Incessant honking pierces my ears, blaring unrhythmically as the drivers long-nailed thumb makes a dent on the rubber wheel. Bouncing and jolting, all passengers endure fumes and heat during the last leg of our bus trip in Northern Vietnam. Looking out the window, I gasp as our steele frame just misses elderly vendors and shiny motorbikes, traveling full force through narrow Hanoi Streets. My watch’s stopwatch calculates 72 beeps of the horn in a matter of 60 seconds. I am close to
This is a testament to the Vietnamese way of travel, where drivers use the horn as an instrument to say, “I am the car behind you,” or “I am passing to your right,” or “I am bigger than you so MOVE!” Blaring the horn in all situations is a habit and normality here in Vietnam.
Starting outside the airport, I had a feeling Vietnam was more intense in many ways than Thailand. The moment our feet touched the sidewalk outside the terminal, we heard 2 short claps from a man to our right, a lady screaming at us, and a man saying, “My friends!” as he ran to meet us. Desperate to sell their taxi services, we were chased by Vietnamese drivers until we ducked into the shelter of one van. Looking out the window at the masses, I just started laughing and said, “This is definitely what it feels like to be famous.”
The highlights of my Vietnamese experiences are categorized below:
The first few times I crossed a Hanoi street, my heart jolted. Then I remembered what another traveler had advised me to do: “Just start walking and the motorbikes will swerve around you. If you stop, you will confuse them. They have their route planned around you, so just walk!” The motorbikes consume every inch of pavement, piled 3 and 4 people high, and with the lack of traffic lights and stop signs it is a mystery that they do not crash. The traffic never halts for anyone or anything, so standing at the curb to wait for a break in traffic doesn’t work.
Above: A popular photo of Hanoi’s Old Quarter madness, taken by a student in the area.
Once I could cross the street, the next hurdle was avoiding the constant hagglers, selling everything from a seat on their “motobyyyk” to silk dresses. Next on the agenda was finding a bowl of pho, a Vietnamese noodle soup, which is one of our favorites in the States. Excited for the authentic version, Jason chose a stand that a man set up in his garage, where he cooked on a hot plate. The steaming soup bowl of noodles, beef, and herbs was set before me and I began to relax as I slurped my way through it. (Slurping is actually a compliment to the chef, here in Southeast Asia.)
Above: Pho Bo, Vietnamese beef noodle soup
Hanoi’s Old Quarter, where most of the noise and craziness exists, is popular with tourists. The jazz club down there was phenomenal and the Vietnamese musicians blasted their funky beats to the crowd seated on posh leather couches. Another Old Quarter find was a vegetarian restaurant called The Tamarind Cafe, serving fruit smoothies, stuffed tomatoes and cucumbers, amazing mango salads and an extensive dessert list.
Hanoi is also proud to be the resting place of Ho Chi Minh (better known as “Uncle Ho” to locals.) Ho Chi Minh is still revered as one of the most influential political figures in Vietnam and lead the Democratic Republic of Vietnam until 1969. Ho Chi Minh’s preserved body is on display in Hanoi and supposedly goes under reconstruction and preservation once a year, to keep his good looks!
As you can imagine, being in touristy, loud Hanoi for an extended period could wreck the Vietnam experience, so after 2 days, I was ready to head somewhere where and locate a slice of serenity.
Cat Ba Island
Inside of Halong Bay set many tiny islands, positioned among limestone rock formations and green water. Recognized by UNESCO World Heritage as a protected site, Halong Bay holds Cat Ba Island, which happened to be the perfect place to escape the city’s craziness. (Click here for more info on UNESCO’s list of universal wonders.)
After 3 bus rides and 2 boat transfers, all passengers were dropped of at a pristine location at the harbor, overlooking mountains and thick forests. Much of the island is covered by a national park, so we snagged a motor bike and cruised to some of the villages on the outskirts of the park. Two 13-year-old boys welcomed us to their town as we sat sipping a cafe sua (a shot of espresso lightened with a bit of sweetened condensed milk.) We discussed soccer, school, and family life with the young villagers in broken Vietnamese and English and enjoyed their company for the better part of an hour.
I was most impressed with the accommodations and prices on the island. A suite at the top of a hotel, overlooking the bay’s beauty was $7/ night and included a free motorbike rental. Granted, this was the off-season, and the weather was a bit foggy, but that wasn’t a problem after living in San Francisco for over 3 years.
Although it was cheap, there is no ATM anywhere on the island and we were lucky to meet Travis and Katie, 2 travelers from Washington, who traded us Vietnamese dong for our left-over Thai baht. They currently live in Thailand and Katie works as an English teacher in Bangkok, where we hope to stay with them upon returning to Thailand for the flight to India.
Divided by rivers and grassy parks, Hue was the perfect spot to rent bicycles and explore the markets and back alleys of Central Vietnam. Falling upon Lac Thien, a restaurant we later found written up in the Lonely Planet, we decided to park the bikes and eat lunch. We enjoyed reading the walls on our climb to the second terrace dining area, as they were decorated with words and drawings from other travelers. Markers were provided at our table and we immediately started making some marks of our own.
Hue is known for its culinary flare, so we ordered 3 items we had not seen elsewhere in Vietnam and hoped for the best. The best we did find: Banh Khoai, a rice paper crepe filled with ingredients placed at the table (like beef, sprouts, and chiles) is dipped into a peanut sauce, rolled and eaten. We also enjoyed a gelatinous cold dish with shrimp and herbs and the fresh spring rolls.
The unique part of Lac Thien Restaurant is that it’s run by a deaf man and his family. We met 3 of the sisters who live and work in the restaurant/ home. The family chatted with us about their new babies and the business, and then the father, who is famous for making bottle openers out of a plank of wood and a screw, introduced himself. He gives the bottle openers out as gifts to his restaurant customers and asks that they send him a photo of the opener in a famous location around the globe. He had hundreds of photos from past diners who pose in places like Niagara Falls or in front of the Brandenburg Tür. I am alreading planning where I will take my photo.
Later that day for a healthy dinner, I decided I needed a break from all of the Vietnamese food and treated myself to some good old fashioned Oreos! Oreos and Ritz crackers can be found on EVERY street corner here in Vietnam, which I am assuming is something that was introduced here by American soldiers of the Vietnam War.
The second half of Vietnam will come soon…