As I approach the one-year anniversary of everything that happened to me last year, I just wanted to take some time to reflect, and along the way, share some stories about my time in Vietnam. Somewhere in February 2016, my head exploded. I could not really explain what was happening, but everything around me seemed to move at a 100 km an hour with me at a standstill. I breathlessly lost touch with everything, most importantly my focus, and I just could not keep myself together. In some ways, I lost myself completely, and even today, I have not been able to gain some of those parts back. By March, I woke up crying every morning, literally every single morning, most days without reason. It was not even a short cry, but rather, sobbing; sobbing that woke JH up every day. He would console me for literally an hour or two (if I woke up ridiculously early) before I shook my head vigorously, bit my tongue and forced myself to go to work, my eyes still watering every little bit.
Now, I am a vulnerable person, and I tend to be dramatic and emotional. I am fully cognizant of this, but this time it was different. I felt hopeless, and every other type of ‘wrong’ along the way. I could barely keep myself together in my professional life either. At that time, I luckily had a closed-door office, and if I needed to cry (and the crying sometimes came in random waves), I had somewhere to hide. I felt spurts of heart-racing irritability for every project I worked on and meeting I walked into (these would later be defined as my negative ‘ups’); sometimes I could feel my head spinning and I felt fainter and more breathless with each hour. By April, I was veering on broken. Everything around me seemed dark and inexplicably unhappy. I could not see any path properly. I questioned every aspect of my life, only two things of which provided me with a clear positive ‘up’ – JH of course and my dad. Everyone and everything else seemed defenseless against my unhappiness. The idea of interacting with people, even dear long-time friends (best friends) made me feel anxious and in my head. I just wanted to be in a bubble by myself, protected from everything on the outside.
I had at this point started to seek professional help, but it was uncomfortable. I did not understand anything about what was going on with me, far be it for me to realize that my mental health was actually dragging me down, or that the idea of ‘mental health’ actually existed. I thought I was just being dramatic. Anyhow, I literally just wanted to run away. By the end of April, I took a silent leave from work. The day this occurred, I walked home solemnly, hands tingling, tears running down my face, my head barely able to think. When I got home, I stared at my computer for a few hours, and then impulsively booked a one-way ticket to leave Toronto for Vietnam.
I was supposed to be a bridesmaid for a friend’s wedding at the end of May, and subsequently a bridesmaid in another friend’s wedding later in the fall. I wanted to fully run away for an indeterminate amount of time, but overwhelming guilt got the better of me. And while I was hardly a good friend to either of these girls last year and even now, I came back to somewhat robotically move through the motions of being ‘there’ for them, all the while, heavy-hearted and too unhappy to be a good friend. As I look back at it though, those memories were absolutely fuzzy, and in retrospect, they would have gotten along just fine without me. It was selfish to want them to care or learn about what I was going through during some of the happiest times in their year. And from there, my friendships with them have never really recovered. If I did not have the obligations to them, I would have pleadingly sought understanding from JH (who already endured enough for a lifetime), and probably disappeared for the rest of the year. But alas, I went to Vietnam and Laos for just a month, and forced myself to come back for the one girl’s bachelorette in Greece, and then subsequently Toronto to finally start the trial-and-error process with what is now a mini-dispensary of pills on my kitchen counter and the pill diet of a senior citizen.
I would later learn from my psychiatrist that this impulsive trip and my desire to leave home was an attribute of my deterioration. It all made sense. Usually, I plan really structured trips at least six to eight months in advance, with colour-coded spreadsheets and vendors all locked down. I booked the one-way plane ticket without really thinking or even spending much time to go through all my options. The real me would never jump the gun.
Heading to South East Asia felt safe. I experienced some really happy times in Myanmar and Cambodia with JH just a few years prior. My other choice was Madagascar, but for some reason I felt scared to go somewhere slightly off-the-beaten path. I had a flash in my mind of what it would be like to walk down the Avenue of the Baobabs, or see lemurs, and for some reason I could not imagine doing so without JH. This whole process killed me, because I have never done a long-haul trip without him. But he needed to stay in real life, and for whatever reason I could not really explain to him at that time (or at that point, he had to force himself to understand because the mental health issue was not really fully fleshed out), I had to leave for me. I had to do this by myself.
