Our journey to Vietnam was long, but not too bad. We left Gdansk on Monday and took the train down to Warsaw where we spent 2 nights in the Old Town, a pedestrian area inside the city walls. It was a great location but it took dragging all our luggage down several blocks of cobble stone streets and up 4 flights of stairs. We spent most of our time in Warsaw preparing for our move to Asia. We already had our visas, they are easy to get for US citizens and everything can be done online. There was a choice of visas and we chose the 6 month business visa. It cost a little more than a 6 month tourist visa, but with the tourist visa you have to leave the country every 3 months. There are special tours available around this where you can get on a bus to Cambodia or Laos, get your visa stamped, then reenter Vietnam. That sounded like a pain and would have ended up costing more in the long run. Also with the business visa we don’t have to hide the fact that we are working. We could even hire some employees. Any coders here in Hanoi looking for work? 😉
While in Warsaw we had to get print outs of our Visas along with a set of photos. We used a do-your-own passport photo app & printed everything out in the print center at the University of Warsaw. We had looked into getting the recommended vaccinations back in Gdansk, but we couldn’t figure out where to go and they are only recommended for people going off in the jungle. In the city we should be fine. USD cash was required to pay for the remaining Visa fee so we needed an exchange office. We also wanted to consolidate the extra cash we had from various countries we had been in. The woman at the exchange office took all our Euros, paper bills (no coins) in Hungarian Forint and Croatian Kuna, and gave us Polish Zloty. She wouldn’t take any of our Serbian Dinar. The Zloty we exchanged for USD at another exchange office in the airport. We wanted to have this done in advance because we read that there wasn’t an ATM before customs in Vietnam, but there was. Actually, a lot of the information we read online seemed out of date, even if it was just from last year. I’ll have more about this later. Anyways, we prepared ourselves as much as possible before leaving the EU.
Wednesday we carried our luggage back down the 4 flights of stairs and along the cobble stone streets to where we could get an Uber. I can’t believe the Tan Whale hasn’t lost a wheel yet. It’s really holding up for a cheap suitcase. We were at the Airport early so had to wait for the Qatar Airways check-in to open. They allow up to 30 kg (66 lbs) per checked bag which was a life saver for us. Our 2 suitcases were well under the weight limit but my laptop bag was over the 7 kg (15 lbs) allowed for carry on. We shuffled a bunch of stuff around until I basically just had my laptop in my carry on. It still weighed 9 kg, but the attended let it go. I like my laptop bag, it has wheels and everything, but I’m going to have to figure something else out for continued travel.
Despite all the traveling we have been doing, it had been about 6 months since we last flew. Our flight wasn’t full but there were a lot of kids on the plane, plus a big group that all knew each other so some people chose other seats than what they were assigned. This resulted in a couple guys getting in a disagreement. I couldn’t hear everything that was being said but it went on for a long time and involved most of the Qatar staff. Finally it got broken up when a flight attendant told one man she didn’t appreciate his language and to just take a seat up front. Both men threaded to kill each other if they ever saw the other one again as they parted. Nice. Then there was the 8 year old boy who just wanted to jump up and down in his seat, even as we were rolling out to the runway. His mother even defended his actions and said he could sit on her lap. It needed to be explained to her that was against regulations. Other kids kept randomly taking of their seat belts and running around in the aisles too. The Qatar flight attendants have some unbelievable patience.
The first leg of our flight took us to Doha, Qatar, the airlines hub. We had a nice meal on the plane along with complementary beer, wine, and cocktails. I took a short nap wrapped in a Qatar Airways blanket, which is far superior to other airline blankets I have encountered. (In fact, it’s on my lap as I type this!) In Doha we had to change planes and had to go through security with our carry-ons again. After security we had to scramble as they were announcing last call for our connecting flight. The Doha Airport seemed really nice and upscale as we ran down the moving sidewalks to our next gate. There was no time to really look around though. We got to our plane on time and just as we took our seats they announced a 20 min delay so they could load the transferring luggage. Sigh. I would have really liked to check out the airport a bit.
The next leg of our flight was the longest, it took us about 7 hours to our next stop in Bangkok, Thailand. We took a gamble on this flight and booked the window and aisle seats. Our luck paid off and no one was in the seat between us. This gave us much more room to stretch out. Even though we were in economy the leg room was great, our seats reclined a lot and we were given little packages with an eye mask, toothbrush & paste, lip balm, earplugs, and socks! I think I got about 4 hours sleep. In Bangkok we stayed on the plane while some passengers left and other boarded. Still the seat between us remained empty. Less than 2 hours after we took off, we were finally in Hanoi. It was Thursday afternoon.
