Much like Hong Kong, before visiting I was pretty apprehensive about what I would find when I went there. No amount of googling was enough to reassure me, and despite all the snooping I’d done on the net, I still had very little expectation when I finally touched down on the 23rd.
However, a reunion with a friend who had been away for months was a pleasant beginning before stepping out into the Unknown.
While Hong Kong was a comfortable medium between familiar and foreign, I found pretty quickly that this would not be the case for Vietnam. The bus ride to the hotel I remember feeling nothing but wide-eyed (naïve) amazement. The contrast between both Korean and Hong Kong was striking, everything had seemed quite metropolitan and modern, but the route to the hostel showed me a Vietnam that is still very much in touch with more rural origins. Houses and buildings looked old, as if they’d been there since the invention of buildings, and most all were detached and set back behind fields growing wild grass or crops I could only guess.
It changed very quickly the closer we got to the city centre and before I knew it I was back to being surrounded by towering buildings and the noise of a trillion people squished in to one place. Our arrival was met by what I can only describe as a sensory nightmare that truly put my teeth on edge and almost thoroughly frayed my nerves. Hundreds upon hundreds of people had flooded the streets and paraded the roads on motorbikes, so already the noise was considerable. When you also consider that most every person, whether they were on bikes or the pavement were also hollering at the top of their voices or blowing on vuvuzelas, and children banging together frying pans for some reason, you get a real cacophony. Plus it was quite the surprise to see that whole families crammed on to one motorbike was something of a common occurrence, and helmets seemed to be more of a suggestion than a rule.
Anyway, it turned out that the noise was a result of the Vietnam football team qualifying in some league or the other, and the Vietnamese take pride in their country to levels I had previously been ignorant to. That would explain the hundreds of Vietnam flags being waved around. Mercifully, after that night the sound levels slipped back down into the normal decibel range, but all the same it made the first night sleep very, uh… interesting. The hostel itself was the upper end of average. We obtained a four (bunk)bed room so had a small measure of uninterrupted privacy. That’s except for the daily knock on the door from staff and the obligatory “Hey guys, just to let you know, we’re going to have beer on the roof…”
Despite the city centre being an actual city centre, a lot of it still seemed to be going through some industrial changes, and upon a quick check on google, the four of us were quite surprised (it wasn’t something we had thought to look up) at the amazingly high levels of dust in the air. There was dust and grit everywhere, getting into our hair and clothes, and two of us quickly found ourselves with chest concerns, having to take extra precaution with disposable face masks and asthma inhalers. It didn’t get too bad, thankfully.
For all the industrial growth and the overabundance of tourists and commerce, Hanoi still had tremendous culture thriving alongside it. The Temple of Literature, a preserved university dedicated to Confucius built in 1070, is nestled amongst busy streets and modern shops. Back streets crowded with coffee shops and tourist hostels had vendors selling wares and produce in quang ganh (Vietnamese Baskets). Ngoc Son Temple, a temple on Hoan Kiem Lake a short walk from where we were staying, was essentially adjacent to chain fast food restaurants. Women in beautiful traditional Vietnamese attire called Áo dài mingled with people in jeans and jackets.
A short while into our stay in Hanoi, I ran into some trouble wherein I would experience intense muscle fatigue, and I finally caught up on a bit of rest had to miss out on visiting a few places I had hoped to see. If I’m being truthful, the break was a welcome respite to the bedlam of Hanoi streets. There are so many cars and even more motorbikes zipping around labyrinthine streets and intersections, and genuine advice for crossing the roads was to essentially walk out slowly in the midst of it and don’t panic because the drivers and bikers will go around you. A far cry from the considerably less stressful pedestrian crossings I had navigated until then.
However, it didn’t slow me down when it came to spending a couple days in Ha Long Bay, another part of the country that made the list of New7Wonders of Nature. However, coming from the industrial furnace that was Hanoi meant that I was woefully unprepared for the rain and chilly weather there as I’d foolishly assumed I could leave my jumpers and warmer clothes in my suitcase. Nevermind. The tour we went on meant a boat ride around these magnificent rocky islets of the bay that I’m sure must have inspired scenes from James Cameron’s Avatar. The stops we made included exploring a cave network, kayaking or bamboo rafting through an isolated mountain-ringed lagoon (where we saw a wild monkey and saw people infuriatingly throwing food at it), and finally climbed one of the mountain peaks via a lot of stairs (which didn’t exactly help my muscle fatigue).
Our return to Hanoi from Ha Long bay was met much like the ruckus of the first night except I was flabbergasted that this time was a lot rowdier with huge mobs of people, bright red smoke flares, and boomboxes blaring from the back of cars and motorbikes. Earlier in the day, the Vietnamese football team won what I assume to be an important match of the league, and despite the hours difference, huge celebrations were still going strong.
The rest of our stay in Vietnam was defined by your customary exploration of museums, galleries, mausoleums, cathedrals temples, cinemas, beached swan boats, and a harrowing museum in an old prison only slightly ruined by it’s obvious propaganda. All in all, certainly not my worst holiday, but I managed to cram so much in to those 7 days that I’m in absolutely no rush to return for the time being.