The fight to Hanoi, Vietnam from Boston took about 36 hours door to door. I flew Boston to Chicago, Chicago to Tokyo, and Tokyo to Hanoi. The Old Quarter, where we were staying, was about an hour ride from the airport. Random enough, I ran across a girl in my high school graduating class in the Tokyo airport and then again in Hanoi city. I also met up with my Canadian travel buddy Jose in the Tokyo airport but this part was planned.
The plan was to meet Jose, possibly meet up with my brother and sister in law in Vietnam, then 3 weeks later meet up with our girlfriends and an third couple once in Bangkok for another 2 weeks. Outside of that we had open schedules.
Once in Hanoi we stayed at a hostel called Hanoi Rocks. This hostel was $6 a night for a dorm bed and included breakfast (omelette and toast with coffee) and free beer from 6-7 pm each day as well as free wifi and bottled water. Not a bad deal!
Hanoi Rocks Hostel
We exchanged our money in the airport for Vietnamese Dong which was roughly 20,000 Dong = 1 USD. In the Lonely Planet, I read that we could catch a shuttle for round $3 USD to downtown or a taxi should cost us about $10-15.
Given our long, miserable flight we opted for the taxi. The first taxi we saw I asked for the price and he mumbled in some horrible English, “meter” so we jumped in.
Once arriving at the hostel, the meter read about 382,000 Dong when at most it should have been 300,000.
Being obviously unfamiliar with the money, we were taking a while and he became increasingly frustrated. He gestured for us to hand him our money (which I would not have done) but Jose unthinkingly handed him his stack of dong. Once the hustle and bustle was over, we realized that he took about 500k dong or $25 and that was our first experience being ripped off in Hanoi 🙂
The first night we absolutely passed out. I had been sick the whole plane ride and we were completely jet lagged (12 hour time difference).
Before arriving, I read in the Lonely Planet that Vietnam is relatively safe and has a rapidly growing economy. So I was surprised to find how poor the majority of the people are. Although very poor, I was told they have very strict consequences for crime which keeps people honest. Whereas other countries I have been to you can feel uncomfortable and worry about someone snatching your camera or belongings, I don’t feel that vibe here.
The city itself is pretty run down, exactly what you would expect from a third world country. What I noticed here more than other places I have been is that it seems this “wealth” from the “rapidly growing economy” is going to a select few people. I heard there are 60 million mopeds here- and out of those, I would guess there are about 50 mopeds for each car.
Out of the cars that are here, there is a noticeably high ratio of expensive cars- a lot of Porsches, Mercedes, Range Rovers, saw several Bentleys. To have a Bentley in a place where meals cost $1.50 and hotels cost $5 a night you have to be seriously balling. So my feeling is that the people here are either “in” on this exploding economy or “out”, resulting in a seriously large separation of wealth.
What else was immediately evident was the lack of traffic. Although there an insane amount of people driving on the roads, they are all on mopeds which take up very little space.
These people drive like absolute MANIACS. It feels like you can’t cross the road without getting run over by 5 mopeds, a bicycle, and a car. After crossing a couple times, however, you see that they are accustomed to this craziness and they won’t run you over. Well, none of us have been run over yet anyway.
The first night, we met up with my brother and sister in law at a local restaurant and walked around the city a bit.
They told us how they had gone up North already to Sapa (mountainous hiking area) and Ha Long Bay. They wanted to head South to Hoi An (small charming city) but this didn’t make much sense for us as we wanted to see the two places they had been before we headed South out of the Hanoi area.
So we ended up compromising and heading West on a day trip to Tam Dao national park. We were told it would be about 2 hours by moped.
Jose on his moped in Hanoi
We paid $10 a day for the mopeds but were ripped off and should have only spent about 6. The guy at our hostel led us out of the city as the city is an absolute maze and with the nonstop fast paced traffic makes it near impossible to navigate. We learned that one ways are 100% optional, with about 70% of the people following the one way rules. Stop lights also agree with this, you can stop at the stop lights- or not. Also are the directions on the highway. You can drive with the traffic on the highway, or directly against it- your choice. Lanes in the roadways are for driving. Or parking. Or selling lighters. Or transporting your ducks.
Passing trucks was downright scary, everyone constantly honking.
After a solid 2 hour ride we made it to Tam Dao. Luckily I had GPS on my phone and realized we were at the wrong place. We headed up a windy mountain road for 13 kms which was a blast until we ended up in the town of Tam Dao.
Here is where we lost my brother and Tessa, and we never found the entrance to the national park. But its about the journey not the destination, right?
We waited at the bottom of the road as it was the only way they could return and what do you know we met up with him an hour or so later.
The journey home was even more insane than the drive there. We were driving home at rush hour. We lost Daniel and Tessa to a flat tire we later found out. While they were on their own adventure dealing with their flat tire, we were attempting to navigate back to our hostel though all the winding streets, one ways, and chaotic traffic.
On the way into the city crossing a bridge I suddenly noticed we were the only mopeds on the bridge. Suddenly we go by a police stand they start yelling at us to pull over and tell us to go inside. They tell us we went the wrong way and we had to pay them 600,000 dong or they would keep our mopeds. I was afraid they would see my go pro on my helmet or confiscate my camera in my bag since we didn’t have the money. Luckily they settled for 80,000 dong or $4 and let us go 🙂
We were immediately thrown back in the chaos of millions of mopeds.
Google maps was still working on my phone in terms of finding our location. So every time we’d get redirected because of speeding by a turn or redirected from a wrong way or bribing a cop, we’d have to reference our GPS to find our location. I don’t know how we would have made it home without it. Jose was uselessly asking for directions each time we stopped when I was looking at my GPS. Between the language barrier and enormous city, directions were mostly futile.
It was an extreme adrenaline experience, it felt like a high speed Grand Theft Auto video game chase trying to avoid pedestrians mopeds trucks cars and the cops.