Just another day in Hanoi

backpacker hostel Day XXVI – April 13

I get up still in time for the included breakfast; fluffy bread that’s been lying out so long it got hard, and what I guess might be vegemite, the apparently popular Australian spread. Never mind.
So I go for a look around, comparing deals. I arrange my open bus ticket to Saigon at the friendlier hostel Backpacker Central, just around the corner, to which I move right away.
I hear Hanoi Backpacker Downtown, the new lodging, is more fun. I suppose it is, the location is better too. But I’m done with this chain.

After a look at my calendar I decide I have time for a 2-day trip to Halong Bay, and a Unesco World Heritage should be worth the 1,260,000d budget cut – that’s $60 all inclusive. It’s the cheapest deal I could find, with that same hostel.

I’ll take today to discover Hanoi, thus I take my camera out for a stroll.
It’s no less busy than yesterday. But now that I’ve become more accustomed, I notice everyone is very laid-back and moves like time doesn’t exist. Which is exactly what the streets look like; a little dusty, and layer after layer built on top of each other; I like to call it Convenience Architecture – whatever is necessary, with whatever is lying around; nothing more, nothing less.
This really cool thing I noticed, is how many houses have the roof raised up a set of columns, so an extra floor sprouts in between: a sort of outdoor attic.

scam bitch At some point I do this thing I never do. I take a people-picture. Of a woman walking with two big baskets filled with bananas on a pole over her shoulder.
She smiles, and then signs for me to take her carrying device and her cone hat so she can take a picture of me. I think “what the hell” and go with it.
After she hands me back my camera she asks me to buy something. Fair enough. I ask her the price, 30,000d sounds right? That’s what I paid for the one and a half pineapple I just bought. “No!” she says “300,000!” I tell her that is way too much.
But I was stupid enough to already take out my money, so after I hand her a 50.000d note she can give me change from, she just yanks another 100.000d note out of my hand.
Things happen quickly, and I don’t want to make too much fuss, being the tourist, the guest, and all. But she won’t give me anything.
So I’m left with a bunch of bananas –that I used to be allergic to as a kid so never learned to even like- and €7,50 poorer. I got ripped off good!

Life goes on.

I hop on the back of a mototaxi, into the wild. It still feels very relaxed though, in the middle of it all, in the eye of the storm.
You know how I always said that once I’d have my driving license, I’d go to Paris to join the insanity at Place Charles de Gaulle? Well, I have a new goal: driving a motorcycle through Vietnam, Hanoi to Saigon. Can’t wait!

The ride takes me to Lenin Park, where Hanoi does their gambling, fishing, cuddling, yoga exercises and silly walks.
Cone hats everywhere, gagging and spitting, burping. Those last I’d noticed before, but it’s much louder and –to a westerner- disgusting here.

The boardwalk is most everywhere crammed with bikes, which the streets are still filled with. And where there is space, it is littered with these tiny plastic chairs and tables, the ones you see at Toy’r’Us.
In the afternoon, this is where the many Pho-stalls suddenly appear. And at night it’s where the youngsters sit, sipping their cocktails and nibbling their sunflower seeds, or the old men do their gambling, under a ceiling of trees and electricity wiring.
I go for an afternoon snack with one of those stalls. One of the guests speaks a little English -I am the only tourist- and points me to a tiny seat at a tiny table and hands me a plate with three different versions of fried meatmash in a doughroll “All same same, you try yes?” but she won’t tell me exactly what is in there. It’s tasty though, and one has to embrace the local dish right? So I do, happily.
sidewalk hanoi 2
I come back to the hostel to take the best shower ever under that massive rain-unit.
And then it’s free-beer-o’clock, so I go into the bar downstairs to get me one. The beer factory hasn’t delivered, so, darn it, cocktails will have to do. “Jus’ one though” the bartender says.
I join a table that’s already gathered around a bucket, and more than willing to add me in their conversation. One of them is the Swedish doppelganger of my friend Cedric, another is the Irish look-a-like of an old acquaintance by the name of Bril. The weirdest thing is that these two people from back home actually know each other, and seeing their doppels hang out here together like this.
There are two more Sweeds, another Irish, and David [UK] I met earlier at the computers in the front of the hostel.
I’ve hardly finished my glass before the bartender puts another one in front of me with a wink.

