Many of us have heard about Vietnam most of our lives and yet know nothing about it!
I mean those of us who were born in the 60s – too young to be personally involved. We remember the conflict, the POWs, the shame... And when it was over, I was a teenager and never had any desire to understand it. As an adult I love history, but it was only recently, with the release of Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War that I started to learn a little about it. That may have prompted my interest to include it on our itinerary.
Before coming I wondered if Americans would be welcome in Vietnam. I shouldn’t have. We have felt very welcome. People smile and children wave and say “Hi!”
The French have troubling history in Vietnam that predates the Vietnam War, and there are many French tourists here as well.
Most of you dear readers may never visit Vietnam.
Many of you tell me that you are “armchair travelers” and that you “travel the world vicariously with me.“
So come! It’s morning. We have landed in Hanoi. Let’s go explore!
Hanoi. Some say it is Vietnam at its most authentic.
In order to “avoid scams” our Hanoi hotel sent a driver to the airport to meet us outside baggage claim with our names on a paper. We felt protected, it got us to the correct hotel and we paid $18 to the hotel for this service which required the driver to park at the airport, and wait for us – as our flight was we delayed.
Later we learned about Grab – an app that one can use to order a driver such as Lyft or Uber but with a unique twist! Instead of ordering a car ride, there’s the option to order a motorbike ride, or to have something picked up and delivered to you. We used Grab for our return to the airport. The hotel again wanted to charge $18, but Grab cost less than $13.
Arriving at the hotel, the smiling Mr Lee kept telling us, “No charge for early check in, no charge for upgrade” and moved us to a “better, 4-star” hotel – around the corner. For this privilege I was shown how to cancel my Booking.com booking. Warning bells were blaring in my mind! Booking.com warned we were in the cancellation period and there would be a cancellation fee unless the hotel waived it.
Was I going to be double charged? Am I being scammed? It’s a fine line between caution and cynicism. I did as told and was relieved to see the email pop into my inbox stating the fee had been waived. I wondered if this was a way for the hotel to get bookings from Booking.com without having to pay their commission?
It’s open to debate whether we got “upgraded.” Instead of the “city view superior king room” I reserved, we were placed in a queen room with a two windows – one looking into the bathroom and one – into the corridor!
Venturing outside we found ourselves smack dab in the center of Hanoi’s historic Old Quarter – a noisy, chaotic, scary whirlpool threatening to overwhelm me with major culture shock. I was a Nervous Nellie: expecting scams and seeing danger everywhere!
The Lonely Planet Guidebook sums it up: “A mass of motorbikes swarms through the tangled web of streets that is the Old Quarter, a cauldron of commerce for almost 1000 years and still the best place to check the pulse of this resurgent city.
This is Asian streetlife at its purist and most atmospheric. The flip side is that it’s also a notoriously chaotic and polluted enclave, and tough to explore on foot, as you pick your way through an urban assault course of motor- bikes (parked and speeding) and cracked pavements.”
Here’s a fun video of the street taken from our safe perch at a coffee shop overlooking a large intersection.
Purist? Atmospheric? Ugh! My first impression? I hated Hanoi! I thought they were crazy, stupid, and ridiculous. I was outraged at scooter drivers stopping abruptly (right in front of me) in order to conduct business at a sidewalk stall without dismounting – or for two of them stopping to chat! I was forced to walk into the stream of cars, buses, bicycles, and scooters going every which way!
I found the honking irritating. When they honked at me it felt like they were saying, “Get out of the way!” Later I recognized that it’s more like a warning, “Caution! I see you. Do you see me?”
You have to watch this video of the Old Quarter market at night. As they say, A picture is worth a thousand words.
We had so many questions and no answers. Communication was nil. I realized I had let the culture shock me in that way. I made a decision to calmly accept the chaos that was normal to them, that it wasn’t about me, and enjoy myself. I think the hour-long full body massage helped too, especially that it cost less than $11.
The next day as we walked, Hanoi slowly opened up to us revealing different layers. The atmosphere can totally change street by street, especially away from the Old Quarter.
Lots of flowers and trees are used to decorate for Tet. Along the side of the road vendors are selling cherry blossom, citrus and kumquat trees. People are searching for the perfect one just as those in the Western world look for the perfect Christmas tree at a tree farm or lot. The sidewalks are crammed with vendors, selling potted plants of yellow chrysanthemums, pink cosmos, red hollyhocks, petunias and huge bunches of cut flowers.
Watch this video to see motor scooters loaded down with huge potted trees!
You may have heard the saying: “Hindsight is always 20/20.”
Looking back, it seemed it may have been more beneficial to take a guided tour rather than our DIY tour. But then again, even with a guide our questions were not clearly answered as we learned on our guided Ha Long Bay tour. (But now, 3 weeks later, it’s gotten easier. We’ve found our groove and are feeling so much more comfortable in Vietnam.)
We didn’t do much sightseeing in Hanoi. We walked through the Old Quarter and wandered. We visited the Hoa Lo Prison nicknamed “The Hanoi Hilton” by American pilot POWs who were imprisoned here. We had front row seats for the traditional Water Puppet Show. And we learned to cross the street!
It takes total concentration to cross a busy street. Step off of the curb and start walking purposely while keeping your eye on the oncoming vehicles which will weave around you. Halfway across, start looking the other direction, allowing fast moving vehicles to pass while continually moving between them. Do not change your mind, wobble, step backwards, or change directions mid-stream!
Hanoi, 3 nights (2 nights before the cruise, and 1 night after the cruise)
Halong Bay (2 day/1 night cruise purchased through our hotel)
Hoi An (10 nights)
Hue (3 nights)
Da Nang (3 nights before we flew to Thailand)
Vietnam gets better. I’ll Meet You in the Morning – in Ha Long Bay!