Well dear readers, I have just had the opportunity to visit Hanoi, Vietnam for a long weekend break, from the 16th to 19th January 2009, as I have a friend currently working there as a Senior Project Manager on a couple of building projects. This would be my first trip to Vietnam so I was interested in making the trip, even though I knew it would be a few degrees colder than Thailand, albeit Thailand has not been particularly warm recently!
I flew on the national carrier, Vietnam Airways, as I wanted to see the lovely ladies wearing their silken Ao Dais to prepare me for the visual pleasures of the ladies walking around Hanoi. The ticket was a little over 9,000 baht return, slightly more expensive than say, Air Asia, but I was happy to pay a little more for better service. This was my second experience of ‘Swampypoom’ Airport, but a little different from my first, as previously I had travelled Business Class to Old Blighty and was cocooned in the luxury and free Johnnie Walker Black Label of the Thai Business Lounge. I am quite impressed with the airport, despite it appearing to be one huge ‘King Power’ Duty Free Shopping Mall. It is bright, clean and overall a pleasant place to be, and to sit and watch the girls go by, although it could do with a few more seating areas.
The flight itself was ‘smooth as silk’, to coin a phrase used by another airline, only 90 minutes duration. By the time we got up in the air, scoffed a reasonably tasty lunch and a glass of red wine, it appeared it was already time to prepare for the descent. On arrival at Noi Bai Airport, immigration procedures went fairly smoothly and quickly, also note that it is essential to apply for your entry bisa a week or so in advance, as trying to get a bisa on arrival whilst not impossible, is not worth the hassle, but the Baggage Reclaim seemed somewhat antiquated, and I got held up there waiting for my bag for almost an hour, ‘som na na’ indeed on my part, as I could easily have hand carried my small bag. This delay meant that my friend who was meeting me had to send his taxi away, but it was not too hard to secure the services of another for the grand price of 250,000 VND. I had changed Thai baht at Swampypoom into US$, and got a rate of 35.21, but nowhere there could give me Vietnamese Dong, so that pleasure will have to wait until you reach Noi Bai, last weekend changing US$100 would bring you the grand total of 1,742,000 Dong, so 1 Thai baht is approximately equal to 500 Dong, so base all your calculations when purchasing food, drink, goods etc. on 100 Thai baht equaling 50,000 Vietnamese Dong. The journey from the airport was uneventful, if a little noisy, due to the incessant usage of the driver's musical horn, which although quaint at first soon became tiresome, luckily the journey was just a little over one hour so not too bad. One thing of note was the fact they are constructing a brand new town around 10 kilometres outside Hanoi, apparently known as Mekong city or New Hanoi.
For the purpose of this report I shall break it up into different categories, starting off with:-
My friend is currently renting a two room apartment in the Hoan Kiem district of Hanoi, which is located adjacent to the Old Quarter, and pays US$600 per month for basically a very nice modern kitchen, and a living room/bedroom combination, this also includes Cable TV and broadband Internet connection. My plan was to spend the first night kipping on his sofa, and then move to a hotel for the next two nights, as there are plenty of good middle range price hotels around this district available for US$25-30 per night. In reality I decided to save money and spent all three nights on the sofa, but if I return I shall definitely spend the money on the hotel, as his loud snoring somewhat made sleep elusive!
So, after a couple of beers we took a walk up to the Hoan Kiem Lake, which is one of several lakes situated in Hanoi, which actually makes it quite a pleasant place to be in comparison to Bangkok. We spent a fair amount of time ‘discussing’ the various merits of Hanoi versus Pattaya where both he and I have houses, although that is like comparing apples to oranges, as Hanoi is a place of business compared to a tourist resort, so you can only really compare it to Bangkok, and I’m afraid I have never spent large amounts of time in the City of Angels, so my knowledge of the place is limited, so perhaps my views are biased, but I reckon if Bangkok had such beautiful natural lakes and parks in its midst, there is a good chance it would be drained, filled in and have condominiums built over it!
There is a legend to Hoan Kiem Lake or ‘Lake of the Returned Sword’ which is similar to that of Excalibur, given to King Arthur by The Lady of the Lake, but I won’t bore you with the details, you can look them up for yourself, basically it’s a lovely picturesque spot with Jade Island situated near the northern shore in which sits Tortoise Tower, and the island is connected by the beautiful red painted ‘Huc Bridge’. The lake and the bridge are ideal spots for wedding photos as well as tourist photos, and on the far side there is a large café where you can sit and enjoy a cold beer or two and an ice cream.
