It seems like I had been planning a solo backpacking trip overseas for ages. In late May 2016, I finally took off for a trip through South East Asia like I had always wanted to. I was dismissive of all deterring arguments. I cared not what was happening to me or around me. This trip was all that mattered right now.
I took a flight from Bangkok in Thailand to Hanoi in Vietnam; from one capital city to another, both strikingly different in their character.
An Eventful Arrival
I slept uneasily and was aware on a growing commotion around me. I finally opened my eyes around 3:30 AM and decided to try my luck at the check in counter. There was a huge crowd thronging the entrance at the baggage check. All of them were Asian tourists with big cartons and bags. I got in one of the many “lines” that was heading towards the X-Ray machine. People were quietly and patiently pushing at the back of my leg with their trolleys. I really did not want to get into an argument this early in the morning so I bore with the unpleasant pokes on my calves. I guess it’s not just Indians who are stupid tourists. I would have said they were Chinese, but I did not know for sure. To my relief, they were taking a chartered flight so they had a different counter after the baggage check. Phew!
Early morning crowding
I walked up to my counter with fluttering heart. I was preparing my answers in my head. In case you are wondering what it was all about, I did not have a flight out of Vietnam and online forums said that some flights had this stupid policy. AirAsia had already asked me for a return flight when I was boarding for Bangkok from Chennai so in case they denied me admission here, I would have to buy a flight out of Vietnam then and there.
The woman at the counter asked me for my visa. I showed her the invitation letter that would get me a visa on arrival. She went through it and proceeded to print the ticket. It was not until she tagged my luggage that I breathed a sigh of relief. But could it be this easy for me? There was one more hurdle awaiting at the Vietnamese immigration. But for now, I was through! I found a seat to sit in and charge my gadgets while I read a book. When it was close to boarding time, I walked to the allotted gate number and watched the sun rise over the Don Mueang Airport. There were quite a few tourists travelling to Hanoi.
Sunrise over Don Mueang
Vietnam Tip #1
AirAsia does not require an onward ticket for flights to Vietnam.
The flight was uneventful as usual. I tried sleeping but I could not because my neck hung at a weird angle. The flight was short though, so I was satisfied with just resting with my eyes closed. At the airport everyone streamed to the visa counters. The first line was to get the application form in exchange for a photo and your passport. A board proclaimed that you needed, among other requirements, an onward flight to get a visa. Damn it! Then I went to fill in the application anyway. There were no pens provided, you were supposed to have one of your own. Luckily, I did. The application started out well enough, then it started asking me weird details. Names, addresses and birth dates of family members! They had already taken my passport but I was also assumed to remember all it’s details. I had to connect to the internet to access the scanned copy and now the ISP wanted to know my age and salary bracket! I was in WTF mode by the time I was done with the application. I was not the only one, many others on the desk were looking around flustered hoping to find a relevant answer in a neighbouring form. I went to submit the application and it was nonchalantly accepted and I was asked to wait. Now I was frustrated as to why they were not looking at the information I had put in with so much effort. I felt so stupid!
The line I was standing in proved unnecessary. In Vietnam you are not served when it’s your turn. You are called when it’s your turn to be served. A screen above the counter displayed the name of the next person supposed to approach for the visa. Welcome to Communism! One of the girls immediately ahead of me ripped 50 dollars while opening the envelope in which she was carrying it. And that was all the money she was carrying. Her friend had some more but she was 2 USD short of what was required. I was wondering how stupid people can be when the lady at the visa counter gave her the passport and told her it was okay. She basically got into the country for free. My WTF mode jumped up a few notches.
I was asked to pay 25 dollars as the stamping fee, which I did without ripping any bills. I was handed the passport with the visa. I proceeded to the immigration desk. The lady officer was getting her make-up fixed by a friend and I had to wait a few seconds before they noticed me waiting at the yellow line. She took my passport and looked at me a few times more than necessary. I guess she was having trouble connecting my bearded face with the clean-shaven one in the passport. She stamped the passport and handed it back. I walked on. Was I in? This should be it, right? Yes it was! I was in Vietnam without incident. Woohoo!
