After Thailand, I join my Indian friends S and T (I will also refer to them as Indian princes because I am cheaper than them) in Hanoi for a short week traveling together in Vietnam. We will split after Hoi An, and I will continue and spend some days in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) and the Mekong delta area by myself, while they will continue on to Singapore.
Aug. 5 – Hanoi
I meet my new travel buddies at Hanoi airport, where our respective flights land at more or less the same time. Immigration is so slow, by the time we reach the luggage belt, I know all about them and their earlier stop in Hong Kong.
We head out to explore the city and get some dinner but our plans are disrupted by the increasing rain intensity, so we have the first of many beers instead. When it gets dry again, we walk around Hoan Kiem Lake and go for dinner and mojitos1.
Aug. 6 – Hanoi
I’ve had Ho Chi Minh’s (HCM) mausoleum on my to-visit list forever but hadn’t realized the last entry is at 10.152. We only reach the complex at 10.30 and visit the interesting (especially if you read French) HCM museum instead. I make plans to visit the mausoleum early on the morning of Aug. 9, where we have a pick-up scheduled at 9 AM. The boys smile. They know this will never happen.
This is our one full day in Hanoi and we want to visit as many cultural attractions as we can, so when the heavy rain shows no sign of stopping we decide to go through with our Temple of Literature visit anyway and buy stylish rain-ponchos.
We have a late lunch at nearby Koto (slightly expensive, but very nice) and continue on to the Hoa Lo Prison. While I partly agree with critics who question the objectivity of the museum, I really do enjoy the visit and think it is a worthwhile stop in our tour of Hanoi.
After the prison, we close the cultural chapter of the day and move on to food & drink. The early drinks at the Metropole hotel are pricey but the trip’s best, and the setting manages to be both relaxed and imposing3. The coffee and views at speakeasy-ish Cafe Pho Co do not disappoint, but dinner at highly celebrated (by Lonely Planet) Ly Cafe is a letdown. Oh well.
Aug. 7 – Hanoi and Halong Bay
We wait for our pick-up while enjoying Paradise Boutique’s amazing breakfast4, so we don’t mind that the pick-up bus is late.
Halong Bay is indeed beautiful but while I’d been warned about it, the dirty water and 50 boats doing exactly the same tour around us make me feel a bit disappointed. I wonder if Bai Tu Long Bay, which is supposedly less developed, would be a good alternative to recommend to other travelers, but I guess you can’t visit Vietnam without going to Halong Bay. We follow a semi-strict schedule to visit a cave and go for some light kayaking in the afternoon; and at dinner, the other cruise guests buy into the boys’ likening the cruise to a bootcamp. We are a bit younger than the rest of the guests, and the evening is quiet; we get bored pretty quickly and have an early night5.
Aug. 8 – Halong Bay and Hanoi
On day 2 of the cruise, the agenda is less packed – probably because we skip the 6:30 AM tai chi class with the master6.
We have just one stop that includes a mini-hike to some viewing point, but we are still drenched because it is HOT. The water may not be pristine, but all I want is the feel of some fresh water so I get in. It’s not like we’re not all constantly exposed to pollution, but T snobs the water and S hesitates before getting in, so it all makes me feel pretty hardcore, which I love7.
Back in Hanoi, we are a bit under the weather, and T and I head out for manicures / massages while S takes a nap. After the spa session, I am already hungry, but we walk around the night market first. I buy five souvenirs in the first five minutes and provide fashion advice (or let’s say commentary) to the boys after that.
It wasn’t planned at all but tonight is the first evening that we all feel pretty energetic until late, and after dinner we bar-hop from place to place and end up at Tom’s bar, one of the few places in Hanoi open after midnight. We walk home in the rain, giggling (me), and have to wake someone at the hotel when we reach there – a Vietnam classic, it appears.
Aug. 9 – Hanoi and Hoi An
As was to be expected, I get up with a bit of a headache. In the morning, we have booked a walking tour8 with Hanoikids to visit the Museum of Ethnology. The museum features some very good reconstructions of traditional homes of some of Vietnam’s ethnic groups (outdoors), as well an interesting indoors exhibit. We are all a bit de-energized after last night so we are done with the tour in about 2 hours, and not the scheduled 3-4 hours9. We head out for some shopping in our area – the princes have to get gifts for their entourage, I just buy a bracelet for myself to kill time10. We can’t seem to find a place for lunch, so T and I get Banh Mi from a street vendor, and think we find a suitable place for S at aubergine cafe, which is a vegetarian place that is best avoided.
We waste a lot of time on our way to Hoi An due to unexpected changes. When we are finally picked up in Danang and are en route to Hoi An, we are impressed by how modern the city is (especially the princes, for obvious reasons). We have dinner at some place on the way into the old town, and the cheapest Mojitos ever at a bar by the river. We are lucky because it is some full moon festival which means the place is pretty lively, and, well, we get the full moon. We walk by the river, cross the bridge and see Hoi An’s emblematic lanterns everywhere. The boys are swooning. I like it too but am much less expansive11.
Aug. 10 – Hoi An
On our second day in Hoi An, we set out in the late morning after having decided we’d visit the city in the AM and head out to the beach for lunch at fancy La Plage12 and swimming. It is a bit too hot but the sky is an impressive bright blue and I am reminded of Dali (China). The boys turn out to be unstoppable shopaholics and I tag along, and buy another bracelet while they negotiate. I wonder if I should feel guilty for not buying more gifts. Somehow, we manage to stop shopping, and start doing the cultural attractions. Hoi An is known for the covered Japanese bridge and the river, but there are also a number of small temples and historic buildings. The town used to be a large commercial port, explaining the Chinese and Japanese influence, with the French influence related to Vietnam’s colonial past.
