(a.k.a. the sweatiest, smelliest, craziest month yet)
Hanoi is the capital city of Vietnam and has a population around 8 million, according to the latest numbers. It’s sometimes dubbed the “Paris of the East,” due to the French influences (though I think that is MUCH TOO generous).
One of the first things we asked as a group was what the locals thought about Americans. Without hesitation we were told there was no animosity about the war and they were incredibly welcoming to Americans. Out city team manager said, very matter-of-factly, that they won the war so there were no hard feelings. I also did some research and found that as a culture they very much were able to separate the war from the people (i.e. that war was our governments’ doing and it is in the past. You and I were not involved in it, so you and I have no issues). My experience reflected this – while I didn’t have a lot of taxi drivers chatting me up, I attribute this more to the language barrier than anything else. Locals who did interact with me were kind, hospitable, and friendly time and time again.
I really struggled the first 24 hours or so. I expected Asia to be tough, but that first day or two I was having a hard time finding anything positive about Hanoi. It was OPPRESSIVELY hot and humid, my apartment had all of the electricity turned off when I arrived so it took forever to get cool, and I hadn’t slept in about a week so I was insanely exhausted and overwhelmed. To top it off, I had crazy amounts of ants invading my apartment.
Vietnam was for sure the most culture-shocked I have been to date (and I want to remind you, this wasn’t my first foray outside of the country, or even in Asia). It was just overwhelming – the heat is like nothing you’ve ever experienced, and the smells around town are magnified by the heat. And it just sort of feels like NOTHING is the same there – crossing the street is an event requiring training, driving seems to have no rules, and the sanitation laws seemingly non-existent. Not to mention the language is so drastically different from English.
Fun fact: when we arrived, we had to be taught how to cross the street. Driving in Vietnam is like nothing you’ve ever seen before, and if you follow the rules you think you know back home, you may never get across the street. Here’s how to cross the street:
- The general rule of thumb is that motorbikes defer to cars, and everyone defers to busses.
- This means you don’t cross in front of busses (always give them the right of way), and you should use caution when crossing in front of cars. It’s ok to step in front of motorbikes though, they will defer to you.
- Once the busses and cars have passed, go ahead and take a step into the street. Yes, even if a sea of motorbikes are coming your way. They will navigate around you.
- Maintain a steady pace while crossing the street – do not hesitate or stop.
- That’s it! Crossing the street in Vietnam is about confidence and predictability – cross with confidence, and keep your movements predictable, and you’ll be fine.
Hanoi did start to grow on me in the first week or so. The humidity really never got any more bearable, but I did find a lot of good food and great coffee (what I’d eat in Asia was something I had been more than a little concerned about before leaving on RY). Everything is so cheap in Vietnam that I felt rich (and I was, by local standards). I also really enjoyed, for the most part at least, my work schedule. Mind you, I definitely cursed it every morning, and especially Friday nights/Saturday mornings, around 2am when I finally finished for the day – but having daytime flexibility was REALLY NICE. I didn’t feel like I was having to choose between RY and work as often as I did in previous months, and even being gone A TON this month I still felt like I had seen Hanoi because I had daytimes free to explore and play tourist. I found a great chiropractor (from my parents’ current town of Loveland, Colorado!), a fantastic nail place, and had a few amazing (and incredibly cheap) massages. Plus, my apartment gets cleaned every week. I could get used to this.
I felt like I was gone a TON at the beginning of the month – we rented the 4th of July house for 2 nights, then I was in Halong Bay for the weekend, then I went to Hoi An and Da Nang for a few days the following week. It was too much, really. And yet, despite feeling like I was gone A LOT, my work schedule meant I still had time during the days to explore, so I felt like I actually got to explore quite a bit of Hanoi too.
