Xin Chào Vietnam

Lynn woke up at 7 this morning to an e-mail from the embassy in Hanoi, informing us that tropical storm Mujigae is imminently approaching with heavy rains and strong winds predicted.  Lynn did some research for the next hour until I woke up.  Or at least as much as she could with our terrible internet.  By the time I woke up around 8 she had already explored alternate destinations and there weren’t really any good choices.  Flights to Shanghai were cheap, but there were not hostels available; we could fly to Hong Kong but they are supposed to get hit by the typhoon as well; we could skip Vietnam and come back later but most of our other stuff is already booked.  I recruited the help of some friends back in the U.S. with real internet to research how bad the storm was actually going to be since things weren’t loading for us.  The consensus was that it’s not going to be too bad, so with no better choices we decided to keep our Hanoi plans but we might have to change the second half of our week in Vietnam when we are supposed to go on a Ha Long Bay cruise, but we left that decision for another day.

Typhoon Mujigae
It looks like it’s going North of us, which is good because the south side always gets less rain and wind.

Decided on a plan, we packed up our things and headed towards the airport.  After some initial confusion about where to find it, we took advantage of the Airport Express train which starts about two blocks from our hostel and runs almost non-stop to the airport.  We intentionally arrived 3 hours before our flight so we could find the Jetstar ticket counter and purchase some flights to Singapore that we had been having trouble buying online.  Trying to find the ticket counter, we ended up on the other side of customs with no way back out.  Our check in wasn’t open yet so we couldn’t get our tickets and proceed through security and there was no way back out of the customs area we were in so we had no choice but to pull up a bench and wait.

After about 30 minutes of trying to get the airport WiFi to download podcasts for our flight (to no avail) the check in opened and we got in line.  It seems China is very worried about Lithium Ion batteries because every checked bag goes through an automatic battery screener and if any are detected an alarm goes off and security goes through your bag with you and has you pull out any batteries and move them to your carry on.  This happened to Lynn…twice, before her bag made it through the machine quietly.

Hungry, we proceeded through security and into the gate area to find that there was only one restaurant available.  Two others were under construction and there were about 30 duty free stores, but only one place that was serving real food.  We sat down and ordered, Lynn got the duck with mushroom and bamboo shoots and I was rushed into ordering a steak sandwich when they were out of my initial order.  Lynn’s food came out fairly quickly while I got hungrier and hungrier waiting for my food (it was now 2 pm).  Finally my food came out, and it was the most disappointing plate I have ever been presented with at any restaurant/house/food cart/back alley in my life.  Twenty or so limp fries were haphazardly strewn around a sandwich of american cheese, beef jerky, and an iceberg lettuce leaf on a stale baguette.  I guess that’s what I get for ordering a steak sandwich in China.

Definitely the sadest meal of the trip so far.
Definitely the sadest meal of the trip so far.

I quickly ate the “meal” and we left to get some snacks at the duty free store for our flight, because there is no way that had filled me up.  Luckily we found some sesame crackers and sour skittles to hold us over without too much trouble.

The flight itself was pleasant.  We took Vietnam Airlines and there was a movie playing the first half of the flight about how peace loving the city of Hanoi is and how the evil French and American imperialists invaded their country. Lynn and I chuckled at the very thinly veiled propaganda before napping and reading the rest of the flight.

We made it through customs without any issue and found our driver waiting for us outside the terminal to take us to the hotel.  We made our way into the Old Quarter of Hanoi as more and more scooters and motorcycles joined us until they seemed to be everywhere.  It looked like those sharks you see at aquariums surrounded by the little fish only they were cars and scooters instead.

Arriving at the hotel, we were offered tea while the guy at reception registered us with the local police (something that happens for every tourist we found out), before being escorted to our freely upgraded room – lucky us!  We rested for a few minutes, orienting ourselves on a map and reading some brief overviews of the city before heading out for dinner and exploring.

There was a pho restaurant at the end of our street that had been recommended in one of the guides we had read and it was teeming with locals so we hopped in.  We were sat at a four person table with two other people and ordered some pho with brisket and fatty beef flank.  It came, seemingly seconds later, and Lynn immediately added hot peppers and spicy sauce.  I thought it was delicious without any additions and more strongly flavored than the pho we had eaten back home.

Pho!  It's basically beef noodle soup for those who have never had it.
Pho! It’s basically beef noodle soup for those who have never had it.

Full up on pho (and crackers and skittles) we headed towards a night market nearby to soak up the city a little.  The city itself is a weird blend of Paris and the back alleys of Beijing, only there are motorcycles literally everywhere.  Most of the buildings are very narrow, three or four story French colonial buildings that have really been let go and then had metal awnings and signs strapped to them and a rats nest of electrical wires bolted onto the side.  Every time you cross the road you just start walking and the sea of motorcycles parts around you, just make sure you don’t change your pace or stop unexpectedly.

The night market was full of knock off clothes, sunglasses, belts, purses, and jeans and we walked the length of it stopping every once in a while to ponder getting a milk tea to cool us off in the stifling heat and humidity.  It was nine pm or so by now and still around 90 degrees and very humid, a welcome change from the chilliness we had been experiencing so far on the trip.  Even so, we weren’t quite ready to buy milk tea served in used water bottles from a street cart. Having walked the length of the night market we made a loop around the lake in the center of town before heading back to the hotel for the night.

The night market was full of everything you would expect to find at an Asian street market - knock off clothes and sunglasses.
The night market was full of everything you would expect to find at an Asian street market – knock off clothes and sunglasses.

Daily Walking Mileage : 8.9 (pretty good for a flying day)

First Impressions:

  • I like Vietnam a lot more than China. Though I will say I would have been completely overwhelmed had this been our first stop on the trip.  Lynn did a good job slowly introducing me to Asia.
  • The architecture is really cool, and I’m pretty excited for daylight to be able to really see it.
  • I’m pretty sure that just like sheep in New Zealand, there are ten motorcycles here for every person.

Fun Facts:

  • We are about to go through round two of Doug and Lynn survive a typhoon.  Hopefully it goes just as well as last time when all we suffered were some wet shoes.
  • Vietnam’s currency (the Dong) is incredibly inflated.  It is currently 22500 Dong to one USD.  Our hotel bill for three nights is 1.75 million Dong.
  • The average person living in Hanoi makes the equivalent of $150 per month.

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