Immigration antics, nuclear coffee and an idiots guide to crossing the road.
With Steve mended it was time to escape Hong Kong and reach Hanoi, Vietnam, a route that was debated over many beers when we were still in the Philippines. Do we take the sleeper bus across the border through China or should we take the sleeper train? Do we save a lot of time and fly? We on this occasion opted for the the more expensive but time-saving flight.
We arrived in Hanoi airport with the paperwork, passport photos and $50US for our visa's that had previously been accepted via the online application. The system of collecting these at the airport leaves me baffled to this day! We queued at the collection window only to be told to walk down a corridor to the window on the other side of the collections office (we could see it through the first window as it was in the same office). Bags and all we walked and queued at the second collection window. We handed in our paperwork and passports to then be told to go back to the first collection window and wait to be called forward! At which point we breathed a sigh of relief as we had a small supply of US dollars. The Visa issuing office would not accept Vietnamese Dong - their own currency?! This would seem very odd considering that you can only withdraw Vietnamese Dong from their cash machines.
Visa obtained, bags collected and it was time to venture out and explore our new country. Very conveniently our hostel (Little Hanoi 2) had an airport collection waiting for us. No hassle from charlatan taxi drivers and no haggling. Nice hostel, a lovely big room with one snag; we had been advised that there would be music noise from 9pm till around 11pm every night from the club next door. We decided to see how bad it was with the understanding that we would move the next day if it was too loud. Big mistake, very loud, whole room shaking and lasted till 11.45pm. Whats the problem? We had arranged a Skype with Mum and Dad McNaughty for 11pm their time making it 5pm in Vietnam, so by the time the noise died, we went to bed and then started the wake-up process at 4.45am we had successfully had 3-4 hours sleep! The next morning after our Skype followed by 2 more hours of sleep we requested a change!
So enough ranting and more about Hanoi itself. Hanoi is an interesting city. On one hand it is humid, busy and jam-packed with hundreds of lawless scooters. On the other hand it has a charm and quality which captures and excites you. I would love to write that I hated this place but I just couldn't.
It is by no means a pedestrian friendly city either as there are few pavements and those that exist are often occupied by hundreds of motorbikes. The streets are narrow and busy with more motorbikes and the odd car and tricycle thrown in to add to the chaos. Crossing these roads takes guts, determination and a strong belief in an afterlife. In short the only way to navigate across is to slowly walk out into the traffic and hope that they miss you - which miraculously they manage to do. This system appears to work extremely well. Furthermore never use the marked pedestrian crossings as they are nearly always positioned in the most dangerous of places. When crossing a busy junction, with traffic entering from all corners and in both directions, do as the locals do and aim to walk straight through the center of the traffic, over the central reservation and safely to the otherside. After a few days of practice it became second nature – god help us when crossing the roads back in the UK!
During our first night in Hanoi we discovered that we could get coffee that would put more hairs on even Monkey-Steve's chest and rot the teeth of a dental practitioner! (The default coffee consists of triple to quadruple coffee shots with a splash of condensed milk - a mixture more commonly known by Russian scientists as rocket fuel).
Vietnam was the most touristy place that we had visited so far (not inc. Hong Kong) and in that sense they had more Western gastronomic imports to offer. Picture two hungry backpackers deprived of meat, particularly red meat, recovering from food poisoning and in a new city where Pho (noodle soup) is the tasty (but not-so-filling) national dish. You will see two backpackers after one day, say - this Sucks - and go and grab a steak dinner. Do we feel ashamed? No, we actually felt normal again. Steve had Spaghetti Bolognese the following day, he still feels some remorse over this.
Steve and I did enjoy a few runs on the pathway around the lake just outside our hostel (finally less starry people!). What an amazing feeling - the first run since leaving home, no need to put the TRX up in our room and exercise silently to low volume hard house music and risk breaking a hostel door.
Hanoi rained every day non-stop, so it was still a revelation that we liked it. From here we decided to break free of the city and take a tour to the famous - drum roll - candidate for the UNESCO 7 Natural Wonders of the World, Halong Bay!