Saturday, March 12, 2016

first days in Hanoi

We landed in Hanoi.  Directed into the airport and the visa on arrival line.  We knew going in that we would have to have our paperwork in order.  Every guidebook tells you of how you are unable to enter without an approval letter and two passport sized photos.  Prepared we hurriedly filled out the paperwork.  Somehow I missed that part of the process.  We walked to the agent and handed our passport to him, the approval letter and were told to wait.  While there, we watched this couple attempt to get their visa.  They did not print out their approval letter however.  The gate agent had no interest in helping them.  He even said, leave.  I was shocked and very thankful that we had printed out the approval letters.
Twenty minutes or so later, we were handed our passports back.  Everything was in order.  We could leave the airport and make our way into the city.  Our homestay had sent a car and so it was an easy transition.  We would not have to talk to any of the drivers and try to explain where we were heading.  The airport is a ways from the city center.  Driving in, everything seemed tranquil.  Serene, almost.  We got closer to the old quarter and suddenly we were surrounded by scooters.  Scooters everywhere.  Driving at us, next to us and people just going.  There was no rhyme or reason to the traffic.  I watched people trying to cross streets. I was fascinated and overwhelmed.  I didn't really look forward to trying to walking the next day. 
Our driver dropped us and our host guided us to our homestay.  Still a little overwhelmed by all of the activity on the streets.  Instead of staying we in, we walked around the neighborhood before settling on a spot for spring rolls and a beer.  We discussed what we hoped to see while in Hanoi.  There was Halong Bay we could arrange.  All we knew was that we had one more night in Hanoi before deciding where we would head. The next morning we set up a tour to Halong Bay and a return to Hanoi for an additional overnight.  Our hosts were accommodating and knowledgeable.  They set up our flights to Danang and had no issue making suggestions for us. 
Hanoi is interesting.  Inhabited by seven million people with at least five million people owning scooters.  Parking is limited for cars which makes sense as to why so many people choose to get around the city that way.  Lots of street food, shopping, people everywhere.  I got confused more than once as to where we were.  I had never been so blatant with the fact that I was lost either.  I swear, I looked at the map and still had no idea where we were.  There was a distinct lack of English unlike Bangkok.  Eventually, we managed to find the Hanoi Hilton, a lake and a place we could enjoy a beer.  I didn't know what to expect from the prison.  I felt depressed.
The Hoan Kiem lake was a nice treat.  Gorgeous flowers of all kinds, trees, lanterns offer a soothing break from the hustle and bustle of Hanoi.  I wish I could fully express how challenging it is to walk in that city.  At first, that is.  Then, it begins to flow and make sense.  Or, I found that we were no longer terrified to cross the street.  There is an understanding between pedestrians and scooters where everyone is welcome and able to function. 
We stopped by a massage place and experienced a nice massage.  In Vietnam, like Thailand, they give you clothes to wear while being massaged.  The clothes were interesting.  Silk capris pants and a halter top.  Thai style massage and tea to finish. 
Our hosts invited us to dinner.  Luan's father in law made us a traditional meal with his wife, their daughter and grandson.  Unfortunately Luan was at work.  The food was great and again, we were reminded of the language barrier.  The mother in law spoke English well but the conversation was limited.  It was our fault as neither of us tried to learn phrases in Vietnamese.  Next time I travel I intend to make more of an effort to be a good guest. 
We had breakfast the next morning with the family. They offered eggs or noodles.  We both wanted noodles.  Amazing.  I added too many chilis.  I was no longer congested.  And they made us as much coffee as we wanted.  I was super happy!
We packed up and headed to Halong Bay.  The only bus we would take over the next three weeks.  Of course, we could have taken a bus or train to tour the countries.  However, we knew that would require endless time that we would not be able to get back.  Every time we traveled to a new city, we lost half of a day.  We would need to adjust, adapt and stay near wherever we were staying.
The bus ride was supposed to take three and a half to four hours.  We were advised that the driver would follow the speed limit as it was suggested to follow the speed limit.  To not speed or antagonize the police.  I was prepared to be in the bus for four hours.  We stopped at a midway spot to use the bathroom and allow the driver rest. I bought a coffee and waited.  Other tour companies use this as their midway stop as well.  There were a plethora of buses to sort through when we were departing.
We drove through this town and encountered traffic.  Unable to move type of traffic.  It was suggested that an accident had occurred. We sat and waited for fifteen minutes before finally making progress. During this time, I was frustrated since it seemed like there was no solution to the problem.  No one to direct traffic or help ease the jam.  We would see the other drivers going in the opposite direction able to drive while we sat and waited.  We saw trucks full of pigs secured by bamboo and scooters carrying two by fours, flowers, chickens.  Entertaining for sure.
Finally we were able to move and continue our drive.  Halong Bay was beautiful.  Stunning.  Gorgeous.  Our tour included a stop at caves and an overnight stay on a boat.  That was more than enough time to see the area.  I think if it had been warmer, kayaking or swimming would have been great.  Hanoi and Halong Bay were cold.  I was so thankful that I brought my jeans along with me.  In Bangkok, I considered leaving them as they were an unnecessary thing in my bag.  I could lighten my bag by leaving those and the yoga pants somewhere.  Then, I changed my mind in Hanoi. 
On the return trip to Hanoi, again, we encountered insane traffic in the same spot.  It wasn't as long but definitely held us up.  We returned to Hanoi at 5 pm.  We chose to walk around the city and dine at a popular street fare spot.  Barbecue pork or bun cha was a must do while in Hanoi.  It was good.  A little greasy but good indeed.  I wanted a massage and so we walked aimlessly around.  There was a spot near the hotel that seemed decent.  We had walked past a place that looked dirty and so we chose to pass.  They had massages for $6. 
We settled on another spot and in hindsight should have kept walking.  Instead we were asked to change into pants.  No top was given and we were told--why do you need a shirt?  We are all girls in here.  There were two ladies that had received a facial in the room as well as three other therapists.  We started facedown and the girls were talking.  Talking more than is usual.  I had a flashback to a Seinfeld episode where Elaine asked George's dad to translate what the pedicurists were saying about her.  These ladies talked and laughed and barely massaged us.  Shari got frustrated and left midway through the massage.  I struggled but stayed.  I shouldn't have.  It really was a terrible massage.
It soured the experience of massage.  From this point on, we wanted to look at the rooms and discuss if the place was adequate or not. 
The next morning we left Hanoi after another awesome meal at the homestay.  I really loved everything about this experience.  Clean, kind, gracious.  Super accommodating and helpful.  All of our needs were met.  And they invited to not two, but three meals with them.  Honestly the best broth that we ate. 
After spending time in Hanoi, we considered if we wanted to go to Saigon or not.  More people.  More scooters and another city to adjust to.  Everyone we spoke to told us of how busy it was.  This factored in our decision to head to Laos from Danang.  More on that later....

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