When I came to Asia, I had a picture of what an Asian city would look like in my head. Roads filled with swerving, honking cars, sidewalks lined with old, charming buildings, restaurants pouring onto the street, and shops crammed together like sardines. Hanoi, in all its bustling, picturesque glory, fits this ideal and stands as a sort of quintessential city of Asia. When Li and I first arrived in the Old Town, we were completely overwhelmed. Chiang Mai has a population of about 1 million people. Hanoi has over 7 million. The motorbikes crowding and swerving through the small streets and alleys, honking even when no other cars or motorbikes were nearby, put the drivers of Thailand to shame. We couldn’t take two steps without getting honked at, and any sidewalks that would have been available were covered with restaurants spilling out onto them. As evening approached and we wandered out, the streets of the Old Town turned into pedestrian only areas as the restaurants extended further into the street. They completely covered the pavement in short tables and stools, which soon filled with people, tourists and Vietnamese alike, eating, smoking, drinking, and chatting. After only a few minutes of walking, our nerves were shot. The streets were a series of convoluted twists and turns that were impossible to navigate with the fading light, and we were hungry, thirsty, and tired. We both needed a drink. We found a little restaurant, ordered some spring rolls and some alcohol, and with our bodies and minds relaxing a bit, we ventured out once more. We found another restaurant, ordered yet another drink, and also enjoyed some pho (pronounced ‘fuh,’ like rhymes with ‘duh’), a traditional Vietnamese noodle dish. We had a few more drinks after finding a buy one get one free bar, went back to our hostel, and, with the sounds of the noisy crowds lingering outside our window, we fell asleep.
We spent our first full day in Hanoi doing some sightseeing. We spent the morning at the Temple of Literature, the first national university in Vietnam. It was built in 1070 AD and was dedicated to Confucius. Walking around the grounds of a college or university has always had a calming effect on me. Being in places of learning puts me into a state of ease, whether because I enjoyed my time at my university so much or simply because I admire education, I’m not sure. Being in a place of learning this ancient and historical only amplified those feelings of ease. We were still in Hanoi, in the middle of this very active city, but upon entering the temple, the city faded into the background. I could still hear the motorbikes speeding and honking outside the temple walls, but it was background noise to the softness of the sounds inside the temple. We spent about an hour exploring the many sections of the temple, meandering slowly through each gate and building. After taking a break for lunch and a little rest, we walked to Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the Returned Sword) in the center of Hanoi. In the middle of the lake stands a small, grey tower called Turtle Tower. There is an interesting legend behind this landmark. They say the first king of Vietnam was granted a magical sword by the gods. After conquering and bringing Vietnam together, the king went to the lake, where he was met by the turtle god, who asked him to return the sword to him. The king threw the sword into the lake, as requested by the god. The turtle is one of four sacred animals in Vietnamese culture. The others are the unicorn, the phoenix, and the dragon. They are all featured along the entrance to the Ngoc Son Temple, which sits on a small island in the middle of the lake. To reach the temple, you must walk along a bright, red bridge known as the Huc Bridge, or the Rising Sun Bridge. We took a free tour of the city through our hostel when we returned from Sapa, and our guide informed us that crossing this bridge is supposed to bring luck to your love life. I guess we’ll see… When we got tired that afternoon, Li and I sat next to the lake. It was chilly and sprinkling off and on, but there was an air of peace around the lake that allowed us to escape the streets for a while, and we were happy to sit and look out over the water. While sitting there, we were approached by several students attending universities in Hanoi, and they asked if they could speak to us. Unknown to us, the lake is a popular place for students to seek out tourists to help them practice their English. We had nowhere to go and nothing in particular to do, so we ended up chatting with the students for about two hours. At one point, we had ten students surrounding us. Their enthusiasm and desire to practice their English skills impressed me immensely. Coming from Thailand, where the students show very little interest in learning English, it was refreshing to find people who were so eager to learn, and I was more than happy to help them. For the most part, they spoke pretty good English—much better than most of my students. It was a bit disheartening in a way as I realized just how far behind Thailand is when it comes to educating its students, but there’s hope, and with the new ASEAN agreement that has opened up the borders of many Asian countries, Thailand will soon be forced to face the fact that its citizens are poorly prepared for the pressures of an international job market. On the other side of this, the people of Vietnam seem to be taking it very seriously, and many of the students I met actually seemed to enjoy speaking English. After two hours, we had exhausted a lot of speaking topics, and we were ready for dinner, so we bid farewell to our new friends, they thanked us profusely, and we were on our way to find some more delicious Vietnamese food.
We left for Sapa that night on an overnight sleeper bus. See my previous post for details of our time there.
