During winter holidays in Korean schools, EPIK contracts allows 10 days of vacation in winter, and 8 in summer. Including weekends and the Lunar Holiday, I managed to spend 18 days abroad. Although I had ideas, the only plans I arranged before I left was a hostel booked for 2 nights in Hanoi. The other 16 days were wide open, thirsting for adventure.
First stop: I traveled alone to Hanoi, in the North of Vietnam, for my first 8 days.
In this blog post, I’ll start you off with an epic personal story, some trips I went on,
and some observations and advice for those wanting to travel to Hanoi one day.
Which you should.
Let’s start with a haiku.
Coffee and Banyans
Dirty air and lively greens
Hard working people
The weather was chilly, compared to the weather in the South of Vietnam. I only packed one pair of “pants” (lululemons, holla), a vest and rain jacket, so I wore those for 7 days straight.
Ahh, the beautiful aroma of backpacking.
In Hanoi I stayed in the old quarter, as one does, and it was hectic. I stayed in See You At Lily’s hostel, and it was fantastic. I only paid $6 a night. Check out their reviews, including mine, here.
In my first few hours of arriving, I walked around Hoan Kiem Lake solo, taking pictures and taking in the sights.
Two Vietnamese girls saw me and approached me, then in broken English told me they wanted to practice English because it’s very important to know English in Vietnam. I thought about my plans and laughed in my head: 없어 (none).
The girls looked innocent, although I had heard there was a lot of pick-pocketing in Vietnam. The movie Taken also flashed in my mind.
I sat down with them and waited to hear what they wanted to say, expecting them to want my money or something, but giving them the benefit of the doubt.
I noticed that when I sat down, they looked at each other surprised and excited. They exchanged “Holy smokes, we actually got one!” kind of looks.
They were sisters, both in university. They asked me a list of questions, practicing all the phrases they knew. Nga, 23 and Le, 21 were both from a small town outside of Hanoi, and Le was visiting Nga for the day. Nga wanted to be called Mushroom, as her English name. She said it’s because her hair is really soft, like the top of a mushroom. I tried not to laugh, and wondered whether I could ever actually look her in the face and call her Mushroom for real.
They asked if we could be facebook friends. I gave them my e-mail instead. They showed me phone pictures of all the foreigners they have met around the lake and the facebook conversations they’ve been having. Ahh so that’s what you do with your time.
I suddenly felt like the lake was a Poke Stop, and I was another Pokemon they caught on their smartphones. Especially after having taken some selfies together.
They bravely asked if I wanted to get ice cream.
Sarah, do you feel unsafe? No. Not yet.
Do you want to get ice cream in Vietnam with two local girls? What-the-hell-how-did-I-get-here-yes.
Again, they exchanged excited looks. We all got up and basically skipped our way around the lake.
Then a series of Vietnamese street snacking began, in which they refused to let me pay for anything.
First snack: an unknown fruit covered in spicy sugar.
After not one, but two consecutive “famous” ice creams they wanted me to try, we found my new favourite street snack. Bo Bia.
It’s like a thin crepe, with coconut, dried cane sugar pieces and black sesame seeds.
They showed me the funky things Vietnamese people were selling and I made sure to capture the gardens as well. Check out these dahlias!
Side note: My dad, although Canadian, fought in the war in Vietnam as an American soldier. Everything in Vietnam made me felt connected to him. He has an amazing green thumb, so when I saw the dahlias, I felt in my spirit that he had been there. (Wish you could’ve come with me Dad, but I know this country is a place you never want to see again.)
I agreed to meet the girls the next day for lunch and a movie.
That was the original plan anyway…
I think they were so excited that I agreed to meet again that they got a whole lot of people involved. This is what she entered into her phone when I gave her my Vietnam number:
She told me to meet her at 8am (lunch at 8am??!?) at a statue near the lake.
We had a hot date.
Full Day One in Vietnam. I woke up to a rooster.
