First impressions of Vietnam

You’re going to have to wait for the ranty post about the horrors of the Oxford system, because I’ve somehow ended up halfway across the world and am consequently far too busy having fun to think about all that right now. I’m (almost) disappointed to say that there have been very few entertainingly disastrous moments to date; but never fear, I’m sure plenty will be around the corner… Here are some of my thoughts so far, based on our first almost-week, and written in chunks as I’ve flitted from one hostel computer to the next. 

UPDATE: I’m finishing this off on a borrowed laptop and speed-uploading photos based on their thumbnails, so it’s a bit late and a bit unedited! Properly-selected pictures will be at your disposal at an indeterminate point in the future.

The Flight

We booked with Aeroflot (Russian airlines) because it was cheap the best option based on our extensive research, and were warned by a family friend very shortly before departure that their planes “take off trailing a cloud of black smoke”. Undeterred – or at least, not deterred enough to waste several hundred pounds’ worth of carbon footprint – we hopped on the plane anyway, with our minimal baggage; 8.6kg in my case, which I’m unjustifiably proud of.P1020793[1]

The hell of a 16(ish)-hour journey, surrounded by screaming babies, was mitigated by copious plane food, which I genuinely find exciting because you never know what you’re going to get flavour and texture-wise (aside from the certainty that it won’t taste of whatever it’s advertised as). Here are some examples of the culinary delights on offer:

Dinner

  • suspicious chicken with rubber carrots
  • “refreshing towel”
  • plasticine/brick-like bread
  • “taste of health” (which vaguely, but not entirely, resembled a cereal bar)
  • tuna salad. This was surprisingly normal-tasting.

Breakfast

  • tea with lemon AND milk
  • a so-called “pancake” with some kind of apple/nectarine puree. I struggled with this.
  • another plasticine-brick-bread
  • an unidentifiable sweet foodstuff in a whitish wrapper
Nom.

Nom.

I watched two films: The secret life of Walter Mitty, and Jupiter Ascending. I’d been warned that the latter was very strange, and I watched it in a state of sleep-prived delirium, which left me only with vague memories of flying shoes and a lot of bees.

The roads

The bus to the city from the airport was, as predicted, a terrifying death-slalom, with driving so reckless that it took me an alarmingly long time to work out which side of the road people were officially supposed to drive on (the right or, for mopeds, the hard shoulder/pavement). Things move more slowly in the city centre, but the constant barrage of motorcycles and cars that pay no attention to pedestrians, crossings and each another is intimidating. The only way to cross seems to be to walk out slowly and pray that they see you. I’m still struggling with roads in general, which makes this the biggest challenge of the trip, especially as we’re probably going to be travelling by bus at least some of the time. However, I’m gritting my teeth and getting on with life regardless, despite drawing a few laughs from taxi drivers when I – shock horror – actually do up my seatbelt.

Parking is equally haphazard, with rows of motorcycles blocking the bits of the pavement that aren’t already occupied by street restaurants. This combination renders the pavement entirely pointless as far as its designated role goes, but very multifunctional otherwise.

The sights

We arrived in Hanoi on Tuesday, and almost immediately departed again for an unjustifiably luxurious cruise of Halong Bay, with APT travel (for those thinking of going with them, they were broadly very good and our guide was lovely, but we’ve heard mixed things from other travellers). This involved a two-night stay on one of the 700 tourist boats that circulate in the area, in our case a surprisingly old-fashioned and nice wooden one, and included all meals, although we had to buy all drinks, including water, from the overpriced boat bar.

Halong bay is, unerstandably, extremely touristy, and the tranquility of sitting under the stars on the ‘sun/moon-deck’ was a little marred by our numerous neighbours, most of which were subjecting their passengers to karaoke. Our itinerary included swimming on a very crowded beach, climbing one of the limestone karsts for a spectacular view, going in a huge cave whose name I might insert here when I find out what it was, visiting a pearl farm, and kayaking through caves and around islands. This last was very enjoyable despite some extreme sunburn and the canoes being unbelievably clunky and uncomfortable, but my favourite part was relaxing on the big boat and travelling to and from the further reaches of the bay; there was time to read, soak in the scenery, do some drawings and watch both sunrise and sunset.

P1020820[1] P1020920[1]

As for Hanoi, my main impressions from our two brief sojourns here have been ‘hot’ and ‘bustling’. There are incredible numbers of tiny shops, most of which sell many incarnations of a single thing, and some frankly incredible electrical wiring (below)

P1020800[1]

Health and safety is clearly just not a thing here, and most of the buildings seem to be held up by a combination of rusty tin, thin air and hope; many of them are leaning at very strange angles and covered in a thick layer of grime, probably from the heavy traffic as much as anything. There’s a surreal mixture of technologies all around – we drove past a man who ứas listening to his iPod whilst turning an entire pig on a stick.

