Flying China Southern to Hanoi
We said sayonara to Japan, and boarded our China Southern airplane for Vietnam, via Guangdong.
We were apprehensive on our Japan departure, not because we were worried about what we would find in Vietnam, but because we had booked our flight with China Southern airways and let’s say the reviews were not confidence inspiring.
In the end the reviews were mostly true, the customer service isn’t great and the transfer at Guangdong in China was acceptable without ever verging on pleasant. But for the price we paid for a seven hour flight we are not complaining and we would use them again if the price is right.
A few commentators said the drinks service was on the stingy side, which I would disagree with, John did his usual trick of traversing both aisles during drinks services, and the cabin crew were very accommodating when buzzed for top ups.
Guangdong is one of the most expensive airports we’ve visited for food and drink, even cigarettes weren’t that cheap. So we didn’t patronise any of the duty free shops.
Immigration in Vietnam was surprisingly efficient. We had ordered our ‘letter of introduction to Vietnam’ on-line before we arrived and presented a print out of this, a completed visa form and a picture, paid our $25 and had a visa within five minutes of landing. It was the last flight of the night though and the immigration officers were all out of the door sharpish after we’d been processed.
Hurrah for Hanoi
We’d never visited Vietnam before. Hanoi was to give us our first impression of what to expect. It’s funny how, even though you try not to, you create a mental picture of a place before you arrive. I guess this comes from stories you hear from other travellers, and the things you’ve read and seen over the years.
So far we’ve been quite wide of the mark, with our pre-arrival guesses, about the destinations we’ve travelled to.
Many places have surpassed and surprised us, some have underwhelmed. With the exception of Hanoi, it’s exactly how we imagined it. So Hurrah for Hanoi in providing us with a warm welcome and an exciting backdrop to indulge in the city's delights.
Hanoi grabs hold of your senses the minute you arrive and doesn't let go until you bid it farewell, keeping you captivated throughout. It’s a great place to enjoy a cool drink, eat some food and watch the world in motion. For those who like markets and shopping, you’ll be very happy. The people are quite charming and don’t suffer fools easily, but why should they? Just agree whatever you want to pay for any service or product in advance, initial prices tend to be on the high side of things.
A Very Charming Hotel Indeed
We don’t normally write too much about our accommodation unless it’s hilariously bad (like in Auckland
) or wonderful (as in the case of the Ryokan
in Yamanouchi). The Charming Hotel
in Hanoi comes under the second category. We paid US$20 for B&B at this hotel located in the heart of the old town in Hanoi. The room had massive comfortable beds, a big bathroom, LCD TV, good Wi-fi and an excellent breakfast.
What made this hotel though was the service from the staff, which was pretty spectacular. They helped us out with our trips (at rates we couldn’t beat in the tour shops or looking online), accompanied us to the chemist and translated to make sure we got the right creams for John’s sand fly attack (more about that later in our Halong Bay blog) and were happy to compensate us when the tour company got a little bit arsey about refunding some of our Halong bay trip fee when it didn’t go as planned. I could go on, but won’t. I can’t think of anywhere we’ve had this level of service before, in this room rate pricing range, Charming by name and Charming by nature.
The Hanoi Tourist
Hanoi will not win any awards for the best city centre ‘attractions’ but really this is not what this place is about. We did a few of tourist type things.
We did take a taxi up to the Tran Quoc Pagoda and walked back to town, on our sightseeing day, taking in places we wanted to see.
If you don’t want to walk, taxis are plentiful as are the rates they charge. Haggling for a meter or a price is part of the way of life between tourist and cab drivers although the ‘Hanoi’ and ‘Hanoi Tourist’ firms are the most reliable meter users. If you want a real ride you can hop on the back of a motorbike, if you don’t value your life too much; or take it at a more leisurely pace in front of a cyclo bike. All prices will require serious negotiation and its best to get them written down in the currency of your negotiation. Dong (VND) and US dollars are both often quoted during negotiations, to confuse matters, which always works best for the driver surprisingly.
It was blisteringly hot and humid so the walking pace was slow. We spent some time wandering around the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. We were again caught out by the Monday closing of some Asian government attractions and were spared a trip inside to see Ho Chi Minh's preserved body. Apparently it’s a bit of a faff anyway as you have to wear long trousers, leave all your belongings and cameras in a complicated set of left luggage booths before you get to file past the renowned ex Vietnamese leader’s embalmed remains.
The mausoleum building is impressive though, although we were not allowed too close or allowed to explore the gardens that surrounded it (not sure whether this was just because it was Monday though).
