Friday, January 7 – Hanoi Bound
It’s our last girls weekend trip of the year! How weird and sad – every month I could count on some kind of trip or rando adventure with these girls and now we’re at our final one.
I woke up feeling about 75%, better but not back to normal. At least this morning I could look at my computer without feeling dizzy. However, I wasn’t about to risk real food or coffee, so when we left for the airport in the late morning I was still pretty out of it. It’s probably best that I was kind of out of it because the airport and the flight was filled with the worst people on an airplane. I’ve noticed the Vietnamese culture is very self centered, with people literally pushing you out of the way or simply running you down. It’s bad on the street, it’s chaotic when you’re trying to get on a plane. People cut in front of us at the check in desk, people elbow you when you get on the bus to drive up to the plane, and it’s one large mass of bodies scrambling to get on the aircraft. This one lady literally elbowed me in the stomach to get in front of me on the stairs – bitch, that’s annoying on a good day but you’re at risk for projectile vomit today. It’s bad even after I’m seated – I get accosted by someone’s suitcase that ricochets off of me as he makes his way down the aisle, the man across from me hits me in the head with the frame he’s trying to store in the overhead apartment and the dude behind me is having a battle with the tray on the back of my seat in which I’m the loser. This is going to be the longest 2 hour plane ride of my life. The ride from hell ended with a toddler getting sick all over himself and the plane smelling like baby puke for the last 30 minutes. Dude, I know how you feel. Another flurry of elbows and holding my ground as the guy behind me tries to get past as I get my bag down and we get the hell off of that airplane and out of the airport. And I thought Americans were impatient.
We have an hour drive into the city in which I pray my stomach keeps it together – our hotel is in the middle of everything and it looks like a great part of town, but we’ll have to explore tomorrow as we spent the rest of our afternoon and evening working. The rest of the day was a bit bumpy, our hotel room didn’t have AC, it was sticky and humid, we didn’t have a lot of room to move around and the internet was big time sucko. Even the dude that came up 5 different times with 10 different AC remotes couldn’t lighten the mood. I think at the beginning of the year it would have been funny – but on month 12 we’re over the inconvenience. Add the fact that we all got queasy from our dinner and it was an interesting night – god we are falling apart.
Saturday, January 8 – Exploring Hanoi
Per usual arrangements, we made sure our hotel had breakfast included….although breakfast is a loose term. I think I had two pieces of toast. However, today, I’m not forgoing coffee and we track down a little coffee shop that Natalie found online. Someone made Vietnamese coffee even more magical and decided to add egg to it – and we found the original cafe where it was invented, just a wander down a random alleyway. It was like a caffeinated eggnog milkshake – dear god I could have flown with the buzz we got from it. Nom nom nom.
Freshly buzzed, we started to wander around Hanoi’s Old Quarter – a collection of narrow streets littered with all kinds of cafes, restaurants and shops, a mix of traditional and Western venues. It’s definitely a backpacker haven with a layer of local flare as you are almost run over by motorbikes on every turn. In HCMC, the traffic is organized. In Hanoi, the traffic is absolutely chaotic. There are no lights, no crosswalk signals, and not a care in the world for pedestrians. Motorbikes are coming from all directions and try as you might to look both ways, one will come tearing out of no where blaring it’s horn and sending your tourist self flying back onto the sidewalk. We tried to be patient but after 10 minutes it was too overwhelming and honestly the quarter was starting to lose some of its appeal because it was just too busy. We found refuge in a little cafe that was Viet Cong themed – right down to our waitress’ outfit. Drinking a beer on the sidewalk of a cafe to watch the world pass by is a much better way to take in Hanoi, because the craziness of the streets is more fun when you’re a commentator rather than a casualty.
We muster up the strength to navigate the motorbike mayhem again to find a nearby park – we find the backroads that are a bit less crowded and contain surprises in the form of little textile shops that give me Cusco shopping flashbacks – quaint and full of textiles that yell “buy me Kendall!!” I haven’t been big on souvenirs this year but there’s something about these little shops with handmade gifts that poke the sleeping shopping
sun bear inside me. We bee bop out of many shops along our way to the park and suddenly the crazy quarter’s streets aren’t so bad. Also I found a $5 painting to add to my painting collection this year so you really can’t dampen the mood a good bargain puts you in.
We find the park and send up a thankful prayer that the roads around it are blocked off from traffic – it was pretty, full of green space, a temple and a nice little pond.
Our tummy rumbles feel more normal than last night and we realize that these are actual, real, hunger pangs. What a great feeling! I’m sadly sticking to mostly western food this weekend as I think I need blander food. Since I got sick on Thursday, my stomach flips every time I smell Vietnamese food. Which is a problem when you’re living in Vietnam. Sad day. We get pizza for lunch and for the first time in a while, I notice how many people are on their phones around me. I would say 90% of the patrons at the restaurant were on their phones at the table – I don’t know if this is because I haven’t really eaten out a lot in the past 1.5 – 2 months or because this is a more modern country/city but it made me sad that everyone was so disengaged. We headed home after pizza to make sure that stomachs remained normal and then just took it easy for the rest of the day. Movies, munching, wondering if the people at the bodega next door recognize us after our three trips there, and just hanging out telling mindless jokes and switching rooms once the hotel staff realized that our AC truly was broken. These down times are some of the best times.
