Winnipeg -> Hanoi
Seven A.M. Flights shouldn’t be a thing. The one saving grace about this one was that the first leg wasn’t international but I still needed to be at the airport at a time in the morning I don’t particularly like admitting actually exists. Add in the fact that my ride was running behind, Air Canada wasn’t letting me check in online and I wasn’t looking forward to the layovers and part of me felt like just going back to bed. The ends justify the means in this case though and eventually I took off on the first hop of my flight to Ha Noi Vietnam.
My flight was Winnipeg -> Vancouver -> Seoul- > Hanoi, thankfully much nicer flight time wise than my Bangkok->Hong Kong-> Toronto-> Winnipeg return last time in asia. Sadly, the layover in Seoul was absolutely killer and thanks to Air Canada’s questionable ticket selling practices I guess I was outside of the window for throughputting properly. This meant that I a) had to collect my bags and enter immigration in Seoul (thank goodness Canadians don’t need a visa) then check back in. Unfortunately I cleared about 5pm local and the flight wasn’t until 8:30 the next morning and I wasn’t able to check my large bag in until the following morning. You know how airport seating outside security tends to be of the spartan variety? It’s worse when you’re trying to sleep on them. Had AC warned me at all I would have booked an airport hotel or something but bleh… It was a grumpy Tristan who got on that final leg 13 hours later.
That said, Seoul did have some good points. Despite it being 7am when I passed security I was still able to find some super fantastic korean fried chicken before boarding. I also really enjoyed the helper robots that roam around to be asked questions, though I have to question the translation work by the person who instead of having it say ‘going to recharge’ made the voice line for this large person sized robot “I AM GOING TO CHARGE! PLEASE CLEAR THE WAY” somewhat disconcerting when you didn’t hear it come up from behind you.
As an aside… for those who remember my trip next to Captain Elbows on my last trans-pacific flight I at least avoided that this time. However this time, THREE separate times I went to what should have been an empty washroom and opened on some old woman peeing. How are airplane bathroom locks so difficult for people to understand?
Hanoi’s airport is actually surprisingly small, especially for the volume of planes it receives. Combined with the fact that they had a special portion of the immigration hall fenced off for chinese nationals getting extra attention for corona virus this meant very slow immigration. Still eventually I emerged, got my bag, bemoaned the fact that the freaking Hanoi AIRPORT has a popeye’s but Winnipeg is still only served by one and grabbed a sim card for a ridiculous price. Never believe the telco’s lies about how we pay good prices in Canada when I can get a 10GB one off SIM for ~$20, there’s no reason to ever pay Rogers/Telus/Bell’s roaming fees unless you desperately need your phone number for business purposes.
In doing my research for this trip I’d learned that Northern Vietnam is not particularly warm this time of year (I guess in the abstract I’d been expecting something similar to Chiang Mai) and I emerged into the mid teens and drizzle that I’d seen forecast a few days earlier. Honestly, I can’t say I minded. I’m still convinced that the temperature shock of going from a -30 Winnipeg to a +38 Bangkok the other trip played a role in my minor health issues that trip so this will be a nice introduction to warmer weather before the temp rises as I head south.
The usual SE Asia taxi nonsense was in full effect as I left the terminal. I’d read that there were particular cabbies you could trust but that information must have been out of date as the particular outfit was nowhere to be seen and most of the cabs were trying to talk people into set rates. Even a meter meant a fairly sizable bill however as the airport is a fair bit out of town. To make matters worse the minibuses that were supposed to be 40000Dong were trying to get 350000, I suspect it’s like parts of Thailand where the government cracks down everytime they reach a certain point but as a solo traveller it’s frustrating. I’ve mentioned in this blog before how loathe I am to pay a taxi driver anything when they’re trying to scam me. In the end I confirmed that the city airport express bus was departing from the same location and would cost only 35000, which is only a couple bucks. It was pretty much painless and dropped me all of two blocks from my hotel, though I would happily have hopped a cab from there if I’d needed to.
At this point it’s fair to say I was running on fumes. I am rarely able to sleep on a plane but had somehow managed to grab a couple fitful hours on the final leg, but at this point I was running on about 5 hours of sleep in the previous 48, most of it awkwardly curled up in a seat or on a bench. My hotel itself was a sparkling clean roughly 15 foot wide building that somehow fit in a breakfast room, small lobby and 15 rooms on 5 guest floors. On either side were a motorcycle repair shop and a small soup shop that appeared to mainly be open for breakfast. Just walking in the door my bag was practically yanked off my shoulder and I was given a seat while they checked me in and plied me with a plate of delicious dragonfruit and a glass of juice. My room had a sizable bathroom with waterfall, a window overlooking an extremely unphotogenic courtyard (but desirable for a bit more quiet facing away from the street) large queen bed, ample storage and a TV with a few english movie channels for unwinding before bed. Not bad at all for 35 CAD a night (w/ breakfast to boot!). The thought of stretching out in any way horizontally was the most delicious thought, though I thought better of it and had a shower first to loosen my muscles and wash travelstink off. Once that was done I set an alarm for 4 hours later to get up and get some food then crashed hard. Later on, awake if not refreshed I took my first real steps out into Hanoi.
