If you’ve ever been to Hanoi, you probably know what it’s like to play a real life game of Frogger, mopeds zipping past you only inches away. And let’s not forget the incessant honking that often seems as necessary as a raincoat in the desert.
We arrived late to our hostel in the oldworld city, our senses overwhelmed by movement and sound, a significant contrast to Laos. We checked in to our swanky hostel, (Hanoi Backpacker Hostel) that had been recommended by a friend. On top of being very new and clean, it had a popular bar/restaurant, computer access, a TV and games room and rooftop patio. Luxurious, but at a price. We mainly chose it for the fun and social atmosphere, although a hot shower was really nice too.
We’d worked up an appetite on the flight into Vietnam and were excited to find our first late night Vietnamese meal. As we ventured down the curving narrow street in search of tasty bites, we grew confused, as the previously noise polluted area seemed silent and increasingly dark and still. Apparently we had missed the memo that there was a curfew, and as we grew aware we noticed shopkeepers peeking out windows and shutting the blinds. Kind of creepy. But we had gone far enough and were determined to find some sort of food. Chances seemed bleak, and the only place we’d heard word of staying open late was KFC. I think I’d rather ‘starve’. In the distance we spotted the glowing red sign and scurried across a giant multiple way intersection that in regular hours would be a deathtrap. We came to a halt at the locked door. (phewf.) A man was standing outside, and we expressed our desire for something edible. In an almost zombie-like manner, he lifted his arm and pointed across the intersection. And there it was. A tiny restaurant on the corner still had a couple of hope-giving lights on, like a light at the end of the tunnel. We bolted for it and peeked in the door sheepishly. It seemed like we’d just interrupted a family dinner, but were quickly herded into the closed windowed upstairs of the place and given menus. Dinner in hiding is one of the most fun ways to do it. I’ll call it a ‘hide ‘n’ dine’. Exciting.
Hanoi, and Vietnam as a whole was so different from Thailand and Laos, and despite the regular massive Adidas and Victoria’s Secret stores, the culture is so prominent, and shines through in every bustling street, park and roadside pho restaurant.
During our stay in Hanoi we visited the Vietnam Military History museum, which was super interesting and full of old artifacts and photos, as well as combat vehicles and planes outside. We also visited the old prison (now a museum) which did offer some information, but was a tad talked up for what we saw. A good walking distance away if you go by foot, you get to stroll by the big lake in the city, home to a fabled giant turtle that brings good luck to those who witness it (I didn’t see it, but some friends did).
Passing shop upon shop of shirts, Tin-tin wall art, shuttlecocks (hackysack meets badminton birdy, popular game throughout Vietnam), eye catching souvenirs and you name it, we came to a celebration site for a friend’s birthday, one of Hanoi’s many ‘beer corners’. A must-do activity in the city. As you sit on tiny red stools on the literal street corner, a local barkeep will keep the (25 cent?) bia hoi flowin’, from a big homebrewed keg. Loud conversation is to be expected as the sounds of the street, vehicles whizzing past your head and friends’ voices bombard your eardrums. And what do you do when the keg runs dry? Evacuate your stool and move on to the next bia corner, where a happy vendor awaits.
One of the natural wonders of the world, Halong Bay, was our next destination, via the Hanoi Backpackers Halong Bay Tour. Pretty pricey but nothing short of an amazing time, the tour departed from Hanoi with a busfull of excited passengers. It felt like a school fieldtrip. The 4 hour bus trip turned into a scenic boat trip through the bay, where we were fed various delicious dishes onboard before heading to the top deck to let the party begin.
We coasted between the massive and beautiful limestone karsts that make up the stunning scenery, taking a stop for some liberating swimming and jumping off the boat. We would spend the next two days on Castaway Island, where kayaking, wakeboarding, swimming and extensive partying were on the itinerary. Upon arrival we were enthusiastically greeted by the island’s current residents (people on the overlapping tour), followed by a welcoming introduction of the tour guides and the days’ agendas. After checking out our accommodation, which were the classic open style bungalows with mosquito nets, we indulged in a buffet packed with tasty options. Then the real party began. The rest is history.
I succeeded in acquiring my only (minor) sunburn of my whole trip that day, which also happened to be the night of shenanigans where many photos were taken. Tomato face or not, it was a hell of a time spent with awesome people in and extraordinary place, and I’m glad for the visual souvenirs.
Getting back to the hostel after a whirlwind couple of days, our group parted ways as the impermanent way of travelling goes, but taking with us beautiful memories (some blurry) and experiences that I won’t soon forget.
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