Right now I’m resting in a hammock suspended above a private beach in a sea of islands that many believe to be the most beautiful place on earth—other worldly, even.
But my mind is somewhere else… still coming down from the high of the best few days of this trip—perhaps of my life, in Hanoi.
When I arrived at Vientiane airport to board my flight to Vietnam, I recognized another American I’d briefly met at another hostel weeks earlier. He was traveling with an Australian and they both happened to be staying at the hostel I’d booked in Hanoi. We chatted on the flight and upon landing and waiting in the customs line, I started talking to another American, a girl who also happened to be staying at the same hostel. I figured it was destiny and we all grabbed a taxi together and stayed in the same dorm room.
It was everyone’s first time in Vietnam and while I’ve heard amazing things, I didn’t know just how different the culture would be. It was like landing in Bangkok all over again and getting my first glimpse of Asia, the chaos of the big city and everything foreign.
Hanoi appeared very modernized and well maintained during the 45 minute ride from the airport, but entering old quarter was a different story. It was village meets city with locals scattered in the streets, peeling vegetables and frying noodles and carrying baskets of produce in traditional straw hats. There were animals in cages, fish in shallow water getting sliced in half, live crabs ripped apart and chickens being killed within inches of us as we walked by.
My instinct was to cringe and look away but at the same time I was sucked into this new culture and wanted the full experience. I had to adapt fast as honking motorbikes and cars sped alongside pedestrians in every direction following no traffic laws whatsoever. There are entire families on one bike and people transporting everything from dogs to fish tanks strapped on the back. The streets of Vietnam makes Thailand’s roads look like well oiled machines.
We quickly learned to weave through the traffic on foot with just a few minor grazes of side mirrors. I was glad to have new friends to navigate this chaotic world with me, and also ended up running into others I’d met and traveled with for a while in Laos.
The first night ended two hours before sunrise, where I sat on the steps outside the hostel for hours in conversation with more new friends. I went to sleep with a happy and full heart, knowing my best memories were around the corner.
The next few days flew by as I lived each moment immersed in a new environment, surrounded by new people and experiences. I’ve found the best approach is to stand back and take it all in, letting things unfold on their own without trying to control or fight against it. Then make time to process everything so you learn from it and it changes you in some way without simply passing you by as a fleeting memory.
The old quarter of Hanoi is like a town all its own, with generations of Vietnamese untouched by time. We stayed in the heart of it and were lucky enough to walk through it every day, even though we were lost as soon as the hostel disappeared from view (even with GPS).
Outside of the quarter are stretches of river and empty land, industrial sections and modernized buildings, high end shopping centers and quiet scenic neighborhoods.
One afternoon was spent exploring one of the peaceful areas around a lake north of downtown. I hopped on a bike with a German and Brit and we lapped around West Lake, escaping the crowds and enjoying the silence. This part of the world is known for its coffee and nearly every other building was a cafe. We stopped at one floating over the bay and sipped avocado smoothies, passion fruit juice and the richest, most flavorful coffee you can imagine.
I made it to a couple museums but my favorite way to connect with a new culture is to experience it for myself, going beyond the typical tourist path.
One night a friend and I were out with a group of hostel mates and we ended up losing them in between bars. Everything closes early here (usually before midnight) and the streets become ghost towns, with just locals cooking and eating on the sidewalk, a few vendors selling liquor and cigarettes and many pitch black roads. We weren’t ready to call it a night so we stumbled upon a few Vietnamese guys who didn’t speak a word of English but they pulled up a garage door and pointed us up to a stairway inside. We walked into an empty bar, and they turned on the lights and sat down with us. After haggling them down on shisha (hookah for you Americans), we all sat around together drinking Hanoi beer and taking turns smoking.
We used Google translator to communicate and they kept asking to take pictures all night… which didn’t always come through clearly. And now I have a German keyboard on my computer as well…
We got to know them and became Facebook friends and laughed and joked all night. We were so grateful that they let us into their bar and their circle of friends, knowing this doesn’t just happen to anyone. This is what makes traveling special–not just observing another way of life but actually living it. It was one of the best memories of Hanoi and of my life.
Someone in our group had heard about a restaurant in Hanoi that serves snakes and was intent on going. Fair warning: skip to the bottom of this post if you have a weak stomach and/or are a vegetarian.
He explained that at this snake restaurant, you watch as they kill the snake then you eat it’s still-beating heart, drink the blood then they cook the meat and serve it. It sounded absolutely horrific. However… it’s part of their culture, and I promised myself I wouldn’t turn away from uncomfortable situations. I want to see and do it all. So a group of seven of us crammed into a 4 person taxi and were dropped off in an alleyway 20 minutes outside of town.
