“The traffic is terrible. Everywhere is crowded. It’s polluted and hot. The air quality is bad. It smells. But you should go, you’ll like it.” This is how my friend Dennis sold me on going to his native country of Vietnam. While obviously Dennis does not work in sales, I didn’t actually need much convincing. Ever since I slurped my first bowl of phở, I’ve wanted to go. And everything he said is true, including that I’d like my visit.
It took a bit of getting used to though. As I hinted at in my previous post, the culture shock that I was skeptical of in Hong Kong turned out to be real in Vietnam. It started immediately upon exiting the airport. We jumped into a taxi and showed him our destination address. He nodded okay, started the meter, and we hit the road. Being unable to communicate with each other due to the language barrier, Katie and I sat back to take in the scenery for the 40 minute ride from the airport into downtown Hanoi.
It became immediately apparent that the lane markers on the highway were for decoration only. We’d squeeze through anywhere there was a big enough gap, while honking the horn to let the other drivers know that we were doing so. We were whizzing along with our horn blaring, weaving through scooters, trucks, bicyclists, and even more scooters all sharing the same highway. Some of these scooters were even traveling the wrong direction, like salmon with a death wish. We just swerved around them. So while I thought someone might get killed at any second, at the very least I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to be us. In Vietnam, the rules of the road dictate that the bigger vehicle wins and it’s just up to the smaller vehicles to get out of the way or risk getting squashed.
As we approached the center of the city, traffic slowed down but it also condensed. While moving slower, there were also more scooters crammed into the same space. They were each jockeying for position wherever there was an opening. It was pretty crazy riding through traffic being 3 inches from the closest scooter. And they chose to be that close to a two ton death machine. But in the end we made it and no one died. That would subsequently become the theme of the rest of the trip!
After settling into our room, we headed out to explore the neighborhood on foot. We quickly learned that just crossing the street is an adventure itself. On a one-way street you have to look both ways, because like the lane markers on the highway, mandated direction of travel is mostly just a suggestion. It turns out that stoplights are also sometimes ignored. And scooters will drive up onto the sidewalk, mostly to park, but also sometimes just to avoid other traffic. As such, the idea of a relaxing stroll didn’t really exist.
We also noticed in short order that on any major street there are so many scooters that there’s never a moment where the road will be clear. The trick to crossing at a crosswalk, which we discovered after carefully watching some locals, was to wait until there were no cars or trucks in sight, and then just start walking and continue to move at a steady pace. The scooters will flow around you like you’re a rock in a stream. We attempted to take a video of us crossing a particularly busy five lane street, but Katie wasn’t quite comfortable with both filming and trying not to die, so it didn’t come out. Maybe next time! It certainly got easier, or at least less nerve wracking with experience.
Once we figured out how to walk around, we spent most of our time headed into and around the Old Quarter area. The tiny winding streets are filled with pop up markets, clothing, tours, and street food. It’s a great place to wander aimlessly while checking out the sights and absorbing the local flair. It’s not necessarily a relaxing experience though. The sidewalks are jammed with vendors and parked scooters, making it necessary to walk in the street with traffic. But that’s just how it works. Pedestrians, bicycles, scooters, and sometimes cars are all mashed together. It can definitely be overwhelming and anxiety-inducing at times. I specifically remember a couple of times where I needed to focus on my breathing to combat the sensory overload and calm myself down, especially on the first day.
But then an amazing thing happens. Around Hoàn Kiếm Lake at 5pm on Friday, the police barriers go up and the relentless stream of traffic ceases. What was once a scooter-packed thoroughfare transforms into a pedestrian only walkway. The vacuum of sound is nearly deafening. It was like stepping through a portal to an alternate scooterless universe that lasts for the whole weekend. The locals and tourists alike came down to stroll along the wide road and paths that follow the lake. Families especially were out in full force, with tons of entertainment for kids including a whole block filled with hundreds of Power Wheels cars of all varieties. It was a riot!
I’m not sure if it was due to the proximity of Tết being the week before, but everyone was in high spirits. There was a park filled with cool lighting and roller skaters, kids on bikes, roller bladers, hoverboards, and wheeled movement of all types. Dance groups performed choreographed numbers to K-pop style music. Groups of teenagers played a game of hacky sack but with a shuttlecock-type object that sounded like a tin tambourine and provided a “clink” with every pass. Artists were sketching portraits and vendors sold snacks. There was live music under a gazebo that caused our ears to perk up. It was an instrumental group led by a young woman playing an electric violin backed by three young guys in matching patterned shirts. They played heavy instrumental takes on current pop favorites and cranked out one song after another, barely giving the hundreds in attendance time to take a breath. They were a lot of fun and definitely earned their abundant donations. I think we must’ve stayed for an hour.
