A note before beginning: This trip’s itinerary was planned and organized by my travel buddies, Linh and Chantal. We took the north to south route starting in Hanoi and ending in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). I’ve heard repeatedly that that is the best way to do Vietnam since it gets progressively warmer as you head south. We went in January because it’s just at the end of the rainy season and Hanoi starts warming up a bit. It felt like early fall when we were there.
The one unexpected expense we had were the entrance fees for all of the places we went on our tours as well as parking fees for our bikes. Entrance fees ranged from less than a dollar to over 5 dollars but it added up quickly throughout. I’ve added links to pages with pricing wherever possible.
For a complete itinerary go here.
Chantal, Linh and I spent the night in Seoul at the Lazy Bird Guesthouse just outside Incheon International Airport before our flight to Hanoi the next morning. The accommodations were cozy and simple in a burb that you would definitely need to either taxi to or request a pickup as an additional service from the hostel itself. (They picked us up from the airport and dropped us off the next morning for an additional 8 dollars). Before we passed out for the night we picked through Lazy Bird’s selection of hanbok (traditional Korean attire) and posed for pictures that you might find posted among the pictures on the walls of the guesthouse.
Lazy Bird claims to offer breakfast from 5am to 8 but all we found the next day were a few mandarin oranges and coffee. Go there anyway. They have a cute dog and giant teddy bears and they’ll take you to the airport at horribly early hours in the morning until 8:20. Then you must taxi.
We flew VietJet into Hanoi and for all flights throughout the trip. The airline gets a bad wrap for frequent delays but all four of our flights were on time. They did not let us have the seats we pre-selected on our first flight out but I think this was due to a polite cultural misunderstanding between us and the Korean staff in Seoul. As Chantal recants, Korean staff: “But why would you want to sit separately when you are traveling together?” Chantal: “Because I paid extra for the additional legroom, not the back of the bus!” or something like that.
It was Linh’s first time visiting her parents homeland so we poked fun that the romantic rendition of the classic “Hello Vietnam” blasting through the plane’s speakers was playing just for her. I have never felt more cramped on an airplane than on this particular flight, but as the Korean customer service agent would say, at least we were together [insert polite smile here].
BC Family Tours picked us up from the airport on the other end. When we left Seoul it was below freezing temperatures with a forecast for snow. When we landed in Hanoi there were bananas hanging plump from the trees next to the highway. I decided immediately that I did not like the driving culture in Vietnam, but that feeling faded quickly as I learned the unspoken rules of the road: Just GO. The lane demarkations don’t matter and neither do the traffic lights. Jaywalking is the only way and if you can haul it you can take it, no questions asked, be it flammable propane tanks, large flatscreen TVs, ripe full grown potted trees, or even your entire hoard of four or five offspring. But that’s just what I saw.
We stayed at the Hanoi Backpacker’s Hostel in the old quarter our first two nights. There are two in Hanoi, and both have good reputations for offering good tours, decent western food when you want it, and a fun-loving and relaxed staff. They also offer laundry service which you pay for by the kilogram. A good place to put your feet down indeed.
The streets felt narrow and seethed like a nest of ants. Birds in wooden cages hung above vendors, peddalers, scooters, and people eating all kinds of noodles and porridge below. I satisfied my first hunger itch on the sidewalk with a bowl of My, what Linh described as beef ramen stew. We crouched over a small table barely two feet above the ground. The woman vendor stirred two large silver pots next to us and dipped out a bowl of rice and chicken porridge for Chantal and handed us each a bottle of Hanoi beer.
Our evening hours were fueled by a hostel happy hour that never seemed to end. I had my first Jaegerbomb since college and it felt like our hosts offered up free shots of the hardest liquor I’d had since the States every 10 minutes. That night we went our separate ways. Linh grabbed Karen who had just gotten in from Laos and they went in search of dinner and a SIM card. Chantal was coolly pursued by a tattooed South African guy and I wouldn’t see them until later while caught up in my own adventure.
I met a guy named Matt who told me about the war in Vietnam and the reasons for his own adventure over many beers. Giddy and crushy, I pulled him by the hand outside and down the street. I was on some deep verbal alcohol induced palaver when my silver moldavite ring flung from my index finger and into the street. It was almost the end of my world. I searched in the nooks of curbs and in the cobbled cracks in the sidewalk. I have foggy memory of sticking my hand into a gutter to see if it had disappeared down there, while Matt snickered in disbelief. A slight Vietnamese man in a leather jacket came up and presented the ring to me, for a price. I was furious and a bit tipsy and shoved him in the shoulder before giving him a small bill and seeing my ring safely back onto my finger.