I collected my bags from the baggage belt, got a few dollars converted to Vietnamese Dong and got a SIM card. I had read about public buses stopping at the airport and was wondering where to get one. Route number 7 passed by without stopping but I was supposed to take route 17 anyway. There was a board which said there was a bus stop ahead but the number 17 had been scratched off it. Another bus approached and stopped right in front of me; route number 86. There was just a western hippie girl getting in and I asked her if this bus would go to the Old Quarters. She said it would. Perfect! I got in and took a seat. The ticket costed me 30k VND (roughly 90 INR) for a drop close enough to the hostel I had booked. This was a fairly new service which had started by the city. I observed the people in the bus as we travelled the 25 odd kilometers to the city. As a first impression, the Vietnamese looked very much like the pahadis back home and the kids were extremely cute!
Hanoi Tip #1
Vietnam has Uber. But unless you are tugging along a ridiculous amount of luggage, you could easily take route 86 to the city. It stops immediately to the right of the terminal exit gate and costs 30k VND flat for anywhere in the city. It stops around the Hoan Kiem Lake in the Old Quarters.
I was staying in the Old Quarters of the city. It took me the rest of the evening but I was able to figure out what about this place reminded me so much of India. It was the haphazard nature of things. Everything in this city was a random concoction thrown together; the traffic; the violations; the smells; the lighting; the garbage strewn streets; the people calling out to you; the flavours; the parked cars; the colors; the sounds. The buildings were stunted, something that I liked a lot. I slowly walked to the hostel, managing the notorious traffic of the city with relative ease.
The first thing that my hostel reception did was trying to sell me the Ha Long Bay tour. I was considering going to Ha Long Bay initially but now I was repelled by the idea. Too much hype. There was still some time to check in so I went to a restaurant nearby. I sat down and ordered some food. The first thing that the waiter got me was a glass of beer! And that is how I first had a Bia Hoi experience! Bia Hois are ubiquitous in the country. They are similar to the beer stations in Myanmar but serve you draught beer (fresh beer as they call it) that can get you hammered in no time. I just had a glass though, and some food since I was starving.
I went back to the hostel and checked in. The bed was pretty simple and basic. The facilities were clean. I had nothing to complain about other than the sales pitches by the reception and the lack of a socializing atmosphere. I got some USD exchanged at one of the banks and got a rate better than the airport. On the way back to the hostel, I got scammed by two women who were selling some sweets. I paid 100 kVND for something that must have been less than half the price. I was still getting my head around the massiveness of the numbers. The thousand is pretty redundant a figure in Vietnamese currency.
Hanoi Tip #2
Beware of women forcing a seemingly sample savoury on you. In general, be extra alert around over friendly vendors in big cities.
Vietnam Tip #2
Ignore the thousand in VND. Think in terms of 1000 VND or kVND for quick conversions. 1 kVND is roughly 3 INR and 20-22 kVND is 1 USD.
I caught up on some sleep and forced myself out of bed at 7 PM so as to not spoil my night. I went for a walk towards Hoan Kiem Lake, a major attraction in Old Quarters. The lake was pretty and lit up with random lighting. There were people all around it, some walking, others running. The Vietnamese women are beautiful. If I had to compare, their beauty is much more “real” than the Thai. The Thai have an unreal dreamy touch to them. The Vietnamese beauty looks much more real.
Vietnam Tip #3
It is usual to see topless men running in Vietnam. You get used to it in a bit.
Endless stream of bikes!
I went till the Lenin Park next. It was further south. While I sat to rest and charge my camera, a man came and started talking to me with his limited English. The usual population of Vietnam does not have a very good English. There was the usual hello and question of nationality. I was also trying to learn some Vietnamese words on Google Translate app. I left after a bit and walked around to see more people walking, jogging and skating.
Skating at Lenin Park
I walked back to the hostel and had my first Pho Bo on the way. It was super awesome! Food in Vietnam is not really cheap though. At least not for tourists. A single meal from street side places cost me in the vicinity of 100 INR. The rates might be different for locals though. Charging tourists extra is a perfectly acceptable practice in Vietnam.