The next morning we took a stroll to see the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum but it was a colder, foggy day compared to the Friday so the picture I took does not do it justice, so I ripped one from the public internet just for your reference. In the front of the mausoleum are manicured grass squares, which you are not allowed to actually walk across, and there are signs and soldiers in place to actively discourage you from doing so, and a large plaza where military parades and such like are held, similar to Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
Internet Mythbusters #1
You will note the young lady getting married in one of the pictures above, wearing the red and white Ao Dai, the internet tourist guides would have you believe that swathes of beautiful silk Ao Dai wearing lovelies can be viewed strolling around Hanoi every day, not so! She was virtually the only lady we saw wearing one, outside of the big hotels and the airplane anyway, this could be down to the cold weather during my stay, but I was a little disappointed to say the least.
Hanoi is a mix of beautiful old French colonial buildings, modern office blocks, and singularly Vietnamese style houses. When strolling around in Hanoi, you would not fail to see some amazingly interesting Vietnamese buildings, many are narrow, and quite a few are fairly tall. Imagine a row of Thai shop houses, but chopped into individual dwellings and decorated in a more ornamental style with balconies and parapets. The reason for this is that similar to in Thailand, the building owners are taxed based on the measurement of the front of their house. Therefore in a bid to reduce taxes, the house owners tend to build houses that have very narrow fronts, but to have sufficient space for the whole family, they built upwards. Another great feature of the houses are the colours. Probably due to the influence of their previous French colonial masters, the houses here sport bright yellow, brilliant blue and even green facades. However, due to the poverty of city dwellers, normally only the front of the houses are painted, and the exterior side walls are left in the original and natural colour-which is grey or off-white.
We also passed Saint Joseph's Cathedral, a lovely imposing neo-Gothic building built in 1886, which is allegedly not unlike the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in its styling, although on a smaller, less ornate scale, and looks as if it could do with a little tender loving care and restoration, or at least a sand blast and wash up.
Other interesting buildings we passed were the main Hanoi Train Station, situated in the Hoan Kiem district, the Opera House and the Presidential Palace. I was also intrigued by the seemingly ambiguous spraying on the walls of telephone numbers. If anyone can explain to me exactly what that is all about I would be grateful, no-one locally could give me a reasonable explanation for the phenomenon.
Well, here’s one facet of Hanoi life that the guides got absolutely right, the traffic is freakin’ horrendous. Hanoi has an official population of around 3,500,000, most of whom appear to own motorbikes and are on the road all day, for the unwary pedestrian, crossing any road is a nightmare, no use waiting for a break in the traffic, like tomorrow, it never comes, you have to take your life in your hands constantly. The trick is to keep walking boldly across without hesitation, as the motorbikes will drive around the back of you, although don’t expect the cars to slow down and do the same. And don’t even start me on the constant noise! I was pretty good the first couple of days, but on the Sunday morning, a little hung over after an all day Saturday drinking session around the lake in the Hanoi Hotel area, I made the mistake of stopping half way, as I would walking across a Pattaya street, and almost got clipped by a motorbike, which sort of shattered my confidence for the next hour or two, or at least until a few beer Hanois calmed me down. I saw some large luxury vehicles driving around, Lexus, Mercedes and Camrys, sort of on par with Thailand 20 years ago. There will always be some rich people around, but the majority are confined to two wheels, not so many bicycles, scooters seem to be a ‘de rigueur’ status symbol for those young Hanoians that want to show some sort of wealth and status to set them apart from the old Honda motorcycle riders, also saw a couple of old classic Citroens driving around, but they may have been tied to the bigger hotels as opposed to privately owned. It’s scary to think that if the country’s development and wealth is accelerating fast in the same mode and pace as Thailand in the last twenty or so years, most of those motorbikes and scooters will be replaced by cars and Hanoi will become gridlocked in the same way as Bangkok was/is. Perhaps this is the reasoning behind the building of the New Hanoi? Otherwise the city will be in deep trouble, no room here for elevated expressways or MRT Rail systems.
Should I stay or should I go now?
My shopping excursion was limited to a tour of the Old Quarter, this is possibly the area that most closely resembles parts of Thailand, in particular think of Chinatown in Bangkok combined with the street hustlers of Pattaya, the only place where I found any sort of hustlers in your face bothering you for selling trinkets, postcards, shoe shine hustlers etcetera. Of course, being around for only a couple of days, tacky souvenirs were actually on the agenda, but my friend has his local ‘moto taxi’ guy almost on a retainer, perhaps a good idea once you have found a trustworthy and safe motorcycle taxi guy, and he accompanied us on our walkabout, consequently the tacky gifts I bought, like a mobile consisting of various sizes of conical hats, or ‘Non La’s’, plus a copy Vietnamese Army hat for my son, I felt I paid the right price of around 20-30,000 VND for each with his help. I also had my boots cleaned for 10,000 VND, which is around 20 baht, not so different from Pattaya really. We also had a beer in Hanoi’s Irish Bar, Finnegans, which seemed somewhat out of place in the Old Quarter, which is popular with Irish (surprisingly?) and Australian backpacker types.