I had a few days to rush through the Vietnamese e-visa process, see my dad for Malaria pills and to say goodbye, exchange money, figure out what the hell to pack, and figure out how not to leave JH completely behind with nothing (I made him 20 frozen tupperware dinners and two cakes). I left on a Saturday night on a ridiculously long haul flight from Toronto-Chicago-Seoul-Vietnam (upwards of 28 plus hours), booked on Aeroplan points. Saying goodbye to JH at the airport was probably one of the hardest things I had to do – my insides literally broke apart. At this point, I had not really committed to going to Greece or definitively returning to Toronto, so it felt like a really hurtful goodbye for an indeterminate amount of time. In all this, I wanted to abide by our marriage vows, and be there for him always, but I did not know how to process or handle any of this. All I knew at this point was that Toronto was toxic for me. We could blame it on the job, disappointments from the last year, my mother, anything really, but at that point in time, the plain fact of the story was that I could not be in Toronto anymore. There was maybe no explaining it; just for whatever reason, I was inexplicably unhappy.
I wanted to cry on the plane, but on the first leg from Toronto to Chicago, I sat next to this really young, energetic guy moving to Korea for school. He talked on and on about his next year, and was generally really friendly. But I spaced out, and at some point, told him I was feeling too tired to continue talking. I ended up falling asleep.
Fast forward through all the flights and hours spent in air, I finally arrived in Vietnam. To my disappointment, the airline lost my luggage. Me and two other Canadian girls were left standing there at the airline desk yelling at whoever we could yell at for our luggage. It turns out, the suitcases were not transferred in Chicago, and we would need to wait for them to come via the next available carrier flight to Seoul-Vietnam the next day. The airline gave us $50USD each to buy ‘some clothes’ and sent us on our way. I was a bit pissed because I knew at this point that I had lost all access to my clothes, hiking boots and supplies for what was supposed to be a couple of days of hiking near the north Vietnam / China Border. One girl was supposed to leave right away from the airport to a cruise on Ha Long Bay for five days, so she was really pissed. I at least had time to shop in the city.
I tried to split my time in Vietnam and Laos. Laos, though I fully did not intend for it to be, became a bit of an afterthought as I only visited Vientiane and Luang Prabang (just the tourist hubs) before finally making the decision to fly to Europe. I wish I had spent more time in Laos, because I ended up loving it 5 times more than Vietnam. Vietnam, like Thailand, did not really grab me in any which way and I will probably never go back (unless JH really wants to go). I guess if he did, we can tack it onto Malaysia and Indonesia.
- Mood – Sad naturally, just thinking about how everything went down at almost exactly this point in time last year. Sad still because I still have not figured everything out. Scared even more so that with all the same patterns and factors in place, this could very well happen again.
- Focus – Trying not to break down in tears too hard, but some of this was really hard to write.
- Feedback from the husband– What could he say beyond telling me to do what I needed to do. Like really, how amazing is this man?
My route in Vietnam was haphazardly thrown together, but the country has a solid tourist infrastructure, so you can really put things together overnight. If I had a few months to structure a proper agenda though, I could have really shoved in there some gems that I completely missed, and did not realize I wanted to go to only at the end of my trip. My route ended up like this (and captured most of the standard north–to–south tourist route – with the exception of Ha Giang and Phu Quoc Island – Laos is included):
- Arrived in Hanoi
- Drove up to Ha Giang – hiked and motorbiked region, visiting:
- Dong Van and Meo Vac
- Drove back to Hanoi
- Drove to Ha Long Bay
- Drove to Hue
- Motorbiked to Hoi An
- Flew to Ho Chi Minh City
- Flew to Phu Quoc Island
Hanoi – Part I
My first day in Hanoi was spent finding clothes for the next few days of hiking. I thought $50USD would actually get me a long way given in my head, I was supposed to divide everything by 17,889 (May 2016) each time to get the Canadian equivalent (i.e. I assumed everything would be dirt cheap). But I either assumed wrong, or just walked in the wrong districts. I ended up finding two relatively cheap tank tops, two pairs of socks, underwear, and a pair of sweat proof yoga pants, but collectively (along with some sunscreen and mosquito repellant), ended up using almost the full amount. I was not going to buy new hiking boots, so I ended up trashing my long-time Puma runners this trip (and bought a new pair of runners while in Laos). The main shopping strip (with a lot of stores) was on Hang Bong. I found that if I walked a little further, and out of the way, I was able to find stores with cheaper clothing and a little bit of room for negotiation.
