The Vietnam Diaries 2011: July 24th – Hanoi

We arrive back to Hanoi shortly after 4:00 in the morning. Our cab ride back costs 50,000 dong, which is also the maximum price our hotel staff have instructed us to pay (and we obviously don’t want to look like schmucks in front of them). The cab driver speeds through red lights and breaks a couple of other traffic rules. But it’s early in the morning and there are few other cars, so that makes it legal, right?

It’s pitch dark inside the hotel and the doors are locked. We knock and wake a few of the hotel workers, who have been asleep on improvised beds assembled out of the lobby chairs. A male receptionist zombie-walks to the front desk and fishes out our room key. We’re given a room on the top floor with a good view over Hanoi.

Our room is on the 9th floor, but the elevator only goes to the 7th. This is because, according to an ancient Vietnamese prophecy, taking elevators to higher floors summons the ghosts of evil building contractors, which is a rather bad omen. The other possible explanation is that extra floors have been added after the elevator’s completion, but how likely is that?!

“Who dares travel up here?! Got spare change?”

The room is smaller than our original one and is almost fully taken up by a huge bed. We make full use of this bed, if you know what I mean. That’s right, we sleep like two bricks until 9:30.

We go down for breakfast. The hotel staff ask us about our impressions from the Sapa trip. They also tell us we’ll be picked up from the hotel at 14:30, so that we can make it to the 15:45 train to Hue. They continue to spoil us (and we’re loving it). After breakfast we return to the room. Katka takes a nap, while I surf the Internet to catch up on latest developments (most of them sombre – Utoja shootings, bullet trains colliding in China, Amy Winehouse is dead). After this refreshing look at the world of news headlines we plan our last shopping tour to stock up for the long train ride to Hue.

I have already told you about our futile attempts to find Fivimart, a big supermarket described in Lonely Planet. Since we’re both rather stubborn people we decide to go for yet another shop-finding adventure. This time we enlist the help of our receptionist, who gives us a detailed map of the area along with equally detailed directions. You’d think we should have no problem finding it now. You’d be wrong!

We run a full circle around the Hoan Kiem Lake without finding the store. Then we try again to follow the street indicated in Lonely Planet. We find a flashy place called “Civilize”, which is either a nightclub or a casino (or both?). We ask a man standing outside about how to find Fivimart. He points vaguely in the direction of where we came from. He may as well have told us it’s “somewhere in Hanoi”.

He also mockingly tries to sell us this sign as a souvenir…

At this stage we finally give up and decide to shop elsewhere. We find a small mini market and stock up on some canned food, bread, and hand wipes. Suspiciously, the lady at the cash register doesn’t use the product scanner and instead punches in some numbers into an old calculator, before presenting us with the total cost. She most likely overcharges us, but the end sum is modest enough to not warrant any arguments.

On the way back to the hotel we decide to walk a new street to mix things up. What can I say, we love living on the edge! Half way through the street we notice a giant supermarket ahead of us. As we get closer, we are shocked to discover that we’re standing in front of the infamous Fivimart. It’s like finding an oasis in a desert, except after having already drunk some ostrich blood instead (and paid for it).

Nevertheless, we want to use the opportunity to buy up more things for the trip. Inside we’re told that Fivimart rules demand that we leave our bags in a locker. At the same time a sign on the locker says that Fivimart bears no responsibility if our stuff goes missing. How convenient! I see they’re learning from the comparably bullshit coat-check disclaimers.

We buy some cold cuts, apples, instant noodles, yoghurt and yomost (uuuuhm, yomost!). We have definitely gotten more stuff than we bought at the mini market and we’re charged less for it. So the calculator-woman has indeed overcharged us, but I don’t care because YOMOST! Mind-blowingly good, see for yourself:

On the way back Katka starts feeling weak and dizzy. My guess is it’s Yomost-deficiency, but I’m not sure that’s an accurate medical diagnosis. We get to the hotel just as it suddenly starts pouring down. Katka drinks a lot of cold water, eats a yoghurt and some hastily made sandwiches and immediately feels better. Katka and I play doctor, if you know what I mean. That’s right, we browse some online medical advice sites to help us diagnose her symptoms. We conclude she has heat exhaustion. Decision is made to keep her well rested, cool at all times and out of direct sunlight (sort of like you have to do with Yomost).