With the virus fears and preventatives in place there are apparently significantly lower numbers of chinese tourists in Vietnam at the moment. It was also somewhat low season as I was in between the xmas/lunar new year/tet celebrations and the actual warmer weather. I’m not sure I can fathom how busy the streets must be at full volume there. It feels like a more compact city than Bangkok and more chaotic, but perhaps that’s just a couple years since that experience speaking. No… it’s definitely worse. The sheer volume of two wheeled traffic that completely flouts all traffic control and the need to basically step off the curb and play chicken to cross the street most places in the old quarter is definitely more intense. I think I would find it exhausting after a while but it’s surprising how quickly you get used to it.
Hanoi is of course the former capital of North Vietnam and one-time near constant US bombing target. In ten minutes walking around you can see influences from the very old days, french colonial structures The old quarter is (as one would expect) a close knit warren of tight streets, narrow shop frontages and teeming masses of people. What looks like a ruin on the main floor might have an elaborate french balcony two stories up or a carved dragon grotesque peering down at you. As a city that’s quickly modernizing (given it wasn’t particular accessible to outsides until the 90s) one has to wonder what it will look like in another ten years.
Stepping out of your hotel is an assault on all the senses as a westerner. Everywhere you look there is action from the street vendor pushing a cart, a gaggle of tourists dodging traffic or some delivery man bungee cording a ludicrously large load to a tiny motorcycle. Horns are constant, every motorcyclist seems to think honking their horn gives them immunity from the constraints of physics and every car and truck seem to honk just to say “hey check out my horn.” The smell of it hits you too until you adjust, the aromas of street food everywhere mixing with the scent of sheer masses of humanity. There’s nothing quite like it. As a prairie boy I don’t think I could handle it long term but it’s definitely fun to experience short term.
Once difference from Bangkok was how early things were closing however. I’d read that the government kept a very tight lid on nightlife and it was quickly being proven true as even in this most backpacker friendly part of town things were definitely winding down at 10:30. Not that this was a hardship, I mostly just wanted to stretch my legs and grab a bit of food. A quick (delicious) Banh Mi and a snack stop later and I was back in my room and bedding down to kill off the jet lag and hit the town proper the next day. Mission accomplished on the first point, but the Vietnamese government had some issues with that other one.
For the purposes of archival reading of this blog let me document that as I travelled to Vietnam the coronavirus hysteria was in full swing. Unfortunately what I didn’t realize is that despite a miniscule number of cases in Vietnam the government had decided to take measures that included closing all tourist sites. (It turns out it was only for a day/day and a half but the inital press release I said “until further notice”.) Blissfully unaware of this, I started out by walking south through the old quarter towards Hoan Kiem Lake. The quarter had a different vibe at 8:30 in the morning, the drunken backpackers of the night before are (mostly) still snoring away in their dorm rooms and it’s mostly locals out and about (though with a healthy dose of the 30+ tourist.) Everywhere you looked there were people eating breakfast noodles at small shops that were made up of basically a couple kids plastic picnic tables, a burner and a cash box. Interspersed were the occasional hotel or hostel, restaurants of a more permanent variety and the usual mix of odds and ends shops, bodegas and various tourist focused shops.
Walking is in itself an adventure. Even more so than my experience in old Bangkok sidewalks are a place not for walking but for motorbike/scooter parking, merchandise, picnic tables, impenetrable mounds of garbage waiting for pick up and so on. And so you walk on the edge of the road, trusting your life to your deity of choice (personally I’d pick the god of motorcycles) and trying to remember to always shoulder check before stepping around any further obstacles. Crossing a road is merely a matter of picking a lighter spot, keeping your nerve and walking across making sure you’re visible and making the cycles go around you. It quickly becomes “normal” but at least for me is still a bit of a pulse raiser at times.
