My path to Vietnam took me through Hong Kong. I was supposed to arrive early in the morning and have a day to explore Hong Kong before catching a late afternoon flight to Ha Noi. Instead, my flight from Auckland was delayed over eight hours and I had an airline escort through the Hong Kong airport so that I caught my connecting flight. I did. My luggage did not.
I arrived at the Auckland airport seven hours before my midnight flight because, I had nowhere else to go. When I checked in they informed me that my flight was delayed until 6:45am. However they provided a hotel room and dinner for the night so after sleeping in dorm rooms for the past 48 days, it was what I imagine a spa day must be like. The 3:10am wake up call was not so nice (did I mention the whole get a job so that I can sleep in again thing?). Eventually after a few more delays and 18 hours of travel, I arrived in Ha Noi.
The first thing I did after clearing customs was go to an ATM. I was able to take out any amount up to 4,000,000 (must say million with the pinky tip near the side of the lips). I knew the Vietnamese currency (called the dong, he-he) was 21,000 to $1 but to see it at work was still a little interesting. I decided to become a millionaire and took out 1,000,000 dong. With that I quickly paid 20,000 for a diet Pepsi and water and 40,000 for a 1 hour mini bus ride to my hostel. It was during the ride that I did the calculations to realize that the huge 1,000,000 withdrawal was actually not even $50. And that approximate $50 would last me 4 days.
Ha Noi is strange in that it is a well known city by name world-wide however after being there I am not sure why. There’s a lot of people but only a handful of buildings taller than a 3 or 4 stories and there doesn’t seem to be any commerce beyond day-to-day survival. It was an interesting town to see, and more so a challenge to cross the streets (see the video on the pictures page), but certainly not what I was expecting.
From Ha Noi I went (with baggage) to Halong Bay which is a national park/tourist requirement that consists of almost 2,000 limestone karst islands. I did an overnight cruise with 20,000 of my closest friends. There were just 16 on our boat but the whole area was filled with hundreds of tourist boats doing the same thing as us. At one point I could see a line of over 20 boats just cruising the exact same line around the islands. While it cheapened the experience it is the only way to access it through Vietnam’s attempt to control the crowds and protect the landscape, so I guess that is good. As you can see from the pictures, we saw an amazing sunset.
After Halong Bay I headed up to a town named Sapa that saw snow the week prior for the first time in 5 years. One of the workers at the Ha Noi hostel told us not to go because of the cold. Us westerners explained smuggly that we came from places with cold weather and it’s nothing we weren’t used to. Well…we weren’t used to it. The town doesn’t have a single heated building. I stayed at a hostel that at least had electric blankets but not all did. The day was spent cradling hot tea cups and dinner huddled around a table with a medal pan containing fire coals underneath it.
The point of going to Sapa was to do some trekking in the hills nearby and do a homestay with a tribal family. As this area is as touristy as Halong Bay, myself and a couple people from the Halong Bay trip hired a guide and homestay that took us off the beaten path as much as possible. During our first day hiking we barely encountered any westerners and our homestay was actually a family’s home, and not a hostel in the mountains. It included dinner with the family and plenty of consumption of their rice wine. Although we spent most of our time at the home huddled around the fire, it was a great experience.
After my 3 day winter camping experience in and around Sapa, I started my 20 hour bus ride to Laos. 34 hours later, I arrived. That story and more…in the next post.