Despite my initial meltdown, I ended up enjoying Vietnam a lot more than I expected to, and I think I could have even “liked” it had we not been here at the height of summer. Despite my concerns, I found plenty of Western food, and even found a few Vietnamese dishes I enjoyed (I’ll REALLY miss Vietnamese coffee and I got hooked on Boba Tea!). Our city team – Trang – was really great too. (I can’t overstate how important the city team is – they really make or break your experience of a city, and Trang is a great example of a phenomenal city team member).
However, I was definitely ready to leave by the start of week 4. I found Vietnam overwhelming for a lot reasons: the heat, the noise, the smells, the drivers, the food, and the language. While I don’t foresee myself coming back to Vietnam anytime soon (and I certainly don’t have dreams of living here), there are other places in Vietnam I could explore (Hue, HCMC, and I wished we could have seen the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, which was under maintenance for the summer). I look back on this month with mostly fond recollections of it.
- Pho 10 (beef pho)
- Gong Cha (taro boba tea smoothie is LIFE)
- Namaste (Indian)
- Pizza 4P’s – they had this mashed potato appetizer to die for, and some of the best pizza I’ve ever had
- Tannin Wine Bar – this place is owned by a Frenchman (so you know he has good taste in wine!). It had AC, nice décor, delicious meats and cheeses, and really good wine.
- Omamori Spa (blind massages)
- Sushi 24 (katsu)
- L’s place – a small grocery store carrying a number of Western brands
- Chestnut restaurant – really amazing cocktails, buy 2 get 1 free on happy hour
- Nail Kitchen – great nail salon
- American Chiropractic Clinic – English speaking chiropractor
- egg coffee, Vietnamese coffee, coconut coffee, all the coffee
- Hanoi Backstreet Tours – this is a great way to see the city (and some lesser known parts too!). Highly recommend the vintage motorbike tour.
Things I won’t miss about Hanoi:
- the smells: incense, BO, trash, fish … Hanoi was an assault on my nose, especially in the muggy summer weather
- rude drivers: sidewalks are often taken over by motorbikes or makeshift tables/chairs, so walking in the street is the norm. I can’t tell you how many times I was nearly hit by a car who drove to close to me walking in the gutter.
- the weather: ok, this isn’t likely to be much better the rest of Asia, but I won’t miss it all the same. This was literally the hottest, most humid weather I can recall ever being in. What makes it especially unbearable is how tough it is to find “real AC” – I just felt like I could never get cool all month outside of my apartment (which did get nice and cool!).
- the damn gate / padlock to enter or exit the apartment building – sticking my hands through tiny gaps between metal bars in order to insert a key into a padlock everytime I wanted to come or go was not fun.
What Hanoi lacked:
- decent wine (at decent prices): even cheap wines were extremely expensive, and wine was hard to come by. I found a great wine bar, but I never bought a single bottle to consume at home.
- a toaster or an oven
- copious amounts of AC: in AZ, the summer’s aren’t THAT bad because everywhere you go blasts their AC: your home, your car, your office, the local coffee shop, every restaurant, etc. In Hanoi, many places have no AC, and the ones that do have a wall unit that rarely keeps up
Sidetrips from Hanoi:
- Halong Bay – known for its emerald waters and thousands of towering limestone islands topped by rainforests. We took an overnight luxury cruise.
- Hoi An – this is a city on the central coast of Vietnam, known for it’s well preserved Ancient Town. It is a charming town, with cute architectures and some nice beaches. It’s also very well known for its incredible tailors – you can have anything you’d like custom-made for you, often in 24-28 hours.
- Danang – the city you’ll fly into to reach Hoi An and the Golden Bridge, this has beaches, an amusement park, and several nice restaurants.
- Golden Bridge – This bridge went viral after it opened in 2018. The bridge’s principle architect, Vu Viet Anh, has said that the goal of the design was to “invoke the sensation of walking along a thread stretching through the hands of God.” It can be accessed via taxi about an hour outside of Danang. The bridge is actually inside of an amusement park (Sun World Bà Nà Hills). If you go, definitely go as soon as the park opens – it gets incredibly busy by 9 or 10am.