Vietnam had been calling me.
I was in the middle of my second month of my round-the-world trip, and was sad to admit that other than New Zealand, no particular place had really blown me away yet. I was certainly enjoying everywhere I was going, but I wasn’t falling in love, per se.
I was in Kuala Lumpur (which I did love, by the way), but had only planned to be there for a short time before venturing off somewhere else. Myanmar? Cambodia? Laos? Once you’re in Southeast Asia, the options seem limitless and it becomes overwhelming to choose one. So I jumped on skyscanner and typed in “Hanoi, Vietnam.” $40 for a flight? Booked.
This would be my first time entering a country needing a visa; and while I was a little nervous to get one on arrival, the process was incredibly easy and fairly quick (maybe 30 minutes max). You can use either USD or Vietnamese Dong to pay, and it equates to $25. I thought of all of the things that could go wrong; it was my first time entering a communist country, plus, I was there at the exact same time as Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un for the summit.
It was all fine, though. And thanks to the app Grab Taxi (download it NOW if you’re going to Southeast Asia), I managed to score a taxi for $10 from the airport to my hostel in Old Town Hanoi (about an hour ride).
The streets were lined with American and North Korean flags, with a “handshake” symbol between them. While I had no desire to spot either of these infamous leaders, I am grateful to say I was there during that time as I was able to fully witness propaganda first hand.
As we got closer to Old Town, I started to understand why people quickly fell in love with Vietnam.
Motorbikes going in every direction, hundreds of people walking around with their arms full of trays of produce, the bizarre smells of the street food, the vendors lined up waiting for customers. Pure and total chaos.
I arrived to my hostel, checked in, and basically ran out the door to start exploring. I was hungry and I figured, I’m in Vietnam, let me be as cliche as possible and get a bahn mi for my first meal.
I ordered a bahn mi (with all the likings; pate, cilantro, carrots, pork, ham, you name it) and a beer. The cost? $1.50.
I didn’t do tons my first day; just took in the atmosphere and got lost in the streets. And ate. I ate a lot. I learned quickly that in Vietnam, most places just have a name listed out front and that is the one dish that they serve. And it is true that most of these places are TINY and you are expected to sit in a tiny stool, often without a table. I stumbled upon a place called “bun cha” and I got my first taste of it. Bun cha is a broth consisting mainly of sugar and fish sauce, served with rice noodles, herbs (everything in Vietnam is filled with tons of herbs), pork patties, and a side of chilis to add to your liking. I didn’t fully understand how it worked; I watched a lady clip rice noodles from a giant bucket and set them in front of me. So I just mixed it all up and, seems I did it right.
At one point, I walked toward Hanoi Opera House, and the streets leading up to it were the fanciest thing I had seen during my entire time in Southeast Asia (think fifth ave NYC). Boutiques, patisseries, galleries; not things you quite think of when thinking “Vietnam.” The Opera House was covered in flowers, and to my surprise, was one block from where Kim Jong Un and Trump were having their press conference, so I first-hand witnessed a different type of chaos while in Hanoi. Many of the streets were closed down due to security and I saw thousands of hungry reporters with their cameras / tripods up ready to try to catch a glimpse of either famous leader. It was a bit funny to be honest. I can whole-heartedly say I am not a supporter of either of these men or their rhetoric, but I of course needed a novelty souvenir that was only available during this time, so yes, I bought a Trump / Kim Jong Un t-shirt ($4 well spent).
Throughout my time in Hanoi (five days total, which I think was the perfect pace), I did all of the touristy things: I ate at the famous Obama / Bourdain restaurant for bun cha (bestill my heart, and yes, it’s worth it), I went to the Ho Chi Mihn Massoleum (Dress code, people! I almost wasn’t allowed in because I was in neon orange shorts; a degrading moment in itself, by the way; they made me do a “spin” for them to “ensure my clothing was proper”), I went to Chua Tran Quoc (a pagoda smack in the middle of the city on a bridge overlooking a lake), and even went to Train Street. You can find millions of those itineraries out there, though. I am here to tell you why I fell in love with Hanoi.
I had been traveling for the longest amount of time to date (around 40 days on the road), and I had been feeling like I wasn’t happy. I quit my job to travel the world, why wasn’t that void being filled? Up until Vietnam, I had been living in the next moment instead of the present one. I had just completed a few weeks in the Philippines, a place I was assuming I’d completely fall in love with, and I left disappointed and much broker than I thought I would. I was feeling discouraged. I started to doubt why I was doing this.
I had to start admitting to myself that I truly missed New York City. I missed my friends and I missed day-drinking at a shitty bar on my days off with them. I missed chaos.
And though I ripped myself off of more time in Malaysia by being impulsive and booking that $40 flight, I am so grateful I did. I bounced out of my negative bubble almost immediately when I walked around the streets of Hanoi.
Some people are obsessed with islands and going from one beautiful beach to the next, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. My round-the-world trip had proven to be a time I needed to constantly listen to my body. I had freedom at my own discretion and could jump on a flight whenever I didn’t want to be somewhere, and that ended up being a learning experience in itself. I loved being near the water and listening to the ocean breeze, but weeks of that was not satisfying to me. Almost getting hit by a motorbike (or hundreds of them) every time I crossed the street and eating mystery food out of a cart for about a dollar, however, was.
You can find itineraries anywhere on the internet, like I said, and everything I listed above, I do highly recommend. A lot of Southeast Asia is filled with the world’s most beautiful beaches and islands, but if you have the time, and you hear your heart calling for something a little more adventurous, head to Hanoi.