Immigration Process at Hanoi Airport
It was dark and rainy when we left Hanoi airport after a long journey from Germany. Immigration was surprisingly quick, I had paid for an agent to meet us upon arrival as I was hoping to get through the visa application faster than normal. Looking back on it now, I am not sure it saved us time as many people were able to get their visas pretty quickly from the service desk before passport control. However, it helped us immensely after being in the air on and off for the previous 24 hours and removed possible worries about forms and process so perhaps it was worth the small fee.
Outside at arrivals we kept an eye out for a sign with our names, the hotel had arranged for a car to pick us up, and not having been to Vietnam before I felt his was the safest option after reading some horror stories online about scams with taxis in the country. I think after a long journey the small extra cost of the limo was worth it and to avoid the taxi queues too.
Getting Cash at the Airport
While we looked for the driver, Chris went to get some Vietnamese Dong, the local currency, at one of the cash points in the arrivals hall. We had no issue using international cards to get cash throughout the country, although there was a small fee in many cases.
Vietnamese SIM Cards
While waiting, he also purchased a Vietnamese SIM card for our wifi dongle from the post office. The dongle is one of the best investments for travel we have ever made and highly recommended. It gives you wifi on the go for up to 5 devices, provided it has a local sim card in it and of course network reception. Later on, we found out that despite the fact that we had purchased the SIM in the post office, it did not have as much GB allowance as suggested and it also cut off after 1 week of usage. It was supposed to be 4 GB unlimited, was only 2GB and 1 week in the end, but for just 8 USD it was still a bargain and very useful to find our way around the country. We did work out how to recharge it online with some tokens bought in a local store and were able to use it for the rest of the trip. Reactivating was a bit of hassle – we found with some help from the web that the trick was to cancel the old plan and activate a new one. So a small warning unless you buy your SIM in an authorised store you might be paying over the odds but will avoid some admin. Tourist SIM cards always require passports and an address for registration, this is one of the reliable signs that you might be buying the real thing…
Walking around we realised the driver had waited at the other exit to arrivals hall but we did no mind as we had time to sort out the cash and the SIM card. The drive from Hanoi airport to our hotel, just south of the French Quarter took just under an hour through a short tropical rain shower.
First Glimpse of Vietnam
On the way we got our first glimpses of this beautiful and diverse country that we would call home for the next three weeks. Vietnam is famous for the sheer number of motorbikes and mopeds everywhere and the closer we got to the outskirts of the capital city the more two wheeled hazards we saw. There was no way that we could stop gazing at the locals use their preferred vehicle of transport, the constant surprises of number of people on one bike, the loads they carried on their back were never ending and made every car journey and walk a visual experience. Jerome started a game to find the most exotic load on a moped and the biggest family on one bike, I think he once saw 6 people! The rain did not stop them from riding their bikes, some of them wore cheap plastic raincoats, while others must have been soaked trough by the time they reached their destination. A mother with her two children, hidden beneath the rain cape made us smile. We crossed a large bridge, arches lit up and that kept changing colour like gigantic Christmas trees.
Arrival at Hotel Lapis
Once we had reached the centre of Hanoi, the mayhem from all the motorbikes was overwhelming. A constant honking noise hung in the evening air, however our driver managed to manoeuvre through the throng of bikes safely.
Glad to finally arrive at the Lapis Hotel, we were greeted with a friendly smile and Xin Chao (hello) by the staff. The hotel had caught my eye thanks to its rooftop pool, one of only a few in Hanoi, which I considered to be an essential for a stay in a city with hot and humid summers like the ones in Vietnam.
Check in was easy and we soon headed up to our room with a private balcony looking down onto the street and over the roofs of the buildings in the vicinity. Our room was spacious, Jerome had his own bed, which was soon filled with his toys and the bathroom was surprisingly luxurious and my only criticism was the choice of loud carpet. We quickly dropped our luggage and made our way to the top floor where we found the outdoor pool. There were only a limited number of loungers and chairs available, however because of the rain we got lucky and grabbed two of them. The boys immediately jumped into the pool while I sat in the lounger taking in the twinkling lights and view of the wet rooftops of Hanoi.
