My first impression of Vietnam starts with the sound of incessant honking. Picture the most annoying driver laying on the horn over and over again; then imagine a whole sea of people on motorbikes doing that. Or worse picture yourself in the midst of all that chaos while helplessly sitting in the back of a cab, in the the middle of the night, staring wide eyed into the oncoming lights of a bus as the taxi driver weaves back and forth between both sides of the road. That, describes our first ride in from the airport…Welcome to Vietnam where anything goes and the rules don’t matter.
Our first couple days in Hanoi were a bit of sensory overload. The sounds, smells, and the death defying act of trying to cross the street. This was definitely not a city, or country for that matter, where you could go for a leisurely stroll. Mainly because the sidewalks were filled with parked motorbikes and shops overflowing all the way out to the street. Every form of business seemed to be done on the side of the road. The selling (and preparation) of food, goods, and old men playing some form of Vietnamese checkers for money. Vendors were everywhere, and everyone was trying to sell you something. Elderly Vietnamese women would walk around in rice hats, balancing a shoulder yoke and selling fruit off their back. There were women selling holiday cards and tchotchke souvenirs on the side of the road, and then there was the lady walking with the giant basket of mini donut holes…she managed to get us every time haha. There were tons of street food vendors as well all serving different types of local Vietnamese food testing your chopstick skills while eating on the Tiny plastic Fisher Price tables and chairs that lined their curbside “restaurants”.
The way they conducted business here was strange. The whole city was like a giant Sears department store, each street selling a different product. You had shoe street, jacket street, undergarments street, kitchen supply street, flower street, a seamstress street, metal working street, and a street filled with decorations and party supplies which we dubbed “Oriental Trading street” haha! 🙂 It was quite a site to see, but also hard to comprehend how each business was surviving having to compete against 10 or more companies literally next door, all selling the same things. I guess this is where the “Same same but different” business model carried over from Thailand. Strange but it seemed to work. And the city, though hectic and crazy, seemed to flow. These city streets however weren’t just for business like many of the bustling city streets in the U.S. This is where life happened. As you would continue to walk down the street you often saw shops with 3 generations of family members sitting out in front day in and day out. Their livelihood depending on the success of these tiny shops that many made their homes above.
After a few days in the city trying new dishes like Bún chà pork and noodle (A dish originated in Hanoi), trying the very strong Vietnamese coffee, enjoying my first spa facial, and trying to decipher if the shops selling Nike and North Face were real or not, we decided to keep moving and head east toward Ha Long Bay. The trip sounded easy enough, and I mean it looked like a short distance on the map, however this 145km journey ended up being quite a doozy.