My train from Sa Pa was faster than I like–arriving in Hanoi at 4am. I stumbled out of the train half asleep and sat on the dark corner outside the station until daybreak. The moto drivers were very confused by me but I didn?t want to speed off on a motorcycle in the dark when I didn?t know where I was going just to find myself in front of a hotel that wasn?t open.
I spent the day walking around town, getting my bearings and waiting for my cousin to arrive from Chicago. I still couldn?t believe that he was actually coming to Vietnam. Many people have told me that they?d travel with me in the past but not one has ever come through on their offer. Once he arrived we set out a plan for the two weeks he?d be in Vietnam. With so little time we didn?t have a day to spare thinking about when where we?d like to go next. It was hard for me to understand how much of a culture shock it must have been for him to wake up that first morning and be lead right into the path of hundreds of motorbikes. I had obviously become very accustomed to Asian culture by then and gave no thought to walking into oncoming traffic.
Surprisingly, Vietnam was a bit of a shock for me after spending 1.5 months in China. Signs were in English, local people smiled at you and the tourist industry had everything laid out for you. Although most people would be pleased, I was very upset about the ease of our travels. Within my cousin?s first hour of walking around Hanoi we?d secured a tour to Halong Bay and plane tickets to Hue. It was just as simple as giving someone your money, and a lot of money at that. I had heard countless times that China was much more expensive than SE Asia but I found Vietnam to be much more expensive because of the way everything for tourists is so rigidly structured. My cousin was not up for staying in the cheapest hotel rooms but the cheapest rooms in Vietnam were still twice as expensive as in China.
Hanoi turned out to be a jungle of motorbikes and small, tangled streets. Most of the streets in the old quarter are named after the goods sold there. One street may have only shoes shops and another tombstones. This system is ideal for the consumer because they can browse between shops without walking all over town. The early morning was a great time for a walk around the lake. At 7am the sidewalks are filled with elderly people playing badminton, practicing fan dancing, lifting weights or exercising. We didn?t see too many ?sites? but I did enjoy the museums, especially the women?s museum which displayed traditional costumes and the prison nickname ?the Hanoi Hilton? where American pilots were held during the war.
In the middle of our stay up north we took a 2-day trip to Halong Bay. Sailing around the oddly-shaped islands was beautiful but there was nothing our guide could say to get me to jump off the boat in the middle of that dark water. I don?t have much to say about the area but it is really beautiful so you should take a look at the photos in the gallery if you want to get a feel for the place.