I called my parents as I waited for Nga/Mushroom to come find me. I told them my plans for the day and assured them I was going to be careful, observant and send them my location if I were to go anywhere unexpected.
She found me and we hopped on a bus and went to her university. For the rest of the day I was officially entering the non-touristy areas of Hanoi, the places where people gawk when they see a foreign. At her university we casually picked up her motorbike and went to her aunt’s apartment to get her sister and friend Henry. Henry speaks English well.
You should know about Hanoi traffic if you don’t already. There are no rules.
Wait, no! There are rules… but maybe they’re not explicit? Basically motorbikes can go anywhere they want, lines don’t mean anything, and horns mean you’re going/turning. Watch this for a great example.
So there I am, on a back of a motorbike with a tiny human driving, and it is madness. We all had to wear masks as we drove because the pollution and dust were crazy. About an hour later (my poor hip flexors), we arrived at a “famous” ceramic village.
Not gonna lie, up until our arrival, I was freaking out.
Am I being kidnapped or am I NOT being kidnapped?
I had already assessed that I could beat all of them up if I needed to, based on my height alone. I had my cellphone close, in case I wanted to call the police?… or my mom?
Then we rolled up to a… ceramic village…where they insisted on letting me make actual pottery on a wheel and everything, which by the way is VERY hard.
Yeah nah, kindappers don’t take kidnappees to make pottery. I was fine.
Well not entirely. I couldn’t relax cause my pottery was so shitty.
(I am sad to tell you that neither my bowl nor mug made it out of Vietnam)
Yeah so, kidnappers don’t paint the kidnappees name on their own mug either…
These people wonderful people were treating me like a queen, and maybe worshipping me like one too.. and I had only known them one day.
Stop number two: an eco park!
By the way, that’s Nga’s scarf that she let me keep because she was afraid I’d be too cold.
After the park we travelled another hour to their parent’s house. I met their younger sis sister and ten year old brother. Their family runs a bakery out of their house, so we helped them with the work they had to do.
It should be noted that their bakery was named after their son, even though they had three older daughters. Boys are far more valued than girls in Vietnam.
Vietnamese families live in really tall and narrow houses. Property is expensive to own, especially near roadsides, so you build up instead of out. Their house had four floors.
We had homemade everything dinner, except the roast duck. We bought him or her from the market. I was told I was the first foreigner to ever go through that market.
I could tell.
I also saw my first boiled dog…
Moving on, we had fresh spring rolls, homemade bread, roast duck, pickled onions, tofu and corn on the cob. Incredible! Look at our family photo:
Luckily before I left on my trip I googled “Vietnam etiquette and culture” and learned some things about manners, not knowing I would actually have to use them.
Henry and I brought their parents a bag of guavas (feijoas for my Kiwi friends) as a gift, and I made sure never to touch the little brother’s head (the sacred part of the body, especially on children).
Everyone was chomping and smacking their lips and slurping during dinner, and I suddenly realized that I wasn’t! I joined in on the smackin in case they thought I wasn’t enjoying the food.
You know when you’re sitting on the floor with 7 other people in a Vietnamese home, eating spring rolls and you’re told to relax and eat more because you’re their guest?
Hahah… yeah no.
This doesn’t happen. Where was I??
Before I had time to digest, we jumped up and head out to the center of town, all 6 of us kids. There we decided to rent rollerblades, and no I wasn’t allowed to pay for myself.
Did I mention that none of us could rollerblade?
By Canadian standards, I cannot skate or rollerblade, but apparently by Vietnamese standards I can. I taught them how to stand up properly and Henry translated my instructions as I taught them to step and count. We held hands as we laughed until we almost cried when the pavement met our limbs.
We finished off the evening with fresh can sugar juice and of course I bailed 2 seconds before I made it to the finish line.
At home, I shared Nga’s bed and fell asleep immediately. In the morning I was awoken at 7am, with a little towel and toothbrush to get ready with. We walked over to a restaurant for fish soup (incredible) and I explained that if I didn’t have a cup of coffee I would die.
