not to let this happen, I accosted the first English person I could find & frantically thumbed through his Lonely Planet shouting out names & addresses of cheap hostels at the girls - just for backup of course! I needn't have worried though, once through customs & with our packs safely retrieved, we tried Chris again & got hold of him straight away. It turns out that his phone gets virtually no reception at his home or work, so he hadn't received any of the texts or missed calls. He told us to jump in a taxi, agree $10 fare & we'd be there in 30 mins.
We pulled up at his five storey, new-build on Xuan Dieu exactly 30 minutes later & after dumping our bags in the en-suite wing that Chris had given up for us (bless him), we were all riding the back of moto-taxis after being pointlessly asked 'would you like to crash or head out for some beers?' Riding through the old-quarter, wind in my hair, taking in my first impressions of the city with my chatty Vietnamese driver asking where in Australia I was from was a first memory of Hanoi that I won't forget quickly. Little was I to know that the night was to become even more memorable!
While most of the bars seemed to have closed up for the night, Chris & his housemate Georgia took us to a little bar called Red Mask, down a quiet side street that you would completely miss if you didn't know it was there. Beers in hand, The Killers playing in the background, happily chatting away at the tops of our voices, we all felt right at home. Until...without any warning, all power went off & we were suddenly plunged into pitch black silence (apart from the drunk Americans downstairs who started going 'Shhhhhsshhh' & giggling hysterically)! 3 minutes later, everything was back to normal & I began to wonder if I'd imagined the whole thing until Chris explained that Vietnam licencing hours are pretty much the same as UK standard (11pm ish) but that a lot of places do have lock-ins, with lookouts stationed down the road giving a heads-up if they spy any Police on patrol. So we carried on as normal until it happened again & this time the Americans attempts to shush each other grew even louder & before we knew it, there was a commotion outside & we'd been busted! But rather than kicking us out, the crafty copper decided instead to simply tow away any motorbikes that were parked outside the bar, which included Chris', despite the bar owners protests. As Chris is a regular in this bar, the poor owner seemed even more gutted than he was about his bike & insisted on getting her friends to give us a ride home. What a first night!
After a much needed lie-in, we took a taxi into town with Georgia, to meet Chris who had gone in early to try & get his bike back, only to be told that he had to come back after 3.30pm. After some breakfast, Chris took us all for a spin around the lake in the centre of the city on the back of another bike he'd rented for the day. I don't really know what I'd expected of Vietnam but was pleasantly surprised at how pretty it is. While Chris & Georgia headed home to get ready for work, the three of us spent a few hours at Highlands (the Starbucks of Vietnam), overlooking the lake & madness of the city roads below & indulged in some people watching. For anyone planning on visiting Hanoi at some point, here are just a few of my observations:
- If you need to cross the road on foot, deon't bother waiting for a green man - as there ain't one! Just go at any time & whatever you do, keep your eyes straight ahead & don't look to your left or right, as the oncoming mayhem, coming at you from every which way, will certainly bring on heart failure! Don't worry though, you will make it to the other side safely. The bikes will dodge you!
- There is no 'right' side of the road to drive/ride along. Each side of a main road has 2-way traffic & thousands of motorbikes expertlyweaving their way through each other. Cars on the road here are few & far between.
- Just keep your hand permanently on the horn the whole time you're riding/driving. This saves you the effort of going for it every time someone cuts you up - approximately every milli-second!
That night, after some dinner, we had our first 'Bia Hoi' experience. 'Bia Hoi' meaning 'fresh beer' is basically served on street corners. You're given a tiny plastic stool to sit on & directed to whichever inch of the pavement or nearby street is currently unoccupied. And I can officially vouch that it's true - you can buy beer for 7p in Vietnam! It tastes pretty special but hey, for 7p who's going to care?! This might be a good point to mention that there are 30,000 Vietnamese Dong to the English pound. So beer for 2k (7p) & 10 grand kebabs are something of a novelty to us easily pleased Brits! While enjoying a game of 'I have never...', drinking our 7p beer & dirt cheap 'Vodka Hanoi' on a street corner, a mad Vietnamese woman who Chris & Georgia know from drinking there accosted us & started asking how old we thought she was. When she declared 'Look, no bras' & went to lift her top up, we all screamed that surely with a body like that she couldn't be a day over 29, which seemed to temporarily do the trick & the clothing stay put! We hastily drank up after that & moved onto the next bar.
