Cambodia / Vietnam 2019 – Trip Report 25

29 September – Saigon – Hanoi

Awake at 6.00am.  And not because I wanted to be.

Alarm was actually set for 7.30am.

Hoping to make use of the alarm I carefully set last night, I try to rectify my problem of being awake.

Apart from maybe a minute or two here or there, I’m not terribly successful.

Close enough to the actual time I wanted to be awake, we begin the packing up and moving on process.

As well as getting ready for one of those goodbyes that I love so much…..

And this morning, it’s going to be twofold.  Firstly, to Markus and Eleanor, our hosts, who have been just so incredibly friendly and welcoming.  Finding them, and the Little Saigon Homestay, all pretty much by accident, was indeed very fortuitous.  I would not hesitate to return and stay with them again.

So long as they’d have us….

And the second goodbye is to the hems, and the community that lives in them, that we’ve spent the best part of a week in.

Partly because we’ve had such a great time, but mainly because this visit has finally given me what I’ve been trying to find, and understand, about Saigon for the last five years.

It really is amazing how things change, and I know I’ve said this before, but five years ago, as we sat on a bus that was taking us from Saigon to Can Tho, we were more than just a little happy to be leaving this big city.

Yes, there had been significant culture shock, seeing as those first two nights of that trip were the very first nights we’d ever spent out of Australia.  And yes, another factor was where we had stayed, with the mistake being that we stayed where the vast majority of people I don’t really want to meet, and all that’s associated with that, also stay.

A third issue might have also been that we only had two nights here in 2014, which really isn’t enough time to get into a destination.  It wasn’t until some time later in that trip that I realised that I’d probably been a bit hasty, if not harsh, in my initial assessment of the place.

But at that particular point in time, I’m not sure a third or fourth night would have improved my feelings towards Saigon.

And then, right at the end of our first trip, when it was pretty much decided that there would be at least one more subsequent trip to Vietnam, I was determined I wanted to give Saigon another go.  To visit with an open mind, and try and get some sort of ‘love’ for the place.

Jump forward to 2016, and our first three nights, spent roughly halfway between Bui Vien street and the airport, gave us a very different perspective.  And then, with our final night before flying home being spent at the Thien Hai, we experienced a slightly different area again.

I really enjoyed both experiences, and it had certainly changed my thoughts about the city.

Yep, I liked it.

But it wasn’t ‘love’, like I have for Hanoi.

Then, in 2017, we were offered the opportunity to stay with Tung, in, as it turned out, a similar type of community to the one that Little Saigon Homestay is in.  And not too far away, either.

The end result of that was that I really liked it.  Like, really liked it.  A very different experience, and one that I am most grateful to have been offered, but, again, love wasn’t an emotion I was feeling.

And as much as I tried, I never understood why.

Until now.

This visit has changed everything.

That understanding, of why I felt the way I did, had finally hit me.

Yep, I now love Saigon.

Bags finally sorted, we head downstairs for the final time.  We bid Markus and Eleanor farewell, with the hope that it will more be a ‘see you again’, and this time remember to return the key.

Out into our hems, again, for the final time, and we make our way towards the main road.

Gee, I’m really going to miss this, and the only thing that is making it slightly easier, is that this afternoon we’ll be in Hanoi.

Onto the main road, and we quickly snag a Vinasun taxi.

“Airport, please”, I say, assuming, but probably more hoping, that he understands.

“Okay, international?”, he asks, surprising me somewhat.

I then let him know that it’s domestic we want, and he responds, “Ahh, domestic!”

I never assume, or expect, English to be understood, particularly when it comes to taxi drivers, so the whole interaction was a pleasant surprise.

And I’m pleased I didn’t have to resort to my back up plan, which was to use the term ‘san bay’, which, while I was reasonably sure was the correct term for airport, I was by no means completely confident.

And even if it was, there was perhaps no guarantee that I was going to say it correctly, anyway….