Sunday, January 8 – Halong Bay Cruise Day One
Visiting Halong Bay was our main reason for journeying to Hanoi – our shuttle picked us up around 8am and made the 3 hour trek east to the bay. I was anxious in anticipation of the ride to Halong Bay because I thought we would be back on a bus and I have to say, I am completely bused out this year. The posh van with lots of room and only 8 people was a really nice surprise. Thus started the most organized and efficient weekend trip of our entire year – they even color coded our tickets to match us with the correct boat! What!
We step onto our little boat and as we climb the staircase, they’re showering us with flower petals and hand us a yummy drink at the top – is this real? Is this going to be an easy side adventure?!?
We get our briefing and our shown to our spacious two bedroom suite – I’m letting my heart believe that this is real and our last trip is going to be luxurious – yay! Our bedroom on this boat is, if possible, nicer than our apartment in HCMC. It was fantastic with three beds, instant hot water, and a floor to ceiling window with bay views. We’re served a delicious lunch after we get settled in and head up to the top deck to take in the amazing scenery of the bay: huge limestone rocks are emerging from bright blue/green water and creating an amazing landscape in front of us. The water is covered in them and it’s kind of hazy so it gives a really cool, mysterious feeling as you see these huge rocks loom out of the haze as you pass right by them. Like, Pirates of the Caribbean-esque.
The haze lifts and we’re blessed with beautiful blue skies that accent the beauty of this place – it’s amazing to be on the top deck of this boat surrounded by this incredible scenery as your boat meets the rest of the tourist boating herd entering this rocky bliss.
Our first excursion is kayaking among some of the rocks – D and I are in one, Natalie and a new friend are in another. We paddle through a little cave and emerge on the other side surrounded by towering limestone pillars, scampering monkeys and open sky above us – it’s beautiful! And then turns hilarious as another couple flips their kayak….how they did it on completely calm water I will never know…mostly because I was giggling so hard I couldn’t really watch the scene unfold.
Back onto the boat as we head to one of the many caves secluded in the different rocks. This cave was called “Surprise Cave” and our boat concierge led us through the three different caverns and gave us some back story on Halong Bay:
- Halong means “descending dragon”
- Years ago, when Halong Bay was a major fishing site, many of the fisherman would take refuge and live in some of the caves, especially during the storms
- The rocks in the bay were created over 500 million years of tectonic activity
- Halong Bay is 4 hours from the city of Hoi An and 4 hours to the Chinese border – I had no idea we were so close to China!
After our cave exploration, our boat anchored down for the evening and the sunset was the cue for the start of happy hour. Drinks weren’t included in our $130 USD all inclusive cruise fee, so being the budget travelers we are, we brought our own wine. Happy hour indeed. There was a spring roll cooking class on the top deck so we got to make a few spring roll appetizers before dinner – fresh spring rolls with wine on the top deck of a boat in the middle of Halong Bay is not a bad way to spend a Sunday.
Dinner was a 5 course meal full of epicness – it was a good mix of Western and Eastern food and was probably one of the best meals I’ve had in months. And we all felt completely normal afterwards – which is a major win. Another few glasses of wine on the top deck ended our wonderful evening.
Monday, January 9 – Halong Bay Cruise Day Two
After the best night’s sleep I’ve gotten in weeks, we woke up around 6am to catch the sunrise Tai Chi class being offered on the top deck. I’ve never done Tai Chi before but it was really cool – our teacher looked so graceful in his traditional outfit blowing in the morning breeze and leading us through the soft, guided movements of the practice. There were lots of side to side movements, like we were moving energy back and forth to the side and then bringing it back to the center of our bodies. That paired with the sunrise peeking through the clouds made for a great start to the morning. This might have been one of my favorite parts of the trip.
Followed by my second favorite part which is the meals they’ve served us – breakfast was equally as amazing as dinner the night before. Bacon and eggs and fruit and some traditional dishes I’m so happy.
Our final excursion of the cruise was walking up a casual 435 steps to take in a great view of the bay. I was expecting worse in the way of 435 steps, for some reason it didn’t feel like such a climb, maybe because they weren’t at an ungodly altitude (I still feel you Cusco). The view was really pretty, especially with the cloudy haze that made the bay even more mysterious – the people however, ruined the view. I knew Halong Bay was touristy and I was expecting the boats but it’s easier to deal with the mass of humanity when they’re spread out over water and not in the background of your pic trying to take a selfie. We bailed on the view pretty fast and spent the remainder of our excursion on the beach, people watching and talking.
Back to the boat for brunch, which I didn’t touch because I went overboard on breakfast, and then we headed back to the dock. The cruise seemed to go by fast but honestly I think it was a perfect amount of time. Everything went so smoothly, the bay was absolutely beautiful and the girls and I had a lot of laughs and great talks. It was a pretty perfect last 24 hours.