I pull out my journal as I haven’t written anything yet today, and 10 minutes later David comes over.
“If you’re this bored it’s time for me to step in and entertain the lady,” and asks me where it reads about this cute Brit I just met. And from then on he doesn’t stop throwing compliments my way in a very charming British manner, taking it a little far maybe with this line: “Imagine how beautiful our children will be?!” He’s quite cocky that way, but otherwise attractive so I choose to just go with it, and return his kiss when we get up to go for dinner.

Where I might have been a little scared last night, I walk the streets now with the greatest of ease – so easy even that David feels the need to hold me back whenever crossing, scared I’d get caught under a car.

We sit down with a simple stall and have my first but best pho –Vietnam’s traditional streetmeal: beef noodle soup- ever.

Then we go to this hip bar Flow, hidden upstairs in a backside building: cool place, I like that underground vibe. But it’s the same lame music and crowd and I can’t get into it tonight.
I run in to Patrick, whom I was on the Straybus with in Laos; small world again.
The Irish, David and I hang out at the balcony a while. We’re chatting and sipping our cocktails, overlooking a hot night in the still mumbling city, until the voice in my head starts ushering me home; I do have an 8am bus to catch.

David, being all gentleman, walks me home. Although by now it was already obvious we’d be leaving together. When we stop to make out in an alley, a taxidriver asks if we’re OK. But couply behaviour is allowed here –locals do it too- so he was just looking for business.
I should explain: everywhere else I was since Thailand, physical contact is pretty much taboo.
The rest of his room is still out so I let him take me up there. They come back all too soon though. But we’ve got blankets and we’re in the far end. So now’s the time to get over that uncomfortable-with-other-people-in-the-room feeling…
It only gets really awkward when his neighbour comes home. Too late now though, whatever.

Off to Vietnam

vtn hanNext destination:
(The Socialist Republic of) Vietnam
Hanoi, population: ± 6.5 million
visa requirements: a passport with at least one month validity, a letter of approval for visa on arrival, arranged through visatovietnam.com at $15, $25 stamping fee, 1 photo
population: ± 91.5 million
capital: Ho Chi Mihn City / Saigon
language: Vietnamese, tiếng Việt
slogan: Timeless charm, also named The slumbering dragon
currency: dong, €1 = 20.000d

Day XXV – April 12

I’m on a plane. And it’s so cold I find use again for that sweater I’ve put away as soon as I arrived to Asia about a month ago.
It almost feels like a commercial break, an intermezzo; and when I land it’s Part II: Free Falling Vietnam.

When I exit this tiny plane, there’s nothing of the heat and rubber I crashed into when I first entered Bangkok Airport. It’s calm and quiet.
I hand over a photo, $25 stamping fee and the letter of approval that I received over mail. I get another pretty set of new stamps and am pointed to the exit. A sweet smell and a pleasant temperaturer welcome me into Vietnam.

Travelling alone may be tiresome at times, but it also gives me a sense of pride; I did it again, all on my own, I got this far without major damage. My life and the road I walk is all mine. Nobody is telling me what to do. And sure I get some occasional help, but I am doing this, just me.

It’s a little wait for the airport-minivan-service to fill up before we leave to go into Hanoi. The sky is an angry shade of grey and there is a threat in the wind, but the trees reveal a very sparky green.
Once fully packed we drive out of the dull airport-area and the colour of the sky stays the same, but the brightness of the fields is almost too much to look at. The houses are so colourful, and many neon lights brighten the highway.
The whole hour it takes us to pass the 35 km into the city, little stalls are lined up alongside it everywhere, selling baguettes, pineapples, lottery tickets and I don’t know what not. People are walking or on bicycles, but mostly on moto’s, zigzagging up and down between the cars. For the amount of vehicles taking part in this traffic jam, it moves extremely fast.

crowded hanoi
It’s around 6 pm when we stop at the old quarter. I join the Swedish brother and sister that were cramped in next to me on the minivan, on hostelhunt, so I won’t have to enter this craze all on my own. It seems like every inch of this town is moving and buzzing.
The moment we’ve checked in with Hanoi Backpacker, they say goodbye – there weren’t enough beds to put us in the same room. They probably have a lot of catching up to do anyway, only just being reunited.
I try some of the crowd sitting in the front, in that cozy looking alley. But I guess I was just very lucky at Spice Laos; no one really responds here…
So I set out alone, looking for some dinner. I’m so hungry I go into Joma’s for a bagel egger – boring! (but tasty!) Tomorrow I’m sitting down with a streetvendor, promise!