Everything went extremely smooth at immigration. We gave the agent our visa print outs, photos, and passports. He gave us a form to fill out. When we returned with the form he pretended like he still needed our passports, which he had. He was having fun tricking people and actually freaked a couple people out. After that we got our passports stamped and went down to baggage claim just as our luggage was coming around the carousal.
I was able to get on WiFi and message our Airbnb host that we were on our way. The address to our place is complicated to say the least. I can’t get Google Maps to point to it, but we were given a street address that’s close enough to give to a cab driver. The airport is a bit outside of Hanoi so we had a 30 minute drive into town. Here we got our first taste of Vietnamese life. Drivers honk at everything. They honk when they are passing a car, they honk when there is a car in front of them, they honk to announce to the world that they are honking because they can. There were just as many scooters on the highway as there were cars and trucks. Our driver honked at one as we passed. There were 5 people on the scooter, Dad was driving with his young daughter sitting in front of him, Mom was on the back with 2 babies in her arms. Besides people, large amounts of goods can also be carried on a scooter. One scooter had 5 large boxes of toilet paper and other paper products strapped to the back. On another scooter the driver had his friend on the back. His friend was holding on to a large screen TV that was bigger than the scooter. Our taxi driver honked at all of them.
We were dropped us off on a busy street and our driver pointed for us to go down the block some to get to our apartment. We had to maneuver our luggage between people fixing scooters, cooking food, and selling goods on the side walk, or around parked cars, scooters, and pedestrians in the road. I was still amazed the Whale hadn’t lost a wheel yet. It ended up we were going in the wrong direction so we turned around and went back to where the taxi dropped us off. We asked a few people where to go. Whether they spoke English or not, the locals in that area kept pointing us in the right direction. I finally found a guy who spoke great English and he walked me right to the alley we needed to go down. We pushed our luggage down a very narrow, unlit walkway and emerged in a courtyard. There were several older Asian women there doing their daily things and they all stood up and pointed to where we needed to go. I guess our luggage gave it away that we were looking for the Airbnb. When we got to the entrance our host met us and seemed surprised we actually found the place. We were surprised too!
A family owns the building our Airbnb is in. Grandma lives on the bottom floor, our apartment is on the next floor up, and Mom and Dad live on the top floor but they are in Europe on vacation until later in the month. Our host and his brother run the Airbnb listing. There is another apartment on our floor but I’m not sure who lives there. The hall way is full of shoes and I am really trying to get better about taking my shoes off before coming inside. There was an Aunt we met when checking in too. She held both my hand in hers, head butted me, then laughed. Howard got her official greeting too.
The Airbnb is in the Old Quarter and great. It is an older building, but it has beautiful hardwood floors, a queen size western bed, (eastern beds are usually a thin mat on the floor) a large shower and western toilet, a small galley kitchen, and a private balcony with a laundry room at one end. The balcony overlooks a small day market in the courtyard. Best of all we have good internet plus 2 air conditioners and a large fan. We will be more than comfortable here for a couple months.
There is something very present here that I can’t show with pictures, but I will try to describe with words; the smells. I’ve smelled things I’ve never smelled before. They’re not necessarily bad smells, but not always good either, just different. Some of it is from cooking food. Some of it is from cooking fires or people burning Ghost Money in the streets. Some of it is from I don’t know what. In the court yard by our apartment there is an overwhelming smell of licorice or anise. I don’t know where it is coming from but is seeps into our apartment. I like it.
Another thing here that I like are the outlets. Sure all the power comes from massive clusters of wires attached to trees, posts, or buildings, but the outlets are shaped to take US plugs or EU plugs. You just have to make sure your devices can handle the higher voltage. We can plug in all our things, but unplug our laptops when not in use, just in case.
The money here is the Dong (Yes, we giggle immaturely at that too.) but most places will take USD. It’s better to use the Dong though, since $1.00 equals about 23,000 Dong. They don’t do coins here so the Dong is the only way you can give and get small enough change.
Speaking of money, most things are very cheap here. You can get a couple beers for $1 each and have a delicious meal for $3 or $4. It’s changing though, These prices were a lot lower just last year. Vietnam has one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Thanks in part to manufacturing, tourism, and a large expat community prices will only continue to go up. We are glad we got to come here right now, before too many more things change.