On My Odyssey….Not a day to be held hostage

Before I really get into the details of my Saigon experience, I must share a story that I’m still a bit shocked I haven’t mentioned earlier.

On my way to the airport in Hanoi, bound for Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City, I was riding in a cab with my eyes darting all around, taking in whatever last little glimpses of the city and northern land that I could when the car slowed, and veered to the right side of the road. Coming to a complete stop, the driver turned around to me sitting in the back, smiled and got out of the car. He then proceeded to run across the freeway, playing a much more serious game of Frogger than what I’d goofed with during my stay in Hanoi. Thoroughly confused and mildly concerned to see my cab driver running across the freeway, I attempted to piece together what exactly was going on, but failed to come up with anything plausible. He probably just has to pee…right? But why would be go to the opposite side of the freeway? Maybe he doesn’t know where the airport is, but wait, no, that makes no sense.

I laughed, a little panicked but moderately amused, and was relieved to see my driver coming back my way. “Oh well, he’s back, nothing to worry about,” is what I thought to myself for a moment before my driver opened the car door, gave me the same confusion illiciting smile as before, turned on the radio and waved goodbye before running across the freeway, again. Now I grew a tad more worried, still mostly confused, but found some sort of strange comfort from the fact that the keys were still in the ignition–my logic being that if this was a worst-case-I’m about to be kidnapped in Vietnam-scenario that my captors wouldn’t have left me sitting in a car I could easily drive off with. Allowing my mind to jump around to various far-fetched conclusions, I sat listening to some Vietnamese pop music in the back of a cab on the side of a busy freeway crossing my fingers that I was close to the airport, would make my flight on time and that the day wasn’t right for me to be held hostage. I sat there, keeping my cool for nearly ten reallllllly long minutes before I noticed a man running across the freeway with his arms flailing, coming straight towards my lonely “please don’t kidnap me” cab. Opening the door with a grin similarly goofy to that of my previous freeway running driver, a Vietnamese man hopped into the cab, turned around smiling at me and said “hellooo, les go!”

In the end, I made it to the airport early, didn’t even come close to missing my flight and the day was in no way right for me to be held hostage. Just a little driving shift switcheroo, that’s all I witnessed; an endlessly amusing event, mostly after, but a little bit during.


On My Odyssey….Hanoi and Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

To be honest, I’m not really sure how I want to relay the details of my recent journey, however I do know that I don’t simply want to recount the happenings of my days as that doesn’t seem to be all that productive or of great value to you, the reader of my rambling thoughts. So, I suppose I’ll share with you my impressions, the tales worth telling, expose the myths I uncovered, the tastes delighted upon and some of the snapshots that my memory will forever cling to.

Here’s the story of me, a traveler sparked with child-like wonder for the world, on my odyssey in Vietnam.

Before even stepping foot into Vietnam, I was feeling a bit wary as much of what I’d read and been told from fellow travelers was quite negative–basically I figured I was bound to be ripped off, likely to have something stolen, be significantly debilitated by a lack of Vietnamese language skills, probably experience a fair share of begging, poverty and filth, but at least I would see some pretty sights and eat delicious, cheap grub. This is incredibly important to note, everything I had been told and assumed about Vietnam was completely wrong with the exception of my friend Thai accurately deeming Ha Long Bay as one of the most beautiful sights on earth (see below).

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Rather than having money or valuables stolen, or being significantly ripped off when purchasing goods/services/hot stone massages/money exchanging/food binging, I was actually given money (5000 dong, roughly a quarter) while in Hanoi by the friendliest of women handing out (real) lucky money as part of the Tet holiday traditions. I should have known not to listen to pessimism I am apt to ignore, but given my plans to trek this trip alone, I mentally prepared myself for an array of worst case scenarios of which no part of my trip came even remotely near resembling.

The impressions I drew from Vietnam were inevitably and constantly being compared to Seoul as Korea is my only point of reference in Asia. Vietnam is certainly cheaper, quite a bit dirtier and less developed than Korea, but the places in Vietnam I was able to spend time in were so special and quite unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been.

One of the first things I noticed about Vietnam is the heavy reliance upon their most popular mode of transportation, the motorbike.

Motorbikes parked on a street in Hanoi

Motorbikes far outnumber cars and the non-existent traffic laws and road lanes (this is especially true of Hanoi, Saigon/HoChi Minh City was a bit more organized and people did actually obey the traffic lights, generally) made for a wild and mildly chaotic pedestrian experience, at least initially. Once I embraced the game of Frogger that was any attempt to cross the road, my walk about Hanoi became significantly easier.