Just kidding, I told them I’d get a wicked headache and would turn into the Hulk. They explained that people generally drink coffee only at night in Vietnam, but we managed to find some. Did I pay? no.
Before we left I asked them to translate to their parents that I had felt so loved by them and their hospitality and that I would never forget them. Of course, even now, those words don’t feel like enough.
(Update: I have since sent them a box of Canadian maple almond chocolate and a thank you card)
The two hour ride back to Hanoi on the back of Nga’s motorbike was grueling. I didn’t have sunglasses so the wind and dirt was cruel to my eyes. I shielded my eyes with her scarf and rested them as we weaved and honked our way through traffic.
At one point, I realized I was closing my eyes on the back of a motorbike… driven by a girl I had only met yesterday… who spoke very little English.. in a completely foreign country… in the wildest traffic pattern I have ever encountered.
The amount of trust I had in her caused me to cry with happiness, unbelief and thankfulness. I thanked God for answering prayers on so many levels and smiled unashamedly.
We stopped to take pictures of the orange groves we were passing. It was nearly Lunar New Year in Vietnam, the biggest holiday of the year. Vietnamese families buy these, blossoming peach trees, or pomelo trees, to put in their living rooms to celebrate.
We dropped off Henry, parked her bike at her uni and she accompanied on the bus once more to take me back to the lake. With me I had her scarf, a bag full of fresh bread, and more than my share of guavas. We said our sad goodbyes and she invited me to her wedding in the future. I accepted.
Their hospitality taught me amazing things about Vietnamese culture. Vietnamese people are kind, trustworthy, hard working and funny!
I asked to pay for things, thinking that it was very possible that I had more money than they(and believe me, I have no money), but they refused. They insisted they wanted me to love Vietnam, and this was their way of loving me.
And yet, I am so painfully aware that if my skin colour had been one shade darker, they may have never approached me near the lake. My privilege as a person born with white skin likely allowed me to enter into their home over others, a humbling and difficult realization.
The day with my Vietnamese friends completely contrasted the rest of the time I spent in Vietnam tourism world. There I was constantly being asked to buy something, and treated rudely when I said no. When I was alone, people cheated me out of food portions and deals. I wasn’t treated nicely or fairly, just as a foreigner with money. People asked me for tips after tours, and those were the only words they would speak to me in English. I wonder how many people leave Vietnam despising the people because they never get to experience true Vietnamese hospitality.
I feel like I experienced the real Vietnam, and for that I am forever grateful.
Ha Long Bay
When I think of Ha Long Bay, unfortunately I remember being very very sick on a boat for 2 days. Not seasick, but I-ate-something-bad-classic-southeastasia-sickness sick. However, Ha long Bay is that thing that EVERY tourist does. Huge karst limestone islands poking their pointy noses right out of a blue sea sounds pretty incredible to me. It was cheap for 2 nights on a boat, with meals and a tour guide. It’s no wonder everyone goes.
On my tour, it was rainy and people were whining but that’s the beauty of being an honourary Vancouverite, rain is normal!
We quickly learned that upkeep or maintenance really isn’t a thing on these Vietnamese boats. Hundreds of boats spew black smoke into the air; their paint peeling and their floorboards warping. On our boat, the crew was relatively friendly and the tour guide wasn’t bad. As mentioned previously, you learn quickly that being a tourist means you’ll be treated as less, unless you want to pay them to treat you well. I can’t be too upset, it’s not my country after all.
So we’re going through these beautiful places, and suddenly my stomach does not feel so good. I ate lunch, I ate a smoothie, I ate so many things… ruh roh
** If you don’t want to read about sickness, I suggest skipping onto the next section or only looking at the pretty pictures. If you want some entertainment, continue on.**
Puked once, as we were getting off the the boat to explore a massive cave, and was sure that would be the end of it.