JH and I were in Cambodia and Myanmar in 2014, so the smells, noises, sights, sounds and atmosphere of South East Asia were not foreign to me. Even though the lack of cross walks always scares me, this is what I love about foreign countries – the recklessness and disorderly atmosphere of the streets. Every hour of the day feels like ‘nightlife’ and it hits you every minute you are walking, coming at you from every which way. There is just so much more to watch and see, but perhaps a newcomer coming to Toronto for the first time would feel the exact same way – familiar versus unfamiliar.
Versus Ho Chi Minh, I actually liked Hanoi. It was a smaller, a bit more quaint, and I actually found my favourite bowl of noodles there – Bún Riêu Cua (crab noodle soup). I stayed at two different hotels in Hanoi – one the night before I left for Ha Giang, and a different one when I returned. There was no real reason for this; I just haphazardly booked things all over the place.
The first hotel I stayed in was Serene Premier Hotel. A superior room with a queen bed was $60 per night through Expedia (as of 2016 when booked).
The hotel is located on a quiet street (with a couple other hotels) – 10c Yen Thai Street right off the busy main intersection of the Old French Quarter. In the morning, the alleyway livens up with a small market.
The girls at the check-in were really nice. The one girl, Anna aggressively followed up with the airport / airline for my bag. They kept my bag until I returned from Ha Giang, and were all friendly smiles when I returned to pick it up.
Anna was also the first person to teach me how to say thank you (ga am ern – “gum on”), and referenced it to sounding like “come on”.
There are water bottles, a bottle of wine and fruit in the room.There is a computer in the room, but Wi-Fi had no issues.
The bathroom was a bit dated, and the walls were slightly dirty. The shower had very weak pressure, with little warm water. Given that, it was above 30 degrees outside in Hanoi, so a hot shower was not all that necessary.
Breakfast is included in the price – either eggs and ham or a bowl of pho. The restaurant is located separately downstairs from the hotel.
|My very first meal and very first bowl of pho (it HAD to be pho) was at Pho Thinh on 13 Lo Duc, about a 25 minute walk south-west of my hotel. I think it might be considered a touristy place but I saw a number of locals eating there.
After I bought clothes, I had ended up wandering and exploring despite the glaring afternoon heat. (I wandered aimlessly A LOT during this trip). The restaurant is hardly noticeable – literally a hole-in-the-wall.
There is one lady at the front stirring the pot, and another man spooning the noodles and taking the money. You order at the front. If you ask nicely, they will allow you to take pictures (because it is the only area with natural light). They laugh a little at you when you do so.
The meal is really cheap – 50,000 VND, approximately $3CAD. The bowl is about the same size as a medium in Canada.
My only issue with it (and my fault, I did not stop them) is that they piled a bunch of cilantro and onions on top. Also, in Vietnam, I found that they like using the noodles that are more like the squishier Chinese ‘hor fun”. I like the chewier (al dente) thin rice noodles they use in Toronto.
The broth was really, really, earthy good. Despite eating this in 38 degrees, it was still delicious (even though my armpits were sweating buckets afterwards).
The place is a dirty-hole-in-the-wall with depressive lighting (almost akin to a jail), but this was a decently good first meal.
As with most nights in Vietnam (and at some point, I could not blame it on jet-lag anymore), I had a horrible sleep – waking up to empty dark rooms without JH for moral support, and fearful for how the next day would play out. There were nights where I would just stare aimlessly at the ceiling, waiting for seconds to go by. 3:30AM on the clock would slowly crawl to 4:00AM, and for me, I would have thought 5 hours had already passed. This first night was the worst. I do not think I actually slept at all. The hotel was also on a quiet street, so I literally heard nothing but the odd motorbike honk. You would have figured that I would have gotten up and maybe researched the next parts of my trip, but I just lay there and stared at the wall endlessly. Anyways, 6AM finally rolled around. I got up, checked out, and went on my way to Ha Giang.
For the few hours of research I did back at home, I knew I wanted to see rice paddies. China / Indonesia probably have flashier ones, but I wanted to see the ones in Vietnam anyhow. I flipped back and forth between going to Sapa, which is more well-known and touristy for rice paddy trekking, and Ha Giang close to the China-Vietnam border. I read that Dong Van in Ha Giang was supposed to be spectacular, and for all its worth, a little bit off the beaten-path with tourists; though really, with motorbikes, everyone is getting everywhere. For all options, I was completely out of season anyhow, since terraces are especially green in June through August. I went in May. All these little concerns aside, I decided to go with Ha Giang, and booked a “hiking” trip for approximately $100 USD a day (the expense mostly attributed to the long-distance gas/mileage cost) with a local company – Ha Giang Trekking Tours. From what I read, I was expecting to do a multi-day hike through paddies and villages (similar to what JH and I had done in Myanmar). For the few days I spent in the region, I did a lot of short walks, and even angrily ran 11 km down a mountain switchback (story to come), but for the most part, I was either on a motorbike or in a van. I loved the parts where I got to ride a motorbike (and even learned to ride one casually by myself for a minute for fun), but I hated the hours I spent in the van.