Aside from the very apparent presence of motorbikes, much of my initial impressions of Hanoi were influenced by the architectural constructions strewn about the city, consisting mostly of fairly old, skinny, tall buildings that functioned as housing and businesses, and the faded–by dirt and years–pastel colors that coated them. This was something that really stuck with me because in Seoul I’m so accustomed to glass and concrete giants and neon lights whereas in Hanoi the colors were more natural and the city itself really wore its age, which I found strangely appealing perhaps only for it now being a ‘foreign’ sight compared to that of my home.

Street view in Hanoi…a “No Parking” sign of sorts

Pastel towers of Hanoi, the common architectural style

This is an odd place to diverge onto this thought, but while on this odyssey of mine I came to have a major shift of perspective as Korea was cemented in my mind as my home. It was an unexpected feeling as prior to this trip I was almost certain that I would be returning to the States to look for work this summer, but, as often happens with me, that plan has been significantly altered.

Back on topic, I mentioned before that Vietnam is quite inexpensive and this in part makes traveling there rather attractive. Beer costs about 18,000-30,000 dong most places (just under $1-$1.50; the exchange rate is pretty steadily at 20,000 dong= $1) and a filling meal at most sit-down street vendors can be had for anywhere from 30,000 dong for pho to 80,000 for a skewer feast (see below). Being a pescetarian (essentially a vegetarian that consumes fish and fish products), I stray away from most meats, however I couldn’t resist the urge to taste frog as the opportunity likely wouldn’t come again and the frog I had in front of me actually looked quite delicious (and it was, the little bit that I had).

My favorite dining experience in Hanoi–skewers of all kinds

When it came to food in Vietnam, everything tasted amazing. The flavor combinations in every dish I had was so complex and layered with tastes spicy, sweet and sometimes sour and textures ranging all over the place. All of the produce was incredibly flavorful and fresh and at the peek of ripeness. Again, comparing my experience in Vietnam to Korea, I was really impressed with the variety of options in Hanoi (Saigon as well, but I’ll say more about that later). Koreans are a rather nationalistic bunch and they adore their food, as they should. With that said, sometimes a girl craves a little something other than the flavors of Korea (also known as kimchi, jk jk) and in Vietnam I was pleasantly surprised by the wealth of options for dining and the broad range they took on.

Should you ever find yourself in Vietnam, Hanoi specifically, you must (seriously, I’m not joking around about this) plan a trip to Ha Long Bay. I only spent a day at the bay, but there were many packages and options to stay overnight or even for many days on a boat or in a hotel nearby. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ha Long Bay is an absolute wonder for the eyes and simply something I found to be so unique and lovely. During my time spent in Hanoi, I joined some fellow Drake grads that have been teaching English in China and it was quite nice to have some company on the start of my trip and especially wonderful to share in the Ha Long Bay experience with them. As part of our day trip we walked through a cave and spent an hour kayaking around the Bay, which for me was probably the highlight of the day, particularly when we came across a giant specimen of jellyfish and later paddled up to a water market to purchase beers. The latter experience was so funny and perfect really, as the four of us in two kayaks took forever to maneuver our kayaks properly to pay, get hold and partake in our Vietnamese beers. We also became pieces of entertainment for passing boats filled with tourists amused by the sight of us imbibing in the Bay. It was a little bit silly, but still one of those oddly magical moments that I’ll never forget–it was a tiny window of pure bliss.

The home and business (kayak rental) of a family in the Bay

Drake alumni romping about Ha Long Bay for the day

In total, I spent four days in Hanoi (including my day in Ha Long Bay) and found it to be a small, friendly city that was very much alive in its bold people and colors surprising me the entire time. Below are some of my favorite sights in Hanoi that I came upon while walking around with my band of cohorts from Drake/China.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Walking around Hoan Kiem Lake and spotted this adorable little man

Tran Quoc Pagoda

As previously mentioned, this was the only portion of my trip with planned company by my side and the rest of my adventure was one of solo traveling that in the end turned into having very little alone time and making a mass of fast friends and meeting like-minded travelers from all around the world with stories I peeled apart over meals, drinks and days out exploring. Strangers aren’t ever so strange when you realize how similar they are to yourself–except I suppose I’m a weird one, so there’s always that to consider. Anyhow, more stories from these untamed waters are soon to come.

For more photographs from my trip to Vietnam, take a peek at my album on Flickr…. On My Odyssey (pt. 1) : : Hanoi and Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.