I love Vietnam.
I’ve finally found a place where I get complimented on how white my skin is! I’ve gotten so many compliments already, it’s quite flattering. In countries like Vietnam, Thailand and, I assume, other South-East Asian countries, the whiter your skin, the prettier you are considered. They must think I am downright gorgeous!
My arrival here was a little bumpy. Without going on a 2000 word rant about how I detest certain airline companies right now, I’ll just say this: I spent the first 12 days of my trip without my backpack. A little snowstorm in Montreal caused me to miss my correspondence in Toronto and triggered a whole series of events which resulted in my witnessing the impressive incompetence of Aer Lingus – an Irish airline company – and Air France. The funny part is: I hadn’t booked my flights with either of them. Long story short, I arrived in Paris on December 30th, where I stayed for 3 days before flying to Asia. Daily follow ups by my Dad – thanks Dad! – proved that the airlines were completely clueless as to the whereabouts of my bag: one day they stated with conviction it was in Dublin and, the next, they said it might still be in Toronto. In the end, they stopped telling us where they thought it might be and only said it been identified, without being able to give any indication as to where it was. One would think that, with the technology and security we have now a day, an airline company might be able to accomplish a task as simple as locating a bag. This experience has proved us all wrong.
You can imagine my surprise when, more than a week later, I found out my bag had been in Paris since December 31st and the only reason I was travelling without my things was because Aer Lingus, Air France and Air Canada were clearly unable to communicate with each other! It felt like an early April fools joke.
As in all situations, there was a silver lining. In this case, I had the opportunity to meet Sabrina and Aurélie, two lovely ladies who were also victims of these airlines’ shenanigans. If either of you are reading these lines, I sincerely wish you managed to get your things back without a third of the frustration I suffered. The other positive thing that came out of this situation, is my learning that it is possible to survive with three shirts, two pants, two pairs of socks and three pairs of underwear. All the blogs I read before leaving said this is the way to go, but I didn’t believe them at the time. Now I’ve had a taste for travelling light and I must say I enjoy it, even though I did look like a bag lady half the time.
So, that is how I arrived to Hanoi, capital of Vietnam and step #1 on our long journey. The first thing that hits us when we landed was the pollution. On the day of our arrival, the city was wrapped in a thick, brownish fog; the kind that is shown on photos of China, when their pollution index goes through the roof. On the taxi ride to our hostel, in the Old Quarter, we quickly understand why: the traffic here is insane. I’ve never seen so many motorbikes in my entire life! Everywhere we looked, the streets (and sidewalks) were swarming with them.
The laws of the jungle clearly apply here: the bigger you are, the more power you have to push your way through traffic. Honks are used to say “Hello”, “Move out of my way” and “Watch out, I’m right here!” which means that people are honking at each other all the time. There are no stop signs and red lights only mean stop half of the time. For an outsider, the scene looks absolutely chaotic, but after spending a few days immerged in it, you start to make some sense of it all. You also eventually stop saying a payer every time you want to cross the street.
Between the pollution, the noise and the need for constant alertness, Hanoi is quite a sensory overload. Its delicious food also contributes to the whole experience. Thus far, we’ve tried incredibly flavorful dishes, including…
- Vietnamese coffee: Strong drip coffee mixed with sweet condensed milk served hot or cold, yum!
- Pho: I have supposedly tried the best Pho in Montreal and it is bland in comparison. The broth they serve here is flavoured with beef, ginger, star anise, lime, shallots, cardamom and the result is exquisite.
- Porridge: For any Hague family members reading this, I assure you porridge here has nothing to do with Grandad’s famous porridge. In Vietnam, it is rice based, flavoured with meat and makes for a very comforting lunch on a rainy day. The one I tried had pork ribs and corn.
- Nems: This is actually the true Vietnamese word for spring rolls (fresh or fried). I thought it was just a word the French invented to refer to this dish.
- Roasted dog: Haha just kidding, we haven’t tried this, but we have seen some sold on the streets.
One evening, as we were enjoying Bun Cha, pork patties served with fresh rice noodles, I mentioned to Julien that we should make an effort to eat local food as much as possible, knowing that we would grow tired of eating noodles after a while. His immediate reaction was: « Hah there is NO way I will feel like eating western food while we’re here!”. Anyone want to venture a guess as to who fell for the chicken burger and fries on the menu, just a few days later?
Our next destination was Cat Ba Island, near the famous Halong Bay. Cat Ba is a less touristy destination for those seeking to catch a glimpse of the mystical islands scattered in Halong and Lan Ha Bay. A few things happened here, namely my first experience driving a scooter! It took me about 10 minutes to also have my first accident. Mom, I can see you starting to freak out, so please calm down, no one was hurt! I was driving at a very reasonable pace – 20 km/h at most – and found myself sandwiched between two other scooters. When the one in front of me hit the breaks, I did too. I also had the dangerous reflex to hit the gas at the same time so I gently bumped into the guy in front of me. He was most surprised! No one was hurt and neither scooters were damaged. Thankfully, it is also not part of Vietnamese culture to get angry, because it would be considered to lose “face”, so I was spared from any angry comments from the driver.
The other highlights of our stay on Cat Ba were definitely the breathtaking sunset on the harbour and our boat tour of Halong Bay. We were only lucky enough to have a sunset worth watching on our first evening on Cat Ba – the other two were clouded by a thick fog – but where there was lack in quantity, there was most definitely no lack in beauty. Imagine the sun, a large disk of burning red, setting behind an island on the distant horizon while the sky lights up in a kaleidoscope of color and while brightly painted fisherman boats glide lazily across the harbour. It lasted but a few minutes, which only increased our sense of privilege in having witnessed the scene.
Halong Bay really is a magical place. When thinking of the people who lived in the area hundreds of years ago, I can comprehend their awe and wonder as they set their eyes upon these turquoise waters and thousands of islands. I can also understand how this maze would constitute a death trap for any sailor arrogant enough to venture there without knowing exactly where to head.
One of the best parts of travelling is the people you meet along the way. We’ve already met a good number of very interesting people, but I had to mention one in particular. Jonathan is a fellow Quebecker who, when we crossed his path, was on his 10th month of a 2 to 3 year journey across the world. What makes him different from your typical world nomad? His sole mode of transportation is his bicycle. He started in England and made his way to Vietnam. All. On. His Bike. I highly recommend taking a look at his blog, even if it’s just for the photos (which are amazing, by the way).
That’s it for now! We’ll be in touch with more updates soon.