We were exhausted when we returned to Hanoi. The sleeper bus dropped us off in the city at 3 am, and when we arrived at our hostel, we were waved away by the security guard. No key, no entry. We asked what time the desk would open, but he clearly didn’t speak English and continued to wave us away. Not knowing what else to do at three in the morning, we went and sat by the lake. It was chilly, we were tired, and a little after four it started sprinkling. The only other people around were those still out drinking from the night before. Our only other company were the rats digging through the small trash piles around the lake, which were soon cleaned up by a cleaning crew that arrived a little after five. I put my backpack on my lap, laid my head on the top, and managed to sleep for a little while, but Li didn’t get any rest. By the time we checked into our hostel a little after six, we were exhausted. We couldn’t get our beds in the dorm until the other people checked out, which wouldn’t be until about noon. We sat down on the lobby couches; I had a small breakdown simply from a lack of sleep, which made the situation seem more stressful than it was, and leaned onto the armrest and took a nap. Again, Li wasn’t able to sleep. Luckily, she functions very well with very little sleep, and she was able to handle the day fairly well despite only getting three hours of sketchy sleep on the bus. I was impressed. We pulled ourselves together around 8 am, went out and found some breakfast, came back, added two packets of instant coffee to our water bottle, and joined a free walking tour at ten. We got to see St. Joseph’s Cathedral, a beautiful building left over from the time of the French colonization in Vietnam. We got to visit the lake, yet again, and then we were led through some interesting street and bike markets. The bike markets are just what they sound like. In Hanoi, as in many cities, you have to have a permit to have a shop. But many sellers simply sell products off their bikes, and if the police come, they grab their merchandise and ride off without facing any consequences. The markets were full of interesting foods, both dead and alive (one particularly gruesome shop was in the process of pulling the heads off of live frogs), flowers, trinkets, and handmade souvenirs. The tour ended at a small, hidden coffee shop that was four stories tall and looked out over Hoan Kiem Lake. It was relatively quiet, and very lovely. It was here that I got my first taste of Vietnamese egg coffee, which is coffee mixed with egg yolks that have been beaten with sugar to form a frothy, delicious cream. The day, like those previous, was oscillating between chilly and warm, and the coffee was a perfect addition to the cloudy morning.
We finally got our beds when we got back to the hostel and, after taking a much needed shower, Li and I both hopped into our beds and took a nap. Around five, we ventured out once again to go see a traditional water puppet show at a theater near the lake. The show was all in Vietnamese, but the stories were mostly easy to follow simply by watching the actions of the puppets. The mechanics were very impressive. There were dragons that blew fire, foxes that climbed up trees, and plows that moved through the water as if moving through a rice field. Traditional Vietnamese music accompanied the show. It was cute, funny, and a perfect evening outing. It also felt culturally authentic, and I really enjoy finding those experiences when I’m traveling. After the show, we found yet more delicious Vietnamese food (by this time, I was doing pretty well with the chopsticks since most places didn’t offer spoons and forks), and then settled in for the night, grateful that we were facing a night of uninterrupted sleep.
The next morning, we were bound for Halong Bay. It took about four hours by shuttle bus, and I was happy when we were finally freed and taken to our small cruise ship. The ship’s paint was chipping a bit, and it had clearly seen better days, but the rooms were nice and comfortable, the dining area was clean and looked out over the bay through large windows, and the top deck was scattered with lounge chairs where you could sit and enjoy views of the bay while cruising. Halong Bay, a World Heritage site, is celebrated as one of the most beautiful places in the world. It is, indeed, very beautiful. Towering limestone pillars covered in lush forests rise out of the waters of the bay in every direction. Vietnamese legend says that the bay (Halong translates as ‘where the dragon descends into the sea’) was created when a dragon flew toward the coast, its tail carving out valleys, and when it crashed into the sea, the bay filled with water, leaving only those limestone cliffs visible. While we were there, it was cloudy and foggy, giving the bay a sort of mystical, romantic feel. I prefer sunny days, and perhaps I would have enjoyed it more if the skies had been clear, but as it was, there was no shortage of beauty in the bay. Our first stop of the day was kayaking. Li, who grew up in Portland and is very familiar with outdoor sports, is comfortable with kayaking, and, with both of us being the adventurous sort, we used the 45 minutes we were given to explore a series of limestone pillars that were in the opposite direction of the route many of the other tourists seemed to be taking. Doing so allowed us to get away from the crowds and to experience relative peace in the bay without being surrounded by other cruise ships, chatting tourists, or the motors of the small, local boats. As we were paddling back toward the pier, we came across a small group surrounding the edge of one of the pillars where a few monkeys were jumping around, grabbing at the food one of the locals was throwing at them. It was the first time I had seen wild monkeys since coming to Asia, so I was excited, and that helped us end our little kayaking venture on an especially happy note. The second stop was at Surprising Cave, the largest cave in Halong Bay. I’ve seen more impressive caves, but this one was interesting all the same. The view from the entrance is what made it special. The entrance was set into the middle of one of the limestone islands, and from it you got a spectacular view of some of the cliffs, surrounded by the cruise
ships and local boats. Even the cloudy day couldn’t ruin the landscape that sat before us at that moment. After the cave, the explorations were over and we were left to relax on the ship. That night, while Li was reading in our room and while the other guests relaxed on the upper deck, I went to the front of the deck and sat down, looking at the outlines of the cliffs and the many lights cast off by the other ships that glowed like the stars that would’ve been visible if not for the clouds. It was quiet. I could hear some muffled karaoke coming from other ships, and one of the crew sat near me trying to catch squid, bobbing a simple fishing rod in and out of the water, but the natural stillness of the bay was still heavy in that moment, heavy enough that it weighed on me and pressed the other sounds deep into the ocean, away from my consciousness. I felt the bay’s magnificence, let it guide me toward an understanding of the grandeur of this place. In that moment, more than any other over those two days, I understood how Halong Bay had earned its prominent place among the natural wonders of the world.
We didn’t stay in the bay long the next day. After breakfast, we started cruising back toward land, and we were there a little after noon. After another four hour bus ride, we were back in Hanoi and spent the evening doing a little souvenir shopping, finding dinner, walking around the lake once more to enjoy the lights that were strung through the trees and that were turned on for the first time since we had been in city, and packing up our things to prepare for the return journey to Bangkok. After arriving in Bangkok the next day and making our way to the bus station via the subway system, we still had about six hours to wait until our overnight bus left. By the time we finally climbed onto the double decker bus, our feet were sore, we were drained from the heat, and our shoulders were stiff from carrying our backpacks all day. But we made made it. It was a rough six hours, but we pushed through, and the next day we were back in Chiang Mai, happy to be home, but sad to leave our adventures in Vietnam behind.