Our final drive on the streets of Saigon begins, and with it, the usual sights of the city.  Along with the traffic….

We have to stop at one point for a train, and seeing as I have a bit of a soft spot for them, as well as never really having had an opportunity to see anything train related in Saigon, I’m tempted to jump out and take a photo.

But I don’t, and as the train crossing guy pushes back the barrier to once again allow cars on their way, I now have a regret.

Oh well, I’ve said before, always leave something for next time.  And now, I have exactly that….

If you look closely, you can actually see a train.  I will do better next time….

On we go; more traffic, more sights.

Including the two rather large, you could even say burly, traffic cops, sharing a motorbike.  The uniform shows an image of authority, but the fact that they’re sitting on the one bike, does not.

It just looks a bit….., I don’t know…., not right….

We soon arrive at the airport, and the meter says 132 000 Dong.  I give him 150 000 Dong, which will help cover the 10 000 Dong airport fee he will need to pay when he exits the airport.

Yes, it’s a thing.  And no, it’s not a scam.

And even if he does pick up another passenger, and he or she also pays the fee, well, the 50 cents extra I’ve paid can be spent on something else.

He’s appreciative, as I am of his driving, and I give him a cam on, which he seemed to like.

He was a nice guy, and proof that all taxi drivers are not the thieving rogues that some people like to think they are.

In fact, we’ve never actually had one of those.  But that might be more about our knowledge from prior research…..

Yes, prior ‘research’.  Not experience.

Into the terminal, find where we need to be to check in and bag drop, and it’s all completed in five minutes.

Was still enough time to enjoy the whole queueing thing, that many of the locals seem to struggle so much with.

It’s always interesting…..

Up to security, and it’s not overly busy.  Which is nice.  And in fact, as we get close to the front of the line, they even opened up a few more check points.

Not quite as quick as tiny Siem Reap airport a couple of weeks ago, but certainly a lot quicker than previous experiences here at Tan Son Nhat airport.

Shoes back on, hat where it’s supposed to be, and possessions back in pockets, we head off to find our gate.  And, within the hour since we walked out the front door of Little Saigon Homestay, we are seated and awaiting our plane.

Apart from having to deal with the goodbyes, it’s been a rather efficient and painless start to the day.  The only thing we’ve missed is our caphe sua da, which now needs to be rectified.

Leaving Lisa behind, I head off in the direction of a food place I remember getting my caffeine hit from the last time I was here.  And sure enough, it, or one that looks similar, is there.

Two expensive caphe sua da’s ordered, and my wallet is relieved of 140 000 Dong.  Yep, 70 000 Dong each.

That’s more than I paid for an orange juice in Cambodia!

Anyway, sort of moving along….

70 000 Dong is both painful and interesting.

Painful, for obvious reasons, seeing as that would buy me 28 glasses of bia hoi in Hanoi.  And interesting, seeing as I can’t actually see a 70 000 Dong price tag for caphe sua da on the pricelist board hanging on the wall behind the girl, who has taken my order.  And my money….

65 000 is the most I can see.

I’m sure there must be a logical, and lawful, explanation.  Sunday surcharge?  Out of date pricelist?  Straw fee, perhaps???

Needing my coffee more than a discussion, I head back to find Lisa.

Fortunately, I guess, she’s where I left her, and the sitting, sipping, savouring, and waiting, begins.

Including the people watching, which is always fun.

Seriously, where’s the desire come from, to wear the same shirt as your partner?  Especially when it’s a banana print shirt?

Yes, I know where the shirts are likely to have come from.

Anyway, fortunately their friend was much more switched on this morning when he got dressed, choosing to be slightly more individual.

His problem now though, was trying to keep his distance….

Still 45 minutes till the flight is due to leave, and while there’s still been no announcement, and no one is actually at the gate checking boarding passes, a few decide that it’s time to start queueing.  That then encourages others to do the same.