The Old Quarter was definitely the only ‘touristy’ part of Hanoi I saw. A lot of Khao San Road types were wandering around looking for bargains, so we didn’t dwell there too long, time was approaching beer o’clock, but I would say there were very few items on sale that you couldn’t get in Thailand, perhaps if you were coming from Europe you would find it exotic, but after a considerable time spent living in Pattaya I was fairly unimpressed. There were bottles of snake and scorpion wine available, but I already have a bottle of that from Laos.
Internet Mythbusters #2
The guides warn you of gangs of pickpockets roaming the narrow streets of the Old Quarter, and they may well be there, but I felt perfectly safe walking around, I think just generally being streetwise, as you should be in any country will keep you in good stead, don’t keep all your money in one place, don’t take a wallet out unless absolutely necessary etc. You know the rules, stick with them and no harm will come to you.
The street markets of Hanoi reminded me of the open market in South Pattaya only on a larger, but just as smelly scale. Almost anything can be bought directly on the streets, live fish, dead chickens and other unidentified meats, fresh vegetables etc. The joy for me, as a lover of fresh bread is of course thanks to their old colonial masters, fresh baguettes are readily available on every corner, although butter seems to be another story; mostly they just stack them full of meat from a sort of kebab like affair, or freshly grilled meat and occasional vegetables. Also, you will see a lot of barbers just set up on the street, but I failed to get a decent photo of that, apologies.
Street Food & Drink
Again in similar mode to Thailand, most of the locals eat from street vendors. The only difference that I could ascertain, and in my case a very important difference, is that the plastic stools used seemed to be only half the height of similar operations in Thailand, and being six foot and 100 kg, I’m afraid I didn’t get the chance to try them out, reasoning that even if I could get my hefty body down that low, the chances of my being able to get back up again, providing the stool hadn’t already collapsed under my weight, were very remote indeed.
Internet Mythbusters #3
Dog meat or ‘Thit Cho’. Okay, I have read about, and also seen pictures of roasted dogs supposedly openly on sale in the streets of Hanoi, so much so that I had psyched myself up in to actually giving it a go. However, I was unable to find such establishments, at least in the parts of Hanoi I walked around. I don’t deny that such places exist, just that perhaps I didn’t stumble upon any, and the ‘moto taxi’ guy couldn’t point me in the direction of any either! Perhaps it is now more politically incorrect to eat such meat, who knows? Anyway, having got myself ready to try some I was peed off that I couldn’t get some, at least my son was happy, as he was horrified by the idea, and I had been winding him up something rotten that I was going to come back and tuck into his dogs, having acquired the taste.
Food & Drink Generally
Okay, now we are getting on to a subject close to my heart, food and drink in Hanoi’s restaurants, and in particular beer! I had been looking forward to drinking the ‘worlds cheapest beer’ the ‘Bia Hoi’ that is brewed by individual vendors and sells for ridiculous prices, but my friend warned me away saying the stuff was no better than ‘moonshine’ and if I wanted to avoid having a major stomach problem during my visit, ‘Bia Hoi’ was to be avoided at all costs. Therefore, I drank only Beer Hanoi, or ‘Bia Ha Noi’ to give the beer its proper name. Not a bad beer at all, 4.2% alcohol, normally served in 450ML bottles and costing about 9,000 VND at most normal joints and up to 15,000 VND in some of the more upmarket places, bear in mind the exchange rate I quoted at the top of the piece and you will see that works out to roughly 20 baht up to 35 baht per bottle. Cheap and tasty! In fact buying from the shops by the case to consume at home, you get 20 x 450ML bottles for 125,000 VND or around 250 baht.
Far and away the most popular dish in Hanoi, and the rest of Vietnam, is ‘Pho Bo’.
Or beef noodles, and is served in every place, from the lowest street food vendor to the highest 5 star hotel, this is Vietnam’s answer to Thailand’s ‘Guay Tiew’ only without the hot fiery spices, which is either a good thing or a bad thing depending on how iron clad your stomach lining is. Noodles, vegetables and largish chunks of beef in a tasty broth, of course the beef can be replaced with any other type of meat depending on the whim of the chef, or market availability.
