Venturing around Vietnam – part 1

Hello friends and family!

Greetings from Vietnam, where I’m spending three weeks before returning to real life (i.e. a job). Since my boyfriend is living in New Zealand now, we decided to meet “halfway” in Hanoi, which we determined was equally inconvenient for both of us. After two whole days of snowstorms, flight delays, missed connections, and a particularly uncomfortable overnight on a sofa in the Seoul airport, I made it Hanoi – jet-lagged, bone-tired, and deliriously happy to have escaped winter!

It is warm, cheap, and friendly here. The food is incredible – tons of pho, banh mi, fruit smoothies, and fresh spring rolls – and I’ve grown addicted to the super sweet coffee served with condensed milk. Since my arrival, I’ve spent time in the hustle and bustle of Hanoi, took an overnight boat tour of Ha Long Bay, and recuperated in the beautiful Ninh Binh region south of Hanoi. The latter two regions are studded with huge limestone mountains that are covered in verdant jungle foliage. The rocks are carved and eroded into beautiful shapes much like the Flowerpot Islands in Georgian Bay or Monument Valley of northern Arizona. Where I’m at now, I can walk along a river in the shade of these mountains, past flooded rice fields and pink lotus blossoms. Every so often there are small shrines set into limestone caves, with incense burning around a statue of Buddha and perhaps an offering of fresh fruit or boxed cookies.

A fishing village on Ha Long Bay

Still, it isn’t all fifty cent beers and ten dollar massages. The humidity has irritated my eczema to the point where I feel as though I’m wearing big itchy gloves. The air quality is so bad that I can stare directly at the sun without blinking, and every vista is viewed through a hazy veil of pollution. I discovered that I am prone to seasickness while whimpering pathetically on the floor of my ensuite washroom during the boat cruise, missing out on the seafood dinner and squid fishing. And it turns out that riding on the back of a motorbike, the most common form of transportation in Vietnam, gives me a low-grade panic attack! I simply do not have the fortitude to weave between dump trucks and tour busses and madmen on motorcycles, through lawless intersections and blind merges and potholes and goats and stray dogs. I’ll stick to walking, thank you.

Street food

I absolutely loved Hanoi, the sheer public nature of life there. The public squares and parks are jam-packed at all hours with kids ripping around on toybikes and old people salsa dancing and men gambling on card games and circles of people kicking around hacky sacks. Street food stalls set out tiny plastic stools for customers, and old men spend hours hunched on these stools drinking freshly brewed beer that is served in rather dirty glasses. What sidewalks exist are occupied by parked motorbikes, so pedestrians must spill into the streets to compete with traffic and couriers and merchants selling fried donuts and chopped fruit. I’ll admit, it took me a few days to gather the courage to cross the street without clutching Tyler’s hand in terror.

The street is the heart of the city. Everywhere there are women in traditional dress posing for photoshoots in front of temples, and small dogs darting across the road, and caged songbirds hung from balconies. All commerce and labour is carried out on the street: ladies chopping fish, men crouching over small forges, artisans cutting leather for motorbike seats, restaurateurs washing dishes in tubs of soapy water. I love how the streets are clustered into specialized retail, so you’ll have a street of party decoration stores and a street of jewellers and a street of funeral flower arrangements. It’s a pleasure to get somewhat lost in the chaos.

Market goods

In the old quarter of the city, you get a glimpse of people’s lives as you pass by storefronts and alleyways and open courtyards. Small rooms, modestly furnished, families sitting around hot pots on the floor. Their laundry is hung out to dry and their doors are open to whatever breeze exists. With so little privacy – the sort that we are so accustomed to in Canada, with our locked doors and gated yards and personal bedrooms – life in Hanoi is carried out in the cafes and beer parlours instead. That’s where teenaged couples sit over smoothies late into the evening, and grannies gossip and spit sunflower seeds from coffee shop curbs into the gutters. At night, the bars spill out into the road and drunk Vietnamese people sing off-key karaoke from their seats.

The nighttime bar scene

Vietnam is politically communist but it’s socially quite communal as well, to judge by the robust use of public spaces. People actually use public parks as playgrounds and gymnasiums and beer halls and karaoke lounges and dance studios. It’s nice to see such an al fresco lifestyle in comparison to the indoor drudgery of Canadian winter. I’m excited to visit a few more cities in Central Vietnam and see how they compare with Hanoi, so stay tuned for more updates!

One thought on “Venturing around Vietnam – part 1

  1. What a nice way to wake up in the morning Jenny and read your newsy blog. Always a pleasure sharing in your travels. Keep enjoying! xo


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