A short $100 hop away from Bangkok. Reason to go? Coffee.
No really, I’ve been drinking this powered candy in Thailand that tastes like what coffee companies would make for kids if they wanted to get them interested early. Like those packs of gum that look like cigarettes. The complete look of a frothy cappuccino without the real punch. A piece of me dies each time I drink it.
Arriving to Hanoi airport around 9am, I order an uber and go to Old Town. The driver drops me off in the center of the city. Chaos. Frogger on Crack.
Crossing myself, I take a deep breath and go for it. I’m sure if I crossed a busy street like this in America without a cross walk someone would run me over. Over here, all the drivers seem to be on alert and slow down. After this crossing, everything else seems rather easy.
Like a speakeasy, the coffee shop is hidden in an alleyway behind some tailor. Once inside, the space opens up and you feel like you are inside, but outside at the same time. There’s a garden in the center of the house and the rooftop is open. A woman greets me and I already know what to order- “Ca phe sua da”. I walk up three or four flights of winding stairs to reach a beautiful roof top deck with a view of the lake. The first sip of caffeine gives me a new life.
Shortly after my relaxing coffee, I go to meet up with my couchsurfing host- Quynh. Vietnam is very affordable, so I didn’t need to really crash on someone’s couch, it was a means for me to make friends with locals. Sometimes traveling solo can be a bit lonely. Quynh recently got married and quit her job to start her own private tour company. Funny weekend. She told me she has to file a lot of paperwork to get the government to give her approval for her business. So for now she’s practicing with couchsurfing.
She takes me on her motorbike to Dai Kim and we eat Bun Cha. The meal was $1. Next, we go to Old Town. I walk about 6 miles wondering the streets in a mix of fake north face bags, nike gear, Hanoi shirts and souvenirs. Half way between my walk I decide to book at tour to Halong Bay for $30. My negotiation skills are pretty bad. Quynh stated that she pays 500,000 dong as a local, but I should expect to pay 700,000 dong. Later on the boat, I find out that everyone else paid 600,00 dong. Not that big of difference but still. American fail. A
After Old town, we go to another coffee and get the famed” egg coffee” fantastic.
Halong Bay Tour for $30 – Is it worth it?
Halong Bay is about 3-4 hours bus ride away. As soon as I get on the bus, I’ve realized I booked the wrong tour. I sit in the back by the backpacking Brazilians. One of them has their flip flop off and their black dirty food dangling off his knee. Its constantly in the corner of my eye.
On the tour boat, I meet 2 Polish gay guys, 2 Koreans, and a Bosnian. We eat lunch together. We form a bond together when the guide tells me that my tour didn’t include a kayak tour because I didn’t pay extra. Everyone starts complaining for me. I simply tell him, I paid 100,000 dong extra than everyone else. So why doesn’t it include it? He finally gives up and throws me a coupon for kayaking. Saying- oh fine. Then take it. I would have skipped it, but I’m thankful that my new friends were sticking up for me.
We sail around the bay and take a trip into these beautiful caves. Since I’m on this crappy tour- my guide says nothing. So really I have no idea why there are caves at Halong Bay. I can’t tell you anything about it. James Bond movie. Thats about it.
A few hours later we finish the trip and start the long journey back.
Free City Tour Guide in Hanoi
The next day I have a private free tour around the city. Khanh Nguyen Phuong, or “Katie” for short, picks me up at 9am. We zip over to Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and watch the changing of the guards. She tells me about the greatness of Ho Chi Minh and how he liberated Vietnam. I’m scared to ask her questions about communism and the conflict between the people that left versus people that stayed. Nowadays, I’m sure the dynamics have changed. You can see capitalism everywhere. I mean, just look at my Halong Bay Tour.
Next, we go the house where Obama stayed during his visit. This giant yellow French Mansion was supposed to be the “White House” but Ho Chi Minh dubbed it too fancy and stayed at the house down the way. The “Uncle Ho” house. The house he lived in is traditional Northern Vietnam style. Reminds me of some of the houses in Thailand. One thing Katie points out: All the clocks in his home are set to 9:47; the exact time he passed away.
At one point, Katie asks my age and gives the most shocked face response to me. I can’t tell whether she thinks I am younger, or if she is concerned to be so old traveling alone. I too would look in horror as an old maid traveling solo. I find out she’s only 22. She’s lived in the Hanoi area all her life and has never traveled abroad. She hasn’t even been to Halong Bay.
We go to a few more sites around the city: Temple of Literature and the Hoa Lo Prison. In the prison, there’s a section on USA POWs. The image and impression I got was that the time in these prison camps was filled with Christmas celebrations and men playing ping pong. All the the photos show Vietnamese helping John McCain and treating his broken bones. Katie called it the “Hanoi Hilton Prison.” Really. Her tour included a 5 minute talk about how well Americans were treated in prison. Despite the fact the next room showed men in shackles and solitary confinement rooms. Can someone say propaganda much?
Even though I didn’t agree with the politics, the tour itself was really informative and I enjoyed Katie’s young and dedicated spirit. She is a college graduate in Interpretation and told me about the lengthy process on getting the job as a free tour guide, Lots of tests and interviews. She’s a little shy- but at the same time- is quick to yell at solicitors to get out here. Just hanging out with her makes me wish I was 22 again.
I didn’t really go into depth about the food. But really. Its insane on how good the food is here. Most of the time I spent about $1 a meal. For lunch alone, I ordered 4 dishes and began stuffing myself like a little Fois Gras Duck. Must eat everything. Full of carbs, I felt accomplished and flew back to Bangkok.
Till next time Vietnam…