Just before I left Seattle for Tokyo I found out that I needed to have an onward or return ticket from Japan, otherwise I wouldn't be allowed to board the plane without a different visa. I had been planning to go with the flow and decide how long I wanted to stay in Japan when I got there, but instead I had to weigh out the rest of my travel options in a hurry and I ended up with a ticket to Hanoi, Vietnam. After three weeks cruising around on fast and slow trains in east and west Japan, coming close to missing my departure flight from Osaka, and hours sitting on planes at gates in two different airports in China, I arrived in Hanoi.
The day after getting there I met up with a CIDA friend on posting who told me that Hanoi isn't really a city for sight-seeing, it's a city you live in. It's chaotic and crowded and not at all organized like Japan, but despite all that I felt like I hit my stride early on – I started off taking it slow and kept on going for the nine days I stayed there. I met a great bunch of guys through a couchsurfing event my first night and spent most of the next week hanging out in cafes talking and eating.
Through a birdwatching website for travellers I connected with Paul, the first formerly Amish person I have ever met, who told me about living in and leaving his community at age 19 to start out on his own, when he didn't even know how to use a phone, much less a computer. He's only in his mid-thirties now, so this was recent history. I had my first experience braving the traffic on the back of a motorbike with Paul, who took me to an island outside of Hanoi where we drove around little dirt trails through banana plantations and farms and looked for birds.
We saw Pied and Common Kingfishers, Yellow-bellied and Plain Prinias, a hovering Black-shouldered Kite, Black Drongos, a Brown Shrike and some Little Ringed Plovers, among others.
I embraced staying in the same place for more than a couple nights in a row by taking life drawing classes – one at Hanoi Rock City and another at the Hanoi Social Club, the latter where I became enough of a regular to get my own membership, which comes with a 10% discount!
About the Traffic
I braved the traffic daily. This means I left my hotel room and crossed streets on my own every day, multiple times. The traffic is one of the main features of Hanoi, especially the Old Quarter, the most touristy part, and where I stayed. The streets are clogged with people on motorbikes, bicycles, in taxis, with small women balancing heavy baskets from a pole over one shoulder, and hardy or nervous pedestrians who are either trying to cross the tide or trying to hug the sides of the street near the sidewalk. The sidewalks are mostly filled with parked motorbikes, which drastically limits the space available to walk. Everyone with a horn is using it and the streets are loud. Many streets are also crowded with cafes on the sidewalk, with people sitting on little plastic children's stools to eat dinner.
One of the things that surprised me about the traffic is that even Vietnamese people are afraid to cross the street. On my second night I saw a group of 4 tall young Vietnamese guys crossing the street together in a row, possibly holding hands. I met Fit, a young Vietnamese couchsurfer from Hanoi who told me she is too scared to walk across the street – she can do it on a motorbike or a bicycle, but not on foot. A few days later I was stopped at an intersection waiting for a break in the traffic when I noticed an old Vietnamese woman with a cane who was standing hesitantly by the sidewalk. I reached out my hand and she took it, and we crossed the street together. I felt borderline heroic after that, and like a certified local.
Here's a bumpy video filmed by me from the back of my new friend Simon's motorbike on our last ride before he sold the bike and left for Singapore. It was a holiday in Vietnam so the streets are much less crowded than normal, but the busy parts give you a bit of an idea.