The Vietnam Diaries 2011: July 17th – Hanoi

Tucked in between two nondescript houses, our hotel is easy to miss at first. It is narrow like the rest of them, but stands an impressive 9-stories tall. It is somewhat aptly named Rising Dragon III Hotel and it is the only pre-planned point in our journey. We’ve booked it online prior to our arrival.

We step out and pay the driver, while a few guys from the hotel grab our bags and bring them inside. Everybody is smiling and welcoming. We’re offered tea and coffee while we wait for our room to be made ready. Tea is served with sweet milk (hell yeah!) and I instantly know I’m going to love this country. What can I say, I’m easy like that (or I have a slight sugar addiction).

We’re shown to our room where we quickly regroup and decide to squeeze in some sightseeing before heading to sleep. Downstairs a helpful receptionist gives us some good tips on what to see and where to eat. She also warmly recommends catching a “water puppets” show before we leave Hanoi. She pronounces it “water poo pets”, which would actually be equally, if not more, intriguing. We get a map of the city from her and step out into the yet-unknown outside world of city.

Immediately we’re overwhelmed by the sheer chaos, noise and confusion that is Hanoi. In the cab we have been observing the world through a window, but now we’re right in the middle of it all. Traffic is absolutely insane, motobikes zooming past each other without any visible order. Nobody stops to make way for pedestrians, or anyone else for that matter. It takes us a while to discover a workable way to cross streets, which basically involves running directly through the traffic while praying to make it. For those of you who have played Frogger – it’s exactly like that, but with much better graphics. For those of you who haven’t played Frogger, here’s what I’m talking about:

By the time we reach Hoan Kiem Lake we have witnessed a few minor motorbike accidents. No fuss is made about these – people just get up, dust themselves off and keep on going. It seems motorbike accidents are as common here as pointless status updates are on Facebook (“Look, I’m really happy you love your take-out chicken meal, but now I fucking hate you for making me read about it”).

It is twilight by now, so the lake is submerged in darkness, acting as a giant mirror for the countless city lights. We take a walk around the lake and absorb the high-energy vibe of the city. People are out in numbers. Some are couples taking romantic strolls or sitting on benches close to the water. Some are trying to sell roses to the couples. Many are jogging or exercising in more creative ways:

Despite moving to a much larger apartment, Mr. Pham never quite changed his sleeping habits

We make a complete circle around the lake. Katka is feverishly snapping pictures of the many new and enthralling sights. Soon enough we get hungry and decide to stop by one of the restaurants recommended by our friendly receptionist. On the way there we get lost approximately 173 times. We also get to witness some distant thunderstorms, which look exactly like fireworks exploding continuously inside many massive clouds. Awesome (as many terrifying things can be)!

We finally find the restaurant – Quan An Ngon. If we had any hopes of escaping the hectic streets and finding some peace inside, those hopes are instantly erased. The restaurant is a giant outdoor courtyard filled with tables upon tables upon, you guessed it, tables. Not a single table is empty. The perimeter of the courtyard is lined with food stalls cooking up every Vietnamese dish imaginable. There are dozens of waiters, dressed in three different types of uniforms, distinguished mainly by colour. Waiters receive orders at the tables, then run around the many food stalls assembling the complete order from these mini-dishes. It’s like Lego, except delicious.

We’re put on a waiting list, but in less than five minutes a table is found and we’re seated on a bench right next to a Vietnamese family with two young children. Leave your concepts of “personal space” at home – it’s not something that exists here. The kids are playing and running around the table as we order our meal. I try to show off my non-existent knowledge of Vietnamese by reading out the words exactly as they appear in the menu. Our waiter encourages this with smiles and nods, even though it’s obvious he doesn’t consider me a linguistic genius.

Food is brought in no time. I’m impressed by how the waiters manage to avoid getting confused and stressed by the sheer amount of people, orders and food stalls they must attend to. Our dishes taste great and I even risk ordering some glutinous rice swimming in honey for dessert. Our bill for three different dishes, two desserts and several drinks runs up to a whopping 10 dollars. I can certainly get used to this!

We make our way home, getting lost only 89 times on the way – progress! The day’s impressions are overwhelmingly positive, despite the many contrasts to our much calmer and predictable Copenhagen life. Locals are friendly; sights are hypnotising.

Back inside the hotel I make a heart-breaking discovery…none of my gadgets can access Facebook! I’m the victim of the Vietnamese Facebook ban that seems to affect people randomly. How will I let my friends know that I loved my chicken meal? They need to hear about it! I demand freedom of sharing random crap in my status. To add insult to injury, while not a single one of my three Internet-capable devices can get on to Facebook, Katka has no problem accessing her account from her iPhone. However, this same iPhone fails to log on with my account. Damn you, Apple – I never quite liked you, but I didn’t realise this was mutual!

Katka goes to sleep. I’m jet-lagged and have trouble falling asleep immediately. I spend some time writing up travel notes (you’re reading their extended version right now). Also, I try in vain to get Facebook access, using a numerous tips and tricks. If you do a simple Google search on “Vietnam Facebook access” you’ll get a long list of websites teaching you how to bypass the ban. After trying many of those I can now tell you with some authority – it doesn’t freaking work. At least if you’re me. If you’re not me – try them out!

After struggling with the issue for more than an hour, I finally cave in to the fatigue and go to sleep. Follow the link to “Day 3”.

Also, remember to tune in to Katka’s Flickr page for pictures from this epic trip.

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