I guess they were all just really keen to make sure they got a seat.  Which is understandable I suppose, as who really wants to stand the whole way on a two hour flight….???

Boarding call finally comes; the queuers happy where they are, while we’re still happy relaxing where we are; and as the line shortens, we make a move.

Maybe it’s just us….

If you time it right, you don’t actually have to spend a great deal of time standing in the queue….

Check done, after a much shorter wait in the queue than most, and then it’s downstairs to wait for the bus.

Quickly onto the bus, and then we spend the next ten minutes driving around the airport looking for our plane.  But that’s okay, because planes are one of my favourite things to look at.

Seriously, how does something so big and heavy get off the ground???

And when did Vietnam Airlines start changing their plane’s paint colour from gloss to matt???

Or do they just have both, now???

So many unanswered questions…..

Plane watching from the bus.  But it’s not ours.

Plane eventually found, we begin the boarding process.  Again, great for people watching, but also oh so frustrating…..

Simple job made difficult, and we take off just after 11.00am.  Being more than an hour flight, and seeing as it’s kind of around lunchtime, we get fed.  Chicken or fish, along with dragon fruit, lychee, watermelon and pineapple.  And as far as aeroplane food goes, it’s actually all pretty good.

Although Lisa struggles with it.  But that was more to do with the fact that the whole flying and motion thing is something that she struggles with.

And she wants to sit in a plane for 24 hours to visit Europe at some point…..

Discovering a couple of months ago that works during a flight, I try, with limited success, to track our path.  But then finally being able to see Hanoi out the window, results in me looking at nothing else.

Oh how I’ve missed it.

We land just after 1.00pm, and for the first time here in Hanoi, we are bussed to the terminal.

Back on the ground in Hanoi.

Bag retrieved reasonably quickly, but nothing like Phnom Penh, we make our way outside.  The distinctive orange bus that is the number 86, is quickly spotted, and we head over.

The number 86 bus.

There aren’t too many others on it, so we wait.  And wait some more.

Now significantly more crowded, we’re finally on the move.  Next stop; the International terminal.

Where we wait.  Again.

A few more squeezed on, and we’re once again on our way.

Just over an hour after boarding the bus, we get off at the stop after Long Bien bridge.  Slightly longer than a car would have been, but much cheaper at 35 000 Dong each, and also more fun.

We head down to Lo Su street, which takes you to the lake.

Almost at the lake, and the penny drops when I see that the streets are blocked off.  That’s right, it’s Sunday!

It’s a nice surprise – although I really should have remembered that – and it makes it so much easier to walk while carrying a bag that seems to be getting significantly heavier with each step, as well as each obstacle on the footpath that I need to dodge.

We reach the lake, and gee it’s nice to see it again.  And being a weekend, there’s heaps out enjoying the open, and traffic-less, space.

Around the lake, get to the bottom of optical street, and then turn into Hang Hanh street.  If I was happy to be back in Hanoi before, I’m absolutely rapt to be back in this particular spot.  It’s like coming home.

Up a little further, and we reach the Artisan Lakeview hotel.  I’ve spent many hours over the previous trips staring at its front doors while sitting on the balcony opposite, but I’ve never walked through them.  But since the demise of the Artisan Boutique, which is now a much more upmarket hotel with a different name, the Lakeview will be our Hanoi home this time.

Check in done, up to our room, muck up safe code, quick unpack, safe issue fixed with maintenance guy and key, and we head back outside.  Down to the lake, and with Lisa still getting over her motion illness issues – she’ll never make it to Europe – we find a juice lady tucked away off to one side.

Two pineapple juices, and at 20 000 Dong each, we ain’t in Cambodia…..

We begin our walk around the lake, and yep, there’s plenty out and about.  And it’s not long before we’re approached by four young kids, ranging in age from 6 to 10, to practice some English.  And judging by their standard of English, they’ve been learning it for some time.  They were all really good.

English lesson done, we make it down to the bottom end of the lake, where younger kids than the ones we’ve just been talking to, are driving little remote cars.

