Hanoi Travel Blog› entry 42 of 48 › view all entries
So I finally made it to Vietnam after one more botched attempt to pick up my passport at the Vietnamese Consulate in Bangkok (somehow I mistook 16:30 for 6:30 as the closing time, and reached the office just as it closed on Monday) - luckily I had time the next day to pick up my passport before my flight to Hanoi.
When I reached the city, Patrick and his girlfriend Steph had already been there for a day, and it was so exciting to see the two of them and Jimmy Tranman all rolling up to the street corner where my airport shuttle dropped me off. The shuttle driver seemed very nervous to leave me there until the others arrived, as there didn't seem to be any residences in the area and I had had to borrow another shuttle rider's phone to confirm where I was going -- turns out we were just in front of the alley that leads to Jimmy's house. After they arrived and I dropped my stuff off, we went to eat noodles at the outdoor vendor down the street, then spent the rest of the night playing Wiiiiiii. Jimmy and his genius doctorate candidate of a roommate have started an English school in their house, so we slept in their two classrooms, which are the only air conditioned rooms of the house (and the saving grace of many a muggy day). They were both super generous, and it's no surprise they have so many guests coming through to visit all the way on the other side of the world.
On the way to the restaurant, I also had my first of many 'hug rides', which Jimmy explained is the literal translation of the xe om scooters all over the city. We finished the afternoon by stopping by the Temple of Literature, then walking by Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum and getting a bit lost around some lake. It started to rain really really hard, so we headed back to home base at Jimmy's place, where we were met that night by the inimitable Hugo Shi, flying in from Singapore.
For dinner, Jimmy introduced us to what he called Chicken Street, where a bunch of competing stands sell barbeque chicken on skewers. We drank lots of beer and ate honey banh mi, which was probably one of my favorite things I ate in all my time there. Basically, the cooks skewer some baguettes, smash them flat, then coat them with honey, finally grilling them on a barbeque where they get all toasty and smoky. I don't know how they're so delicious, but they are.
Afterwards, we played Jenga at some bar that Jimmy frequents. It was really fun to see all the places he'd discovered and the life he'd built for himself since moving to Vietnam. It was really inspiring in a lot of ways, particularly when we got to sit in on one of his English classes one night and meet all his students. They were mostly college age and had a really excellent and sometimes hilarious command of the English language.
I don't remember exactly what day it was, but some time after Hugo arrived, the four of us signed up for a day tour of Halong Bay. Jimmy couldn't come because he was working. We took an air conditioned bus to the bay, then boarded a boat which took us out for several hours, dropping us off at a fish farm and a couple caves along the way. At the fish farm, we bought a crazily overpriced fish and four little crabs to supplement our meal on the boat. I had negotiated the fish, but didn't properly calculate how much it would be in USD. It was kind of startling, too, because I didn't realize that as soon as I pointed at one of the fish they brought us in the nets, that some man would appear out of nowhere and immediatly whack it really hard with a big stick! Couldn't deny it was fresh, though! Anyway, the cooks on the boat ended up steaming both the fish and the crab, and we were all very happy with the decision to buy them come lunch time.
During the day, we also got to do a bit of kayaking around the bay. It was really beautiful though hot, and we spent a good amount of the boat ride lounging around on the deck. The karst peaks looked just like the ones in Guangxi province of China, though there the peaks lined the river and here they were dotted all over the bay -- the view may have been slightly more impressive here, due to the large expanese of open water between the peaks. So pretty.
Speaking of Halong Bay, our tour guide was absolutely hilarious, a very skinny young man who had somehow acquired a Borat-like accent when speaking English. You could tell he had his tour script down pat, including his not very funny jokes and lengthy stories, which I loved, but others on the tour didn't seem to enjoy so much. At one point on the way back, he'd just finished telling a Vietnamese fable about the origins of the mosquito, which took forever because midway through he forgot where he was in the story and repeated about a third of it, so I asked him to tell us the other story he had mentioned as well. One of the other passengers immediately piped up and exclaimed, "Don't encourage him!" Ha (though I did find this a bit rude).
Anyway, some final items of note from Hanoi:
- hot pot from the last night, which started off with an appetizer of cured (?) meat sticks wrapped in banana leaves, and included all kinds of meat from frog to clams to the standard beef, pork, chicken
- vietnamese whiskey
- grilled beef with tomato and egg on sizzling plates, pho, pho ga
- drinking beer hoi on a street corner
- yogurt shakes, vietnamese coffee
- visiting the ethnography museum, with full scale replicas of ethnic minority houses in the back
- first experiencing traveler's diarrhea: had been lucky to avoid it up 'til this point, but when it finally struck, it struck hard. patrick and i both spent lots of time getting acquainted with jimmy's bathroom =P
All in all, a delightful first visit to Vietnam, and I'm super happy I got to spend it with such lovely folks.