At 14:30 we go down to the lobby to say goodbye to our friendly hotel staff. We give them a box of candy and leave a generous tip in the “tip box” by the reception. Mr. Son, the manager, gives us final walk-through of the trip to Hue and tells us to get in touch in case we need any help once we’re back in Hanoi. He hands us some business cards to pass on to friends and encourages us to give Rising Dragon III a review on Booking.con and His boss apparently bases the employee bonus on the ratings they get. We were planning to do so in the first place, so we promise we will. (CONTINUE TO PAGE 2)

The Vietnam Diaries 2011: July 20th – Hanoi

We’re up at 9:30 and go down to catch breakfast before 10:00. Before we’re able to make it to the restaurant we’re ambushed by the receptionist who starts telling us the plan for our evening departure to Sapa. She doesn’t get far before she is interrupted by Mr. Son (hotel manager). There’s some visible tension between them and the woman walks off muttering something in Vietnamese (if we listened closely enough I’m sure we could have learned a few useful swear words). I guess she’s not happy about Mr. Son “stealing” us, now that we’ve reached our VIP status. Mr. Son tells us that everything’s been arranged for our trip. We should be back by 19:00 to be driven to the train station where we’ll take a night train to Lao Cai as part of our journey.

We set out to look for a place to stock up for our homestay with the tribes in Sapa. We’ve done some research on staying with e.g. Hmong and the recommended gear is:

  • Toilet paper (a rare item in most homes of Hmong and other tribes)
  • Token presents for kids (pens, pencils, notepads, candy)
  • A gift for the host family

This kind of diverse shopping list is best served by a supermarket. One problem: there aren’t any supermarkets. It does not seem to be a very common store format around here. There are a couple of specialised stores selling toiletries and similar household items, but that’s not enough to cover the full list. Lonely Planet mentions a proper supermarket called Fivimart. What it doesn’t mention is that Fivimart will only make itself visible during the full moon in uneven months to those whose minds have reached a higher plane of consciousness. It’s entirely impossible to locate and the map provided by Lonely Planet points to a wrong location.

“So, can you see the final destination coordinates, marked with a giant “X”? Well that’s not it!”

After unsuccessful attempts at finding the elusive Fivimart we settle on a smaller hypermarket that has most of what we need (except pens, pencils and notebooks we thought of giving to the Hmong). We get a big and fancy looking box of candy for the host family and a few small packs of candy to hand out to kids. We go back to the hotel to pack and check out. We leave our bags at the reception and go out to catch a few more Hanoi “must sees”.

First stop is Lenin Park. Or, more Vietnamically (that’s totally a word, I swear) – Lê-Nín Park. Vietnamese have a compulsion about splitting multi-syllable words into smaller words or at least hyphenating every syllable, something I’ve already explored in my earlier posts. Lenin Park is clean and rather small. It’s full of people exercising and men playing that same mysterious game with long narrow cards that we’ve seen on our first day.

Right across the street from the park is the Flag Tower of Hanoi. It…towers…over 40 metres above the city. We turn onto a road to the right of the tower and make our way to the Presidential Palace complex. The streets here are much wider than in the Old Quarter and with far fewer people walking them. In fact, the only people around are stone-faced guards standing by giant gates to the Ministry of Defence. Katka wisely decides not to take any pictures here, because our travel plans don’t include a trip to prison on espionage charges.

To really teach you a lesson they use your own camera to take your mugshot

The whole area is filled with imposing government buildings and embassies. There are guards on every corner and guides by every building. What I’m saying is: there are quite a few guards here. Most houses have cars parked by them. Owning a car here is a sign of wealth and bad spacial awareness, since the majority of roads in the Old Quarter can probably accommodate around half a car at best.

We make it to the Presidential Palace, but finding a way inside proves tricky. There are many different gates, but only one of them is the “official” entrance, so it takes us quite some time to walk around and find it. Inside the “park” we find that we’re limited to exploring only a small area of the premises. We can look at the Presidential Palace but not come too close to it.

Essentially, we can only see the areas where Ho Chi Minh used to live. The dude loved the whole “keeping it simple” thing so much that he refused to live in the Palace itself. Instead he built himself a wacky Stilt House and surrounded it with bearded bush-dragons disguised as Santa Clauses:


We explore the area and check out the Stilt House, mango road, an older house where Ho Chi Minh lived earlier, a lake full of carp and a small museum with some Soviet cars Ho owned. “Pimp My Ride” wasn’t that big of a thing back then, so the cars range in colour from grey all the way to black.

