I start this Chapter on our flight to Hanoi, Vietnam, 23rd October, 08.15 hours, with approximately 4 hours sleep (3 in Malaysia, before getting up for our flight, and 1 just now on the plane) and a grouchy story to tell.
Before the grouchy bit, we ended our time in KL in real style. Kate and Dan took us to a sky high South American restaurant overlooking the famous Petronas Towers, where we had tapas style food and sangria. Afterward we headed to a bar beneath the towers for a few final games of our favourite Bananagrams, then back to their apartment complex to swing in baskets and drink whiskey. More sensible folk would have forgone alcohol for one evening and turned in to bed at 8pm, but when such great friends and such fun times are to be had, why on earth would you.
The get-up was relatively painless until hitting the cues at the airport for check-in, then again more cueing for what seemed like Security, but as it turns out, wasn’t (more on that). Further cueing at passport control and then waiting an inordinate length of time for coffee in the departure lounge.
Our flight was at 06.30 and we needed approximately 15 minutes to get to our gate, ready to board. 05.30, we had purchased two coffees and two bottles of water, believing our baggage had already been checked by security. As we approached the gate area we saw another set of Security checking. We proceeded to quickly neck scalding hot coffees, cursing KL airport for the faux security check earlier and for selling drinks after it. We cued for the desk in the hope that they would allow our unopened bottles of water through. They did…momentarily, until the Security Lady (who rather oddly spoke NO English, in a large, international airport, in a city where English is the first language) gestured that the water needed to be sealed in a special bag, which we could obtain from the shops back in the departure lounge. She then sort of waved us on, which we mistook for a “Oh go on then, go through”, so we gathered our belongings and began to progress to our gate. Suddenly, a loud, angry, cry called us back and the Security Lady was gesturing wildly at us, demanding we go back on ourselves. Under-slept and confused I almost completely lost my patience. James offered to run back to the shop for said bag. Did so, only to find we needed to pay for said bag. We both marched a long winded way around security checking, purchased said bag (noted there were no signs to warn us to do so before heading through security and no prompt from the shop tellers), re-cued for security (belt off, electronics out of bag, shoes off etc etc) then spotted our flight was at its final call. We had five minutes to run to our gate. Furious, exasperated, exhausted and panicked we pelted for our flight. Clearly we made it, as we are now in Hanoi. I don’t want to experience that panic again in a hurry.
The only comment I’ll make about South-east Asia domestic flights is that the culture of common sense is rather amiss. That’s putting it politely. Again, sleep deprivation almost pushed me to lose my rag completely, when after being told three times to switch off their mobile phones, and after the place had begun to move for take-off, two women beside James continued their conversations on their phones. *Head in hands*
When we landed, I was approached by a lost looking European girl. She asked where we were staying in Hanoi and how we were getting there. We discovered we were going in the same direction, she needed transportation and as we had arranged an airport transfer we agreed to let her share the taxi we’d booked. It took us a good twenty minutes to find our driver then we had a bumpy 45 minutes ride into the city.
The three of us struggled out the car and immediately had near misses with the mass of scooters and taxis sounding their horns loudly, cramming down the tight alleyway our hotel was located on. We received a very warm welcome, I asked for their help locating our European friends hostel, which they enthusiastically obliged, then offered the three of us a platter of fresh fruit and tea. Enormous relief quickly subsided when we were told that there had been a pipe burst in our allocated room, they had no other rooms of the type we booked, but we had been rebooked into a different hotel down the road. Apparently this hotel was the same class, same standard and would cost us the same. It was NOT. We were shown to a box room with stained, moth eaten bed sheets, the embedded stench of cigarettes and no natural light at all. This was the first challenge. We told ourselves that all we wanted was a bed, clean sheets and a place to get a wash. This ticked two of three, so surely we should just swallow it, man-up and get over it? But after little sleep, a nearly missed flight and the shock of the noise, heat and smell of Hanoi, we needed a bit more. Ever the efficient Hotel Manager, James headed back to our original hotel and pointed out that the new hotel was no where near the standard of what we thought we had booked and pressed them to find a room for us. They upgraded us immediately with no extra cost. As much as I loath complaining, I am forever grateful for this resourceful and diplomatic husband of mine.
