We took the night bus into Hanoi. Although we left Hoi An at 1pm, the drive is 16 hours plus stops so we arrived in Hanoi at 7am on January 2nd. It was a hard drive as we were pretty hung over and we were stuck on a bus which was moving. The motion of the bus didn’t help make us feel any better. But the views were stunning. This was a sleeper bus so instead of having seats, it had small bunk beds. I believe the bus holds around 30 – 40 people. When you book the bus there are no seats reserved so it’s pretty much first come first served. What that means is that you will have a seat but it might not be a very good one. I experienced that first hand on a different bus ride. The strategy is to stick all the tourists to the very back of the bus where the worst seats are, because they know you can’t complain. They’re the worst seats for 2 reasons. 1: You’re right beside the bathroom and it stinks! 2: The whole bus is made up of 3 rows, and an aisle separates you and your neighbor. But the washroom is at the back of the bus and thus eliminates the aisle space, so the 3 seats are literally side by side. So you are lying right next to your neighbor, side by side. It’s not to bad if you know each other, but if you don’t, you’re sleeping next to a stranger. There is nothing separating you from his bad breath, or from him taking up your space. Anyway, the point of this story is that we got on the bus almost last because we needed to place our luggage in the luggage compartment under the bus. But we somehow managed to get okay seats next to each other on the top bunk. They weren’t great but at least we were beside each other and we weren’t at the back of the bus. Under me was a lady from either Canada or the US, and to the left of her, her husband. Then a lady came on the bus and told the couple that they had to move to the back of the bus because someone had those seats reserved. The seats they were being asked to move to were the worst seats on the whole bus. They were on the bottom at the very back and it was literally like a cave because there were no windows and you were under the 3 seats above with the washroom wall on one side. The lady below me absolutely refused and said she had inquired whether they could make reservation and during booking she was told no one could make reservations, so she didn’t believe that these people had reservation. But the bus lady showed them the ticket where the seat numbers were written at the top of the ticket in pen. The Can/US lady was adamant that she was not moving and that if they wanted to they could sit in the back. The bus lady told them to either move or get off the bus. But they would do neither. Finally the husband relented and was moved to the back of the bus but his wife stayed and said she would not move because she was claustrophobic. Everyone managed to find a place to sit and we were off. But the lady below me was pissed off that her husband had to move. She waited for everyone to fall asleep around 11pm and then started yelling to her husband at the back of the bus asking him if he wanted cookies. When she couldn’t hear his response she would yell “WHAT??? I can’t hear you”. This went on for an hour, and she just kept on repeating “I wouldn’t have to yell if you hadn’t been moved”. She was annoying to say the least. But I understood why she was pissed off. The seat numbers had obviously been written at the top of the ticket just to get the tourists to move so the locals can get better seats. I wouldn’t have moved. After she got the yelling out of her system it was fairly quite. The only time we were interrupted would be when one of the locals would decide they needed to clear their throat of phlegm by harking and spitting on the floor of the bus. It was absolutely disgusting and made me gag. I somehow managed to get some sleep but not much. Although you’re on a sleeper bus the seats are made for locals, meaning mine and Andrews legs were way too long to be accommodated comfortably. Needless to say we were happy to arrive in Hanoi.
Just like Saigon, we were weary of Hanoi. We had read about all the scams with people trying to rip you off and steal your money. They say imitation is the best form of flattery, but if that’s the truth Vietnam does nothing but flatter people. Everything is an imitation of something. If there’s a café that’s doing well for itself, all of a sudden you have 6 or 7 cafes that pop up with the same name but not the same food or service. For a tourist it’s hard to figure out what is real and what is a knock-off.
We found a hotel to stay in on a small street in the Old Quarter and went straight to sleep even though it was 8am. We woke up at noon and went out to eat. To say Hanoi is busy is an understatement. The old quarter is made up of 50 or so blocks that are crammed with small shops, tourists and scooters. Millions of scooters. There are no sidewalks so you are forced to walk on the street. Crossing the street is an art. If you don’t believe me, google it.
The first thing we noticed besides the traffic is how cold it was. I guess when you travel 16 hours north, the weather is bound to change but we didn’t anticipate how much. Since we were walking however, we were fairly warm. We spent the day walking around the city and going from one tourist office to another as we wanted to book a trip to Halong Bay. Someone told us about a tourist company called Kangaroo Café, which was run by an Aussie. Apparently they had a pretty good reputation. Finding them was another matter. There were at least 6 different “Kangaroo Cafes” which were all knock-offs of the original but we finally found the right one. Their prices were okay but not the best so we continued looking. Andrew had read up online about Vega Travel and we found them in the old quarter and found their prices were the best. While we were in there we were looking at other trips they offered and found they had a trip to Sapa. We had a flight booked from Hanoi to Bangkok for January 10th, so we had about a week to spend in Hanoi. We definitely didn’t want to do that so we opted to book a 3 night trip to Sapa and a 2 night trip to Halong Bay. Sapa is a town located in the mountains in northern Vietnam, and we would be hiking for 2 days in the mountains to see the beautiful views and we would be spending 1 night with a local Vietnamese family in their home. Halong Bay is about 3 hours east of Hanoi and there we would spend 1 night on a boat touring the bay and 1 night in a hotel on an island called Cat Ba. We would be leaving to Sapa the following evening on a night train, but first we needed to get some warmer clothes. In Hanoi the weather was around 12 degrees Celsius and the clothes we had were holding up okay, but Sapa is another 8 hours north of Hanoi so we knew it would be much colder.
We walked around the Old Quarter and found a street that was selling knock off North Face jackets. They were ridiculously cheap but we knew we didn’t want a jacket because we had nowhere to put it after we were done with it, but also because it was still a lot more money than we wanted to spend. We were looking for fleece sweatshirts but again all the North Face or Columbia knock-offs were way out of our price range. We found a few no name jackets and the ladies refused to sell them to us. They kept on telling me they’re not my size. When I inquired the price they would just say “No”. That annoyed me because how did they know I was shopping for myself and not for someone else. Regardless we kept looking and finally found 2 no name fleece shirts for a reasonable price. $7 each. Mine was a bright yellow zip up, and Andrew’s was a navy blue hoodie with two white strips running down his arms. And his was also a little small so that the sleeves ended a bit above his wrists. They were the ugliest sweatshirts we had ever seen but we knew they would keep us warm. Satisfied we went home to pack.
The next day we dropped off our big backpacks at Vega’s offices and walked around the town. Our train was not leaving until 8pm that night. We found a great little restaurant called “Gecko” that was relatively inexpensive, had free wi-fi but most importantly had delicious food. I ordered Spaghetti Bolognese and it was delicious. It was accompanied by a garden salad with a delicious balsamic vinegar dressing. Andrew ordered a chicken sandwich which was accompanied by garlic bread and the garlic bread had actual garlic on it. Not just garlic powder. And of course a couple of beers. This was probably the best meal we had had in a long time. And the price was reasonable as well. We paid $6.50 for everything. We were debating whether we would need gloves for Sapa but decided we should be fine with what we had.
We arrived at the train station later that night and we were hoping to have the sleeper cabin to ourselves. That was not to be but we ended up sharing the cabin with a nice Australian couple who were visiting their friends in Hanoi. We chatted with them for a few hours and then went to sleep.
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