As crowded as it was on the highway, it is in the city. It’s true what they say about Vietnamese traffic; it’s absolute madness! The moto’s are everywhere, honking continuously, like a sort of orchestra. The buzz of this town is so loud!
But just relax and move at your own tempo; I’ve already learned it actually is the only way to move at all through this constant coming and going.
4mil dong And they’re just as fanatical in their sales-techniques; everywhere there’s people pressing you to buy one thing or another.
Don’t feel upset if ‘no’ doesn’t work right away, just keep walking.

Vietnam seems to be much more in a rush than the Asia I saw before. It is excitement all over.

I see a few travelagencies still open just now, at 8.30pm, but I decide I’ll start booking tomorrow and take the night off.

“I have to say the Vietnamese dong is the most beautiful dong I have ever seen.”
“I have to go pull out some dong.”
“Do you need me to hold your dong for you?”
“Wow, you’ve got a whole lot of dong in your pants!”
And you can just keep whipping out those dong-jokes; great stuff!

I’ve been strolling the streets and just got up to this little rooftop bar in a creaking old house, so very charming! Down in the narrow street there’s the immutable busslte. But up here I sit safely tugged out of sight behind a tree of electric wire connecting to the whole rest of this huge city, that could almost feel like a small old town. Have you seen the movie Tekkoninkreet? I feel like I’m in it.

rooftop bar hanoi
The image of home is slowly fading. I still can picture it, it’s just – the more this place has become real to me, the more I went head under in Southeast Asia; the more my connection to home is lost.
I still feel like talking to them, but somehow the time difference and bad internet connections keep messing that up.
And then they ask “How is everything, is it amazing?!” And I’m like “Yeah…” But I can’t explain it, the way I’m feeling it right now.
And thus the gap between home and me grows, and the dissociation sets in.
I don’t even know how I feel about that boy any more. I hope to catch him when I go online. But when I do, I don’t know what there is to talk about. And I’m sure it will be great to see him again, but right now I can’t imagine that moment – like I could so clearly before.

The evening ends early and uneventful.
So many people roam the streets, but I don’t find a connection tonight. It’s been a lonely day, emphasised by the many crowds and long distance I’ve exceeded.
But it’s ok to be lonely at times. Besides, I’m too tired to bother.
So I retreat to my bunkbed, crawl onto my luxuriously thick mattress and under my nice fresh white linen.

Vang Vieng recommended

Another town you can’t miss when backpacking Laos. Be prepared though, party hardy is nothing compared to the way they roll over here.
vanviengvalley
Another warning:
With all the crazy partying and getting fucked up, keep in mind there is no hospital, not in this town, or in the next. And when you do reach a hospital, doctors aren’t as motivated to save your life as they might be in the Chigago or Seattle ER, besides lacking knowledge. 2011 counted 27 deaths, not to speak of all the injuries.
The booze flows faster than the Nam Song, and the many swings and ziplines invite the drunken crowd to get crazy around this sometimes deceitful shallow, sometimes strong flowing river.
Then there is the infested water; no doubt you’ll catch something, ranging from an eye infection to a bad poisoning.
The many temping mushroom shakes or happy pizzas aren’t without risk. You might have a fun few hours, if you do well on drugs. You might also get set up by the bartender who sold you the stuff, and then sold you out to a cop, out to bust your high balls and throw you in jail for who knows how long, or fine you with a sum you could never pay.

So much for scaring you into sanity.

Vang Vieng, tubing capital, where the fun never ends

– Transportation:
You’ll walk the distance of this town in 20 minutes, with your backpack on, this is.
To get out to the river you take a tuktuk at 25.000 kip per per person.
To go to Blue Lagoon or just to explore the beautiful landscape, rent a bicycle.