The Lighthouse, was quite small & dingy inside but offered a free cocktail & had a beautiful terrace overlooking the bay which was festooned with fairy lights. So when the DJ started blaring Mylo 'Drop the Pressure' I was in my vodka enduced element! We had a nice time chatting to some more of Chris & Georgia's teacher friends & dancing to funky house, before moving onto Solis - a cheesy nightclub on a boat! To be honest, most of the three hours spent in Solis are a bit of a blur but I do remember us girls all singing along at the tops of our voices to Kelly Clarkson's 'Since You've Been Gone' & later on, me trying to request Mylo & Basement Jaxx from a very bemused looking DJ who quite clearly couldn't understand a word I was saying! It was a great night that gave us lots of funny stories to remind each other of while we nursed our hangovers the next day.
Having been told that if we were visiting Hanoi, we HAD to go to Halong Bay, we decided to book a one day trip as Chris & Georgia had work all day on the sunday anyway. We rose at the crack of dawn to wait for our bus, which was an hour late anyway & after a two hour bus ride, we finally got to the pier to board our boat. It was a good piece of advice - Halong Bay is absolutely stunning, with crystal clear blue water & huge rocks & caves along the landscape. We cruised along peacefully for the morning & at lunch time pulled up at a fishing village (located in the middle of the water) where we were told to choose our own fish to be killed & cooked for us. While I was having a major moral dilemma with this, we wandered round looking at the many prawns, squid, snappers, mussels etc happily splashing around in blissful ignorance & I was relieved to find out that we had been misinformed about choosing our own, you had to pay extra for that & I was more than happy to give it a miss & just eat the lunch that was included in the price of our ticket.
We sailed along the water some more after lunch, before pulling up to the famous Sung Sot Cave (well famous amongst archaeologists & geologists for its stalagmites & stalactites), and supposedly named after the surprise people feel when they witness it's beauty. It was very beautiful but I feel I have to admit that as we couldn't understand a word the tour guide was saying, us culturally depraved girls decided instead to entertain each other with images that the oddly-shaped stalagmites reminded us of. In our defence, it wasn't just us who found this amusing, within 5 mins, 2 Aussie guys had joined in our game! We spent the boat ride back chatting to the guys, both called Michael, who were from Sydney but away travelling for a year & headed to London in January. We tried to be objective & offer constructive advice rather than slating the weather & how expensive everything is, which I think they appreciated.
That night, back in Hanoi, we joined Chris, Georgia & a big group of their workmates at their friend Matt's birthday party, which started off very civilized at a posh Italian restuarant & ended at 'The Amazon' where we played pool (US rules which I found completely baffling), sang along to the Beatles & took very amusing random photos of everyone, while drinking vodkas & beers. Imagine our surprise when we went downstairs to the bar & bumped into Mark - our first pal from Bangkok! He had also decided to come to Hanoi on a bit of a whim, so we chatted with him for a bit & then headed on our merry way home as we knew we had to be up early for our flight.
This day was pretty uneventful - but thought it was worth mentioning that at Hanoi airport, I accidentally withdrew 2million dong (about 60 quid) instead of the 200,000 that I wanted to pay the cab driver & tide me over for food & departure tax. I didn't let this concern me though, naively thinking that I could just exchange it to Baht back in Thailand. Big mistake! It turns out that dong is considered so worthless that nowhere wants it - even when it's in the millions. So I am currently carrying round a small fortune (in Vietnamese terms) and wondering how they hell I'm going to be able to pay it back into my bank account! Any tips anyone?