It is my first day in Bangkok and have been in bed all day as I believe I havefood poisoning, so I figured I’d post a few blogs about my experiences so far on what has been nothing short of an epic journey.
I will be posting a blog “5 Things to Expect Your First Week Backpacking”, however I wanted to also break apart my experiences as it has been rich and full of excitement. This blog I will talk about my experiences in Hanoi, as well as the overall experience of beginning my travels. I will also be posting a blog on my awesome trips to Sa pa, Halong Bay, and Yen Dux Village.
I literally had no idea what to expect when the cab driver dropped me off in front of Vietnam Backpackers Hostel – Downtown. The first thing that went through my mind was “holy shit, I’m actually backpacking Asia, I’m actually arriving at a hostel, this is for real!”
Walking into the hostel I felt like a kid on his first day at a new school. The place was packed with backpackers, all conversating and having a good time. I’d like to think I did my best to look like I was a seasoned veteran, however I am certain my “new to backpacking” look was written on my face.
After checking in, the receptionist brought me to my dorm, a room with 6 bunk beds (that’s 12 beds total for those not mathematically inclined). There were 3 people in the room getting ready to go downstairs for happy hour, and they all looked over and greeted me with a smile and hello. To our surprise we were all from America (not very common I have come to realize), and we quickly began talking. Backpackers are some of the friendliest people you can ever meet, it is like a brotherhood of likeminded people who accept everyone.
After talking for bit and hearing the incredible places they had been to, we all went downstairs to the bar to enjoy happy hour. The special was buy one get one free beers, and after doing a quick conversion in my head I realized each beer was going to run me $.50! (HELL YES). I explained my itinerary to them, and they began to laugh saying I will change my plans so many times before my trip is over, and to just go with the flow.
I was absolutely amazed by all of the places these people had been, and the incredible experiences they have had. . After spending a whopping $2 on some beers, we headed out to dinner. Unfortunately they had been craving Dominos for weeks, so my first authentic Vietnamese meal would have to wait.
The streets of Hanoi can only be explained with one phrase “fucking insane!” My cousin Sherif and his wife Jen tried prepping me for how to cross the road, saying “just walk slowly, and don’t stop”. Imagine 50 bikes and a few cars coming straight at you, no stop lights, and no right of ways. Every time you cross the road is literally a leap of faith. They couldn’t have been more accurate. I just walked slowly, and everyone veered around me. The best way to explain crossing the road in Hanoi is like mini shots of adrenaline at every street crossing, there is the fear of getting hit, followed by the reward of making it across in one piece.
After our not-so-authentic Vietnamese cuisine we headed back to the hostel, where the place was bumping. Music was playing, people were dancing, and there were several free shots being passed around. It was beyond easy to start meeting people, and by nights end I had met a ton of new people.
Laying down in bed that night I was overwhelmed with a feeling of peace and comfort “wow, it’s really happening, and it’s awesome”.
As I had literally no plans that day, I just laid in bed a while and soaked it all in. The streets were buzzing with noise, and a few people I had met the night prior were heading ou to their next destination. As with life, there is a beginning and an end to things. While backpacking, that is raised to the 10th power. It’s amazing to meet so many people in such a short amount of time, however it seems as if every few hours I am saying goodbye to a new friend.
After a lazy day in bed it was time for my first authentic Vietnamese meal, or so I thought…. I walked a bit through the Old Quarter until I found a place serving up some street food BBQ. I was sat next to a group of backpackers and we began to chat for a bit. As we were all waiting for our food to come out one of the most insane experiences of my entire life unfolded in front of my very eyes…
While trying to learn more about my new friends, we were distracted by screaming coming from the middle of the road. Seconds later the owner of the place we were eating at ran full speed into the middle of the street and cracked another guy in the face. From our observation it looked like it was the owner of another restaurant right across the street. To my surprise a man came out of nowhere and entered the fight. Hailing from Vietnam, coming in at 5 feet 2 inches and 120 pounds soaking wet, carrying a…. bamboo bong?! This tiny little dude cracked the man who threw the first punch right across the back of his head, and pieces of bamboo and bong water went flying.
Me and my new buddies thought it was pretty funny given the size of the guy and his weapon of choice, however things got much more interesting, and dangerous. The man who had just got hit ran into the kitchen, and ran back into the ring full speed with a gigantic meat cleaver in his hand! I have seen fights in my life where weapons were involved, however it is usually just used as a scare tactic. But this man had only one thing on his mind, “decapitate”. He chased the other man full speed, with the meat cleaver cocked back ready to deliver the death shot.
Things started to happen fast, but the next thing I know there were 5 other guys standing in the street with sticks that had blades attached to the end of them.
Thankfully dozens of people jumped in, and from what I saw everybody walked away in one piece. My new friends and I decided that maybe we should dine elsewhere, as there was enough tension lingering on the street that it could be cut with a meat cleaver.
The rooftop terrace at the hostel I was staying at was probably the best part of the hostel for me. At any time of the day there are several people soaking up some sun rays, listening to music, and occasionally puffing on the devils lettuce. I spent a good amount of my day just lounging on the rooftop, listening to music, and really just staying to myself. I am very good at listening to others, however I am trying to make an effort on this trip to spend time listening to myself.
After a few solid hours on the rooftop I decided to go do some touristy things. I hit up a few museums, and ended my tour with “The Hanoi Hilton”. The Hanoi Hilton, or the Hỏa Lò Prison, was a prison used by the French colonists in Vietnam for political prisoners, and later by North Vietnam for U.S. Prisoners of War during the Vietnam War.
The tour is really split into 2 parts. The first is a depiction of the horrible torture inflicted by the French colonist on the Vietnamese political prisoners. The second part, was about the U.S. POWs during the Vietnam war. Being from the U.S. I found this fascinating. There are several old propaganda videos showing the prisoners eating the finest foods, playing volleyball, smoking cigarettes, and playing cards. The old videos continuously reassure the viewer that the prisoners were treated on par with Geneva standards. Obviously us from the states grew up hearing a different story, so it was great to see how the other side views things.
When I got back to the hostel that night I met a few dudes who had just returned from a place called Sa Pa. They couldn’t say enough about it, and encouraged me to hop on a night bus, take the 6 hour drive to Sa Pa, and find one of the local villagers to allow me to spend the night (homestay), so that’s exactly what I did. The beauty about traveling solo is you can do however much, or however little you would like to. Within a half hour of our conversation I checked out of the hostel, grabbed my backpack, and headed to the nearest bus station.