Outside of the Presidential Palace enclosure is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Here Ho himself lies in an embalmed state, waiting to spook faint-hearted visitors. We only admired the building from the outside. Not because we’re faint-hearted, but because we’re scared senseless of Ho’s ghost haunting us in the night.

Nearby is the One Pillar Pagoda, which is a small wooden temple built on a single stone pillar. It’s supposed to resemble a lotus blossom, but instead my brain conjures up an image of Baba Yaga’s Hut on chicken legs. I’m crazy like that. Right next to it is the Ho Chi Minh Museum. Again we only explore the building from the outside, since by now our brains are thoroughly ho-chi-minhified (also, totally a word). (CONTINUE TO PAGE 2)

The Vietnam Diaries 2011: July 19th – Perfume Pagoda

Sleep comes only at 4AM, despite my sincere efforts to count sheep and other farm animals. Alarm goes off at 7AM – damn it! Down for breakfast at 7:30. Breakfast consists of a small side buffet with snack-sized foods, fruit and sweets. In addition there’s coffee and tea and a choice of regular milk as well as sweet condensed milk. Finally, there’s a menu with a limited selection of dishes, from which one can be picked by each guest. Everything is fresh and delicious.

We book the 3-day Sapa trip with our friendly receptionist. It seems that our prolonged stay and the fact that we’re arranging numerous trips through the hotel has bumped us to “VIP status”. So when we ask to book tickets for a train to Hue upon our return from Sapa it is the hotel manager, Mr. Son, himself that shows up to take care of it. He suggests we book a late afternoon train instead of the early morning one we originally requested. That will give us more time to rest and allow us to sleep overnight on the way to Hue. Mr. Son also says that he’ll give us a free room to use between our return from Sapa and our departure to Hue. At this stage I’m seriously considering to stay in Vietnam forever. Sure, on the one hand I’ve got my whole life back in Denmark, but on the other hand – free hotel rooms and sweet milk in my coffee! It’s a tough call.

“So let me get this straight – I don’t get paid to work here, but can have all the free coffee I want? Where do I sign?!”

At 8:00 we’re picked up by a minibus to be driven to Perfume Pagoda. The minibus stops at several other hotels to pick up the rest of the tourists. We’re joined by a Vietnamese man with his daughter, a young Spanish-Italian couple and an older French couple. After everyone’s picked up our United Nations delegation sets off on a 2 hour drive to the pagoda complex.

The drive is quite hectic. Our driver has an aggressive driving style and zig-zags through the motorbike masses, honking every few minutes. I have a sneaking suspicion that he believes he’s in a racing video game. At some stage during the drive the tour guide lady turns around and attempts to engage the group by introducing herself and giving us a sneak peek into the upcoming adventure. The group acts bored and largely ignores the guide. So, trying to be the nice guy, I listen to her with almost exaggerated attention, nodding and smiling after every sentence. At some stage she must start to think that I’m a bit retarded, because she wraps up her speech and stays mostly silent for the rest of the drive.

On the way to the pagoda complex we are surrounded by rice fields. I notice that many rice fields have tomb stones on them and ask our guide about this. She explains that up North it is quite common to bury family members on the plots of land the family owns. Down South the space is more limited, so the government enforces burials at central cemeteries. Here in the North you can grow rice and visit your family’s graveyard while you’re at it.

Even in her death my mother-in-law’s disapproving gaze is mocking my farming skills!

After driving through the rice fields and some small villages without proper roads (getting almost stuck a few times along the way) we finally arrive to the Yen River. An almost hour-long boat ride up the river is the only way to get to the Perfume Pagoda complex. We are divided into 2-3 person groups and each group is assigned a boat with a rower. Immediately, our attention is drawn to the curious rowing style employed here. Instead of sitting with their backs facing the front of the boat and pulling the oars towards them the rowers sit at the back and push the oars away from them to move the boat. This is not what we’re used to in the West. Maybe it’s an unknown variation of the Coriolis Effect?

Anything you can do we can do…in more a contrived manner

We get to sit in the boat with our female guide, which turns out to be quite useful as she shares some interesting trivia with us. For example, did you know that the Yen River is filled with many hundreds of boats at a time at the start of the Tet Festival? Locals swarm to the Perfume Pagoda in order to pray to the Buddha and to be cleansed, so that they start the new year from a clean slate. In their rush for this cleansing they rent out every boat possible and effectively block out the whole river. It’s like traffic jams in LA, but on water and without the road rage.