Somewhere in there we ran into Chantal with her new friends who presented their newly pierced tongue and neck to us. Chantal showed me her new nose ring.
“Where?! and is it clean?” was all I wanted to know.
Chantal pointed me to a young woman with a stand on a street corner. She had all her jewels neatly arranged on black velvet. She showed me the needles, the heat, and the sanitization process before I plopped down onto a stool. Other than the fact that her business was set up curbside instead of inside, I saw no problem getting this done then and there. So I gripped Matt’s hand and pointed where I wanted my nose re-pierced to the woman. Almost four years ago, my friend Emily and I got our noses pierced on my last night in Maui after I lived there for five months. I let the piercing close when I took my teaching job in Korea, but that night in Hanoi I was barely a month out from completing my contract, and I wanted it back. So I got pinned and woke up with an earring in my nose instead of a nose-stud. Close enough.
Around 2am I said goodnight to Matt who was soon headed to Thailand with hopes of reconnecting further down the road. I crawled miraculously into my top bunk and konked out.
We rose at 5:30 to meet our tour guide from BC Family Tours for our bike tour of Hanoi at 6. Jack who was super sweet and easy going lead us through the already busy streets to pick up our bright yellow bikes a few blocks away. The bike tour offered by BC Family Tours was completely free, but the entrance fees were not. It was still a huge bargain and Jack was awesome company all day and a great guide.
The route was simple. The traffic was not. We were like those baby barnacle goslings lunging into the air for the first time only to plummet dozens of feet to the ground (you can watch that baby here). There were some casualties in the beginning, but we made out all right in the end. As a result of the previous night’s galavanting, I was in bad shape about half-way through the tour. My behind had not seen the seat of a bike in over a year, and my body was in shock after months of sedentary deskwarming. I was in pain but I’m glad I pushed my tender tush through the remainder.
We started at the flower market at dawn and had a bowl of Pho Bo (beef noodle soup) for breakfast. Then we rode through some nice wide open safe-feeling roads to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum. There was a long steady line leading up to the building wear guards on either side of a red carpet shushed us quiet as we entered. The line went single-file into one side of a dark high-ceilinged room where Ho Chi Minh lay in state, around the body at all angles and then exited on the other side. His body and his beard in particular, look identical to every statue and portrait of him that I saw after.
From there we biked to the Imperial Citadel where we saw a group of high school kids taking pictures for their graduation in traditional dress. It was there that I got a sense of Vietnam’s aged and formidable architecture. I liked that the moss-looking darkness that stretched naturally across the yellow stone walls had not been polished away. Chickens and cocks roamed through the gardens. We disappeared down into bunker and back up again.
For lunch we found a restaurant decorated with Christmas lights and purple and silver balls hanging from the greenery tucked away down a side street. I ate My Goa: egg noodles stir-fried with bok choy (or was it morning glory?), beef, garlic, tomatoes, mushrooms, and sweet soy sauce.
After a near miss with a car we dodged back through traffic to the Temple of Literature. Several groups of students stood beneath a pavilion and listened/prayed as an older man offered blessings for their success on their upcoming exams. There I got my first taste of traditional Vietnamese music. A calligrapher sat beneath an eave I was perched on and swished up souvenirs for visitors passing by. We saw the same group of graduating students that were at the Citadel pose in their gowns for another photograph.
From there we went to Hoa Lo Prison where French colonialists imprisoned rebels for many years, but also where some American soldiers including Senator John McCain were held during the war. A few prisoners actually managed to escape through a sewer pipe in order to continue fighting with their comrades. Shawshank really happened, in Vietnam.
By the time we made it to the Water Puppet show I was barely awake and couldn’t see above the very tall Scandinavian couple plopped in front of me. That’s ok, something about the puppets splashing through the water and the gentle hollow thumps on the drums and the dampened wailing of the K’ni (vertical violin) and the rain drop sound of the dan bau (gourd lute) just lulled me to sleep. I don’t even remember what we ate for dinner.