The young man from Vietnam Airways very politely told us in a soft voice that without an onward flight ticket we might not be allowed into Vietnam. I argued irrelevantly that we didn’t need a visa but, technically, he was correct. He said his supervisor would be there in five minutes and he might be able to help.
After a nervous few minutes, we were asked to sign a waiver that covered the airline’s back and was relieved to be checking in. It had been a slow process getting through passport control on arrival at Bangkok so we now didn’t know what we’d encounter in Hanoi.
We were starting to feel the effects of a long day’s travelling that had seen us catch a flight from Gatwick to Copenhagen where we boarded a ten hour flight to Bangkok. To have come so far and be so close, only to be refused entry would be soul destroying.
I’d read somewhere – while doing my extensive research – that once you’re through Hanoi passport control go straight to a cash machine and get your dong out, so I did. With two million Vietnamese dong (£61.85) in my back pocket and the couple of hundred dollars I’d exchanged before leaving England, I’m financially well endowed for the next few days.
As prearranged, a man was waving a piece of paper with my name on it when we exited arrivals that ushers us to a waiting taxi. We’re only on the motorway for a few moments before the unexpected sights start to appear. First it’s an orange tree strapped to the back of a moped, then a cow tied to the crash barrier in the middle of the road. Mopeds buzz everywhere while beeping at anyone and anything that might be in their way.
It’s up to you if you want to wear a helmet and there’s no limit to the number of passengers. We regularly see families of four weaving in and out of the traffic – you can breast feed while on the go too if you’re not shy.
We head to our room at the Lucky Hanoi Guesthouse 2 and hit the sack for a couple of hours. Vietnam is seven hours ahead of Greenwich so we’re very tired and a little confused. Once refreshed we hit the streets.
The air is alive to the sound of car and scooter hooters. The roads are thick with them going in all directions and not necessarily the right direction. We reach the corner of the road and quickly realise that the only way across is to walk straight out into the traffic and hope it stops for you – pedestrians having right-of-way and all that. They don’t stop. They toot then cut you up.
To cross the road here you have to be confident and trusting. See a gap and go for it. The bikes and car will just go around you. No one will start screaming and shouting as they all understand the system – which, surprisingly, works well. The other issue is that you’re probably already walking in the road. Shopkeepers display their wares on the path, restaurants sit their diners on the path and any remaining space is filled by a parked scooter.
We tentatively sit ourselves at one of the small plastic tables by the roadside and place an order for two beers at 25,000 VND (77 pence) each. We watch the hub-bub as we drink trying to work out how it all works. A couple more then we decide to leave and go in search of food. We’d spotted a place earlier in the evening that looked popular with the locals – always a good sign.
One chicken and noodles, one beef and noodles, two beers for a grand total of 140,000 VND (£4.33) and very tasty too! We watch the chefs prepare other dishes and decide to return tomorrow night for pigeon and chips or perhaps frog.
I’m not sure if it’s good or bad timing but it’s the Lunar New Year tomorrow and we’ve booked a day trip to Ha Long Bay. It’s a World Heritage Site and a must for anyone visiting the region.
Our bus driver is a lunatic. He prefers to drive down the middle of the road or, even better, the wrong side of the road. We’re seated at the back so every pothole he crashes into launches us skyward. Somehow we survive the three hour journey and arrive at our destination where we board a traditional junk. We set sail as lunch is served.
Our first stop sees us donning life jackets and slipping into a two-man kayak for a quick splash around a small bay. Too quickly we’re back on the boat and heading for our second, a grotto located inside another of the thousands of limestone islands that make up this famous tourist destination.
Back in Hanoi that night we’ve circled the Hoan Kiem Lake and staked our claim on a spot close to the water’s edge. It’s New Year and we’re here to watch the fireworks with the locals who pour out onto the streets in thousands and bring the centre of town to a standstill. After a brief spontaneous countdown the fireworks begin, they’re spectacular and are greeted with cheers from the crowd.
As we head back to our room we see people lighting small fires in the street. They chuck on money – fake dollars and other currencies – and other paper messages and representations including rabbits and horses as offerings to the spirits.
There’s loads to do in Hanoi and it’s easy to get around once you’ve mastered crossing the road. We visit Hoa Lo Prison, better known as the Hanoi Hilton, the One Pillar Pagoda, Temple of Literature and walk around the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (closed for the holiday).
While wandering the streets we discover there’s a railway line that cuts its way through houses passing just feet from their doorsteps. We walk a length of it as a woman washes the dishes next to, and children play between, the rails. Nearby, we find a restaurant and order ‘lau’ which is the Vietnamese version of hot pot. We regret our choice of chicken when the waitress adds whole chicken feet to the soup that is bubbling on the table-top cooker in front of us. Yes, a hot pot can include cheaper cuts of meat but it’ll take a long time before you’ll get any nutrition out of some of these leftovers. It tastes ok and we politely do our best.
Tonight we’ve booked the overnight bus to Hue, it has bunks instead of seats so sounds fun. Unfortunately, when we are eventually picked up we discover it is grossly over booked and there’s doubt’s if we’ll even get on. By chance we are told to board and claim two of the last bunks. Others are not so lucky and have to sleep in the aisles.