The Vietnam part of our honeymoon was for 10 days – we had a flight in to Hanoi from Bangkok, and – 10 days later – one out of Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) back to Bangkok. Vietnam has a train that goes from north to south, with several stops along the way. The plan was to spend some nights sleeping on the train, stopping in various places along the way.
When we flew into Hanoi, I felt as if my stomach was going to explode (Thai food finally caught up with me) and we arrived in the middle of a tropical storm. This was a night where we had decided to try Couchsurfing, and fortunately I had the common sense to buy a Vietnamese SIM card for the little cheap phone I’d bought in Thailand and to get our host’s phone number. She had given us instructions to get on a series of three public buses to find her home in Hanoi.
My first moment of culture shock was walking onto the first bus, where I saw the driver smoking on what looked like a digeridoo. He turned to me, blew out a massive smoke ring, and let us on. I later found out that this was a Dieu Cay, or bamboo smoking pipe, which provides a pretty strong hit of tobacco. Check out this picture I found online of one!
The conductors came over a while later, and I showed them the name of the stop that I had written down. We paid in cash – each journey being something like 5000 dong, which is about 10p. The conductors come up to uswith a massive wad of change, so don’t worry about not having smaller notes (yes, values of 1p or less will be in paper form).
Straight away, we found that people were very friendly. A man behind us on the first bus struck up a conversation and, unlike the ‘special’ types you may find on public transport elsewhere, he seemed pretty normal. He asked where we were from and even gave us a business card to call him if we needed help. At the bus stop between buses 1 and 2, a young girl started up a similar conversation with us, making sure we got on the right bus. It all seemed to be going well until bus 2, where we looked out of the window and realised that the rain was bucketing down and that the streets looked like they were flooding.
We managed, of course, to mess it up and got off bus 2 at the wrong stop. Wandering around with our flimsy umbrellas, being drenched by the rain (keeping in mind Jeff had a cast on his arm that was not waterproof), I texted our Couchsurfing host and asked for help. She gave me an address to show a taxi driver, so I found the nearest green (Malinh) taxi – as I had read that they were reliable. I showed him the address and he started driving.
Things were fine until he reached a road that was already under 2 foot of water. He stopped the car and asked to see our phone. Then, he used my phone to call our host; they chatted for a while in Vietnamese, before he passed the phone back to me. She instructed us to wait in the taxi until she came to pick us up. We waited in the taxi for 15 minutes or so in mildly awkward silence. Suddenly, a Vietnamese couple rolled up… on a motorbike.
“Hey! We’re your hosts!” the girl exclaimed. We paid our taxi driver (about £2) and realised that, somehow, four of us and a massive backpack were expected to go on a motorbike in the pouring rain. If you’re not sure why this was so scary – remember what happened in Chiang Mai. They decided that it was best for Jeff to wait, on his own in the rain, while I shoved myself onto the back of a motorbike with this couple I’d just met and headed over to a house in the middle of nowhere. I don’t think I’ve ever been more afraid of dying, or of being unable to find Jeff again.
After a terrifying ride, winding through streets and dodging potholes, I was left with the girl while her husband went to pick up Jeff – who I later found out had been allowed to sit in a nice woman’s salon to shelter from the rain. He told me later that he had sat behind the host’s husband with his massive backpack strapped to his back, a massive raincoat clumsily shoved over him and the backpack. Because his arm was in a sling it was left hanging at a ridiculous angle while he held onto the bike with his other hand! Oh, travel.
Our hosts’ house looked massive and beautiful from the outside, and very European. This is because Vietnam was under French rule from 1884 to 1954 (as part of “French Indo China”) – evident in Vietnam’s coffee culture, baguettes, buildings and the fact that many older Vietnemese people can speak French. Interesting, eh?
What I then found was that the couple lived in the house along with around 7 or 8 other people. They all shared a kitchen and dining area, along with two bathrooms, and just had their own room. They were the same age as us and married. It’s strange how, in the UK, we feel as if we’re failures if we don’t have our own place, or we think it somehow weird for a married couple to live with anyone else but their pets and children. Well, why? These guys had a great little place, a sense of community, and plenty of space. They even had a spare bedroom, which is where we slept. The rain had started to leak through one of the windows, though, and everything in our backpack was drenched so we had to hang it up to dry.
Our host then fed us! She made us lovely lunch, with spring rolls and some other things. I can’t remember, to be honest, but I know there was pumpkin and egg involved somewhere. She then told us that a tropical storm had rolled in and that it would be in Vietnam for a week. Great. Ha Long Bay was suddenly out of the question, as they probably wouldn’t be allowing boats to go out or anything. We all decided to have an afternoon nap, instead. When we woke up at dinner time, she had prepared even more food for us. She then helped us plan our next move, and showed us Ninh Binh – “Ha Long Bay on land”. It looked beautiful, was a four hour train ride south (the way we were going anyway) and didn’t have a storm going on. We decided to go there the next day rather than spending two nights in Hanoi as planned.
The next morning, the storm had magically gone and it was beautiful and sunny. We decided to go to to Ninh Binh anyway, but our host would not let us leave without a whistle-stop tour of the city. She marched us around the streets of Hanoi, then stuck me on the back of her motorbike, and Jeff on her husband’s, while they zoomed around. We nearly smashed into other motorbikes about 10 times. I have no idea how people manage to navigate the millions of bikes, loaded with children and boxes, that weave in and out of tiny streets, constantly beeping their horns. It’s a mess. But most people have been riding since they were tiny, and to them, us explaining that we didn’t want to get back on a bike because we’d crashed once was like someone saying they refused to walk again because they’d fallen over once. So, we sucked it up and held on for dear life.
I don’t remember what we saw in Hanoi, but there are some pictures….
After a temple (with a tortoise, symbolising a lucky tortoise who brought a prince’s sword out of the lake or something… here’s the story!), we were given a drink made of tofu to try, which was pretty nice. Our hosts then told us that they would show us “Vietnam’s oldest house”. Further research has shown me that this was the “Ancient House”, which was actually restored in 1999 as an example of an ancient Vietnamese house.
Some other pictures..
I wish I could write something a bit more informative for you, but sadly I can’t pretend that Hanoi sunk in that well. What I’d say is – Couchsurf there! Our host was very polite, kind and willing to show us around the city, and her English was great. If you do, make sure you get your host’s number and that you have a Vietnamese sim card and credit.