Always fun to watch.
Young street dancers on the road next to Hoan Kiem Lake.

Back up the other side of the lake, and English lesson number two is about to begin when we’re approached by a young university student, named Don.  More than happy to do it again, but knowing that it’s getting close to 4.00pm, and sensing the seductive calling of Beer Corner, we talk while we walk.

He’s an incredibly polite kid, and his English, like the younger kids earlier, is really good.  But he keeps apologising for it, which he really shouldn’t.  He then tells us that he is self taught.

If that is the case, then he has done incredibly well.

Up to the top of the lake, and we say goodbye to Don.  Now a bit after 4.00pm, I leave Lisa to find her own way back to the Artisan, and I head off in the direction of Beer Corner.

The wait is finally over….

Up to Hang Dao street, and then right into Underwear Lane.  It’s narrow, busy and crowded, as it always is, and while it is far from being the most interesting street in Hanoi, it’s one that I feel like I have a connection to.  I’m not sure why, but perhaps it’s just the anticipation of where it inevitably leads me.

And walking through it for the first time on your way to Beer Corner, upon returning to Hanoi, is just one of the best feelings.

On the other hand, however, knowing that you’re walking through it for the final time before leaving Hanoi, is one of the worst.

But that will be a week and a half away, so I’ll worry about that when the time comes.

Eventually up to Ma May, near where I sat with Lisa and Shinegi on our final night in 2017, and I find a guy who is serving bia hoi in actual glass glasses.  He looks familiar, and I’m pretty sure we were drinking his beer at one point, last time.

A seat is quickly found for me, and almost two years since the last time, I’m once again back doing my favourite thing.

Beer is both cold and cheap; still 5000 Dong per glass; and as per usual, the people watching is brilliant.  Including the guys setting up a wedding tent over the road.  I love the way the Vietnamese set up weddings on the actual road, whether it’s in a country town, or a big bustling city.

It’s only taken two years…..

I sit and just take it all in, and find it all a bit surreal that I’m actually here.

Yep, it doesn’t get much better than your first night back in Hanoi.

Beers done, it’s time to make a move, so I head back to the hotel.  Upstairs to let Lisa know I’m back, and while she gets ready, I head back downstairs to do my other most favourite thing; beers on the balcony.

As I walk out of the hotel, I hear someone yell out, “Hello Scott!”

Not knowing too many people in Hanoi, this catches me by surprise.

I look over in the direction of the voice, and it’s Sophia, who worked for the Artisan Boutique, and who we’ve known since our first visit in 2014.

It’s fantastic to see her again, and we chat for a few minutes catching up on what’s been happening, which includes her being pregnant with her second child.  She still works for the Artisan, but now spends a lot of her time looking after the booking of tours.  But she still looks after breakfasts, so we’ll be seeing a fair bit of her, which is really good to know.

Over the road, and up the stairs, beer ordered, and then out onto the balcony.

Oh how I’ve seriously missed this.

It’s exactly how it’s always been, and it’s never boring.  So much going on, and so much to look at.

Lisa finally makes it across, and we just sit there taking it all in, while also chatting to Thuy, the young girl working in the restaurant tonight, who we met the last time we were here.  Like pretty much everyone we’ve ever dealt with that has worked for the Artisan over the journey, she’s incredibly friendly and very easy to talk to.

We eventually decide we need to do something about dinner, so we head back to the room to get organised.

Soon back in the streets of Hanoi, and up towards Underwear Lane.  They’re in the process of setting up the night market, which I’m more than happy to leave for other people to see.

Our one visit in 2014 was enough….

Up near Beer Corner, and the easy decision of dinner at Nam Bittet, is made.  I mean really, where else were we going to go on our first night back?

Onto Ta Hien, and then up to Hang Buom, and one thing that never seems to change is the restaurant touts.  There’s heaps of them, and they’re pretty full on, but you can always have a bit of a laugh with them.

