My first few hours after landing in Vietnam was stressful.
Firstly, at the airport after watching everyone else in the line breeze through immigration without any issues, my turn arrived and when I handed over my passport and e-visa there was a lot of frantic typing on a computer and then he pressed a buzzer and another senior looking officer came over. After much heated discussion in Vietnamese I was asked to step to the side while the second officer took my documents away to some office. I waited nervously while another 10 – 15 people breezed through and then the second officer came back with a third officer who had a phone open on something. After a few more minutes of lively discussion in Vietnamese between all 3 of them and what seemed to be confusion, they finally stamped my passport (in what appeared to be a reluctant manner) giving me the expected 30 days and waved me on with no further explanation. I still have absolutely no idea at all what the issue was, however, I have since met an Argentinian couple who said they had a similar issue but had to wait two hours.
In the arrivals hall and after waiting like a lemon for 30 minutes for my pre-arranged hostel pickup, I finally admitted to myself they were not coming so I had to make my way past several taxi drivers trying to get my business before I found information about a cheaper mini bus.
If there is one obvious thing I have learned from previous travels it is always to spend a little bit of time before visiting a new country to get familiar with the currency and learn a few basic phrases. Sitting in the back of a Mini-Van using the currency converter app on my phone when the driver sat waiting for the 100,000 Vietnamese Dong he had asked for while the whole bus was staring at me, I wondered why I had forgotten that basic lesson. However, there was no way I was going to hand him a hundred thousand of anything though without checking how much it was worth. Turns out it was only about £3.
When I arrived at the hostel, the receptionist insisted that the pickup had been there but I had walked around several times and checked every single sign that people were holding up a few times and am certain he wasn’t – I got the impression they wanted me to pay the pickup fee anyway but they didn’t charge it in the end.
I took a walk through Hanoi and was immediately shell-shocked. I thought I had seen it all in Thailand, Sri Lanka and Indonesia but this was chaos on a whole other level – you have to navigate your way through the swarms of bikes, cars, lorries and buses just by just listening out for the loud horns coming from all directions. No chance you can get on the pavement as they are crammed with parked bikes, food stalls and personal items of the shopkeepers so you literally have to walk with and amongst the traffic.
I read in a couple of guide books, websites, and heard from some other people, that it is “organised chaos” i.e that it looks like it is chaos but is actually an efficient system which just works but that doesn’t explain why I saw 2 moped crashes during my few days there and one backpacker have his foot run over. Although the backpacker was clearly in pain a young Vietnamese child was laughing at him and throwing a ball at him while he lay in agony on the floor. He had friends to help him so I moved on but I am sure he must have broken his foot or something.
I settled in to Bia Hoi (Beer Corner) for a well needed beer to calm the nerves, I was feeling slightly dazed but was just trying my best to relax and go with the flow. My first important observation was that the beer was about half the price it was in Thailand. Bia Hoi Corner was buzzing, a street full of plastic stools full of backpackers and other tourists, drinking and eating. I met a sound couple in that Bar who were from London, were on holiday and had come up from Ho Chi Minh and were on the last few days, they gave me some good tips on some tours and things they had seen and also a water puppet show in Hanoi. They also gave me a small card with basic Vietnam phrases, which was useful as I hadn’t yet learnt any. A few beers later and I was more relaxed and was starting to enjoy the vibes of the city.
Next day, I visited Hoam Kiem Lake which was a nice break from the chaos in the Old Quarter. I took a couple of pictures of it the night before too.
I also visited Hoa Lo Prison (Hanoi Hilton) which was a prison originally built by the French Colonists to hold many Vietnam revolutionary fighters and later used in the Vietnam war to imprison captured American Pilots. It was quite shocking to see the stories of the brutal treatment of the Vietnamese revolutionaries and the various torture instruments, death cells, shackles and punishment cells. The stories of the cruel psychological tortures they endured were the most disturbing.
I was pretty depressed when I left that place but it was interesting to see.
To cheer myself up I visited the water puppet show recommended by the London couple, I didn’t think this would be my sort of thing but I really enjoyed the music and the weird little puppets dancing in the water were quite entertaining. You can see in the photos how many camera crazy people were in there, I suppose that is a bit hypocritical but I only took a few and I didn’t use the flash.
Oh and by the way I am not much of a foodie as you could probably tell if you have read any of my previous posts with the complete absence of any food related experiences but I have to comment on the food in Vietnam so far – absolutely stunning. Step count is doing bloody well too!
Next stops – Halong Bay and Sapa.