Vietnam is crazy.
We started out in Hanoi, the Northern capital city. It's a big busy city. If I were to create a CD called "Sounds of Hanoi" it would be the sound of 125cc motorbike/scooter engines, people shouting (the Vietnamese language is sort of like Russian in a way- it sounds harsh, but for all I know they could be saying, "I love you, you're the best!") , and most of all honking horns. People honk instead of using their brakes here; it's not uncommon to hear a scooter with it's horn worn out, pathetically trying to honk it's way through an uncontrolled 6-way intersection (traffic lights are rare, and even then they seem to only apply to cars). There are sidewalks in Hanoi, but they are reserved for motorbike parking and roadside cuisine. Here, the street food is actually cooked on the street (or at least as close to the street as you can cook something without it actually touching the pavement). They have these little kiddy chairs setup next to mini tables where you can eat. It's the best. The best food we've had in Vietnam has been eaten on a plastic kid's chair (as anyone who's been here probably knows). These little food stalls aren't reserved for city sidewalks either. We saw numerous ones setup on the median of the freeway. Motorbikes would just stop at the curb and order a sandwich or noodles on their way to work in the morning.
Hanoi is full of scams. We were warned about the creative scammery we might encounter so I spent a couple of anxious hours on the internets looking for the most common ones. Not unlike the full moon party, I had begun developing a paranoid image of what Hanoi was going to be like in my head. I pictured that as I paid for our overpriced taxi with a fast-running meter from the airport, my pockets would be picked and as I turned to see who it was, my bags would be burgled right from under my feet. The taxi would screech off and Laura and I would be left, bagless, with our pockets inside out in the middle of the street with no where to go. Also, I would be shirtless because that would be stolen right off my back. Almost disappointingly (yet again) none of this ever happened. The only time we got scammed is on the last day when we were like "This is Bullshit, let's be scammed" and we let the vagabond cobbler guy fix/clean Laura's shoes just to see how much he would charge us. $15. Total ripoff, but worth watching the guy hustle for it. Plus Laura's shoes look brand new again.
Also, there's no such thing as copyright inforcement here. Obviously you can buy counterfeit sunglasses, music, movies, books and clothes (although I think some of the clothing is actually genuine and just "borrowed" from the factory in Vietnam), but even more deceptive is the copying of entire companies. If a company gains popularity, new ones will pop up overnight, unaffiliated with the original. There's this one company that got famous a long time ago called Sinh Cafe. I shit you not, there's at least 100 Sinh Cafes in Hanoi. There's anywhere from one to four on any given street. There was also a wannabe 7-11.
Hanoi was cold. At least by SE Asian standards anyway. It sucked a bit. We both had to buy pants, a scarf, toques and gloves. The jeans we bought were actually pretty nice though and were ultra cheap.
Vietnam wins for cheapest beer in Asia. These two beers cost me $0.80 total.
Vietnamese people are super stylin'. Especially the guys. They're all super skinny and have crazy hair and wear skinny jeans (often leather), tight shirts and short jackets and look super hardcore. It's bad-ass. The motorbike helmets are also super stylin. Some of the ones for girls have ponytail holes in them. I'm not sure how much they'll really protect their heads, but they sure look cool, and that's what matters most.
So I guess they really like this Ho Chi Minh guy 'cause they got him embalmed in a mausoleum and you can go look at him. The whole experience is the embodiment of communism at it's finest. As you enter the compound, they play footage of some parade where everyone sings a song in which the only lyrics are "We love you Ho Chi Minh". After relinquishing your camera and bags, you have to follow a white painted line, and if you stray too far, a guard yells at you to get back in line. When you get to the mausoleum you have to walk single file, at a steady pace without stopping, with your hands at your sides, palms open, and follow the line around the embalmed Ho Chi Minh, who is kept in a large glass case with four armed guards with bayonets keeping watch. It was exactly how you have to act when ordering soup from the Soup Nazi. It's for sure in the top three weirdest things I've ever done.
We've been taking night trains to get around in Vietnam. It's great. You leave at night and arrive in the morning so you still get a full day on each end. Laura doesn't love it as much as me.
Outside of Hanoi, there are two things you're not supposed to miss. One is a Halong Bay trip, the other is go to Sapa. We did both.
So, Halong Bay is this big bay with all these limestone islands jetting out of the water and it's really neat looking and stuff. The trips you book there are usually one or two night cruises on a 10-50 person "junk". There's hundreds of these boats out in Halong Bay every day. The Halong Bay tour is a long running scam risk in Hanoi. The scam is mostly centered around not getting what you paid for (random itinerary changes, overcrowded boats and last minute swaps to far inferior boats), especially if you pay for one of the "budget" cruises. The rule of thumb is that there is always a risk that you'll end up on a shitty boat, but the more you pay the less likely it is. We went for a mid-range priced tour and managed to bargain the price down by $30. I was worried that bargaining would get us stuck on some other boat, but everything turned out okay.
One part of Halong Bay
Another part of Halong Bay
The "Sun" deck
Our boat's chef made these flowers out of food. It was cool to watch. Skillz.
We got lucky with Sapa. It's in the mountains and is really cold in the winter (5-10 degrees and foggy on average). The day we went it was sunny and clear and we did a trek through the mountains and visited some of the hill tribe towns on the way. The landscape is pretty cool, lots of rice paddies n' stuff. Some might even call it beautiful, but sayin' stuff like that is for girls. As you descend into the valley from Sapa town, the local hill tribe (Hmong) people follow you the whole way sometimes making small talk. "Where you from?". "How old are you?". When you stop for lunch they stand by your table and say "I follow you, you buy from me." and present their "hand-made" (there is some ambiguity to their authenticity) goods for sale. I've gotten so good at not buying stuff from people, it's almost fun.
A Couple hill tribe ladies. This is the only picture I got of them.
Sapa Town from down the road
The people we were trekking with did a homestay at the end of the trek (we didn't stay because our trek didn't include it, and we were only in Sapa for one night). Their homestay was like a night at the Ritz compared to ours. The host spoke English, there were beds, there was a bathroom with a toilet AND there was a hot shower! Also, I didn't notice a peephole in the bathroom like there was in the dark, 4 foot tall outhouse in Laos (I didn't mention it before, but when we were using the outhouse at our homestay, the local children would peep through a hole in the wall and giggle). We ran into 2 of the people who did the Sapa homestay the on the train home- apparently the family had been cooking a feast for them since breakfast and they ate and drank rice wine and had a jolly good time all night. Bullshit.