The drive from Hanoi to Ha Giang was a little over 6 hours. I was paired with a driver named Hai – this kind looking old man who spoke only Vietnamese (and through conversation and translation, I found out used to be a captain of an export ship), and a ‘guide’ Tuan, who was in his thirties, but may have passed for an 18-year old (I dunno, Asians). He kind of reminded me of my friend back at home – Liao, but not nearly as interesting. He thought I looked Vietnamese (as did most people for some reason, until I turned a patchy brown from all the horrible tanning). Tuan spoke fairly good English, but his knowledge of Vietnam was pretty limited –from politics to culture to history. In fairness, he answered some cultural questions well – in relation to people, food and pop culture, but those conversations can only go so far especially as you are trying to learn about the insides of a country, and you have to spend six hours in a van with only one other person who speaks your language. This and the fact that I was already falling harder each day into the ‘depression’, and he was not too reciprocal in questions about me, our conversations died pretty quickly. I fell asleep a lot. He asked often if I was really tired, but it was more so that I did not want to engage in small talk. I hate small talk – we needed JH here, he handles small talk well.
Because the drive was so long, Hai took frequent breaks. I understood this because driving long distances is hard. But some of these breaks turned into one-hour breaks, and so when I expected to arrive in Ha Giang in the afternoon, we ended up getting to our home stay in the evening. Tuan could tell I was annoyed, so at one point, he suggested we walk 30 minutes from one end of the road into the village where we were going to stay at just so I could ‘see something’ in fresh air. Hai drove on ahead.
The home stay was in a village called Nam Song, and the house we stayed at was owned by a kind, friendly couple by the names of Tung and Ern. Tung could speak a few words of English, but Ern mostly nodded and smiled. They had a relatively big house, a stone’s throw away from a little pond. The village was really pretty, and it was really nice to walk around. Unlike my previous home stay experiences in Myanmar, this home felt a bit more modernized, and ‘experienced’ with tourists.
Their homestay was separated into two buildings – the main house, with the kitchen and dining area, and a couple of beds and a hammock. The building right next door was newly built according to Ern. It housed about 4 to 5 bedrooms with mattresses, dividing walls and mosquito nets. Attached to this building was a bathroom with a shower head. There were two other couples there, and seeing them definitely made me long for JH a little. The couples (from Germany and South Africa respectively) had met each other randomly at a motorbike rental place, and ended up deciding to travel with each other for the next few months (case in point – more dream journeys that I will probably never be able to take).
By the time dinner rolled around, an American and his Vietnamese guide-companion had also showed up, so we had a nice, large group for the meal. Dinner at the homestay was really fun. Ern made some really fabulous dishes – spring rolls, short ribs and a bunch of vegetables. Everything was really delicious. For dessert, we split a watermelon that I had bought for a hostess gift (from a local market along the way).
Tung liberally forced us to take multiple shots of a homemade rice wine aka vile moonshine. The conversation then really flowed. Everyone really told their life story, and even though there was this intermixing of English and Vietnamese (since Hai and Ern could not speak English), it almost felt like everyone understood each other and harmonized.
- The German couple was young and just taking time to really travel through Asia and enjoy life before deciding next steps.
- The South Africans were a project manager and management consultant who just wanted a break from life.
- The American was an English teacher who had lived and worked in Vietnam for a while; and his guide-companion was a friend he had met along the way. He was Jewish, but could speak Vietnamese fluently. He really got the political conversation going, and was definitely not in either the Trump or Clinton camps. His guide-companion was a good friend and someone he traveled with frequently for all sorts of random adventures.
- And then there was me. Nobody could guess my age first of all (they all thought I was in my mid 20s – *laugh*). Second, I was forthright with why I had taken this sudden trip, but it was only after several more encouraged cups of the moonshine that I brutally broke down into tears….in front of a bunch of strangers. I was not drunk, I never blacked out, but I drank enough to feel something amidst what could only be classified as numbness along the way. I broke down, and literally said the words “I have not been happy in years. I don’t know why. I cannot pinpoint it to one thing”. You would think it would be so awkward, but it was so powerfully therapeutic. I never felt like I could talk so easily about my unhappiness to a group of people.
