Vietnam Bike Tour: Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (Prologue)

May 13th, 2014 Comments Off

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About to get on our bikes for the first time to leave Hanoi. 100 degrees, 100% humidity, multiple layers of protective bike gear and we’re jazzed!

Welcome to the start of mine and Felix Pomerantz’s motorcycle journey from North to South Vietnam!  I’m Zach and I’ll be your narrator.  Felix is a friend of mine going back to when I used to live in NYC.  I live in China now a days, Felix lives in Philadelphia.

The basic plan was to meetup in Bangkok (much cheaper to fly from the east coast USA to Bangkok than Vietnam).  There we would do some planning, ensure visas for all the places we wanted to go were in order, do some tourism and then head to Hanoi, Vietnam.  From there, we’ll rent motorcycles and spend twelve days traveling south, stopping at all the major cities along the way, SCUBA diving, having adventures etc.  After nearly two weeks on the road we will then relax in HCMC for a few days before stopping briefly in Siem Riep, Cambodia and then to Myanmar for some quick spots of nature tourism before Felix heads back to the US through Bangkok and I back to China. I’m going to try and publish the blog everyday, but my only typing apparatus is my phone and cell coverage/available time will vary.  Please forgive me if there are some lapses at first.

Tips on visas for those interested:  As Americans you just get a stamp at Thailand.  You need an invitation letter and $45 cash in person at Vietnam to get a Visa on Arrival (letters can be found online for 25$ or so), same for Cambodia (prices may vary slightly) and for Myanmar we went to the Myanmar consulate in Bangkok and filled out paperwork in person there.  Note that it takes at least 6 hours to get that done!

Bangkok

Bangkok frankly was a bit of a letdown from a tourism perspective for me.  It’s a giant city and all the tourism stuff seemed more about the tourists than about the locals.  There is a tipping point in tourism, in my opinion, where it’s no longer the tourists exploring the local environment and being amongst locals and instead it’s the locals creating a tourist environment.  The more popular and well developed the tourist location the more likely I’ve felt that way in my travels so far.  I’m sure it’s still possible to have an amazing and properly local experience in Bangkok, just not by naively following Lonely Planet.  So, given that this was the quality of our Bangkok trip, please forgive me for instead jumping straight to Hanoi, where we are definitely living in the local’s world.

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While delicious, this omlette from a restaurant across the street from our Bangkok “guest house” was decidedly not thai-authentic.

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Journey number one — a flight from Bangkok to Hanoi.

Hanoi

We landed in Hanoi and went through the visa process without issue.  We spent an hour or so in the airport deciding what we would do for the day, getting sim cards etc ($15 for unlimited 3G for a month!).  Took a cab to downtown where we got our first taste of the developing world in Vietnam.  Triangle hats, and motorbikes.  Holy hell motorbikes.  Everywhere.  They come by the thousands.  And there are no rules on the road other than fear and bravery dictate right of way.

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A normal intersection in Hanoi — beautifully lit through some trees you’ll see motorcyclists going in every which direction, completely without any official sense of order. Surprisingly though, we only saw one accident the whole time, and it was basicaly a non-incident. No damage, nobody got hurt, everybody continued about their business.

Our cab driver was very nice and stuck with us as we struggled to find the exact location of the hostel.  The hostel is in this extremely narrow building with a ton of service folk.  There was even a bellman to open the door.  At an 8$ a night hostel there was a man whose job it was to open the door.  Imagine that!  We checked into a large room with six full size beds that they called a dorm.  At first it was just us but some other travelers showed up later that night, including a nice French lady who made fun of a shirt I bought.  Well, it is a ridiculous shirt, more on that later.  We then went to checkout the motorcycles… And on the way had our first meal, proper Vietnamese food!

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Pho Bo. Or, Beef Pho. Delicious, and it cost about $1.50.

After checking out the bikes we went to the Hanoi Military Museum.  I won’t say too much about this, other than there are a lot of profound thoughts to be had about visiting a war museum for a country that celebrates victory against one’s home nation.

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After the museum we signed up for a boat cruise to a place called Ha Lon Bay — about a 4 hour drive east of Hanoi on the ocean.  We booked the boat to leave the following morning; I’ll skip blogging about the boat cruise for now, and simply leave a couple photos here to summarize that part of the journey.

We got back from the cruise around dinner time on Monday.  We went to a place that was super highly reviewed on trip advisor and was conveniently about a block from where we were staying.  We were a bit confused when they didn’t really have a menu.  The had one thing, noodles.  And if you don’t like noodles, too bad!  They were like Pho, but not: less soup, more sauce, thinner noodles, more peanut and tons of delicious, and still about $2.  The restaurant is apparently one of the highest rates in all of Hanoi — which is amusing because the facility itself is really, by any western standard, a dump.  But in that way, it’s local and charming — it was about half tourists half locals, and felt authentic and awesome to me.  A well spent $2.

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