We then made our way down to the Temple of Literature which has a minimal entrance fee that allows you to wander around the beautiful buildings and flower sculptures before finally getting to the temple at its heart. There were lots of Vietnamese tourists milling about in traditional Ao Dai
costume which made it more interesting and colourful.
We also had a look round the old French quarter of the city, and stopped off for some good Vietnamese coffee. I love the coffee here so much, I’ve purchased a little cafetiere for a couple of pence to keep me caffeine fuelled on the rest of my journey.
Our final destination of the day was to be Bia Hoi (translated as draft beer) corner, another Hanoi institution. Seats befitting a four year old are set out in front of tiny shops and for the princely sum of 5000 Dong (17p) you can sip a glass of cool beer and watch the cyclo's and motorbike taxis (known as Xe Om - which translates as "bike hug" which is kind of cute) stream past with their array of frightened and, in the case of the cyclos, bored passengers.
You spend the rest of the time checking out the nearby street food vendors who will deliver some wonderful little snacks to your seat to help you wash down the beer. You can also dine in some of the many eateries available.
This experience lets you begin to truly appreciate what is so much fun about Hanoi. Before we knew it nearly four hours had passed as we were mesmerised with the goings on of the passersby, the women traders (who stop and try to persuade you to buy their wares) and avoiding the shoeshine boys who will find any none existent defect on your shoes or flip flops and offer to mend it for a few thousand dong.
Getting Around Hanoi
Our past travels to India and Asia had prepared us for some daunting traffic and street crossing experiences, but Hanoi really is in a different league. India and Bali are second rate traffic wannabees compared to Hanoi. Traffic light adherence appears optional at all but the most major intersections. There are zebra crossings painted on roads, but you may as well ignore them as the road crossing procedures are the same with or without the pointless painted lines.
You simply find a slight gap in between taxis, mopeds and cyclo’s and step out and try and make eye contact with the oncoming traffic hoping they will see you and make alternative arrangements for getting around the road space you have just occupied. It really is an experience, but eventually you get the hang of it, hopefully before you die.
Hanoi Markets & Vietnamese Food
You can buy anything you want in Hanoi, there are whole streets devoted to different merchandise, one street will be full of opticians, another silks and cloths, another will specialise in small cuddly toys (I kid you not). While very little of it will be sanctioned by the brand names clearly displayed on the garment, some is of pretty good quality, as are the ‘snide’ DVDs.
We also discovered a night market along the length of Hang Duong which sold a lot of stuff at half the price you will pay at the main tourist shops. John managed to satiate his shopping hunger by doing some nifty negotiations for our new Glaswegian friends who we’d met on our Halong bay trip.
The food so far has been good, but not as interesting or unique as I thought it would be. Hopefully as we wander further through Vietnam this might improve. One dish that does stand out though is Bun Cha.
We searched out a recommend restaurant for this classic Hanoi dish. Dac Kim seemed to be a favourite and by chance was a mere 10 metres from our hotel. They serve only one dish, Bun Cha, making ordering easy in any language. You simply tell them how many you want and about ten seconds later you will have a mound of herbs and lettuce (mint coriander and lettuce – we think), a plate of glass noodles, some pickled vegetables, spring rolls and a bowl of meatballs and pork swimming in the owner’s special sauce.
You assemble all these ingredients into your little bowl give them a mix with your chopsticks and then dive in, after adding a little chilli and ginger to taste.
The flavour is like no other, I am not sure whether your taste buds go into spasm at all the competing herbs and spices but it just works and has to be one of the most unique tasting meals I have ever had. The best bit though for this fantastic culinary treat is the cost at 90,000VND.
Flashpacking thoughts on Hanoi
Things do shut quite early here, but start early. I think we were kicked out of a few bars around 12.30ish. It’s funny how time flies when your sipping 12 years old Chivas Regal, well that’s what it says on the bottles. Although if you want there are clubs for backpackers and the young at heart, but we are beyond that now.
Speaking English here isn’t a problem, getting fully understood sometimes takes a little longer. We know a few Vietnamese words, hi, thanks, etc. Having spoken to a few multi-linguists here, they assure us that the Vietnamese language is almost as difficult as Chinese with is tonal sounds.
Hanoi is not a bright lights city, but the place is alive with the buzz of people. I think what makes this place so interesting is that so much of daily life occurs on the street, in full view, not behind closed doors. It’s almost impossible not to be mesmerised by this window on life, as people go about their daily business; on the most part oblivious to the tourists watching them as they go about life Vietnamese style.
We would happily return and watch again in wonderment at life in Hanoi, some things never get boring.
Trust me, Hanoi is a fascinating place, don't miss out and use it merely as a jumping spot to your Ha Long bay trip, set a few days aside and experience its vibrancy.