- Now I understand that it is not easy to come up with a response to someone telling you that they are manic depressive, bi-polar, or that they have daily anxiety, or in my case, all three. Quite frankly, at some point in my life, I would have reacted in every normal sense too if someone in my life had told me he/she was sick. Depending on who the person was, my response would have been – ‘how are you doing’ to ‘is there anything I can do to help’, to maybe ‘I have a similar situation that I could share’ to somehow relate. But, when you are depressed, everything goes out the window. You become so sensitive, attuned, and in your head to what people say (especially friends), their body / facial movements, and even in how they react to your reactions. It becomes loud, static noise in your head that beats like a jackhammer, and the only way that I have been able to deal with it is to hide in a bubble.
- Getting back to the point of this story though, at this moment, I did not know what sickness I had. I was not telling anyone that I was manic-depressive, etc. I just knew that I felt unhappiness in every single part of my body and mind, and the understanding and listening I received was more than I could have ever expected from a group of strangers. There were no wide eyes, judgment, psychoanalysis, forced questions, awkward attempts to make some “lol” commentary to ease the tension or to change the subject immediately, or the worst and most common – a serious stare and awkward silence followed up with “you will be okay” – (MIND EXPLOSION) everything that has (and sometimes still) hurt(s) me about being at home. Mind you, these people do not interact with me everyday, or would never have to ever see me again, but the understanding came with such ease. It was just a long, thoughtful conversation for the next hour about understanding without knowing all the facts, happiness and what it might mean to be happy. Ern, without requiring translation from Tung got up, sat next to me and hugged me for awhile. When I have manic lows now and especially last summer or this past Christmas when I was on the verge of suicide in several instances, I kind of flash back to this night very fondly, because it truly was defining for me. Even with psychiatric help now, nothing has been as therapeutic as being with these strangers on that weirdly calming night.
- At the end of the day, I get it. I know there are so many people in this world worse off than me. It’s not apples to apples though. I am fully appreciative of the fact that my ‘worse off’ is much less ‘worse off’ than other ‘worse offs’ in the world, and I am appreciate of everything that I have. I am just trying to fight off the strong forces that make me lose sight of that.
Getting back to the story again, at some point it was the middle of the night. Everyone was still talking, but we were becoming sleepier. The moonshine of course stopped, but there was something that felt so ‘utopia’ about the setting. A bunch of us ended up running to the pond to take in some fresh air. The American guy ended up getting sick and throwing up, so we grabbed his hands and guided him back to the house. At that point, everyone decided it was time to sleep. I felt flush, so I finally decided to take a shower. After the shower, I felt refreshed and almost relieved for sleep. And truthfully, this was one of my only sleeps in the entire trip where I slept peacefully throughout the night.
The next day, we said our goodbyes to everyone and went on our way. Hai went on ahead to Dong Van, while Tuan and I motor-biked the switchback. This next part of the drive was cool. We entered into an area where the roads are switchbacks climbing up and down mountains. There is really quite no feeling than the adrenaline rush of the rapid mountain air, and these towering structures surrounding you from every angle of your peripheral. In this area, we were at a higher altitude, so it was actually much cooler than the rest of Vietnam (mid-twenties – Celsius), so the temperature was really comfortable.
Every so often, I pulled at Tuan to let us stop and take pictures. The paddies were greener than I expected, and they were beautiful. They were stunning and surreal. Tuan mentioned that when the season is right, the paddies are even a more vivid shade of green (google and you will see), and you will see families at every step-level working hard away at the growth process.
Along the way, and mostly at my complaining, Tuan stopped for us to take some walks and day-hikes. I am not that fast of a walker, but he was really slow. This is why I felt fairly confused as to why the company I booked with considered itself a trekking company. Anyhow, we did get to walk to some pretty cool viewpoints of valleys (my favourite being Ma Pi Leng Pass), little towns and villages. I felt, as we continued to walk and motor-bike, that I was becoming mellower. I wanted to kill Tuan a little bit less (at this point, he was becoming like an annoying brother).
The routine continued for the next day or so. We drove in and out of the mountains, seeing vast valleys and rice paddies. We would take the occasional walk, and have light dinners of tomato tofu (the seemingly iconic but delicious dish of the area), morning glory, rice and some form of protein. The dinners overall were pretty good. We also had pho for breakfast; we tried cold viet espresso; and then at one guesthouse, we tried this really good beef wrapped in betel leafs (thịt bò nướng lá lốt). Even though I was irritated at Tuan a lot, eating with him was always interesting because he always had to give me his perspective of how “viets would eat it”.
