Winter Break: Christmas in Hanoi

Next: First full day in Hanoi

This winter break I was finally able to take a real vacation, my first since moving to Korea 8 months ago. For trip numero uno off the Korean Peninsula, my girlfriend and I took a flight to SE Asia, and spent our time in Vietnam and Cambodia. It was one of the most amazing vacations I’ve ever taken, if not the most amazing. I knocked off two more countries on my world domination list. My girl and I came home feeling closer than ever. And seeing more of Asia has started to help put my Korean experience in perspective.

We departed Seoul/Incheon Christmas morning. I had to work until 9:30pm Christmas Eve. Between the commute to my girl’s place, a necessary Christmas Skype session with my mom, and putting the finishing touches on packing, we only got a few hours sleep before boarding the plane to Hanoi, Vietnam.

The airport was absolutely packed Christmas morning. And no surprise to us, the biggest line we saw was the Vietnam Airlines queue bound for Hanoi. Good planning on our part to arrive with plenty of time to spare. After saying hi to some acquaintances from my girl’s city, getting though the mega check in line, waiting the obligatory 5 minutes for our checked bags to clear, visiting the money exchange for some Vietnamese Dong, passing customs, taking the shuttle train to the International departing terminal, and getting a good laugh at the drunk foreigners traveling in Santa suits… we were finally sitting at the gate, eating a Dunkin Donut, ready to board the 5 hour flight.

The flight was a new experience. Not only were all announcements made in Korean and English, but also Vietnamese. It’s been a while since I’ve heard this somewhat annoying language. My first job out of college, I worked for a recruiting company that supplied production and labor workers to manufacturing companies in the Portland area. Many of the electrical workers were Vietnamese, so I was exposed to the dialect and delicious food some years ago. Hearing it on the plane again brought me right back to those angry little dudes asking me for their paycheck, and the super friendly people offering me home cooked Vietnamese cuisine.

The video screens on the flight never actually played any movies, or the usual television programs that are found on most international flights these days. Instead, we were greeted by outdated holiday music and Vietnam Airlines propaganda. I did however enjoy the Abba rendition of “Happy New Year” and Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You”. My girl caught some zzzz’s, and I spent most of my time listening to Trail Blazers podcasts, catching up on the latest buzz following the Przybilla patella injury, and reading up on our travel books. Besides the angry Korean lady behind my girlfriend, pushing and nudging the seat in what seemed like, but probably wasn’t, an intentional international act of disrespect towards the curly haired foreigner… and the Vietnamese lady changing her baby on the seats in front of everyone instead of taking it to the rest room…. the flight wasn’t so bad.

Most customs personnel are far from friendly, but my first encounter with a Vietnamese person was the most stone faced, lack of expression leaning towards an angry scowl of a man, who I’m pretty sure hated me. Over it, we waited forever for the checked luggage, and found the exit.

I pre-paid the $23 shuttle fee online through the Hanoi Backpacker’s Hostel, which turned out to be a smart move. Cabs to that part of the city are at least $20, and we heard multiple stories of cabbies ripping people off, taking them to the wrong hotel/hostel and over charging them. You can take the Vietnam Airlines shuttle for super cheap, however you have to sit and wait for the shuttle to fill up before they will leave. The way we did it, we walked out of the airport, found the dude holding the sign with my name on it, boarded the shuttle, waited 5 minutes for the other foreigners who happened to also be teaching English in Korea, and we were off. Couldn’t have been easier.

The commute in to Hanoi from the airport was an eye opener. Scooters, or as they refer to them, Motorbikes, dominated the roadways. Korean traffic obedience is not good, but this was on a whole new level. People, pollution, motorbikes, cars, trucks, pedestrians and cows all trying to share the road, and are passing each other on the right, left and middle. I’m not sure how they do it, but this organized chaos works for them.

Our hostel was buzzing when we arrived because they were in the middle of the Christmas dinner as we walked in. Not feeling social, and a bit worn down from all the travel so far that day, we checked in to our private room, unpacked, and enjoyed a quick relaxation session. But, determined to utilize all of our time away from Korea, we quickly set out on the night streets of Hanoi. The Hanoi Backpacker’s hostel is in a great part of town. Just West of Hoan Kiem Lake, we were living in the Nha Tho area, which is full of nice little shops and restaurants, and is a quick walk from many other sight-worthy neighborhoods of Hanoi.

Starving, we quickly found an awesome spot for our initial taste of Vietnamese street food, which turned out to be Banh Ghoi. My Lonely Planet describes it as a meat patty, filled with pork, glassy noodles, mushroom and seasonings. We got it, as well as everything else that they offer, for a whopping 25,000 Dong, which is less than $2. It was all fried except for the tasty soup and the greens.

Post snack, we ended walking around Hanoi, getting lost in the streets and soaking in this busy, crowded, bustling and vibrant city. We made our way to the night market in the Old Quarter. One of the main streets heading north from the lake towards the Don Xuan market is transformed in to a busy street market at night. Great examples of the tube houses can be found along this drag, and we admired how so many of them really put forth the effort and upkeep to keep the outside looking tip top. They are pretty amazing looking buildings, shop fronts at street level with the living quarters up and up. Many of the shops we entered also had merchandise up a few levels, allowing us to climb narrow staircases and enter rooms that I couldn’t fully stand up tall in, in search of wall hangings, pashminas and tea pots.

After a nice stroll through the Old Quarter, we walked along the lake, dodging motorbikes and jaywalking with the best of them on our way back to our cozier neighborhood in search of a proper dinner. For the most expensive meal of the entire trip, we settled on a nice Italian dinner of pizza, pasta, salad, fries, bread and coca-cola. The view from the terrace at this nice little restaurant was great, overlooking the Nha Tho Cathedral, slammed busy on Christmas day, as well as a little street corner bar area where people stacked up on top of each other, sitting on stools 2 inches off the ground, swilling some sort of murky looking drink from dirty glasses.

Suffering from travel exhaustion, Hanoi sensory overload, as well as an extremely full stomach, we retired to our room. The only bummer of the night was not finding the hot water switch to our bathroom, and having to take a cold shower before bed time. Other than that, the night was a pretty great experience and welcome to Hanoi, Vietnam.

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~ by ripcitytoseoul on January 6, 2010.

7 Responses to “Winter Break: Christmas in Hanoi”

  1. I think the highlight definitely sounds like, “visiting the money exchange for some Vietnamese Dong.” I hope you used protection…

    Sorry, couldn’t resist.

    • Totally! We got a chuckle each time we had to ask, “How much in Dong?” Unknown to us, they seem to prefer American $$$$.

  2. […] The rest of the Angkor Temples Angkor Wat Hello Cambodia Goodbye Vietnam Back to Hanoi Castaway Island Day and night on Halong Bay First full day in Hanoi Christmas in Hanoi […]

  3. […] Winter Break: Christmas in Hanoi « Rip City to Seoul said this on June 22, 2010 at 10:42 pm | Reply […]

  4. Does anyone know of someone working in Vietnam as a teacher?

  5. […] Christmas in Hanoi First full day in Hanoi Day and night on Halong Bay Castaway Island Back to Hanoi Goodbye Vietnam Hello Cambodia Angkor Wat The rest of the Angkor Temples New Year’s in Cambodia and heading home […]

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