Google Flights is a wonderful, time-sucking, travel-inducing tool, providing the sweet, sweet satisfaction of plugging in a random date and seeing where in the world you could fly to for the lowest amount of money. Since we’ve been in Seoul, many hours (days?) have been spent daydreaming about new travel destinations while playing with the various filters in Google, pursuing our goal to maximize the amount of travel we can get in while we’re located on this side of the world. On a day back in February, the magic wizards behind the curtain of Google pointed us to Hanoi, Vietnam, and by April we were on a plane, taking our first trip outside of South Korea since our arrival, excited for our upcoming adventure. And thinking back on our trip, adventure is probably the most accurate word to describe our trip, although perhaps not in the exact way that we had anticipated at the outset.
Innumerable scooters, creating a cyclone of sound and color, the taste and aroma of lime, cilantro, and fish sauce-infused dishes, and a cruise through Bai Tu Long Bay (adjacent to Ha Long Bay); that’s the adventure we envisioned. But what’s an adventure without some surprises, right? Within a few minutes of arriving at our hotel in Hanoi, we realized that we had chosen a hotel that was conveniently located next to a nightclub. And let me tell you, this wasn’t your grandma’s night club that closes at the unreasonably early hour of 2 a.m. my friends. This was a real night club. One that keeps the party going until the sun comes back up. Sleep is for the dead. Or for the hey-we-just-reached-our-thirties- and-we-like-to-go-out-sometimes- but-2am-is-definitely-my-max-at-this-point-and-even-that’s-a-stretch sort of people. The nightclub did not oblige. For me, the one that falls asleep seemingly by the act of sitting down on a plane, it was annoying, but manageable. Mandi, however, who can’t sleep because the tick-tick-ticking of my watch at night is too loud, had a bit more trouble.
Nevertheless, over the next couple of days, we got up and made the most of each day, eating everything we could and finessing our way through the scooter cyclones (cyclooters? Yes, we shall call them cyclooters!). To be honest, finessing is perhaps the wrong word. It was more like Indiana Jones taking the leap of faith in The Last Crusade: just step out and hope that you make it to the other side. Street-crossing aside, we fueled our days with delicious Vietnamese coffee that was paired with condensed milk, coconut milk, or egg (in some combination) as we toured around, and did I mention that we ate? Like, a lot? Random street donuts, pho, bahn xeo, bahn mi, bun cha, xoi xeo, street bbq, morning glory, and a fair amount of convenience store snacks. The. Food. Was. So. Good.
On our second night, we even attempted to outlast the nightclub next door using the age-old tactic of, “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!” After snagging some cocktails at a swanky bar in the French Quarter, we wove our way through the droves of people and shouting restaurant staff on Ta Hien street to dine on some truly delicious (and butter-lathered) Vietnamese bbq, where Mandi promptly fell in love with our waitress and tried to become best friends, which is a thing that she does. We bounced from street-side glasses of home brew to labyrinthian back-alley bars that, in their myriad rooms hidden away from the main street, offered a quiet respite from the party outside. As the night turned to early morning, we amassed a feast of convenience-store snacks and headed in the direction of our hotel, triumphant in lasting until 3am, hoping that we had managed to defeat the club next door, but, alas, the club was stronger. Neither could we beat them nor join them.
In between the late nights, coffee, food, and cyclooter dodging, there were, of course, sights to see. In our previous travels, we haven’t been huge fans of museums, or, rather, we have a bit of a mental limit for them. We enjoy them for an hour or two, but then we’re good on museums for a day or two. Maybe this should be an embarrassing fact, exposing our lack of culturedness (whoa, spellcheck didn’t stop me on that one? I thought for sure it would), but it just hasn’t been where we’ve wanted to spend a ton of time when on vacation. In Vietnam though, we spent a lot of time in museums. One of the first we went to was the Hanoi “Hilton” or the Hoa Lo Prison Museum, which is where revolutionary Vietnamese were kept during the French occupation and where many US soldiers were kept (including John McCain) during the Vietnam War (not surprisingly called the American War in Vietnam). Reading the information at the museum, from the perspective of Vietnam, was fascinating, primarily because much of it is highly edited (read: propaganda). According to the information at the museum, the American prisoners really enjoyed their stay at the prison, and if that was all you ever read on the topic, really, why would you believe anything else? (See the photo gallery at the end to see some of the displays). Coincidentally, during our time in Vietnam, Amazon Prime Reading notified me that 1984 was available to read for free, which proved to be an interesting lens to view some of these museums through,especially given some of the, ahem, editing. In other museums such as the Vietnam Women’s Museum, even when the information, ostensibly, appeared less biased, it was still a strange experience to read about Vietnamese war heroes, in this case women, who spied on American soldiers and provided intel, leading to the deaths of these enemy American soldiers, each death quantified into a total sum, representing the significance of the contribution of each of these women. Of course, we also learned many interesting facts about Vietnam history and culture, but the parts that stuck with us the most were undoubtedly those that pertained to the war.
After a couple of very full days, a lack of sleep (thank you night club), an abundance of delicious food, and even an encounter with bed bugs (yep, that happened), we were quite excited to leave the cyclooters behind us for a couple of days of relaxation as we departed Hanoi for a 2-day, 1-night cruise through Bai Tu Long Bay. A quick search of the ol’ Google will tell you that there are roughly 1.2 bajillion different tours and cruises you can do in the area of Ha Long Bay, and it took us quite a while to settle on one, but we ultimately chose to head to Bai Tu Long since there would be fewer tourists, which turned out to be a fantastic idea. The calm and quiet on the boat with the endless giant limestone pillars piercing upward through the turquoise bay was a stark contrast to the constant buzzing of Hanoi, allowing us to switch into full vacation relaxation mode. We ate delicious food (duhhhhhh), had some drinks, kayaked, hiked, fished for squid (no luck), and enjoyed the amazing views. On a boat once again, Mandi was in heaven, and I wasn’t quite sure if she was going to join me on our return trip back to Hanoi for our last day. No question, it was the highlight of our time in Vietnam.
We made it back to our hotel and, after getting a night of no-night-club sleep on the boat, we decided to switch hotels for our last night in Hanoi, which we prooooobably should have done earlier. We toured around Hanoi for one more day, catching a few more sights (oh, hi there Ho Chi Minh’s preserved corpse), and, obviously, eating more delicious food. The sights, the mishaps, the food, they all came together into a unique trip that, perhaps most of all, reminded us of the different definitions of the word adventure. Hanoi was a travel adventure; Bai Tu Long Bay was a vacation adventure. Travel comes with unexpected ups and downs, things that can’t be anticipated, whether it’s the incessant beat drops next door, causing Mandi to set a “rain forest” tone on her phone in a feeble attempt to drown it all out, or stumbling into the coolest back-alley bar you’ve ever been to, complete with a colorful umbrella ceiling. It’s unpredictable, frustrating, exciting, and amazing. Vacation is slower paced and more predictable, but, oh man, is it wonderful and relaxing. Our trip to Hanoi gave us both, and we’re looking forward to a few more international “adventures” while we’re on this side of the world.