- Pho, for example, needed lots of mint and cilantro. “How could (I) possibly eat it without the herbs?”
- “Viets will eat anything if it moves” (straight out of Tuan’s mouth) – most disgustingly, dog (avoid restaurants with the word “cho” –in it if you do not want to end up eating dog).
- I should be open to anything and everything. I tried (especially with their moonshine – it showed up everywhere).
Because we needed to cover more distance, at some point, Hai entered back into the equation, and for rest of the journey, we continued by van. Nearer to the end of the trip, I became tired again of sitting in the van for long stretches. So, at some point, Tuan suggested we run from the near-end of the mountain switchback to our next stop, Meo Vac. I ran with him for about a kilometer, but he kept on wanting to stop for long breaks, so I frustratingly ran on ahead. You would figure that I would be scared to run along a switchback, and in a thousand years, JH probably would have never allowed me to do this, but I ran 11 kilometers to the next village. Tuan and Hai followed behind me in the van. Hai seemed to be in shock that I would even consider doing this.
I do not know if it was because I was in a foreign land, or because I was really irritated and needed a release, but that was one of the most liberating runs in my life. I literally felt like I was flying, and I did not give a shit about anything in the world. I could have been hit by a car, or ran off a cliff by accident and I would not have cared. And sadly again, I broke down crying, so for about a kilometer there, I was running like a crazy woman along a ‘highway’, breaking down in tears. At some point, the ‘highway’ ended, and I was running into the village. Children waved, and people stared, and I imagined a little bit as to how it would be if I ever did try a marathon in a different country. A marathon is still on my bucket list, and that includes one in a different country.
Anyways, 11 kilometers later, I arrived at the guesthouse for our last night of the trip. There was a little bit of confusion as to where the guesthouse was, but I found it thankfully (and Tuan/Hai in the process). Thank goodness there was a shower, because I really did not smell great. This was also culminating with the fact that I had to re-use clothes repeatedly because of the luggage situation. The next morning, we headed back to Hanoi. Tuan put the final nail in the coffin because the night before, he told me to be ready for 7:30AM. We did not end up leaving until 8:30AM. I gave him pretty much a death stare when he finally showed up at the car with Hai at 8. For some reason, Hai disappeared again (probably to get breakfast), and Tuan then just spent the next half hour doing what looked like text messaging on his phone.
I slept for most of the drive back. They took a number of ridiculously long 30 to 60 minute breaks again (which I did bitch and complain about), so we did not actually get back until close to 9PM, though our day was supposed to end around 6. In normal circumstances, I would have taken the time to give him ‘constructive’ criticism, but I was just too tired to care. I gave Hai the overall tip (which I kept intact because I am not an asshole – I knew how hard he worked), and ran from the drop-off point at Yen Thai Street to my hotel. I also FINALLY reunited with my suitcase. I was so grateful for clean clothes and my actual hygiene products.
Hanoi – Part II
I spent another day in Hanoi before moving on. Throughout this trip, I did more self-exploration and eating than anything (eating especially since Vietnam pretty much has 100 billion types of soup noodles and you want to try them all). I was fairly frustrated from the Tuan experience, and was feeling more and more reclusive, so I decided just to walk around Hanoi aimlessly by myself without having to research and find a tour. Hanoi, in its own way, is a really walkable city. In some ways, I actually found it to be really beautiful, especially around Hoàn Kiếm Lake.
Hotel (food stories are too long, so scrapping the chart)
- The second hotel I stayed at in Hanoi was the Elegance Ruby, a few doors down at 3 Yen Thai, and at a similar price per night.
- This boutique hotel was a bit fancier, newer and cleaner than the other hotel.
- Everyone at the reception (Alex, Molly and Sophia) was really nice, detailed and helpful.
- Sophia even walked me to the pharmacy to find foundation. While in Ha Giang, my face started to develop a mix of a sunburn and rash. Basically, I looked disgusting. (In Vietnam, girls are considered attractive if their faces are pale white and fair; I looked like chimney smoke hit my face).
- The room – 702, was modern and comfortable, though a bit smaller than at the other hotel.
- The Wi-Fi (free) was strong.
- The breakfast looked excellent with both Western and Vietnamese choices. I opted to skip their breakfast though because I wanted street noodles. I did however have their delicious mango drink. Mango smoothies were addictive for me in both Vietnam and Laos. They just tasted so fresh.
