Vietnam seems to have an air of intrigue about it – at least, it always has for me. Whether it’s the automatic relation to CCR from growing up with Full Metal Jacket, Good Morning Vietnam, and Platoon, the dream of a relatively unchanged and less-travelled country from a tourist perspective, or the idea of owning my first motorcycle and touring through the rolling mountains roads with the wind at my hair and a smile on my face. Vietnam seems to have always been one of those destination that I’d really been looking forward to.
I’d heard that Hanoi is a wild city. A small jam-packed area where cars, bikes, motorcycles, and people all mingle in a smooth flow of traffic that might even seem calculated from the right perspective. I’ve never really been one for cities so I figured our time in Hanoi would be brief; land, buy a bike, and leave. However, after only having spent a few days in the vibrant city it’s somewhere that I could definitely spend a much larger quantity of time.
Maybe the best thing about Vietnam, or simply Hanoi is that tourism isn’t actually that large of a proportion of income to the country, and thus being a Westerner you really aren’t granted any sort of higher status, or heckled on every corner, or surprised by the lack of English shops. In fact, the language barrier in Vietnam is one of my favourite things, besides the hostels and café’s targeting travellers no one speaks English! The generally means figuring out much more on your own, having a good laugh at yourself daily, recognizing humility, and forcing yourself to adapt to a new culture and language, and not one that will adapt to yours.
Vietnam is incredibly cheap from Western standards, and actually from standards of most travellers. For about $4/night you can afford yourself a clean dorm room, hot water, wifi access, and a free breakfast. For $10/night (hopefully split by two people) you can grab a private room with air conditioning, a fan, a TV with cable, a private bathroom, hot showers, free wifi, free beer between 7-8pm, and a free breakfast! You can find a cheap, basic and delicious meal for 25,000dong (a little over $1USD), or a high-class dining experience for 120,000d (about $6USD). Transport is cheap, food is cheap, accommodation is cheap, and entertainment is cheap. But the Pièce de résistance has to be Bia Hoi – a local beer that cost 5000d (yes, that $0.25 per beer). At a quarter a beer, is it even possible to maintain any sort of sober lifestyle? It’s unlikely.
Hanoi also boasts its fair share of fun stuff to do. For a start, since Bia Hoi is only $0.25 the clubs and nightlife tend to start up fairly early, where you can enjoy buckets of mixed boozed for a few dollars or simply sit and people watch at one of the hundred street stools in the main bar areas. There’s karoke featured every five shops if you feel like loosening those singing muscles, and a night market that runs on Don Xuan street fri – sun. But perhaps one of the most interesting, weird, and outright hilarious things to do in Hanoi is book a $5 ticket to the water puppet theatre. This 1-hour show features a live band playing traditional intrustments and an entire water puppet play in Vietnamese.
Simply put, Vietnam is stunning. Beautiful mountains cascade the horizon, rice terraces cover the valles, limestone rock archipelagoes ride from the Dong Sea in Halong Bay, and a beautiful coastline stretches the entire length of the country. From dense jungles, beautiful beaches, to winding mountain roads, Vietnam truly is a place of wonder.
There are three options to head from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh) to Hanoi and vice versa. Either take the train, book and open bus ticket, or buy a motorcycle and tour the route yourself – we went with the bike. Our second day in Vietnam we decided to bike was definitely the route for us – the beautiful sights, crisp air, and mountain roads truly had to be felt on top of two wheels. We spent our second day bike shopping and landed on two bikes suited to our riding style and need. (This blog will likely become a bike touring blog for the next month so I’ll go into more detail of the bikes on the next post).
Now I’m getting rather tired so I’ll try and be brief. We decided to book a tour to Halong Bay for 2 nights, giving our mechanic enough time to look over the bikes and fix any last minute issues. The next day we boarded a dingy old boat and cruised through the beautiful landscape of Halong Bay, enjoyed some kayaking, and got dropped off in Cat Ba Town (located on Cat Ba island), where we had a rather blurry night on the town with a group we’d met on our tour. We started the morning with a refreshing hike, I lost my sunglasses, had a swim on the beach and boarded the boat to sleep in one of the interior cabins before heading off bright and early back to the harbour, and back to Hanoi – where our bikes would be ready and waiting. Life’s pretty good.