Aside from wandering bemusedly around Hanoi, we’ve been to the Temple of LIterature, a large, well-preserved pagoda with unexplained piles of cheese crackers on all the altars, and the Fine arts museum, which had not only artworks ranging from the beautiful to the hilarious, but, more importantly, the great virtue of being air conditioned.

In the Fine Art Museum - This statue is clearly having a brilliant time picking his ears.

In the Fine Art Museum – This statue is clearly having a brilliant time picking his ears.

P1020999[1] P1020993[1]We rounded off our last day here by sitting in a quirky cafe called Bar Betta (found in the guidebook, quite americanised and priced accordingly) for several hours, and accidentally got drawn into the TV screen, which was showing when Harry met Sally on repeat. We ended up watching it one and a half times with both Vietnamese and English subtitles, in the latter of which half the ‘t’s had been replaced by ‘f’s. This was unintentionally hilarious, and included reinterpretations such as the song lyrics: “po-fa-fo, po-fah-fo, to-may-to, to-ma-to, lef’s call the whole fhing off”

The food

We’ve been pretty much sticking to our resolution to eat what the locals do, and avoided western food whenever we could (a notable exception being breakfast on the boat, which consisted of some unpleasantly sugary bread and a fried egg which, according to a fellow passenger, consisted mostly of MSG). This has broadly been a great success; you’ll probably be hearing a lot more about food in the blogs to come, as it’s definitely going to be a highlight, so I’ll save the adulation for later.

There have, of course, been one or two hairy moments – fortunately not literally – in our gastronomical experiences so far. While neither of us has come down with anything terrible, nothing makes you feel a) huge and b) ridiculous like sitting on a teeny tiny chair on the street, while ten or so people half your size watch you clumsily eating soup with chopsticks. The laughter, I think/hope, is generally good natured.

Our ignorance was beautifully exemplified on the first day, when we tried to buy what we thought was some bread, pointing to a large, round, cake-like object and trying to haggle the vendor down from what seemed like an exorbitant price of a few quid. When we finally left with our purchase, it transpired that it was actually a dense chunk of gristly, reformed imeat, explaining both the cost and the stallholder’s astonishment that we wanted a large one. Sadly, most of it made its way into the bin.

Another example; tonight (or the other day, by the time I finish this post), we went to a street cafe full of Vietnamese people (generally a good bet for finding cheap and authentic food) and found, once we had sat down, that it served exclusively dishes revolving around eel. It took some steely determination, but we got through the best part of our eel-meal, largely through the expedient of trying very hard not to think about eels.

Eels :(

Eels 😦

The shopping

On the subject of being an exceptionally uninformed consumer, we have of course been overcharged by one or two street vendors, but as far as I know none of these were too disastrously out of proportion. On our jetlagged first day we were charged way over the odds for some sunhats, and trapped into buying some stale donuts by an old woman with a big basket and a pushy sales technique, but the cumulative cost of these kinds of minor error is small and it seems churlish to quibble about a couple of pounds when we’re incredibly well-off compared to the people selling us stuff.

The huge number of Dong (yep, that’s what the currency’s called) to the pound means that everything seems incredibly expensive at first, but as a hundred pounds’ worth makes you a multimillionnaire, things work out pretty cheaply once you’ve converted it by dividing the price by 30000.This means relative decadence is easy to come by on a British student budget; we splashed out on a massage on the second day, and our first two nights were in the Old Centre Hotel, where for about $10 each we stayed in a large, air-conditioned ensuite with unlimited tea and coffee and free breakfast, and an unexplained free upgrade of our room. Nonetheless, we still plan on overcoming the temptation of cheap luxury and spending most of our time in $4 hostel dorms.

Abject luxury.

Abject luxury.

The weather

I’m British, so it’s in my nature to talk about this. To be fair, it’s been a major player in all our activities so far, largely because it doesn’t seem to do anything by halves. The most overwhelming thing is the heat, which alternates between the two main settings of “sauna” and “oven”. Today it was apparently 39 degrees, and we felt every one of them; we’ve been scurrying from one air-conditioned sanctuary to the next, staggered by the intensity with which the wall of heat hits you the second you step outside.

The rain is also extraordinary. There have been a few torrential cloudbursts, and in Hanoi we experienced the tail-end of a storm that had been wreaking havoc in Halong bay, and which made our first attempt to visit the Temple of Literature unsuccessful, as we sat for three hours in a bandstand-type shelter, watching the lightning crackle across dense, purple clouds, and waiting for the torrential rain to stop. It didn’t, so in the end we walked back through it in sunhats and plastic ponchos, which were about as effective as an umbrella in a swimming pool.

I could keep going on for longer, but I’ll save it for the next post, which may be in quite a long time, going by the fact that this one was written on the 24th june and is only just making it onto the internet! Apologies for any formatting problems, and watch this space for more in the next week or so 🙂 

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One thought on “First impressions of Vietnam

  1. Thankyou, Rowan….Really good to hear from you, and a brilliant blog. Good luck with it all. It must be an amazing experience. Take care, which may not be an appropriate or possible way of life for you both! Lots of love, Grandma xx

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