There was no one around except for a lady who appeared and motioned for us to step around the corner. We walked into a dimly lit atrium with a fluorescent bulb which cast an eerie yellow glow on jars of preserved snakes.
In the corner were cages, and the lady asked how many snakes we wanted to eat as she slipped on her gloves. I wanted no part of this process, so I stood back and took photos as the group decided on two snakes.
I won’t get into details of the killing as its a sensitive subject and I could barely watch, but afterwards the blood was drained, hearts removed and placed into shot glasses along with the livers.
We were directed into a room upstairs past more vials of snakes and liquor, and sat around a table. The building was many decades old with intricate moldings and pink plaster chipping walls. There was no air conditioning and we were all dripping with sweat, but it’s something we’re used to at this point.
The owner, a lively older man, brought out the shot glasses with beating hearts and livers and two of the guys took them down with homemade whiskey. The owner then mixed the blood into individual whiskey shots and we all recited a traditional Vietnamese Cheers and drank.
The woman brought up our first course of ground snake patties which tasted like sausage, followed by snake spring rolls and ground snake with veggies and other courses I can’t even recall at this point. It was all surprisingly tasty, and we cleaned our plates while the old man poured shot after shot of whiskey with fermented snake parts.
After dinner we sat down in the lobby and were served dessert, tea and fresh fruit while we learned about the man’s life and family and told him about ourselves. He would have been happy for us stay as long as we wanted but after two hours, we thanked him for his generosity and headed back into town. It was something none of us could ever experience back home—an unforgettable night for everyone.
As an animal lover it can be a tough culture to accept. No one thinks twice about taking their lives and they do it out in the open for all to see. We walked past a dead dog that had been cut into pieces and smoked—its head still fully intact. A local explained that most people there do still eat dog, though it’s more prominent outside of the cities and they even have dog restaurants. It’s the same way in many parts of Asia.
On one late night out we walked by a van unloading some sort of giant carcass onto the street and throwing meat around. How I’ve managed to never get food poisoning, I don’t know.
When walking around one day, I was craving fruit and saw an interesting looking type I’d seen everywhere but never tried. I bought one off a vendor and attempted to ask her if I could just eat it or if it had to be peeled. She spoke no English and smiled and nodded when I motioned biting into it so I figured I was good to go. I continued walking and bit into a tough, thick bitter skin before other vendors on the street noticed me and began yelling and laughing, waving at me to stop and holding their hands together while moving them up and down in a cutting motion. I thought they were trying to tell me it needed to be cut and peeled first… before realizing I’d seen this fruit in temples and shrines, and their hand movements were praying. It was supposed to be an offering to the Gods, not eaten. I learn many things here each day.
In the spirit of being open to the culture, I was waiting for a friend to park his bike and a group of locals called me over and offered me some tea. I graciously obliged and saw that they were smoking something from a large wooden bong. Curious as to what it was, I pointed at it and they didn’t speak any English but handed it to me along with the lighter. Why not? I thought and took a hit. Instant head rush. I walked away light headed in the best way possible for a couple minutes, wondering what this was. I later found out it was a very strong form of tobacco grown in the area. I’m pretty certain this would be very popular if it was in the states… and the next night I ran into more locals with my American friend and she tried it and agreed. The Vietnamese are very generous people.
On our second to last night we found a bar that was pretty mellow, but then someone started playing Earth Wind & Fire, cleared a few tables and we had an instant dance party. There were only a handful of us, including a hilarious Chinese kid, some fun British girls and the most random mix of other nationalities. We couldn’t all understand each other but we spoke the language of music and danced together in that little bar for hours. Another amazing night.
Under a million other circumstances or at any other time, Hanoi could have been merely another city to me. Just like Bangkok, where I left after less than 24 hours without anything pulling me to stay.
But the stars aligned and I met the right people at the right time who created the right experiences—ones I couldn’t have on my own—some of the happiest of my life, and for that I will always have a special place in my heart for Hanoi.
It’s not about the places though, it’s about the people. That’s why I’m sitting here, still in this hammock watching the sun disappear behind thousands of limestone islands, a paradise most people only dream of visiting… but I just want to go back to four days ago and relive it again, over and over.
I look out onto Halong Bay and while others are awestruck by the scenery, I simply see shapes and colors—a lovely yet flat image without an emotional response. Something can only be as beautiful as your mind allows if you get caught up in your own thoughts instead of just being, existing in the present moment.
Learning how to come down from the best days of your life when they’re suddenly taken away from you is a skill I’m still learning… there’s a lot that’s been left unsaid. A lot left to experience and share. Maybe one day… for now, there’s a night in paradise to make the most of. Until next time in Vietnam,