Home Sweet Home
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Vietnam holds a special place in my heart. It is the country where my last trip through Asia ended disastrously (more on that another time) and the place where my latest trip starts. Two months ago, I left Vietnam in a wheel chair through Noi Bai airport in Hanoi. On January 5th, I returned to Hanoi through Noi Bai airport, walking upright and excited to come back to the only place outside of the United States that I honestly can exclaim "Home Sweet Home" about. I've read many travel blogs about Vietnam and Hanoi specifically and I can't disagree with them enough. If you only read many of the blogs without visiting it for yourself, you'd think Hanoi was a shit-hole that you only use as a base to book tours or motorcycles in order to view the mountainous northwest and Ha Long Bay. Hanoi is so much more than that. Hanoi is truly a living breathing representation of the rest of Vietnam - outside of Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon. Hanoi is a place of stark contrast. Rapid modernization meets the ancient Asia that you had always pictured in your imagination. At least the one I pictured. BMWs share the streets with live stock. Meals are a social event shared amongst the whole group in the most hectic street food stalls you have ever laid eyes on. Ancient traditions, temples, pagodas, and shrines occupy space side by side with banking centers, night clubs, and yes even prostitutes.
No longer wheel chair bound, I opted for the public bus system to get back into Hanoi rather than negotiate a flat rate with one of the countless taxi operators (both legitimate and otherwise) outside of Noi Bai. At a measly 3,000VND (current exchange rate to 1USD at time of writing was around 18,500VND), the public bus system is truly the cheapest way to travel in Hanoi. It's hot, packed, and uncomfortable. You'll be the only foreigner on it with no English assistance but it is cheap and if you can get over the negative aspects (and research routes in advance), you'll quickly find yourself at home on the bus and saving yourself a ton of money. With that endorsement out of the way, I should note for fairness' sake that I did miss my bus stop and didn't make it to where I wanted to be but I got close and was able to show the taxi driver an address and got the rest of the way for only 30,000VND more rather than the 200,000-275,000VND it would have cost to get a flat rate to the city center from Noi Bai.
Upon arriving at Pho Thanh Ha, I gazed upon what I had been missing for the last few months at home. Pho Thanh Ha is literally nothing more than an oversized alley. It's dirty, usually wet, and assaults the senses with more raw meats, live animals, and other foodstuffs than most full blown streets in the Old Quarter could ever dream of. I love this street and it is well located for my type of adventures - eating and drinking with locals, exploring markets, and wondering what the fuck "that" is. Some people might complain but I am at home here and as I walked up towards 3-5 Pho Thanh Ha, I recognize the familiar blue and yellow sign of the Hello Vietnam Hotel. Just as I recognize the hotel, a man standing outside the hotel recognizes me. With his hand above his eyes to shield his view from the sun he screams in stunned disbelief and begins to call to his family that helps staff the hotel. I recognize what is happening and begin to scream back. It is Michael, the head proprietor of the Hello Vietnam Hotel. We clench hands and give up all pretenses to greet each other with a hug of the most sincere kind. As I make my way inside, I shake hands and hug and greet every member of Michael's extended family currently at the hotel. They treat me like family and offer me food, drink, and assistance from the get go as they begin to stammer about how they can't believe I am back - some in better English than others. Some in no English at all.
Like I said in the beginning, "Home Sweet Home".
Up Next: Meeting old friends, making new ones, and thanking a man who helped get me home.