During our first week in Vietnam, we spent four nights in Hoi An, a small town on the central coast of the South China Sea. From there, we spent three nights in Hanoi, a large and somewhat chaotic city in northern Vietnam. Here, in no particular order, is the best and worst of our experiences in these places…
Food: The food in this country is fantastic, probably the best so far of our travels. From the fresh spring rolls, to the various dipping sauces, to the soups, to the vegetables, to the noodles, to the seafood… it’s been consistently good (and very cheap). There’s definitely a lot more to Vietnamese food than just pho. (And, when we return to Seattle, we will definitely be seeking it out...)
Tailors: Hoi An is world-renowned for its inexpensive, made-to-order clothing shops. The center of town is overflowing with these shops; on one block, I counted ten such shops in a row. These shops can make or duplicate just about anything that you show them (they all have samples or fashion magazines in order to pick out designs), all done and tailored within 24 hours, if needed. The shops differ widely in price, but, in a typical shop, a men’s dress shirt will cost about ten or twelve bucks, while a suit will cost about $50 to $110 (depending on quality and the type of fabric). Amy had two coats made (the gray one below only cost only $25) plus a dress, while I had a suit, a coat, and three shirts made.
Domestic Air Travel: Vietnam Airlines and JetStar offer extremely cheap fares throughout the country. While sleeper trains (and even sleeper buses with bunks instead of seats) are available and widely used, it’s hard not to just fly from place to place. Our flight from Saigon to Hoi An on Vietnam Airlines was only $37 per ticket, while Hoi An to Hanoi on JetStar was about the same.
Cooking Class: We took a great cooking class in Hoi An that involved a trip to an outdoor food market (where we sampled bizarre fruits and vegetables) and then prepared various Vietnamese dishes. I wasn’t exactly a top student. The chef shook his head at the results of my labor several times, including the “decorative” vegetables below that were supposed to resemble flowers. (See if you can guess which plate is mine and which is Amy’s.)
Beer: The beer here is very good, but its best feature is its price. A bottled beer in a restaurant is typically fifty or sixty cents, which is cheaper than a soda. And, even better, a freshly-brewed pilsner known as bia hoi or “fresh beer”, when available, is even cheaper.
The Gecko Hotel: Amy found us a fantastic place in Hanoi. Located in the heart of the Old Quarter, this hotel is almost brand new, has modern rooms, free wireless internet, a free laptop for use in the rooms, a large television, over-the-top service, and free breakfast... for $32 per night. Not too shabby.
Copycat Businesses: To our amusement, we often encounter businesses that are clear copy-cats of successful businesses from the Western world. For example, see if you can tell what coffee franchise this clearly resembles, right down to the green, circular logo…
Motorbikes: Motorbikes are the predominant means of transportation—by a huge, huge margin. The streets are a chaotic mass of motorbikes. On our taxi ride from Danang to nearby Hoi An, the taxi driver honked about 800 times and nearly took out about 50 bikers.
Crossing the Street in the Old Quarter: Most of the busy streets in the Old Quarter of Hanoi do not have stoplights or meaningful crosswalks---which can make it quite daunting to cross the street and evade the sea of motorbikes. Here are the three rules and tips for crossing the street, as far as we can tell: (1) Don’t wait for a significant break in the traffic since it will likely never come; (2) Walk at a constant, steady pace across the street and the traffic will move around you; (3) Do not suddenly dart for the end or stop abruptly; (4) If you get lucky and see other people trying to cross the street, join in with them; and (4) Cross your fingers and hope for the best. (Yikes.)
Motorbikes, Part II. For pedestrians, the motorbikes make it a bad idea to carelessly “stroll” down a street. The streets of Hoi An and the Old Quarter of Hanoi (where we stayed) have very narrow streets and alleyways (often without sidewalks), and the motorbikes will seemingly roar through any and all spaces, no matter how narrow it may be. To make matters worse, even when streets have sidewalks, such sidewalks are often impassable since they are filled with parked motorbikes or vendors. (Fortunately, both Hoi An and Hanoi offered street markets or promenades in the evening where certain streets were closed to motorbikes.)
Aggressive Salespeople: It’s rare to walk down the street in Hanoi and not be constantly approached by aggressive and insistent vendors or drivers about buying certain products or using a particular service. (This also makes it difficult to simply browse through items in a market.) And a simple “no” or “head shake” is often not enough. (Very annoying.) In light of the absurdity of what was sometimes often offered to us, it’s clear that these salespeople think nothing of being rejected a thousand times in a row before someone will finally say yes.
Tailors: This one belongs within both the “best” and the “worst.” I’ve described the positive aspects above, but I was basically dreading and loathing tailors by the time we left Hoi An. First, it’s completely overwhelming. Unless you arrive with a solid idea of what you want, the decisions in what tailor to choose and what you want them to make (and what type of fabric to use) can make your head spin. Definitely too many choices. Second, it’s just too time consuming. Every piece of clothing you have made requires several trips to the tailor for fittings (since it takes several times to get it just right) and, depending on the shop, may lead to some push back from the tailor about whether changes need to be made. Even Amy (who loves to shop) was exhausted and a bit disillusioned by the process (although she loved the end result). Third, it’s easy to get carried away with this. We ran into many travelers who had planned on having a few simple items made… and ended up staying for a week and having a thousand dollars worth of clothes made.
Hanoi's trash: While Hanoi and its Old Quarter definitely has its own charm, be prepared for streets littered with trash.
Haggling: Everything is negotiable here, and—especially in the street markets or touristy shops—you will often get ripped off if you don’t haggle a bit. One traveler wisely advised that the initial, suggested price is probably about forty percent higher than it should be—and that our counteroffer should be roughly sixty percent less (with the aim of eventually getting it for forty percent less). It all gets a bit tedious and makes you (often unreasonably) suspicious of all prices you see.
Anyway, Hoi An and Hanoi are extremely different cities with a completely different vibe and charm, but we enjoyed them both very much. We'll post a link to our pictures once we get them all up on Flickr.
Up next, we head out on a three-day boat trip through scenic Halong Bay. More soon...