Not all of our time was spent wandering around a lake though. There was some shopping to be had, both in Hanoi and Saigon. We were told that Vietnam was the place to bargain and that the prices on the tag or the sign were just starting points. In fact, it was an expected part of the shopping experience. As such, we did our best and tried to knock down costs that were already pretty low. First, Katie decided she liked a dress. She offered a bit less than priced, and was summarily met with a “no discount” while pointing at the tag. Okay, this was in a boutique shop and it was probably an employee working, not the owner, so I’m guessing the combination of those factors led to the no haggle pricing. Undeterred, we tried again at the night market, which is where the real bargaining is supposed to happen. She found some cheap pants. How about 50,000 VND instead of 60,000? No discount. What if I buy more than 1 pair? Same price, no discount. Cool!
So if it’s possible to bargain in Vietnam, we were not able to figure out how. So instead of pants at $2.16, we paid $2.57. Twice. Could we have managed to haggle it down? Maybe if we were really interested in spending 20 minutes doing it. Instead we just paid a few cents more and were done with it. I guess we ruined it for you future travelers. Sorry!
As you can tell, even without possessing a modicum of haggling skill, the prices are still incredible. Most casual clothing was in the $2-6 range. We would regularly get a bánh mì sandwich from one of the abundant street carts for a little less than $1. We could sit down in a restaurant and each get a beer and an entree for $10 or less. Coffee or tea at a full service cafe is less than a $1 as well. Produce is sold everywhere for barely anything. We ate jackfruit and mangosteens, bananas and pineapple, and even fresh water chestnuts which were newly peeled by a sidewalk vendor. I dare say that all of the food was all amazing.
We even saw a handful of vendors moving through the streets carrying two baskets of produce balanced on the ends of a bamboo pole like the scales of justice. This wasn’t just a show for tourists either, it’s how they were transporting their goods to market. While we were fascinated by this approach to transport, most have advanced to more modern techniques. In fact, they carry everything that there is to be carried by scooter and bike. It’s almost as if the truck hasn’t made it to this part of the world. I saw scooters with baskets on the back and 50+ baguettes sticking out. Bikes carrying flowers, both cut and potted. There were even bags of live, small fish that you can buy right off the highway. (These are used as an offering at the temple) While I can’t imagine it’s the safest way, it’s certainly the most common. And of course makes for tremendous viewing pleasure.
While this was a very enjoyable trip overall, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the serious and somber parts that recounted Vietnam’s violent past. The bloody wars fighting against the colonial occupation of the French and of course the nearly 2 decade long conflict with the US led to some pretty powerful museums. Hỏa Lò Prison Museum in Hanoi was interesting. This was the place that American POWs had dubbed the Hanoi Hilton. The first part of the museum is all about describing the atrocities that the Vietnamese rebel forces were subjected to in this prison after being captured by the French forces. And it wasn’t pleasant. Many of the prisoners were shackled by the ankle to their communal wooden beds, leaving them lined up with no method to move for the whole day, or sometimes, for the rest of their life. There’s a guillotine that was formerly used for the worst offenders, although judging from the treatment of some of the prisoners, that French killing machine almost seems like the best way to go.
The second part depicts how wonderfully the American POWs were treated during the war. They were allowed to play basketball, cook Christmas dinner, and generally lived a really great life while waiting years for the war to end. It was only casually mentioned in a two sentence blurb on a single display that all of this wonderful treatment was after the Paris Peace Accords were signed to end the war, meaning all of this took place after the treaty but before release. But they know that they’re going to receive a large percentage of visitors from the US, so they propagandize their own generosity, even toward the enemy of the time. It did make for an interesting juxtaposition between the terrible treatment that captured Vietnamese fighters suffered at the hands of the French occupiers versus the generous treatment supplied by the Vietnamese to their captured American counterparts.
The War Remnants museum in Saigon was very moving and powerful monument to the horrors of war. On the grounds outside, they have a bunch of well-preserved US aircrafts, tanks, artillery, and bulldozers. Inside there are three floors displaying the toll that the Vietnamese people endured, including a whole floor showing the devastating effects of America’s relentless spraying of Agent Orange including burn scars, birth defects, and pollution that is still affecting the population to this day. It was incredibly tough to witness. Third and fourth post-war generations are still having their lives ruined because of the actions of the US military 50 and 60 years ago. This is normally stuff that I prefer to pretend doesn’t exist, but I also think an important part of travel is getting out of your comfort zone and forcing yourself to experience things, even if they’re unpleasant.
Despite all of the atrocities that the Vietnamese people have suffered at the hands of the US, and at least partly continue to be faced with, we never felt unwelcome. In fact, it was quite the opposite. They were happy to have us there and it showed. Even though we visited only the two largest cities, there was a warmth that I’d normally expect to find only in smaller, slower-paced towns. As such, we are already planning our return trip, not only to be able to soak in more of the city energy and entertainment, but also branch out and see what life is like in the mountainous countryside, the beach, or the delta. And while we didn’t figure out how to haggle, we did become proficient in crossing the street without dying, so the next visit should be a breeze.