In short, we rested briefly, set out to explore the city’s famous Old Quarter, crammed with clothes, jewellery, bag and shoe stalls, teeming with scooters, trying to figure out what was street food and what were just locals eating outside their house. As we started to get hot and bothered we passed an obvious backpacker pit stop, found a bench on their balcony and had a much needed drink. There we met Tian, who told us about how hard he was trying to learn English, to better himself and earn more money for his wife and daughter (who he showed us pictures of) and who enthusiastically taught us a few Vietnamese phrases. Small moments like these are what really makes seeing the world so wonderful.
After a good nap in our upgraded room we headed out early evening to find a recommended Vietnamese restaurant, KOTO, about 20 minutes walk away. More on that in Part Three (yes, this a chapter comes in not one, not two, but THREE parts)…
The next morning we were up, packed and at breakfast for 7.30am, to be collected and taken to Halong Bay (a four hour drive south) at 8am. Groggily we lifted the steel covered dishes to search for breakfast only to find they were empty. A man shuffled along and pointed to a chalk board written on it “French Toast, Pancakes and 3 types of eggs”. No fruit, toast or meats. I hazily pointed to a couple of items imagining I would need a good breakfast for our journey. I immediately regretted my choices when we set off on the hideously bumpy drive to Halong. I’m talking lifting out of our seats by half a metre the entire way. Up and down and up and down went my breakfast and it took all of my energy to keep it in my tummy.
As my stories of discomfort have already gone on a fair bit I am going to reserve this blog to discussing the challenges we’ve encountered thus far and write more favourably about Halong Bay in its own right.
The reality of Hanoi is that it is overpopulated and the large percentage of that population are poor. There are no dustbins, so all waste (ALL waste) is swept off the pavements to the side of the street, which you have to narrowly avoid with every step. This contributes to a pretty potent stench throughout the city. The pedestrian areas are non-existent because mopeds and scooters are parked on every inch, or driving down them. Traffic lights may as well now be there, neither should pedestrian crossings and you should always look both ways when crossing a one way street, as there will definitely be someone travelling in a direction they shouldn’t be. Crossing the road is a gauntlet. The advice given to us was to wait for a small opportunity, walk and keep walking, not slowing or stopping and drives will just avoid you.
One thing people talk about most in relation to Vietnam is the street food and how amazing it is. It’s taken us two days to figure out which spots sell Street Food and which are just the locals sitting outside their houses eating. Every corner has someone chopping raw meat literally on the street. Occasionally you see small BBQ type cookers, which actually smell delicious, but I still couldn’t bring myself to trust the meat. Vietnamese locals, very young and very old sit on tiny plastic stools, completely unfazed by the noise, dirt and smell and tend to stare nonchalantly at us as we try to navigate our way through the streets.
There has been so much that is fascinating, fun, beautiful and such a privilege, but yesterday I felt pulled under by the challenge of it all. From the trying journey to Hanoi, the to-ing and fro-ing between hotels on arrival, the insane pace of the city, the lack of friendliness of the people (as James put it, they are not UNfriendly, but they certainly are not welcoming either), the 8 hour combined rollercoaster without seat belts to get to and from Halong, to a less than professional greeting at our hotel last night…I feel as though I’ve been put in a mangle, with a few wonderful things thrown in, but it’s all mashed together, having been thrown from plane to street to minibus to boat and back again, fed with too much my body is not used to, and poorly rested, so I struggle to pick out the amazingness and appreciate its detail.
After a bit of a come down (and a few tears on my part) we decided to soothe ourselves with a drink and a round of cards at KOTO’s upstairs bar, as we knew at least there would be quiet and calm. This resulted in James giving the young trainee bar staff a lesson in cocktail making. A group of seven of them stood round in awe, taking in everything he did, nodding fervently. I suddenly felt overwhelmed with pride and grateful to have this experience. I guess sometimes you need to get shaken up a little to really appreciate the precious things in life.
I end this chapter 22:20, 26th October, in the cabin of a night train, just started our 14 hour journey to Hoi An, our next destination.