Pho Bo : first love in Vietnam
I slept till 10 in the morning. The dorm room was nice that way; quiet and dark enough to sleep in; no rush or noisy dorm-mates. But the place is seriously lacking in atmosphere. It is ridiculously named a “party hostel”. I put on my clothes and went to the Bun Cha place I had seen the last night. I sat in one of the two adjacent stops and was served with loads of food!
Kevin hearts Bun Cha!
The dish is simply WOW. There is no adjective to describe this awesome food. It is one of the best mix of flavours that I have ever eaten. It is usually served with crab roll called nem cua be. I was evidently overcharged though. That’s one of the problems with going to places without printed rates. I gained wisdom in exchange of 100 kVND.
Vietnam Tip #4
If you are drawn to a place that seemingly has good food but no menus or printed rates, ask for the price before you order food. This saves you from unnecessary surprises and will help you get better deals even if you are evidently n00b. Also, there is no shame in fishing for a better rate, even in adjacent shops. Be shameless about saving your money.
I walked up to the Hoan Kiem Lake again. I went to the Ngoc Son Temple built on one end of the lake. The ticket was reasonable and was the same for all visitors. The only difference in rates was for children and adults. It struck me as extremely unfitting, specially for a socialist country. Though I was benefitting from this, I still think that the country’s cultural heritage should be easily accessible to all sections of the country’s population. At 30 kVND, it was not really cheap enough for the poorer sections of society. I walked around the pretty temple. It was not very big and had a lot of Chinese looking designs. I took some pictures of people offering prayers and a kid troubling a sleeping cat. Vietnamese kids are really cute! 😄
Gods and Weapons
Kids and Cats
After getting out, I sat on one of the many benches around the lake. A man came and sat next to me. His name was Lo. We talked for a bit about India, cars, bikes and their costs in the respective countries. Vietnam imports its vehicles and has a lot of taxes. Hence one comes across more motorcycles and scooters than cars. We talked about more random things but at the end of it I was not sure whether it was a genuine conversation or not because he pulled out a map from his pocket and offered to take me to see the museums on his bike. I said goodbye shortly afterwards and started walking.
Parks and statues abound in Old Quarters
I walked to the Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s oldest university that had been turned into a temple for Confucius. The information brochure that I bought by paying extra at the ticket counter was a redundancy. There was no information in there but it served as a makeshift fan. 😜 There was a lot of Chinese influence here as well and the temple itself was heavily decorated with idols inside. I enjoyed walking around the pretty complex with the green gardens and Chinese lanterns hanging in decoration. I went to see some impressive art work in one of the souvenir shops but did not buy anything.
Temple of Literature
Masks for souvenirs
I came out after a while and walked till the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum which was a short distance away. That thing is grand and impressive! There is a giant flag of Vietnam flying in front of the building and the mausoleum itself is off limits to the public. A few soldiers stood attention at the gates.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
There was a museum nearby which I had initially thought of seeing but I dropped the plan because of the unending stream of sweat that I was producing. The heat was not much but the humidity was making things unbearable. I decided to walk back, there is always a tomorrow. There were more beautiful structures on the way but I just kept walking. No more sightseeing for the day. I ate a Doner Kebab from a stall which stuffed the meat inside a regular bread instead of pita but it was nice and filling enough.
Back at the hostel I washed up and sat downstairs sipping on a Hanoi Beer. I wrote a bit and started drinking the free beer that the hostel was offering. It’s something of a norm in Hanoi for hostels to give free beer in the evening. The quality of the beer is suspect though. Two glasses of that made me lose all 3D perspective. I stayed away from those “fresh beer” kegs then on. Bottled beer was cheap enough. The hostel manager asked one of the guys sitting there to tell me what an amazing time he had had on the Ha Long Bay Tour. I was not taking a tour! Period. The guy was from London (West Ham) and had been to India for 3 weeks recently. It was his last day in Vietnam and he had not planned on his next country yet, which was weird since he planned to fly out. Richness!