Another piece of information we pick up is about the typical conical hats popular in Vietnam and other places in Asia. The hats are usually made of palm or coconut leaves held together by bamboo strings. Apparently these hats do a lot more than just make you look extra fashionable and uber cool. They also offer sun and rain protection (and are especially quick to dry after rain). They can be taken down and used as fans when it’s very hot.

Finally, they can act as rather effective water filters. A hat owner can push one of these into a river tip-first and the hat will let the water through while keeping the fish, leaves and other river debris away. Then the lucky hat owner can use one hand to drink this filtered water, or maybe even dip his/her whole face in this pool of filtered deliciousness. I assume these hats can also act as pretty awesome Frisbees, but sadly I haven’t seen a lot of “hat frisbeeing” going on. Seriously though, that has got to be one of the most versatile yet simple items of clothing in existence. As long as you’ve got a conical hat and a Swiss Army knife you’re ready to dominate any Survivor series. (CONTUNE TO PAGE 2)

The Vietnam Diaries 2011: July 18th – Hanoi

I am woken up at midnight by Katka shuffling blankets and bed sheets around. Apparently there were some invisible monsters crawling in the bed and she’s on a brave quest to locate and exterminate them. I cannot tell whether this behaviour is the result of some unknown jetlag side-effect or whether there in fact have been some insects in our bed.

Following the unsuccessful search for bed bugs Katka goes back to sleep. I try to do the same, but with less luck. You see, my brain often does this thing where it goes into thinking mode and won’t switch off. If I applied all that brain power for good I would have secured world peace about ten years ago. Unfortunately, the things my brain usually focuses on at such moments are of the “did I remember to pack a toothbrush” and “what’s our ‘to do’ list for tomorrow” variety.

After attempting ineffectual remedies like reading and trying to fix the banned Facebook, I finally fall asleep around five in the morning. I sleep until one in the afternoon. It is too late for the breakfast served downstairs, so we have a quick snack in our room with the complimentary fruit and 3-in-1 coffee provided by the hotel. Then we head downstairs to arrange trips for the next day and do some extended sightseeing.

Upon seeing the receptionist I say “Good morning!”, since my brain has been awake for less than half an hour and it is indeed morning back in Denmark. The receptionist answers with “Good afternoon!” and gives me a wide smile. Schooled in the art of English by the “water poo pet” lady – touché! We arrange with her for one of the pre-packaged trips to the Perfume Pagoda the next day and then head out to explore. Before we step out we’re given an umbrella, which is supposed to protect us from the sun (in Denmark this function is served by layers of rain clouds that don’t go away).

Two-thirds of the Danish population are unable to correctly identify the object in this picture

We have a quick “breakfast” (it’s around two in the afternoon by now) at a cafe full of westerners. Prices are high compared to the rest of Hanoi, but still well below anything we’re used to in Denmark. Here we do some planning for the upcoming days and settle on a three-day trip to Sapa, which is yet another one of the tours organised by Rising Dragon III hotel. We find out that the umbrella is more a burden than anything else, so for the rest of the trip I carry it lodged between the backpack and my back, like a (very ineffective) Samurai sword.

We still don’t know much about Hanoi and the must-see places. Fortunately, Lonely Planet has a ready-made one day tour meant specifically for tourists who spend less time researching their destinations than Kesha spends inventing song lyrics. We decide to follow this tour, which starts at the same Hoan Kiem Lake that we’ve visited the night before. We discover that our traffic navigation skills have already improved dramatically and we make it to the lake faster and with far fewer near-death experiences than yesterday.

In the middle of the lake on a tiny island lies the Ngoc Son Temple, which is built in honour of Tran Hung Dao. According to the first link this guy “defeated a force of 300,000” Mongolians. I assume he had an army to help him achieve this feat. Else he’s the 13th century equivalent of Rambo, only armed with nuclear weapons (and otherwise well equipped, if his “subtle” middle name is anything to go by). The small wooden bridge leading to the island is filled with groups of people pouring in and out of the temple. We take a few pictures of the island from the bridge and decide to skip the temple visit itself for now. Instead we follow our receptionist’s recommendation and head on over to the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. Here we get tickets for the next evening, after our planned return from the Perfume Pagoda.