As I headed south there were a few more signs of western incursion. A kebab shop and ‘NYC Style’ pizza joint gave way to an actual Pizza Hut franchise and down by the lakeshore where some of the fancier small hotels and some of the international banks were you could find a few western shops like Aldo and CURSES another Popeye’s. My first hint of what was to come was seeing tv news crews filming some people in uniforms at the gateway to the bridge out to the mid-lake pagoda keeping anyone from entering, though walking around the lake itself was quite peaceful even as the morning mist decided to turn into a proper drizzle for a few minutes. Large trees hang low over the water, obviously craving the moisture and open sunlight (though not today) and give you a bit of a glimpse at what the area must have once felt like
Heading west now I was straddling the line between the old quarter and the french quarter. Sadly as I had read during my research the french quarter is mostly a combination of run down colonial structures and larger buildings where they’ve already been bulldozed for commercial development. Occasionally there will be a restored larger building that sticks out, perhaps a school or a larger estate turned into new uses. Various historical preservation societies fight to keep some of the character but it seems to be a losing battle. While on the one hand I get that the Vietnamese people probably don’t feel any desperate connection to the colonial era architecture there is something unique about the blend of asian and french influences on many of these buildings that really needs to be preserved. Much in the same vein my next stop at St. Joseph’s cathedral revealed a pretty neo-gothic building that could really use a bit of restoration work. It sits sandwiched between row on row of narrow shophouses and is somewhat surprising as you suddenly stumble upon the tiniest of squares that surrounds it.
Still walking I reached the remains of Hoa Loa Prison, better known as the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ of Vietnam War (or ‘American War’ as it’s known here) fame. The prison actually dates from the French Colonial times and was used to house the vietnamese revoltionaries though most of us I imagine know it as the place where pilots like John McCain were imprisoned. Here I found an empty ticket booth and an english notice about it being closed but still walked around one of the walls and read some of the information. In an absurd example of changing times, much of the site is now covered with the largest hotel I’ve yet seen in Hanoi.
I decided to go check out the Temple of Literature which is a scholastic complex founded around the year 1000 and home to Vietnam’s first university. As you could no doubt see coming this too was closed, completely deserted in fact. At this point I dug out my phone and found the press release mentioning ‘closed until further notice’ and sighed. I hadn’t planned to spend a ton of time in Hanoi and now one of my days was being thoroughly screwed over. In the end I visited a couple shops in the area, grabbed a bowl of Pho Bo Tai and, assuming any of my other targets would also be closed, wandered around further west for a while before starting to make my way back, passing the Flag Tower, Military History Museum and the nearby park with a large statue of Comrade Lenin.
Along the way I got another unfortunate disappointment as it turns out Railway Street had been severely curtailed. Friends of my parents had told me about their visit to this little street where the buildings are built so close to the railway track that when the train passes your cafe table is basically on board. It looked like a lot of fun, unfortunately when I arrived I discovered it mostly blocked off with a police officer shooing people away. Apparently it became so overtouristed several months ago that a train was forced to divert and the official patience with the whole thing more or less snapped. While you can still go in if you agree to go to one of the cafes directly with a tout, the days of it being swarmed are over. From what I could see vs. previous pictures only some of the cafes are still open. As I dislike being in that kind of captive customer situation I passed and took a couple photos before the cop shooed me away.
I hadn’t originally planned on quite so long a walk on the first day of flight recovery but perhaps it was a good thing. After wandering the old quarter a bit longer and finding a couple ‘maybe’ purchases for later I ended up back at the hotel, grabbed a shower and curled up to read a book for a while. I’d read about a jazz club that played in a small window between 9-12 so figured I’d grab a late dinner and go.
I should warn anyone now that much like my thai blog a big part of my motivation for a vietnam visit was food. If you’re into Viet food, fair warning to not read while hungry.
Dinner that night was at a place recommended both by my guidebook and the desk clerk as good ‘local’ food. I surrendered to recommendations by the waitress too and ended up with a plate of four Hanoi Style fried spring rolls, and a plate of what they called Hanoi Old Quarter style beef which was thin juicy strips of charbroiled beef brushed with a honey glaze and served with a tangy hot sauce and rice. The Banh Mi and Pho so far had been lovely but not so massively better than home that I felt blown away… but these dishes. The spring rolls were double fried, crunchy but so incredibly juicy with probably the herbiest tasting filling I have ever had, just phenomenal. The beef was just as succulent. Sweet without being cloying and perfectly tender with crunchy bits, the hot sauce having a solid kickbut also really rounded flavour. I was a happy but very full person as I walked out and started the trek over to the club.
It turned out to be a longer trek than expected as the club itself is a small place in what appears to be a former tobacco shop nestled behind the beautiful and massive Hanoi Opera House (and the actual Hanoi Hilton.) It was a dark and unfortunately smoky place but I’d been warned about that in one of the reviews so I chose a table by the open door, ordered a whisky sour (expensive by hanoi standards, but no cover charge so hey) and sat back to watch a great little trio eventually joined by a singer. A couple sets of standards mixed with occasionally giggle inducing jazz covers of 70s and 80s pop made for a great relaxing end to what had been an occasionally frustrating day.
Walking back to the hotel I was again struck by just how completely the town had already shut down for the night. Of course just as I was thinking this I rounded a corner and a ‘bar’ was taking up most of a street for the youngest of the backpackers… and by bar I mean two men tapping kegs about a large number of plastic chairs scattered around. I laughed a bit, though briefly of my early 20s then headed back to try and fail to write this blog before bed.