I walked out to get something to eat. There was a place that served good Pho near the hostel and I went to try it out. There was actually a queue to get your soup! I waited in the line and finally got a Pho Bo for myself. It was not really much different from the one I had had in the simple shop the night before other than the amount of meat in it. Maybe my taste buds were not developed yet in the sense of differentiating between Pho tastes. Anyway, I ate up and left.
I walked up to another part of the town which was known for it’s night market. I had no idea what I was going to witness. I ran into the night life of the city. Literally every crossing was stuffed with bia hois that overspilled into the street. There was usually a street performance going on as well in the middle of the crossing. Rock music, jazz, traditional Vietnamese music, electronic beats, etc. There was a lane dedicated to nightclubs. It was all completely unexpected for me!
Scenes from Hanoi's nightlife. More in the album below.
Hanoi had seemed a very different city. An older man tapped on my shoulder and asked me where I was from. He was an American who lived in Vasant Vihar in Delhi. He worked for WHO. We talked for several minutes about India, racism, cricket and Tendulkar, etc. Then we shook hands and the conversation ended as abruptly as it had begun. A young boy offered me marijuana. I was unable to understand what he was saying initially because he did not look your typical drug peddler, but once I did, I laughed and waved him off.
That's a traffic jam!
I walked around the entire area twice, clicking pictures and absorbing it all in. Then I returned to the hostel which had died as I had expected. I worked in the room for a bit and then went down to the reception to see the Euro match. There were two others who came to see the game, the West Ham guy and an Irishman who worked in the hostel. Around the 70th or 80th minute another guy joined us after his late night out. He was a Swede who lived in Yangon. We exchanged some Myanmar stories. He also expressed his surprise about a married Indian man he had met in a club who was trying to score with some Vietnamese girls. I could just smile apologetically in reply. We talked about random things for the remainder of the match and then went up to our respective rooms.
I got up late debating what I was to do today. I had not seen much of the city and was definitely not taking the Sapa or Ha Long Bay tour. I could go to Ha Long Bay by myself, or extend the stay in Hanoi by shifting into another hostel, or stay on here and deal with the pushy receptionist. After much mental tussle, I decided to damn it all and go to Ninh Binh. I still had time to make it to the station for the 1 o' clock train. I might get a ticket if I was lucky or would take a bus if I was not. Since I had time on my hands, I went to grab a Banh Mi at one of the places that I had been recommended by Sodani. The Banh Mi is a sandwich made in a French baguette bread. It was slightly dry for my taste but I was later to realise that Hanoi does not do the best Banh Mis anyway.
After I had started walking back towards the railway station, I checked my phone for directions and found a message from Long. He had replied to my last night’s request on Couchsurfing. I am rather new to the community and barely have references to be considered but had tried my luck anyway. I stood in the shade of a tree and got in touch with him. A quick chat later, I was walking towards Hoan Kiem Lake to catch a bus to Linh Dam, the locality where Long stayed. I had no idea what to expect out of a host or what was expected of a surfer but I decided that this was as good as any time to find that out. A GPS and location fuck up meant that I had to walk an hour extra in the scorching sun and, flustered as I was, it was a respite to reach the apartment. Long’s flatmate, Tan, showed me in and then rushed out to give his exam. Long and Tan were university students. The apartment was a nice one with wooden desks and beds. It had the simplicity of a student’s house, something that I liked very much.
I took a bath, exchanged a few words with Long and then dozed off for a couple of hours. I woke up later and went for a walk around the lake nearby. Long went to see his friends. We decided to sync up over messages since I did not have the house key and Tan was not back yet. The lake was a big one, though not really in the cleanest of conditions. The water level was somewhat low, perhaps awaiting the year’s rains. I did one complete circle around the lake. There were people playing pro level jianzi and badminton, some were jogging (there were topless men again), and a little further people sat on small plastic chairs drinking sugarcane juice and looking at the lake. On the other side, there were people bathing their dogs and taking a swim in the lake. The water did not seem clean to me but they seemed to be having fun!. I saw a beautiful sunset with the sky lighting up in exquisite colours and being reflected in the lake.