As we leave the ticket booth we are ambushed by a female street seller carrying various fruit on a stick to which two baskets are attached. Before we can say “what the fuck is going on” her hat is on Katka’s head and the stick is thrown over Katka’s shoulder. The woman points towards our camera, while constantly nodding and smiling. I snap a picture of Katka. Then the hat and carrying stick migrate to my head and shoulder. Katka snaps a picture of me. The woman throws some random fruits into a plastic bag, hands it to us and asks for 100,000 dong. I know this is way too much from my extensive online research during the sleepless night before. We end up leaving her with 50,000 dong, bringing the price level from “daylight robbery” to “steeply overcharged”.

Those kiwi fruits better have gold flakes in them! Wait, on second thought, I really hope they don’t!

Katka is on a hunt for some Vietnam-appropriate pants that are comfortable to wear with all the humidity, so we swing by a clothes store. We agree that I’ll be the official price negotiator for this trip, even though haggling isn’t exactly my forte. Katka settles on a pair of Ali Baba Pants and calls me over to negotiate. I apply all of the advanced bargaining techniques I’ve learned from reading stuff. They include going to below half of asking price, pretending to leave, stating that I’ve seen the pants sold cheaper elsewhere and threatening the shop owners with a gun. OK, I didn’t try that last one, but I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it work in a movie (or ten). To my surprise I manage to bring the price down from the starting 320,000 dong to 150,000 (although I have no clue whether even that price is reasonable). (CONTINUE TO PAGE 2)

The Vietnam Diaries 2011: July 17th – Hanoi

We land in Hanoi around half past two in the afternoon, after flying above some breathtaking sights of the country. Many of us are foreigners, so we all pile up next to the “Visa On Arrival” booth. Katka and I are carrying fifty US dollars in crisp 10-dollar bills. These are needed for the “stamping fee” to get our pre-approved visas.

The “Visa On Arrival” booth is operated by several men and women in brown-green uniforms with red stars and other patriotic symbols on them. We deliver the documents in one window and are asked to go around to the second window to get the actual visas. I dunno, maybe it’s more impressive that way?

Another young couple is waiting in front of us. At some stage they run into trouble with their payment and turn to us with a 20-dollar note. Figuring that they just need to break the twenty, we give them two of our 10-dollar bills in exchange. When our turn comes to pay we give the visa-woman our cash, including the twenty dollar bill we got from the couple. The woman feeds each note to some sort of machine at her desk. After the 20-dollar bill goes through the machine the woman turns to us and says: “Not enough!”.

Following a short back-and-forth we find out that what she means is that the 20-dollar bill is unacceptable. The reason? The machine says so. Why does the machine say so? Nobody knows, but since it’s the 21st century arguing with robots is futile. The only conclusion I can draw is that this advanced gizmo estimates the extent of wear-and-rear on the bill. According to Lonely Planet Vietnamese will refuse to accept US dollar bills if they are too wrinkled. I guess building an apparatus to evaluate these wrinkles was the natural next step.

There you have it, America – not all your bills are created equal

In the end we’re rescued by a third young couple behind us, who take our bills and pay for all four of us with a single 100-dollar note (I think the machine actually said “Chaaaa-ching!” in human voice when the visa-woman fed the bill to it).

We head to “Information”, where we’re told we should pay around 300,000 dong (15 dollars) for a cab ride to the city centre. Katka takes out some local currency and we’re set to go. As we near the exit we’re intercepted by a guy who flashes a business card with a picture of a car on it and tells us he’s from the official taxi company and can take us where we need to go. Because nothing signals “official taxi company” like a guy sneaking around the interior of the terminal with a home-printed business card, while looking around his shoulder every few moments.

Before we can respond to the man he’s approached by another guy and after a short but heated verbal exchange the “official” man and his “official” business card leave the building. The second guy now waves for us to follow him. He leads us outside to a neat row of cabs parked by the curb. Together with his colleagues he throws our bags into the trunk and then gets into the driver’s seat. Looks like we’ve gotten ourselves a ride into town. We agree on a price of 350,000 dong for being driven all the way to our hotel.

After passing a toll booth our driver makes gestures with his hands and speaks some numbers. Assuming that he’s asking for more money to cover the toll booth costs I shake my head and tell him we’ve agreed on the price already. He drives silently for another five minutes and then suddenly turns off the road and stops the car by a sidewalk. Katka is sure that he’s going to throw us out for arguing (or maybe even sell us as slaves to some underground gang). Instead, he takes out a bunch of notes and starts counting them. Then he hands them to me. Just as I get excited at the prospect of getting free money I realise that he’s showing me what he expects us to pay at the end (damn you, logical thinking!). Since it adds up to 350,000 dong I nod my approval and our journey resumes. No free cash this time, but one can always hope.