Think twice before renting a bike: you’ll get yourself injured or damage the vehicle, and that’ll cost you!
It’s a well known scam put on tourist: to damage or steal the vehicle they just rented out to you, and demand a raging high compensation.
Or to just say those scratches that were already there, are new. Take pictues of those before you agree to the rent.

– Tubing:
You could rent a tire for 60.000 kip, take it to the river in a tuktuk and float down until you have to return it at 6pm, or otherwise have to pay that 50.000 kip late-fine.
I was there in dry season, I didn’t bother. I swam the river that one time when I wanted to cross it to go as far as bar 3. I saw about 5 tubes going by the whole time I was there.

– Do:
Just go to the river, have drinks, play games, dance, and have fun. Like everybody else does, all day, every day.

Do, absolutely, rent a bicycle to drive the 7 kilometers to the beautiful waters of Blue Lagoon.
And take the detour across the fields to that little hill.
The cave up at Blue Lagoon is a good adventure on it’s own.

Climb the little hill with the yellow flag atop it. The climb is so worth the view!
vv map

If you’re into serious climbing, there should be numerous rock-climbing options around here.

– Eat:
There are countless joints where you can sit down in your own little heightened cube cross legged around a low table, enjoying the many tasty local dishes.

– Drink:
Easy: river at day, island at night.

– Sleep:
Easy Go Hostel is ran by the friendliest of local dudes, hosts many cute rooms in their bamboo house, supporting you you with complementairy coffee, tea and bananas every day for just 30.000 kip a night.

Spicy Laos Hostel is right next to it, and should make for a good second and pleanty of compny. Also 30.000 kip a night.

 

I personally wouldn’t spend more than a few days here; too little local culture and too much party to stand for any longer.
But good fun for the time being! Just let go off all your mum taught you and enjoy =)

I’m doing it, right now

Next destination:
Vientiane, capital of Laos, population: ± 754.000

Day XXIV – April 11

I survived Vang Vieng, and am about to find my way back to the real world. water
No more free buckets, or whiskey shots forced down my throat, no more “What is the aim of the game?! TO GET FUCKED UP!” No more Friends or Family Guy, no more dry-season tubing, or supertasty but wet with grease sandwiches.
Those 2 UK’s we met the last day in Luang Prabang; they got jobs here, they’re going to get stuck for months…

And as we make our way down out of the wonderous limestone landscape, the busride once again zones me out to a place in mind where I plan my homecoming – or rather: my next trip, where I will see all those hits I’ve heard so many good things about, but can’t fit in this time.

Sabaidii!! You just cannot say without smiling. No way this will be my last 24 hours in Laos!

Some bumpy roads and I’m flipping cards on future destinations.
I am suddenly having doubts about where to go next. Do as I planned: Hanoi, Da Nang, Hoi An; or, no more Vietnam, but more Laos and stay out my visa: Kong Lo cave, Pakse, 4000 Islands? Hard to choose so last minute…
So I’ll just get on that plane tomorrow as booked, and see where it takes me.

Vientiane, laid out over flatlands around the Mekong, the capital with a much more western feel, where the western translation of the street names start with ‘rue’ and where the Mediterranean spiced barbecue smells finish it off, as the ice-cream man rides around with his little cart and creepy tunes.
Stray booked me in a horrible hotel and took me out for an expensive dinner – I had to pay for myself of course. That’s worse than your date going Dutch on you.
vientiane
Strayed out
And tomorrow will take my adventure to a next level. Tomorrow will throw me out in the deep, as I deliver my visa approval letter at the Vietnam costums, and thereby my last planned piece of paper, until the voluntering in Cambodia starts 10 days later.
I’ve been told to do north: Sapa, Halong Bay. Halfway: Hoi An, Dalat. Downsouth: the Mekong river delta. To buy a motorbike: I’ve met several people who did so, and that does really sound like an amazing way to travel, getting much more in touch with local life.
Either way, I have no idea how to fit it all, especially since I’ll probably take longer now planning and booking as I go.

But for now I have to day goodbye to lovely Laos. It was an absolute pleasure, and I’ll be dreaming of the day I come back, until I do!