Well no, I wasn’t sure… but I did feel better. So I let FOMO get the best of me and decided to go along. I nearly got left behind as the last person to board the smaller vessel, but I managed.
Once on land, I knew it wasn’t over. I looked at the stairs we had to climb to the cave and put on an overoptimistic face and trudged on, definitely in denial.
Luckily I had made a few friends in the previous hours, and they constantly asked if I was okay. The answer was definitely no.
When we got to this cave, the dizziness and sweat stage hit me. I had to sit down so I wouldn’t faint. I went on like this for 10 mins as everyone slowly puttered through the cave, checking out the stalagmites. Meanwhile, through blurred vision I was making an emergency plan. I needed to find my own personal cave.
I scoped out a small accessible cave and made a mental note of it’s location.
Suddenly the world really started spinning. I was cold but sweating so much, my body was so hot and my belly was cramping. Cold pins and needles filled my limbs so it felt like I had rubbed A535 all over them. I couldn’t stand up or open my eyes but it was time to make my way to the bat cave.
I stumbled past a British couple I knew was on our cruise and I knew they could see I wasn’t okay. All I could say to them was, “I’m going to shit my pants!” as I swaggered past them, praying not to fall.
Hey, someone needed to know where I was going, in case I died in my cave within a cave. It wasn’t polite, but there’s also nothing polite about what some poor Vietnamese spelunkers will find in my emergency cave one day… hehehe
When I crawled out of my cave, literally, I couldn’t stand up straight without the world spinning. Luckily my friends, now my medical team, were there to help me. Someone took each arm and we slowly made our way up the steps. When we got to the top, I sat down as a third wave of dizziness hit. I reckon I sat on a storekeepers shelf or something, because he started yelling multiple times “get off! get off!” My team yelled back at him that I was sick and he yelled at them that I should buy a t-shirt. I briefly c0nsidered how mean he was but was already on my feet making my way to the side of the stairs. The side of the mountain will now never be the same, as I emptied the contents of my stomach, and what felt like my organs and leg innards, all over it.
My friends, who came from all the Commonwealth countries, except New Zealand, waited patiently and eventually helped me back down to this view:
Let’s fast forward, shall we.
I made it back onto the boat, vomited some more, shivered for 2 hours, drank ginger tea from a Russian speaking Vietnamese lady, slept lots, and woke up the next day alive. I couldn’t digest anything properly for the next week, but I survived!!
Here’s the view from the boat’s window.
I had a very unique experience in Ha Long Bay. I reckon yours will be better, so please make a point of visiting. Each tour is different, but our boat also went kayaking, a pearl farm tour, spring roll making and if it was sunny we could’ve jumped off the boat.
Next was a day tour to a cave pagoda, 2.5 hours away from Hanoi by bus. When we arrived, women came to pick us up in 6 person boats. We rowed through fog for an hour, and enjoyed the scenery and the silence.
Scenes like this floored me. These beautiful mountains and luscious green farms were what I expected of Northern Vietnam.
Everywhere I went in Vietnam, I saw offerings. Always flowers and fruit, sometimes choco pies, chips and cookies, and sometimes incense and candles. People worship their ancestors, but many people are Buddhist as well.
When we arrived on land again, we had the option to hike or take gondola. Obvs chose the hike, despite the sprinkling rain.
The place was a ghost town because people were preparing their shops for Tet, or the Lunar New Year. Next week, hundreds of thousands of people would be crawling up the mountain to go to the pagoda. Here they give thanks for their year to Lady Buddha, as our guide described. They can also pray for children to be born to them by touching certain stalagmites for male or female. And there’s a dripping water source they can run over their heads for good health.
The picture with the green bags depicts a woman with many squirrel type animals in bags. She caught them for the purpose of selling them to Buddhists that want to release them, as either offerings or because they want no harm to come to animals, I’m not sure. The little guys had the skinned peeled off their noses from trying to escape. It was really sad. The Buddhist Vietnamese girl I met told me that if we bought one and let it free, they’d probably just catch it tomorrow.