“Sir, you got another bag delivered. Shall I put it by the window with the rest of them?”

As we get closer to our hotel the streets get narrower and livelier. We’re now driving through Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Tiny sidewalks are filled with people, most of whom are eating outside of cafes, playing a mysterious game with long narrow cards, or selling various merchandise. Our driver asks for directions from a nearby local and finally turns onto our street – Nguyen Van To. Narrow and tall “tube houses” huddle next to each other on both sides of the street and goods from street merchants spill out almost onto the road. There are fruits and vegetables, all sorts of plastic household goods, toiletries, souvenirs and many other random articles being sold. Our driver squeezes the car past all of these and carefully nudges forward, until we finally reach the hotel. (CONTINUE TO PAGE 2)

The Vietnam Diaries 2011: July 16th – Copenhagen & Warsaw


Our plane takes off from Copenhagen. We’re flying with LOT Polish Airlines, so we have a stopover in Warsaw before heading directly to Hanoi. It’s after eight in the evening on the 16th of July and thanks to the time difference we’ll land in Hanoi mid-day on the 17th.

We know exactly what we’re going to do for three weeks and have our itinerary fully planned out. Not! As it happens, we only have a vague idea that we’ll spend a bit of time in Hanoi and then head down to Central Vietnam, somewhere around Hue. While Katka (my girlfriend) has spent a decent amount of time browsing through Lonely Planet and highlighting places of interest, I know approximately nothing about the country we’re heading to.

Sure, I’ve had “history” in high school and I’ve seen a few movies that had something to do with Vietnam. However, I’ve stopped turning to Hollywood for reliable information ever since they’ve mislead me with Shrek. Turns out donkeys can’t talk – I’ve done my research, liars! Well, at least the rest of Shrek was factually accurate, I believe. Thankfully, Lonely Planet also has brief sections on history and culture, so my plan is to read these on the flight from Warsaw to Hanoi and thus instantly turn myself into an expert on all things Vietnam. Yeah, I’m happily naive like that.

Everything there’s to know about the world should be right here on this note

The Copenhagen-Warsaw flight is pretty uneventful. Katka spends the flight dozing off. I spend it clutching the arm-rests at any sign of turbulence (I guess in the hope of holding the plane up with the sheer strength of my muscles). Despite being a seasoned flyer I’m still recovering from a recently found flight anxiety brought on by an especially turbulent flight from Atlanta to Copenhagen the year before.


Thanks to my arms’ efforts at holding the plane airborne we make it safely to Warsaw. Our layover is just one hour. Everyone piles out of the plane and straight into…security control. Whaaaa? We have just left a plane, which we boarded in Denmark after going through a security check. Do Polish airport employees not trust their Danish counterparts to do a decent job? Or, more interestingly, do they believe we have somehow arranged for in-flight delivery of weapons and illegal goods?

“Thanks for the mail, you stupid bird, but I have specifically asked for an AK-47 and some heroin. What a fucking amateur!”

To add insult to injury, the Polish staff decide to only have one of the two X-ray conveyors operational, so a giant line is soon created. Everyone is also forced to take off their shoes, so at this point I’m starting to suspect that the Poles are just fucking with us for the fun of it. Around half an hour later we’re finally through and hurry to our gate, with only one small hurdle in the way – Passport Control.

There are four booths open in total, three of them for EU citizens, one for all others. Good news – Katka is an EU citizen. Bad news – yours truly isn’t. The line for non-EU crowd is also significantly longer and no effort is made to speed up the process by opening extra booths. I’m stuck behind a group of no less than forty Russian kids travelling with a few tutors. Behind me are a bunch of people heading to Beirut whose plane is supposed to leave 5 minutes before ours.

As you would expect in this type of situation, everbody just stands calmly in the line and silently awaits their turn. Or, more accurately, everybody flips the hell out and gets into heated arguments with everyone else about who needs to go through first while yelling and shoving.

“What do you mean ‘calm down’?! This is my happy face!”

