I took the overnight sleeper bus to Hanoi. Arguably more comfortable than a regular bus, the seats were foot-wide beds, complete with a seatbelt should one toss in their sleep, leaving me contorted in a horizontal position between the window and my day pack, which was in the end better than being slumped over it a regular bus seat. Thankfully there was a toilet on board, and even more thankfully, some fun fellow travelers who willingly shared the rest of their vodka and travel mishap stories.
After rolling into town early the next morning I wandered the streets of the old quarter, bleary-eyed, looking for a hotel. The first place I looked was an affiliate of the hotel I’d stayed at in Hue, where I had forgotten my passport the day before; they were to send it to this address within the next couple of days, but at this hours I found the doors closed. Wandering some more, I was taken to a hidden hotel by a tout and ended up at a pretty decent place in the middle of the action. The hotel manager told me this place was smaller than other choices in the area, but better because it is family run, etc. The rooms were clean and decent to boot, so I was sold. I was also sold on a package tour of Sapa and Halong Bay, both popular destinations in the area that were on my list, and unfortunately easier and cheaper to access with an organized tour.
After a day on the town, upon my return to the hotel I was informed that I would have to change hotels for a night because some older family member was coming to town. In other words, they’d overbooked the hotel and I seemed like a nice, understanding, gullible guy. Well I may be, but I was pissed. I’d succumbed to a charming sales pitch early that morning and already paid for two tours, and if I was being treated like a member of the family, here I was the dunce cousin. After an hour of giving the guy a really hard time I managed to get a discounted room at a hotel next door, where serendipitously both the kids from the bus and the hot Norwegian girls from Cambodia were staying. The ensuing night would consist of drowning the day’s frustrations away with beer, vodka and Jenga.
Hanoi is Vietnam’s capital city, crowded with grand socialist monuments, European-esque eateries, art galleries, and busy street life. The old quarter of town is a maze of streets that at times make perfect sense and at others confounded even my internal GPS. I would pass one corner, noting its graffiti and kabob vendor for future reference, then continue down what I assumed to be a grid-like layout, only to pass the same vendor and graffiti from another approach. While I’d thought I’d gone one direction, apparently there existed a wormhole that delivered me plum where I’d started. This would happen time and again, and the days before I finally got the hang of things I spent mentally exhausted and unnerved.
Good thing that one of the inescapable corners in the old quarter is an intersection of street-side vendors serving Bia Hoi, or cold, freshly brewed beer. Kegs of it are delivered each morning and are good only for that day, and locals and tourists alike enjoy it at 2000 Dong per glass. That’s 12.5 US cents. Sitting on little plastic stools under bare incandescent bulbs, this is but one of the many street-side refreshment options. At night the neighborhood is alight with the dim bulbs of vendors selling soup, dessert, noodles, coffee and nuoc mia. The crowded sidewalks here are clearly not made for pedestrians. During the day they are further crowded by vendors selling everything from stuffed animals to housewares, art to hardware. In the thirteenth century these streets were settled by artisans of all trades who formed guilds, and eventually each alley specialized in a specific ware. Though the street names reflect what was once sold on them, they are now mostly one and the same, offering both respite from the interminable heat by way of fresh drinks and food, as well as chaotic crowds and the honking of motorbikes that would eventually drive me insane.
It was interesting to see how people live very much in the streets here. Even if people are not eating curb-side, often their living rooms open onto the alley and evening family life is visible to any passerby. Often, houses are designed such that their street-level room doubles as a storefront, again selling everything imaginable. I even saw a dentist operating on a patient, the lights of his ground-floor office illuminating the dark alley he was in. Somehow, an operational dentist’s chair seemed completely congruous with the rest of what was offered here; after all, entire lives are led in the street. At five in the morning old ladies set up their plastic stools and tables, heating up breakfast pho. Other vendors sell coffee, tea and bia hoi to parched passers by at noon, when businesses are closed for the requisite 2 hour break. By 6pm it is dark, and between art studios (painting and selling paintings in any style desired) and pirated DVD shops spring up more noodle stands and kabob shops to feed the masses. Most bars and restaurants are made to close (or at least pretend to close) around 11 by police, and by 12 or 1 in the morning the streets are mercifully quiet, save of course for the occasional remaining street-side crowd.
I would come back to Hanoi to explore some more and actually see some sites. After a couple of days this time around, though, I was off to Sapa to explore the rice paddies and meet ethnic minorities on my organized tourist excursion.