Jianzi by the lake
I sat a while in a cafe waiting for Long to return. The first Euro match of the night was about to start so I sat there longer than I had intended to. Cafes are omnipresent in Vietnam and I had thought that would be expensive affairs but they were not! I drank a couple of coffees of different styles while watching the match. The Vietnamese coffee is strong and has a smooth chocolaty texture, very much like dark chocolate. I had a hot black one and a cold milk one which they call Ca Phe Sua Da. It is basically coffee mixed with some condensed milk and ice cubes put on it. This drink would go on to become my favourite beverage in Vietnam.
Vietnamese coffee : strong, dark and 💗
Vietnam Tip #5
When in Vietnam, drink Vietnamese coffee!
Tan was back by the time I returned to the apartment and Long was gone again. We talked a bit, about my travel in Vietnam and I tried to get some food recommendations out of him. Tan was trying to learn English properly. So was Long and the entire Couchsurfing thing was to that effect. I liked their enterprising spirit. They wanted to learn international languages and hosted tourists for that. English is supposedly taught in Vietnamese schools but it is apparently not good enough. There is a huge problem that the youngsters of the country are facing and a simple thing like lack of English speaking skills is robbing them of opportunity and international exposure. I wondered what I would have done had I been in their place; probably just sat on my ass and complained about the lack of facilities! We sat and talked some more later in the night over a late dinner. Long had returned by then. There was more of English and exchange of cultural information. Vietnam has a weird form of socialism. I had supposed that everything basic would be provided for by the government but it was not so. The students had a tough life here. We stayed up and watched the late night Euro match between England and Russia.
Temples, Pagodas and Uncle Ho’s Legacy
The wooden bed was not as uncomfortable as it had looked. I managed a good enough sleep but woke up early. I freshened up and had some breakfast with Tan. The student life in Vietnam is pretty unprivileged. I am not sure how the economics works but they don’t seem to have a lot. He told me about the dishes that are made for breakfast in Vietnam and how they don’t have them “because they are students”. Leftover from last night, if any, is what they have for breakfast. That was good enough for me as well.
After breakfast I decided to complete the pending sightseeing and went back to the Old Quarter in the bus. I got off at Hoan Kiem lake and walked towards the Mausoleum. It was lunch hours so I walked ahead to the West Lake. There were a couple of temples marked on the map which I intended to check out.
The first temple was Den Quan Thanh. There was a small fee of 10 kVND to go in. The temple looked empty but for two women who were sitting on a bench. As I clicked photos, they came to me asking whether I wanted my photograph clicked with the temple. I did not. Then she asked me if I wanted to buy postcards from her. She pushed a few in my hands and I went through them for a few seconds saying that I would consider after seeing the temple. She got pushy now, saying that she needed to go for lunch so I should buy immediately. But I said I would skip in that case. She claimed that I must buy because I looked at the postcards. I laughed and handed it back. Then the other woman asked me to buy something for some baby which I cannot see. I was not amused. They went away with the look that said I had ruined their day. Of course I had. The temple was a nice and quiet one apart from this one pushy saleswoman. There were hardly any tourists around. The temple had a few spooky looking golden statues in red light.
Tranquil Quan Tanh Temple
The next temple, a little ahead was the Chua Tran Quoc. This was supposedly the oldest temple in Vietnam; well maintained and renovated. There was no fee of admission though a board invited donations. There were lots of people here, tourists and locals. A catfight had broken out between two elderly women right outside the complex as I was passing by. It was mildly funny. There was a man standing at the main door and ruining the shot. He was in the same spot, working on his phone even when I came out. Inside there was an assortment of relics. There were inscriptions, beautiful bonsai sceneries, a 11 spired (I think that’s the count) tower with Buddha images inside, a Bodhi Tree gifted by Dr. Rajendra Prasad when he visited as the President of India. The main temple itself was small and similar to the last one. I spent a pleasant fifteen minutes looking around and walking in the complex.
There is always an asshole spoiling the shot
I walked back to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum next. I came across the entry to the Presidential Palace and checked it out first. The was the house that Ho Chi Minh used to live in when he was the President of the state. It was a real palace. That man lived in style! I am not too sure how socialism works but here it just seemed like a mellowed down form of Feudalism. I walked around the pretty palatial complex and then exited.