Imagine hundreds of thousands of people. You can see the guys on the stairs were putting in a hand rail for when the crowds need an in and out direction.
On the way back down the river, we heard familiar music being played from a riverside restaurant, the only one for about a kilometer. It was playing Billie Jean. We were in the middle of nowhere on some river in Vietnam listening to Michael Jackson. If that’s not random enough, suddenly around the corner comes a boat load of ostriches.
Perfume Pagoda is 100% worth seeing, in whatever weather. It is peaceful and a really interesting aspect of Vietnam’s religious sector.
Hoa Lu/ Ninh Binh
This day tour included more than just a river trek. We took a bus for 2 hours to the temple where the first and second king of Vietnam originally lived. Then we drove a bit more so we could go on a bike ride on our own around the area for an hour.
I made an amazing friend, Lea from Berlin, on this trip. She just finished studying abroad in Bangkok and was on her way to Seoul. I gave her advice on Korea, and she gave me some on Thailand. We discussed our passions, and she let me practice my French with her for a couple of hours.
I became known as the snack queen because I kept buying snacks and sharing them with the whole group. I made everyone wait for me as I waited for a lady to make me a banana pancake that I shared. Worth it.
Lastly, we were taken down a river, between massive karst mountains and even in some caves.
It was absolutely incredible.
I caught a picture of a bright blue kingfisher, one that my hostel host had only seen twice before.
Again, Ninh Binh is an option in almost every tour agency and is 100% worth seeing, and super affordable. Lunch, bikes, and boat rides were included for maybe around $30 CDN.
Here are some of my observations and advice from my week in Northern Vietnam.
- Not including flight costs, I spent less than $300 USD on tours, food, accommodation and fun. I never limited myself in order to save money. Vietnam is not just affordable, it’s cheap.
- Vietnam is very safe for women traveling alone. I met people easily and tours are solo traveler friendly.
- Don’t book tours online or in advance – walk into a tour agency and they’ll hook you up in person. You’ll save money.
– first culture shock: seeing so many other foreigners (I hadn’t seen white people in so long)
– second, more exciting, culture shock: banyan trees!
– Pollution in Hanoi is gnarly
– people sit on tiny stools and tiny tables outside
– prominent food flavours: fish sauce, cilantro, lime
– only women wear the cone shaped straw hats
– Foreign person = money. In tourist areas, that’s all you’ll be treated as
– Vietnamese is a tonal language, with formal and informal language like Korean
-every hostel serves breakfast, usually consisting of eggs and toast
– Vietnamese people eat fish soup for breakfast
– Mini pagodas with offerings are placed in every restaurant, shop and home
-Vietnamese coffee is freaking delicious, but very caffeinated, be careful
-For the most private and incredible cafe I have ever been to in my LIFE (open roof, 4 stories, birds in cages, tropical plants, view of the lake) go to Cafe Pho Co.
– Cafe Pho Co also has the best egg coffee
– You actually see the faces of the animals you’re eating in Vietnam (dead chickens, pigs, ducks, dogs)
– You don’t wait for traffic to stop, you just walk and they drive around you
– DO NOT visit Vietnam during the Lunar New Year if you want to see anything. Everything is closed for sometimes a couple of weeks
– Don’t be surprised when you see the communist flag flying everywhere in Northern Vietnam. Ho chi Minh’s face is on everything
– Try Bia Hoi – beer made in someone’s house and usually drunk by locals. Get there quickly, they run out fast.
-It’s also really important to note that this is Vietnam. There’s nothing upper class about it. There will be squat toilets, rats, stray dogs, bad bus drivers, smoking everywhere etc. That’s the beauty of it.After Vietnam I headed to Southern Thailand, stay tuned for the upcoming pictures and stories.
Thanks for reading!
Leave a comment if you enjoyed reading this or have any questions.