A bit further on, and there, up on the right, is our restaurant.  There’s been lots of things this afternoon that have been great to see and experience again, and Nam Bittet is another one.  Yep, lots of great memories over the years, after we found it by accident on our final night in 2014.

It’s busy, as it usually is, but they still have no problem finding us a seat.  Two mains of noodles, beef and assorted vegetables, along with a couple of beers, all for the total of 150 000 Dong.

Food, as it normally is, is great, but again it’s the setting and the vibrancy of the place.

Dinner done, we start making our way back to Ma May street, slightly impeded at one point by a restaurant tout who grabbed, and then hugged me, while trying to drag me into his restaurant.   Was actually quite amusing.

Up on Ma May, we find a woman doing Bia Hoi opposite the backpackers hostel.  It’s an area that we spent a bit of time in when we were last here.

She makes some room for us, and we’re soon sitting on the footpath watching the madness around us, as well as listening to a band a bit further down the street.  I love it!

A few beers later, and the realisation of what goes in, must at some point come out, is confirmed, so I ask our beer lady about a much needed toilet.  She motions towards the backpackers, but seeing as that’s not where we’re staying, I don’t feel comfortable about doing that.

I sit for a bit longer, increasingly more uncomfortable, trying to think of where the rather rare public toilets of Hanoi, are.

A few minutes later she comes over to me again, and tells me to go down what appears to be a rather long, and very dark, corridor.

Apparently there is a toilet down the end, and just off to the right.

I begin my walk, with some trepidation, and the two things that I had noticed about the corridor from the footpath, are quickly confirmed.

It is quite long, and it is pretty dark.

I eventually reach the end, and sure enough, just over to the right, is a toilet.  It’s a squat toilet, but that is of little worry or concern for me at the moment.

I enter the toilet, being careful not to bump my head as I do, and immediately step in a fairly significant amount of water on the floor.

Being in thongs, and standing where I am, it makes for a rather uncomfortable feeling….

As I’m finishing what I’m doing, I can hear voices outside.

Now with a much more relieved feeling, but still with a wet foot, I start to make my way back to the street.  But as I walk out of the toilet there is a young kid, maybe 9 or 10 years old, standing there.

And as he sees me, he starts to scream.  Not in a really scared way, but none the less, still quite loudly.

While slightly concerning initially, it soon becomes funny when he continues to scream for a good 10 seconds, and I can do nothing but just stand there and laugh.

I’m really not sure what it was all about, but it certainly gave me a memory that I’m not going to forget in a hurry.

I eventually get back to Lisa, with a much bigger smile on my face than when I had left, and tell her my story.  She finds it funny, too, however she has no desire to see if she can extract the same response, when I tell her about the toilet itself.

She also doesn’t want to be anywhere near my right foot…..

A couple more beers and a lot more people watching, all with a contentment that the first night of quite a few in Hanoi, will give you.

It’s easy to spot his customers.  They’re the ones wearing the ill-fitting sandals.  Often with socks…..
We’re back!

With Lisa now needing a toilet, and with one option not even a remote possibility, we fix up our beer tab and head off.  Past the band playing in the street, and realising, only because of the annoying mother, that it’s the same band that was playing here two years ago.

We soon reach Underwear Lane, and because she’s getting rather desperate, Lisa makes use of the 3000 Dong toilet there.

Onto Hang Dao, through the night market with hands securely on both phone and wallet in my pockets, and then into Circle K for some supplies.

We get back to the hotel around 10.00pm, and adjourn to the bed for the usual.

It’s been a big day, but apart from our two hour flight that took us, from door to door, 6.5 hours to complete, we’ve actually done very little.

I’m certainly not complaining about that, but it’s proof of how much time it actually takes, and how much time you waste, when you change destinations here in Vietnam.  It’s always much slower and more time consuming than you think it will be.

But that’s alright, as we’re now back in Hanoi.  And I’m more than just a little pleased about that.



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