Another great dish I tried in a hole in the wall type place was ‘beef bread’, a sizzling beef hot plate, fresh slices of beef, a fried egg, spring onions and other vegetables served up with a fresh bread baguette or two. It was a little disconcerting watching the chef hacking lumps off of carcasses in extremely unsanitary conditions no more than two metres away from the table, but I felt no after effects the next day.
The two mornings I was there for breakfast, we went to a small bakery / restaurant where they cooked all of the bread and delicious looking cakes right there on the premises, and enjoyed some good fresh coffee and filled baguettes. The coffee was only 14,000 VND and the baguettes 27,000 VND. All very good, but the homemade chicken soup was to be ‘laid down and avoided’ at all costs, the homemade cookies were excellent though. I brought a few packets home for my staff. I’m sure there are many other similar bakeries, but this one had a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ about it, antique French and Art Deco artifacts as decor added to the ambience of the place and made it special. Plenty of good French restaurants (obviously) in Hanoi, as well as French/Vietnamese fusion places, but I didn’t have the time to explore them properly, perhaps next trip. One thing that was missing in Hanoi food wise, were those symbols of Western decadence – Starbucks, MacDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut etc. It is possible they are in there somewhere, but not in the parts I walked around. I reckon that their appearance some time in the future can not be ruled out, natural progression I guess. More inconveniently, I didn’t see any 7 Elevens either, no doubt they will also make an appearance sooner rather than later.
Well, I have made you wade through the entire report before coming to the section that certain readers of this site have been eagerly waiting for, the Hanoi nightlife and the ladies therein. Firstly, let me tell you that I have a good relationship in Thailand so I was not seeking P4P action, but purely in the interest of research for you, dear readers, I did some prior research on the Internet, and was amazed that so little information about the scene in Hanoi was available out there. Even the World Sex Guide’s information on Hanoi was limited and some of the information 5 or 6 years old, so I wasn’t expecting much in the way of sleaze.
The girls I saw walking around on the streets of Hanoi on the Friday afternoon were nothing special, really a pale equivalent of some of the plainer Pattaya girls. Again, this was winter so all were dressed up against the cold in jeans, jackets and scarves, so no flesh being flashed whatsoever, but in the evening I was taken to a bar called Relax 2, in Hoan Kiem district. There is also a Relax 1, and I was pleasantly surprised, inside were maybe a dozen or two hostesses, all dressed to kill, and very attractive, a totally different facial look about them to the girls I had seen on the street. They also doubled as waitresses and kept the clientele, which was about 60% local and 40% expatriate, happy with their charming company and ready smiles. Talking to some of the guys, it appears that if you are getting along handsomely with the hostesses, they may be encouraged to accompany you to the hotel or room of your choice to indulge in ‘political science discussions’ for around US$30 – 50 a night. Don’t worry about the old stories that said the only way to take a lady back in Vietnam was to book two hotel rooms for the night. The rules are apparently much more relaxed now and a lot of the mid range hotels are more girl friendly, but best to check around first. The beer in Relax 2 was around 27,000 VND for a draft Tiger, and a few Dong more for bottled Heineken. If you want to buy the lady a drink, you won’t be ‘charged like a wounded buffalo’ as in Pattaya for the privilege, but I was warned that the unwary could end up with a case of ‘bill padding’, so you have been forewarned.
After that we walked to the 17 Saloon Bar, near to the train station, and I was blown away, décor wise it’s like a Thai style Country and Western pub, complete with the ubiquitous carved Indian Heads, wagon wheels and all, you get the picture, but the waitresses are dressed cowgirl style in denim short shorts or mini dresses, bare midriffs, tight tops and topped off with cowboy hats, really sexy and took me completely by surprise. Onstage there was a Filipino band cranking out all your old rock and C&W favourites, and in between the DJ pumps our good old pop musaz, like the Weather Girls ‘It’s Raining Men and the B52’s Love Shack, really a great fun place. The clientele again was a 60/40 mix of locals and ex-pats, many ostentatiously drinking bottles of Johnnie Walker or Jack Daniels. Again, I was told that some of the girls in the place could be persuaded to continue the night ‘chatting’ with you for around the same remuneration as the Relax 2. Once again beware of extras being added to your bill and ‘nibbles’ appearing unwanted. This place was more expensive with a draft Tiger at 35,000 VND, but worth the extra for the entertainment factor. Hanoi also has many massage parlors in the streets where extras can be on the menu for around US$20-30, and indeed the bigger hotels have their own Karaoke or massage parlors bolted on, where the girls will cost you at least US$100 for a takeaway. Looking at the standard of the honeys available in the two bars I visited for up to US$50, I could not help but wonder how pretty the US$100 girls in places like the Sofitel might be?