First hand horror stories in Laos:
It wasn’t all moonlight and roses. There have been a few unpleasant incounters.
Like the time when Leila nearly got robbed, on that crossroad in Luang Prabang. In the middle of the night while we’re all standing there, discussing on going to bowling alley or not. Some guys on a scooter drove by and tried to rip off her purse. She screamed and they drove of empty handed.
Or the time Kevin was picked up by the Vang Vieng police, pretty much at random. They claimed he’d broken a glass door. He surely had an alibi and everything, and had no idea what they were talking about. But they kept hitting him, saying he had to admit; otherwise, they gave him the option, it’d be 30 days in jail. So he countered he wanted to speak with the embassy. They ended up just taking his passport; he could pick it up the next day, for 4 million kip(!)
Dave however did break a glass to get into his room he’d lost the key from in Vang Vieng. He ended up climbing his neighbours’ balcony to get to his own and opened the door through that window he broke. He did not get into trouble after explaining and apoligising to the hotel owner.
Other common things seen: cuts and bruses, bad ones, most of them caused by motorbike crashes, often combined with alcohol. Especially in Vang Vieng. Hard knock life on the road, people, be carefull and sht.

It seems today, that all you see, is sex-drugs-rock’n’roll and friends on tv

Day XXIII – April 10
blue lagoon
Today brings the final goodbye with Levi, very mellow and quite impersonal… “Bye, have fun, have a good life.” My first on-the-road crush and I skrewed it up by not undertaking any action.
phatok caveAnd here I thought I’d figured out by now one of my lessons was to follow things through, where I used to throw in the towel because I think I can’t do it or it might be too dangerous or scary, but live like there’s literally no tomorrow.

I make another trip to Blue Lagoon, by tuktuk this time, with Dave, David and Kevin, the two Germans we met here in the hostel. And besides swinging and splashing in that lovely pond, we go up to the cave and take the big walk around, wandering into the dark.
Dave has a sort of torch and it’s a lot easier, this one. But still a nice little adventure with lots of clambering over rocks, discovering new holes, and again some really nice views.

When we come back, we sit down at a diner for a good meal and some Family Guy. We try to leave, but before we’re done paying a new episode has started. Near the end I’m contemplating on having icecream for desert, but decide against it so we can finally leave, after just sitting for over 2 hours.

It’s this thing here: everywhere you see screens playing reruns of Friends, Family Guy and the occasional Southpark, and travellers captured by the moving images. It’s easy to get stuck waisting time like that.

family guy
We skip the river and just have a quiet evening at the island. It’s a Buddhist holiday, so there isn’t allowed to be any loud music.
Again heavy rain and thunder pour down this evening. It’s getting closer to the rainy season, or it’s coming sooner this year. But we’re safe in our little cabana.
I get a Kate Hudson (in How To Loose A Guy) from Kevin.
It’s another common thing: comparing people you meet anew to celebrities.
David lights my potential last cigarette, [that lasted for 4 days… Sorry David,] and we have interesting conversations, until he gets drunk – for the second time in his life he claims. That’s what Vang Vieng does to you…

Did I mention how over time your standards of hygiene adapt?
At first I used a wipey ceveral times a day, cleaning my face, hands, feet… Now just washing with water every once in a while is fine for my hands, and the daily shower will do for the rest.
I still want my toilet paper, but don’t mind if it’s a squatter.
My feet get real dirty, but that just suits the local belief that they are not just physically but also spiritually the lowest part of the body.
I used to ask for ‘no ice’, now I hardly check if it was purified. The whole in the middle of the cube should tell you it is.
You extend the amount of time it’s OK for clothes to be worn.
And make up: I bother to do it once every so many days now. It’s too much hassle to sit down every day and spend 10 minutes staring into a mirror.
Mosquitospray; I started out applying it several times a day. But still, especially those first days, my legs and feet were covered with bites. Over time I applied less, only at dusk, until I left it all together. Now I just use that Columbian after-product my brother gave me after his trip there, to stop the bites from itching and me from scratching. I mean, it’s not like I’ll get bitten any more now; less actually. New bites every day, of course, but still.