Thanks to some divine intervention (and a nasty disagreement with one of the Russian tutors) I slip through about 5 minutes before departure time. Shortly afterwards we’re speeding up to take off. While we’re still on the runway one of the overhead bin doors swings open. A nearby female passenger gets up from her seat and starts trying to get it closed. Every time she swings it closed it opens right back up, but the woman doesn’t give up, even after around twenty attempts. The whole repetitive “close-open” routine is starting to look like a mad scene from a Tom & Jerry cartoon, although I’m getting more stressed out than amused by this as my flight anxiety kicks in. The door stays closed after the woman gets help from a flight attendant and returns safely to her seat.

Up in the air we catch a few episodes of How I Met Your Mother and I calm down, because it’s hard to be laughing at Barney’s antics while simultaneously being afraid for own life. Later on Katka manages to sleep for the majority of the flight. I read the sections on Vietnam’s history and culture. I discover that, despite being under Chinese rule for a big chunk of its existence, Vietnam kicked some serious ass in most confrontations with other powers throughout its history. So Hollywood wasn’t completely off afterall. Who would have thought?!

Armed with that knowledge plus some tit-bits on Vietnamese culture and customs I join Katka and catch a few sporadic naps. Next stop – Hanoi! Click here for “Day 2”.

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

Vietnam 2011: General Observations (Part I)

This summer my girlfriend Katka and I went on a three week trip to Vietnam. More specifically we went from mid-July to beginning of August. Even more specifically we went to Northern Vietnam with a “minor” detour to Central Vietnam and then back.

It just so happens that in exactly Northern Vietnam the travel period we’ve picked is considered monsoon season, also known as “holy fuck that’s a lot of water, let me go get my umbre…gulp gulp gulp”. It is essentially the worst possible period to travel through Northern Vietnam, but a great period for local raincoat peddlers – sales are up 247.51% (give or take). Check out the encouraging chart from

“Soooo, those dark clouds are a good thing, right?”

For the record, Katka and I are not clinically stupid travel planners. And no, we’re not weirdos with an overdeveloped rain fetish. Although that last claim is on shaky ground, seeing how we live in Copenhagen – the place where Europe’s rain clouds come to hang out and throw parties. It simply was the only real window in our work schedules for this kind of trip. I know, stupid work. Stupid source of all our income.

Despite the bad timing, we have been immensely lucky to dodge most rain. The trip has been fantastic and full of adventures. Vietnam’s nature is breathtaking and there are stark differences between Northern and Central Vietnam, which made every day of the trip a unique experience.

Over the next few months you will see my extensive travel notes from the trip gradually appear on this very blog, complete with a good doze of unhealthy rambling. These will be in chronological order, because I am both annoyingly structured and not-Quentin-Tarantino.

Today I want to share with you some general observations about Vietnam that I find curious or amusing or…wait for it…both. So, without further ado (and in no particular order):

Observation 1 – Motorbike Safety

There are many, many motorbikes in Vietnam. Without any attempt at applying such concepts as “math” and “logic” I’ll put the number of motorbikes per person at around 5-6. Seriously though, motorbikes are as common in Vietnam as lack of quality acting is in any movie starring Keanu Reeves.

With such a copious number of motorbikes on the country’s busy roads, it is no wonder that safety is taken so seriously. Virtually every driver wears a helmet and many shops sell the latest advances in brain-saving gear. Case in point:

This helmet boosts your social standing AND protects your head from injury!

Thus, everyone’s head is always inside a protective hemisphere! And by “everyone” I mean “everyone over the age of 6”. Wait, what?! That’s right: while seeing a whole family with multiple kids on a single motorbike is a common occurrence, seeing those kids wear helmets is very rare indeed.

There are studies on the subject, showing that while adults wear helmets in 90-99% of the cases, children under the age of 7 only do so in 15-53% of the cases (depending on the study). From my observations the 15% figure is way closer to reality.


A Dutch couple we’ve met at the end of our travels asked some locals about this. Turns out the main reason this happens is because it’s not mandatory for children under the age of 6 to wear helmets! And if the government doesn’t care enough about your child’s brain to make protecting it a law – why the hell should you?! I can only assume that the price of a kid’s helmet in Vietnam is more prohibitive than the cost of simply making another kid if necessary.

Also, apparently some Vietnamese sincerely believe that wearing helmets is outright dangerous for the kids, because it can “affect their necks”. I would think that head trauma from a traffic accident is a bit more damaging than some unproven voodoo effect helmets have on necks. But hey, I’m no brain surgeon (in case you thought I was).

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