Our ride back wasn’t as pleasant as the ride there – maybe because this time I was in the front row and I could witness the crazy driving. I saw us cross over the line into oncoming traffic and almost sideswipe motorbikes and small children enough to decide it was better to just close my eyes for the rest of the ride. We got back in the late afternoon and laid low as the three of us love to do – another wine, another takeaway order and fun conversations that come from just hanging out. It’s so nice to just sit and hang out rather than feel like we have to run around to see absolutely everything – I love how these girls and I travel.
Tuesday, January 10 – Death Grips and Good Deals
The last site we wanted to see in Hanoi, before we hit those shops again to pick up our purchases, was a pagoda a few km from our place – a seemingly simple ride, no? No. We started our day back at the cafe to get our egg coffee fix and hailed an uber. I should have been tipped off that it would be a problem when he made a 10 point turn in the middle of our street to go the wrong way. Okay, maybe he knows a different way, no worries. Okay now he’s pulling over to the side of the road to check his map…why does he keep turning the map around? Why is he going the opposite direction? Wait, does he see the red warning at the top of his phone that his GPS is disabled? All questions that led to the most frustrating 20 minutes I’ve ever had in an uber.
I don’t know if he had a disability or it was his first day on the job or if he was flat out stoned but this guy was way too reliant on his malfunctioning GPS and was the least aggressive Vietnamese driver. To the point where he wasn’t changing gears in his stick shift car so we shuddered at ever stop and every turn around a corner, a bus behind us was beeping and flashing its lights at him for a good five minutes, he drove with his turn signal on and refused to listen to us when we started giving him directions. He confirmed he spoke English (he didn’t, he just said “yes” to any question you asked him per my experience with most of the Asian culture) and since I was in the front seat, I gave directions. I would say left and even make the hand motion to the left and he would say, yes left and make a right hand motion and start going towards the right. Okay, once I get, your left and right English words mixed up. After the TENTH time of making the opposite turn than the hand motion I give you are just being stupid. D and N are losing their shit in the back and I’m trying to stay calm with this dude because he’s clearly already anxious and I’m sure being yelled at by three foreign girls won’t help his anxiety. I was calm until I told him to turn left and he said no, crossed his arms in the form of “not allowed” as we had a bright, perfect, green turn arrow in front of us, but instead he went straight through the red light. Nope, we’re done, pull over immediately and let us out. It took us three times the amount of time to get to where we needed to be and since it took so long, the pagoda was now closed for service for the next two hours. Oh, did I mention it was raining? Yup, it was pouring and hazy and wet and we were stuck at a closed pagoda. First response: find a bar.
After a beer, the nerves settled and we searched for a higher rated, more reliable uber back to the old quarter. Another drink, a bite to eat, and shopping would be the cure to this incredibly off start to our day. The good news that came with the rain was that the old quarter was much quieter as less people were on the roads – some soup and a Vietnamese coffee made it better and we were ready to find our shops again.
A few hours later, with many gifts and good bargains under our belts, we found a brewery to spend our last few hours in Hanoi. D and I were heading back to HCMC this evening as Natalie was going to visit Hoi An. One very turbulent ride with D’s sweaty death grip on my hand stood between us and home.
- I’m really happy we’re in HCMC over Hanoi – it was cool but it was way too hectic and I don’t think I could live there for a month. At least HCMC’s chaos is more structured. This weekend confirmed again that I’m happier around quiet and nature over the cities – the bustle is too much and I just felt so much better surrounded by the water and the beautiful landscape. I think I’ll be traveling to more national parks and remote places over cities in the future.
- I really like Vietnam…I do not like the people’s demeanors. The staff in our hotel, on the boat and all the restaurants are really pleasant and kind but I cannot handle the self centered culture here where there’s pushing, no personal space and you are a casualty if you’re in anyone’s way. It’s a norm in their culture, but as an American, I perceive it as very rude and even jarring. And I have to deal with it and not get frustrated because I’m in their world. Move it or lose it or go into your room and close the door so you can decompress from a lady shoving you out of her way because you’ve had to move off the side walk into a street because a motorbike horn has blared behind you. But that on top of the continued horrible slurping table manners – I think I’m done with the Eastern world for now.
- The girls and I talked a lot about life and our past year together over these few days; I think we’re very thankful that we had one another to count on this year. We all mentioned about how the large group was overwhelming and when you’re in a big group setting, it’s hard to make connections in such an environment. Being able to lean on these girls and count on a buddy for an adventure or to just go to a nearby cafe has really made a difference in this year. We also messaged Arielle from the boat telling her that a Las Chicas reunion was going to be planned for later this year – probably on the doorstep of Arielle’s NYC apartment.
- There have been so many little things these past few weeks that are adding up to this year needing to be over. My health, the horrific internet, the inconsistencies that were funny in the beginning but are now annoying, and the difference in culture just make me ready to come home. So many in our group aren’t ready for it to end but I am – I still love travel but I need some normalcy right now.
- This time next week I’ll be stateside. What a weird and exciting feeling.