I barely scratched the food scene in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, but I tried my best to research the “best dishes” and scramble to find restaurants offering those dishes in each city.
- After Hai dropped me off, I went to Bun Cha Hang Manh for Bun Cha – grilled pork, vermicelli, spring rolls and fish sauce. At first, when I got back to Canada, I thought this was the place where Barack Obama ate with Anthony Bourdain, but that is actually here. I received a pile of food for essentially CAD $2.50. The place is dirty and disgusting (I ate upstairs), but the food was delicious.
- The next day I woke up at 5:30AM when it was still cool outside, and started roaming the streets for freshly cooked street noodles (aka holes-in-the-wall and street stalls). I loved it actually when the streets were just waking up. You could see people scurrying around quietly. Some men were drinking tea. Others were opening up shop. By the time it was maybe 7 or 8, there were crowds of people eating at food stalls on the street – kids in school uniforms, people on their way to work. It was actually a really beautiful thing to see, and I actually wish I took more photographs.
- I had no problem getting around with food. All I had to do was to point a finger for “one”, point at their pot etc., sit down, and then the food comes in a matter of minutes. They collect money after you are done eating. You say “ga am ern” – they smile and nod their head. Everything comes with a cup of tea.
- My first find was Bún Riêu Cua – tomato, crab and fried tofu soup noodles (at 11 Hang Bac). The lady at this stall is really surly, and gave me attitude (and pushed me slightly) for taking pictures of the noodles and her huge pot (I should have taken a picture of her), but this was pretty much my favourite bowl of noodles the entire trip. The broth was this rich mind-melding mix of ocean and tomato. I have tried to make this at home with somewhat positive results, but really, this surly lady’s noodle soup was just one in a million. I think the surlier the cook, the better the dish (as I will validate through my experience with Bún Bò Huê in Hue). This bowl and everything else I describe always kept in the range of CAD $0.50 to $3.
- I then grabbed one of the Pork Banh Mi’s from Banh Mi 25. This is a street stall with a couple of make-shift tables. This was one of the places where there were already a number of tourists surrounding it by the time I got there. They work pretty fast though, so it is not really much of a wait. The banh mi is really nicely wrapped, maybe even a little nicer than some of the gritty banh mi shops we have here back in Toronto. The sandwich was good, but I had just tried the spectacular bún riêu cua, so the bar was set high.
- The next two finds were random, so I am sketchy about their actual location.
- I wanted Bánh Cuốn – Vietnamese rice noodle rolls. I noticed this one street stall in a nicely-lit area kind of near the shopping street where I bought clothes (Hang Bong), where a lady was making some on a flat top, and there were some locals congregated on her little tables (with little colorful plastic tables and chairs – like in kindergarten). It was really interesting to watch her make the rolls. In a weird way, it reminded me of crepes (which is not so weird since Vietnamese food is heavily French-influenced from colonization). She spread the batter, let it sit, spread some meat mixture (with mushrooms and shallots) in the middle, and then used a tool to quickly roll them up. The rolls were served with fish sauce, crispy onions and herbs on the side. They were colourful, chewy and delicious (with all the bites of sauce and herbs).
- After this, I wandered north to Dong Xuan Market on Đồng Xuân. I only walked around briefly inside, but nothing really peaked my interest. It was not really a tourist market, but I yelled at myself a little because I should have went here to find clothes on my first day. Anyhow, outside, there were a number of food stalls. Once again, I poked around a stall where a bunch of locals congregated. The pot looked delicious – pho with chicken & beef meatballs and bamboo shoots. The lady stirring the pot actually looked really friendly, and pointed for me to sit down. I was getting kind of full at this point, but I happily accepted. I am glad I did, because it was pretty delicious. Case in point, when in Vietnam, you do not really need to research food. Peer at the pots, sit down where it looks like there are locals, and take a chance. If anything, it will most likely cost you less than CAD $3 for something delicious. Everywhere is dirty – forget you are a germaphobe, it is Asia after all.
I was getting really full, so I stopped eating. I spent the rest of the day sauntering around Hanoi aimlessly. I walked by the Ho Chi Minh Museum and Mausoleum, and its surrounding parks. The museum is one of the iconic tourist sites of the city, dedicated to the late Vietnamese leader, and representing Vietnam’s revolutionary struggle against foreign powers. I was tempted to go in, but changed my mind, and instead took some pictures from the outside and went on my way. As we know from previous stories, museums are not really my thing, especially if they are littered with tour groups.