Despite the places I visited, I would say that Hanoi is not really the place for dedicated P4P monger types and it has nothing on Thailand in that respect, and there is no shortage for the expatriates, students, tour guides etc. that are more than happy to shack up with you. My friend currently has at least four ladies on the go, non P4P. In fact it was almost embarrassing the amount of phone calls he was getting from ladies wanting to see him during my stay.
Internet Mythbusters #4
Moto girls. Research shows that you have to be wary of pairs of girls on motorbikes or scooters hunting unwary travelers, that will stop and approach you offering a ‘good time’, but also they will attempt to either rob you in the room, or pick your pocket right there on the street as would the katoeys on Pattaya Beach Road. I never got approached once! In fact I was bitterly disappointed it didn’t happen, I mean I’m still a ‘hansum man’, at least in Thailand. Actually, talking of katoeys, I never saw one in Hanoi, it's funny how you get so used to seeing them in everyday life in Thailand that I actually missed seeing any. How perverse is that? Perhaps they are drowned, ‘kitten like’ as soon as homosexual traits are discovered? I can’t believe that is true, but certainly I saw nothing other than heterosexual stuff, at least on the surface of Hanoi.
The Vietnamese equivalent of Thailand’s boys in brown, albeit in looser uniforms, were certainly a pervasive presence in Hanoi, and they were not adverse to shaking down a motorcyclist or motorist or two that step out of line. Around 95% of people wear helmets but the few that don’t are always putting themselves at risk of a ‘tea money’ contribution. I didn’t actually see them target any white faces specifically; maybe they haven’t learnt that particular angle yet? I saw an awful lot of Kumquat trees around Hanoi. This is apparently a sort of Christmas tree for ‘Tet’ or Vietnamese New Year, and a very colourful looking tree it is too. I took the picture below of the standard of safety in Hanoi, you will see the guy mopping clean the glass dome on an office block entrance, yes, there is a hydraulic man-lift to raise him there, but he himself has absolutely no regard for his own safety, no belt, ropes, nothing, totally scary.
Although two and a half days was really only time enough to do little more than scratch the surface of Hanoi and Vietnam, I would say it is a country going forward. There is free Wi-Fi almost everywhere, and most residential buildings have broadband and cable, even my friend's pocket motorcycle taxi boy has access to Internet chat in the room he shares with five others. As an alternative to living in Thailand, well, I would certainly think a lot of research would need to be undertaken. What the chances are of obtaining long term visas, or setting up in business in Vietnam, I have no idea. I am aware that Vietnam has a reputation of having a higher level of official corruption than even Thailand. I hope to visit again in around six months time, hopefully this will coincide with better weather and the chance to see if the girls really do strut their stuff in the beautiful silken Ao Dais and if more skimpy apparel is acceptable on the street.
Anyone that claims they are missing the quaint charm of the old Don Muang Bangkok Airport would likely feel at home in Noi Bai Airport. Not a lot of facilities and the toilets are awful, dirty and smelly. Give me the brash, glitzy ‘Swampypoom’ Airport any day. A taxi from Hanoi at 6:30 a.m. cost me 230,000 VND but I tipped him well, for another 70,000 VND (big spender!) and the journey took under an hour this time.
On returning to Bangkok I wanted to give the Bell Travel (Pattaya S’Express) Bus Service a whirl, the timing was just about right for the 12 o’clock midday bus, you certainly have to battle through the taxi touts on clearing Customs, all claiming no such service exists, but be strong, go down the escalator to Level 1, and there between entrances 7 & 8 you will find the Bell Travel representatives. The price is now 200 baht per person, but that’s a good 1,300 baht saving on a taxi if you are travelling solo. The bus left at 12:10, possible desperately hoping for more passengers, at this time there were only 10 other passengers, including one old German canoodling with his young Thai boyfriend, which I could have done without, but the air-conditioned, fairly luxurious bus fairly raced through the motorways and we pulled into North Pattaya Bus Station at exactly 13:40, pretty impressive, then a transfer to a mini-bus, included in the price, and I was home by 13:55 p.m. All in all a good service which I would use again, but I am not sure how sustainable the service may be with so few passengers. Use it or lose it folks!
That's a nice trip report – and nice colourful photos too.