I mistake the souvenir store in museum #1 for a continuation of the cultural part and am hypnotized into buying some old coins to be worn as a (tacky tourist) necklace. I don’t even realize you can negotiate at the museum store. Oops.
By the time we reach a restaurant we find appealing we are starved and dehydrated and it is close to 3 pm. While the fish in banana leaves tastes fantastic, service is a bit slow. We finally reach the beach around 4 pm and get in. We are also lucky to have stayed in town, because when we check out La Plage it is a big letdown – not to be confused with the one in Goa, it seems. But An Bang is a picture-perfect beach, with just enough people13 blue skies and mountains in the horizon. I also like the fishing baskets, and only wish the swimming area was not so small14.
The evening, like all others, ends with beers and mojitos, and since it is our last we also revisit the highs and lows of the Vietnam trip. We also try out the highly recommended Cargo Club, but are not too impressed.
Aug. 11 – Hoi An and HCMC
This is a travel day again – too many of those. S and T have a transit in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), which is were we separate. When picking hotels in Vietnam, I compromised on price with the princes but went back to cheaper options for HCMC. As I reach Lucy Hotel, where I booked a room with fan only15. I regret my choice and think I am too old and rich for that. After taking a short nap, I feel dizzy and dehydrated. Luckily, I realize there is AC in the room but they just took the remote away. I climb on the bed and turn it on. I am tired today and am getting picked up at 8 tomorrow morning, so I don’t venture too far. I get Pho at a recommended place near the hotel, and do some shopping at the market. I know I have no space in my backpack but can’t resist acquiring a teapot with matching cups.
Aug. 12 – HCMC and Mekong delta
I have booked a 2 day / 1 night tour of the Mekong delta area, and really enjoy the scenery in the Mekong. The tour itself is a bit mainstream (though not quite as touristy as Halong Bay Tour) with a bunch of tourist buses following the same itinerary. I start feeling a bit tired from all the travel, and miss having company. My travel-mates are quite sociable, and I also chat with them, though my anti-social side doesn’t see the point in chatting for hours with people I’m never going to see again. I picked the homestay over the regular hotel for overnight accommodation, and while I am happy to be directly by the river rather than in an average hotel in an ugly street in the not so special city of Can Tho, I dearly miss modern amenities. I am also a mildly annoyed when I get shoved into a room to share with a stranger, after I’d been given my own room. I did get lucky because my roomie was the nicest girl, and we teamed up to tackle the huge spider on our wall. That is, we gave up and called for help together.
Aug. 13 – Mekong delta and HCMC
The Mekong tour continues with the best part in the early morning, i.e. going to the Cai Rang floating market.
The rest of the morning is the usual tourist traps, and then it’s already back to HCMC. About midway, I reach for the cookies and realize that they have been partly bitten off. And then I realize that the inside of my backpack has been partly bitten off. Which means that in addition to my friends the mosquitoes and the friend the spider, I had a rat or a strong mouse as an additional roomie. I decide that yeah, the scenery is nice, but I’m taking up glamping.
Influenced by the Indian princes, I’ve overestimated my cash needs for HCMC and have a bunch of cash to spend. The people on the bus think I also work at the major bank that S works for when I say that. I’m only talking about 50$.
My first impression of HCMC was that it is spread-out and chaotic with limited or no urban planning – what you’d expect a large Asian city that’s experienced rapid uncontrolled growth to be. But I should see a bit more of the city, and while it’s hot and I’m tired, I am glad I made the extra effort as I walk by cute boutiques and cafes inside the HCMC jungle. I go to a beauty salon close to my hotel that I had spotted earlier, and three beauticians take care of my feet, hands and hair. The haircut is better than the mani/pedi, which is fortunate, but all together cost me about 12.5$ so I consider it all a great success.
Aug. 14 – HCMC and travel
On my last day in HCMC and Asia for this trip, I really only have time for goodbye Pho, coffee and cheesecake (probably not the healthiest combo but I am going to be traveling for 30+ hours).
Before I leave, the hotel manager, in her well-meaning bossy Mamma way, asks me why I’m traveling alone. I tell her my friends continued to Singapore but I really wanted to see the Mekong and traveled on. Somehow, she assumes I was with one friend who was a girl and went back home. When I correct her mistake, she really gets going:
‘WHAT! You were with two boys and they traveled on somewhere else WITHOUT YOU!? AND you visited Vietnam for only ONE WEEK!!!??” (as in, what an insult to my country, you might as well not come at all)
I tell her it was all planned and they didn’t abandon me and if I had wanted to join them in Singy I could have done so but I wanted to see Mekong.
She pauses. She looks sad, angry, confused. Then she concludes:
“But you are cute, so that’s ok. Your taxi is here. “
1 also the first of many, and I mean many over the trip, not the evening. Though S and I are heading to b-school, neither of us is really that bad
2 shocking for someone who has an Excel spreadsheet of the entire itinerary
3 sitting on a terrace facing the Opera House is all it takes
4 just stay away from the pancakes
5 Later, a 19-year old Dutch backpacker told me he went on a 3 days / 2 nights party cruise, so maybe that’s what we should have done. Though we may be too old for that (at least I am).
6 who doubles as chef and barman, which may explain why the cocktails were terrible. Stick with beer.
7 but know is not true
8 free, and no hidden costs, e.g. suggesting an amount to tip – I recommend it
9 but seriously, 4 hours!?
10 loving that excuse
11 it’s not a boy / girl thing, it’s an Indian / German thing, I think
12 btw, the boys find everything I say in French amazing. Man, I’m gonna be a goddess next year.
13 it’d be awkward on an empty beach with these two guys, no?
14 but then, I am blasée, see Barcelona
15 to save 4$!!!