After a full day of exploration, I retired early to the hotel, because the next day I would be taking a day trip to Ha Long Bay.
Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay seems like one of those places you have to visit when you are in Vietnam. You can visit it on a day-trip, or take a circuit around the bay and other surrounding bays on multi-day cruises. I had read that Bai Tu Long Bay was the prettier, less touristy version of Ha Long Bay, but it was further in distance, and would require more time to get to. I really only wanted to commit one day to a bay, as I had no interest being on a boat by myself for a longer amount of time.
I booked my day trip through Indojunk China, who operates these spectacular looking luxury junk boats. For the day-trips however, they source out the booking to smaller boats that look more like ferries (case in my point, my boat). The day trip is pretty cheap – $47USD (as of 2016). You leave Hanoi around 8:30AM in the morning, and return by 6 to 7PM (depending on your drop-off spot) at night. I was the one single in a group of around 10 people. I indecisively chose to sit in the middle row of the transport van next to an Australian couple. When I got on, there was room for one person in the back row with three Korean girls, but I just did not think quickly enough on my feet. Anyhow, it was pretty annoying, because the guy next to me decided to listen to techno rap for the next four hours (beat on beat fuzzed out by head phones is a not a pleasant experience to sit next to). He also decided to obnoxiously bob and wave to this music for the next few hours like a douchebag, and elbowed me here and there, even though at one point, I told him that it was uncomfortable. He (and his girlfriend) just stared at me without saying a thing – assholes. I was also underneath the high-powered air-con vent, so the ride was literally horrible. I shifted myself sideways into somewhat of a ball, and used my towel as a head-cover. I tried to sleep but it was pretty much four hours of hell. I wanted to move to the back, but by the time I was ready to make a decision, the three Korean girls had shifted their bodies over the entire seat and had fallen asleep.
Fast forward, we got on the boat. It was lunch time. They served us some fried boneless chicken, prawns, and some other forgettable dishes. Lunch was meh, but I was after all on a touristy operation. We floated out of the harbor for a while, and gradually started to see the towering limestone islands. It was actually pretty, even on a cloudy day. I took a lot of pictures, and given the boat was not that full, I was able to catch different perspectives just by moving around. I do believe we saw most of the iconic sites – Cho Da (Stone Dog), Lu Huong (Incense Burner), and Ngon Tay (Fingers) Islets. At some point, we reached an area (a fishing village I think) where our boat docked (along with several others), and tourists poured out onto the platform like hordes. Our guide Peter was very efficient at herding us through the motions like farm animals. We could either pair up as couples and kayak through the bay ourselves, or opt to be rowed by these ladies in paddy hats. I chose the latter because everyone else seemed to be paired up. I did not love this experience at all. Everywhere I turned there were tourists in these ugly orange kayaks. The water was also pretty polluted, which made my heart cringe.
This part of the experience went by pretty quickly (thank goodness), and before we knew it we were back on the boat. In the afternoon, we visited Sung Sot (Surprise) Cave. There were some neat spots, where the natural light fell into the cave in a really pretty way, but once again, this cave was just SO touristy with its neon-light get-up, and the mere fact that it was impossible to move around the cave because there were so many tourists. Outside of the caves, there are a couple of areas where you can take panoramic shots. There were however too many people, and you could barely make your way to the front, never mind trying to set up a really nice photograph.
I know one of the most magnificent caves in the world, Son Doong is in Vietnam, and I wish in hindsight, I had visited there. Without proper structured research, I never got to realize the true potential of the country until closer to the time in which I was already deciding to leave for Laos. But, if I could recommend anywhere in South East Asia to begin with, it would not be Vietnam – I would choose Myanmar, Cambodia or Laos instead. I cannot comment on Indonesia or the Philippines, but they are on my eventual bucket list.
There is not much more I can see about the Ha Long Bay experience except that I hated it, and that it was too touristy, and I probably knew that (shame on me). If I could recommend anything to other people, maybe go for a longer experience, so you get out to the other bays (and actually even experience some of the hiking and beaches). Or go to Son Doong cave or Cat Ba National Park. I saw a lot of the Mekong river in my last South East Asia trip, so it was not that big of a deal to me this time around. Just do some research so you get off the tourist circuit.
Anyhow, after this, I left Hanoi shortly the next day, and headed south to Hue. For some mostly sad reasons, Hue is pretty haunting to me. But because I have ranted for a while now, I will leave that story for another day.