And so my tenure as a volunteer is over, at least for the time being. Now that I am relieved of any obligation, I can go anywhere and do anything I want. From now through mid September, nothing is planned in stone, nothing is booked. This is where the real fun begins.
For weeks, Lucy and I have been debating about where we should go to next and for how long. We knew we wanted to head north in Vietnam, as our visa is for only one entry, it would be smart to do whatever else we wanted to do in Vietnam now before we leave. With that, we decided to go to one of the natural wonders of the world, Halong Bay and then immediately after to Sapa. But before we could go to either of those places, we had to touch base in Hanoi, the northern capital of Vietnam, in order to get everything situated. Backpacker mode starts now!
The easiest method to get to Hanoi is by flying. We went to the airport, boarded the plane, and anxiously waited for take-off. As Lucy and I were reminiscing about how much fun we had in HCMC, a passenger who sat next to us couldn’t help but listen and introduce herself. Her name is Kim. She’s a young Vietnamese but lived in Australia for quite awhile. She’s living in HCMC for about a year to begin a new job, but is traveling to Hanoi for the weekend to visit a friend. “Sorry for listening but you guys sounded like you had so much fun!” she said very politely. We didn’t mind at all. We began talking to her about what our experience has been like in Vietnam thus far and what we are looking forward to next. As a matter of fact, we were talking to her for pretty much the whole flight to Hanoi. Well, it was mainly Lucy doing the chatting because I ended up falling asleep halfway through the flight. Kim mentioned to us that a taxi from the airport to Downtown Hanoi (our destination) is almost an hourlong and a bit expensive, so she offered for her friend that is picking her up to give us a ride. We felt that Kim has been genuine and kind during our talk so we took her up on the offer. Haven’t even made it to Hanoi yet and we’ve already made a friend!
Once we landed and gathered our gear, her friend rolled up and gave us a lift through town. His name is Trung and has done his fair share of traveling around the world. Even though Lucy and I were in a car with two complete strangers, not once did I ever feel the slightest worried. Kim asked us if we had a hotel or hostel booked for Hanoi. We didn’t. We were just going to walk around and find something. She then gave us her number saying that if we have trouble finding a place, then we could stay at the hotel she was staying at for the night. What a nice person! After about an hour of rough traffic, we finally made it to Downtown Hanoi! Lucy and I tried to pay Trung for giving us a ride, but he wouldn’t take our money. We decided that since we have the whole day free tomorrow, that we should all meet up for lunch sometime, so we exchanged contacts.
It just so happened that a fellow volunteer we met in South Africa is in Hanoi. His name is Ibrahim.
Ibrahim arrived in Muizenberg, South Africa the same time Lucy did last year. He was part of a huge group from his school and ended up being placed in the Palmer house. He initially was only going to stay in Muizenberg for a week, along with his group, but eventually extended his stay for an extra week, while his group left back to Qatar. Everyone loved Ibrahim because he was incredibly kind to everyone and instead of completely sticking with his group the entire time, he made an effort to get to know all of the other volunteers. A couple of weeks ago, Ibrahim saw that I was in Vietnam on FB, and so he messaged me asking if I had plans of going to Hanoi sometime, we can all link up. That was the game plan. Lucy and I wandered the condensed streets (or more like glorified alleyways) of the Old Quarter of Hanoi. We found a suitable, yet comfortable Hotel close by that we called ours for the night. Once we settled in, we walked down the street to meet up with Ibrahim near his hotel. Seems he had the same idea in mind because we all ended up bumping into each other about halfway from our respective hotels!
Ibrahim is here volunteering as a medic and has been here for a couple of weeks so far, so he was able to show us around the streets even though mostly everything was closed. Hanoi is remarkably different than Ho Chi Minh in a number of ways. One, everything in HCMC stayed open late into the night. Here, everything shuts down by the order of the marginally corrupt police. I say marginally because they can be quite shady. They’ll stop cars for no reason at all here and will give you a ticket for a bogus reason unless you bribe them with some money. And if you’re walking the streets at night, it’s best to ignore them and don’t make eye contact when they start to speak to you, otherwise you will have to bribe your way out of an awkward scuffle. It’s never happened to me, but I’ve seen it happen to others. Not only is the law enforcement odd, but also the delicacy. I’ve heard rumors of Vietnamese eating dog before I came here. Sad to say, it’s true. It’s even truer here in northern Vietnam than the south. What’s even more messed up is the way it’s handled. Any dog lover reading this should skip the rest of this paragraph. To prepare a dog for dinner, the innocent doggie is forced to release adrenaline into its system which results in tastier meat. How is a dog forced to release adrenaline? By beating them up first and then killing them immediately after. I still can’t even think about it without building up a taste of repugnance towards the locals for their abuse towards mans-bestfriend, but I have to remember, it’s just what they do here. Even more bizarre, young backpackers and tourists eat dogs more than the locals do. It’s mainly all for the details of a story to share when they return home, “Yeah, crazy story! I ate dog meat in Vietnam!“. Lucy and I would have been one of those backpackers if we didn’t know the methods for the meat.
We called it a night and the three of us made plans to hangout in Hanoi the next day. I also contacted Kim and Trung later on to meet us up. Around noon, Kim and Trung came and picked Lucy, Ibrahim, and I up and we went to an Italian style cafe downtown. It’s been awhile since I’ve had my favorite food, italian pasta, so I was very happy to finally get some here! Ibrahim couldn’t eat nor drink with us as he was practicing Ramadan, but he didn’t mind at all.
After lunch, we drove to one of the many legendary lakes nearby. We went through a pagoda that sat in the middle of the lake that we had to get to via a bridge. The fable goes something like this: a magical turtle swam out of the lake carrying a large sword on it’s back, which it gave to a warrior to help win a war against an invading army fleet…well, something along those lines. I am missing a few details but that’s the gist of it!
We went back to the Old Quarter and Lucy, Ibriham, and I went to Hanoi Backpacker’s to feast out on some Western grub. At 7pm, Ramadan was over for the day and so Ibrahim was able to pig out with us. We had planned to go out tonight with Kim and Trung but unfortunately her battery died on her phone and we lost touch. We made sure to message her later though, saying how grateful we were of all of her generosity.
During the late hours, we said our goodbyes to Ibrahim, who would be staying in Hanoi for a few more days. It was a nice surprise to see him in such a random place but it was also welcoming. Before we parted ways he was able to give us tips on getting to Halong Bay, one of the natural wonders of the world!