Uncle Ho's Palace. More in the album below.
Up next was the museum. It was little more than the glorification of socialist values and their great leader. I was not expecting much else.
A temple of socialism
There was the legend of how Uncle Ho voyaged across the world and came to realise that socialism was the means to liberate his people from French colonialism and American capitalism. He made his way back to Vietnam and rid it of it’s oppressors. Some graphs of fudged numbers showed how socialism has worked wonders in consistently improving the economy and the people’s standard of living. The rest of it was a really quirky museum. There was a lot of modern art and some creepy looking things on display. I suppose Uncle Ho was a patron of arts, otherwise it would make little sense to make such a big museum full of it. I liked the air conditioning though and it helped me relax after the tiring day in the sun.
Quirky modern art in the museum
I walked back to the Hoan Kiem Lake to find a lot of tourists around the bus stand. Just when I was wondering why the tourists were taking the bus, I saw that they were all headed to Lotus Opera. It was time for the Water Puppet Show. I debated whether to go for it but I was not in a condition to enjoy more touristy activities. A young man started talking to me at the bus stand. He was confused as to why I was standing at the bus stand. When I told him that I was waiting for the bus, he asked me whether I lived in Hanoi. The part where I was staying with Long was not one that tourists frequented. I tried explaining Couchsurfing to him but eventually gave up saying that it was like Facebook.
Back at the apartment, Long and Tan were not in but another friend of their’s opened the gate. There was another Couchsurfer (French guy) who had come in the meanwhile. I took a bath and had started writing when Tan’s friend came and started talking. He is an automobile parts dealer in Vietnam and wanted to know if he could import parts from India to sell them in Vietnam. I had no idea of the industry and his English was not good. We made use of a translation app on his phone to understand each other. The marvels of technology! I went back to the cafe nearby to see the Croatia and Turkey match. The coffee was so good! ☕
Modric ripped Turkey apart. By my counting, there were at least three of him playing on the field! Amazing. Then I went to eat some dinner on Tan’s recommendation. Banh Cuon Nong. It was an amazing dish that might have been a delicacy in another part of the world. It was rolls made of thin rice sheets with stuffing inside. One was supposed to dip it in the sweet and sour sauce that was provided and eat it up. The dish costed me a mere 20 kVND.
Kevin eats Banh Cuon Nong. Do you?
After dinner I went back up and chatted with another of Long’s friends. These guys invite their friends over to practice English with tourists. It’s a really nice arrangement. Long, his friend, the French guy (Rudy) and I went for some beer later. The weather was nice outside owing to sudden showers. We drank some super cheap beer and talked about the three countries : Vietnam, France and India. The topics ranged from weather and snow to population and number of children per generation. We sat a while and then returned to the apartment in hushed steps and voices. Bachelors and students are stigmatized everywhere I guess.
The French guy was gone by the time I woke up. I packed up as well. An Italian couple had just come in. They had been travelling overland from Italy for 10 months now. They intended to go to India in August and spend a couple of months there to end their trip. I find such stories so fascinating and impressive!
I had another plate of Banh Cuon Nong before catching a bus till Giap Bat Bus Station. The touts jumped on me offering me tickets to Ninh Binh. I bought an extremely unauthentic looking ticket from one of them for the price that I had researched. One guy walked me to the bus and I took the last seat. Another man tried selling me lighters and bracelets. I just smiled and shook my head. The bus started and the journey was comfortable enough. They were playing “Ipman 2” on the TV. There was a strange Vietnamese voice over. A single person (a woman) had done it for all the characters in monotone. It was a good thing that I knew the movie.
I watched the Vietnamese countryside for a bit. It is very similar to certain parts of India. There are the green fields with concrete structures peppered throughout. Tarred highways with fast cars racing on them. Billboards advertising things that aspired you to afford them. The only considerable difference seemed that the houses here had slanting roofs instead of flat tops back in India.
Whether you enjoyed the post or not, do leave a comment!
Find the previous posts in this series here.
And here is the complete album of the Hanoi leg of the trip.