The stifling heat and humidity hit me like a wall stepping off the plane in Hanoi. I had anticipated that it would be hot and sticky, but was not prepared for the heat wave which made me start sweating instantaneously. Riding into downtown Hanoi felt like taking a step back in time. The loud and hectic streets were filled with vendors selling their wares, scooters zipping in and out while pedestrians meandered along. The hotel provided no relief to the sauna atmosphere as the room only contained one lazy fan that slowly spun on the ceiling, barely circulating the hot air. That did not slow the lively noises from the street below and soon after dropping packs we headed out to explore the bustling city. The next three days were non-stop on the go to explore Hanoi and taking a junk cruise through the stunning Ha Long Bay.
Hidden after hour bars- there was a two-part surprise about the nightlife in Vietnam. The first was the strictly enforced midnight curfew. Shortly before the Cinderella curfew, police began entering the restaurants and drinking establishments to ensure that the evening festivities were being wrapped up in an efficient and timely manner. This was a disappointing discovery as the streets had only started to liven up and just as quickly as everything had livened up, it started closing back down (although I have heard that this midnight curfew has been relaxed until 2am to entice more tourists). However as I was paying my tab and preparing to head back to the hotel, the small group of twenty somethings I had been chatting with asked if I wanted to keep drinking. Curious as to what hidden speakeasy they knew of I followed them down a dark and seemingly deserted alley. About the time that they started knocking on the closed tin store front, I figured I had been suckered into some scheme and was looking for a quick exit. Yet moments later the steel gate at the front of the store was rolled up and I had my second surprise of the evening. Inside was a dimly lit room with lots of TVs, music, and a fully stocked bar. Apparently the strict curfew did not dampen anyone’s night as the party lasted until the wee hours of the morning. It was always a bit disconcerting when someone would pound on the door, but the merriment quickly resumed after every little group entered and the guard closed the gate behind them.
Halong Bay junk tour- the primary motivation for visiting Vietnam was to go on a junk tour of Halong Bay. Imagine old boats with giant red and orange sails dotting emerald waters sprinkled by little islands. This is exactly the way that it is sold in glossy magazines and a quite accurate description of this UNESCO gem. On the first afternoon walking around the streets of Hanoi, I found a tour company that offered a three-day package with a roundtrip bus ride to the port and two days and nights on the water. The boat was not nearly as new and shiny as the ones in the brochure, but the boat was sturdy and I had a private cabin to sleep in (which was definitely necessary because wearing clothes in the heat was simply unreasonable). The boat lazily sailed through the Bay offering plenty of time to sip on fruity drinks and soak up the sun and scenery. When we stopped the first evening, several other boats came up and tied on to ours and the other guests made their way over. They brought a band and we spent the evening swaying to the live music and chatting away with all our new found friends.
The cruise was certainly the highlight of the trip with the absolutely stunning island scenery and lazy sunny days lounging on the deck. It is similar to the limestone islands in Phi Phi Thailand, but on a much larger scale. The boat crew had several activities planned for the guests such as a cooking class where we made spring rolls and a night dance class. We also had a few afternoon activities like stopping to explore the largest cave in the chain and to kayak around several of the smaller islands. It is not surprising that these little islands have been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site and made it on the new Seven Natural Wonders of Nature list.
Night Markets and Street Food- When the sun sets, Hanoi offers a quintessential night market. It is loud, filled with people, the endless stalls offer every item imaginable, but most importantly there is a smorgasbord of food. I skipped dinner and went straight for the food stalls to eat my way through the market sampling grilled meat kebobs, Banh mì sandwiches, fresh spring rolls, and of course pillow cake. Not only is the street food incredibly inexpensive and convenient, but it provides a chance to sample so many of the local varieties of dishes made by the locals!
Cheap massages- a highlight to any southeast Asian country is the cheap massages and spa treatment. I never had a massage until after joining the military and my friends insisted we get them following a particularly brutal hike and my mind was blown. I was immediately hooked and thankfully with Japan as my first duty station, many of the countries in the area had extremely cheap massages. In Vietnam the average price for an hour long massage was about $7-$15. Pedicures, manicures, you name it, are also extremely reasonably priced. With prices that low, it is easy to justify a massage every evening on the walk home and I only fell asleep on the table once. Perhaps twice. I regret nothing.
Hostel Average Cost: $8
Currency: Vietnamese Dong
Drink: Tiger Beer- one of the cheapest and most popular beverages in Southeast Asia.
Food: Pho. This arguably difficult to pronounce but delicious soup is readily available at all the little restaurants lining the streets. One of the best in town is at Pho 10 Ly Quoc Su where they offer all levels of spicy which left me sweating, but satisfied.
Electric Outlet: Both Type A (normal American outlet) and Type C (European)
Visa: Required- offered on arrival.