Crossing Roads in Hanoi
Despite having slept for most of the flights, we felt tired. Before we could go to bed we had to eat dinner, trying to get into the rhythm of Vietnamese life and trying to avoid jet lag and waking up too early in the morning. We had spotted a restaurant on our arrival at the hotel, straight opposite. Maybe Saturday night traffic was not the best of times to learn how to cross the treacherous roads of Hanoi? Even when the traffic light was red and the green man came on, the usual sign to cross a road safely, we discovered to our horror that motorbikes and cars ignored the traffic light altogether and still drove across a red signal on both sides of the road in both directions. Somehow we managed it to the other side but only to find out that the restaurant was completely full.
Our First Street Food Experience
We decided to walk around the block to see if we could find another restaurant that would take our fancy. In the end we sat down at one of the little street stalls that seem spill out of people’s living rooms onto the street. There were two, right next to our hotel and both were popular with locals. One offered bun (vermicelli noodle soup), the other rice dishes with indistinguishable meat. Worries about an upset stomach on our first days in the country shrouded our basic dinner, but we decided to go for the street food as it looked so good and there was a steady stream of people eating and taking it away. Seated on red plastic chairs that seemed far too low for Chris, the friendly lady served us three dishes of her homemade noodles in broth with chicken and vegetables.
While we ate our dinner we watched the family of the food stall sit in their living room and watch TV, one of the daughters was stuck to her mobile phone, just like any other teenager in the fairly basic room cluttered with stacked plastic chairs and family photos on the wall. In many ways our dinner that evening gave us not only an insight into local life and food in Vietnam it also made us braver to dig into street food throughout our trip. In case you wonder, we did not once have an upset stomach in Vietnam at all!
Fresh Juice for Dessert
After dinner we wanted to drag the time before hitting our beds too early and so went for a fresh juice at Naturaw, just around the corner. The freshly squeezed juices were the perfect end to our dinner and evening and a taste of the typical drinks for the rest of the trip.
Waking up Far too Early
The next morning I woke up first, it was still dark outside, and I was just not able to get back to sleep. Somehow the time passed and the sky outside our window started to brighten. I was curious to get outside onto our balcony to get some photos of life on the streets of Hanoi below. At some point I sneaked outside, Chris had just woken up while Jerome was still deep in dreamland. Opening the door to the terrace, the warm and humid air hit me like a wall after having been inside in the air-conditioned hotel room. My camera did not appear to be very happy about the temperature change and humidity either, neither did my iPhone! It took a few minutes and lots of wiping off before I could finally take some pictures.
I had expected to see more people out on the streets already, however there were only the odd motorbike and person about, no non la (cone hats) were in sight. This did not stop me from enjoying the warm morning air and the sun rising behind the peculiar looking apartment buildings. On the roofs I could spot round tanks, which I decided had to be water tanks and below the enclosed balconies with their metal window grills. The balconies seemed like a popular place for drying the washing and adding some colour to the otherwise empty space with flowerpots. Each balcony had their own rood of corrugated iron, all in mismatched colours which made them look like a mixed up rubics cube.
Chris and I woke Jerome and we got ready to go down for breakfast. No surprise we were the first ones at the tables, but it did not take long before other jetlagged travellers appeared. The breakfast was set up buffet style, with plenty of options for every taste from every continent. Jerome went straight for the pancakes – his favourite, I enjoyed a light meal of fruit and my obligatory croissant, and Chris had eggs with bacon with a large cup of coffee for us both. The chance to try interesting fruit, like rambutan and jackfruit, or some different juices, like lychee, made for an interesting experience each breakfast time throughout the trip. Something I am already missing now that we are back to Europe.
After breakfast we started to explore Hanoi with a stroll through the French Quarter.