Good morning Vietnam

A frustrating greeting from SE Asia

Travelling long distances overland has its challenges, as I found many times on this leg of my journey. So apologies in advance for this long and rather negative post! Maybe worth skipping over this one for some more positive travel tales.

Leaving Guilin, my destination was Hanoi, Vietnam, via Nanning at the very southern tip of China. In Nanning, the plan was to book an overnight train ticket to Hanoi, which could only be booked on the day of departure. More importantly I had to pick up my specially arranged 90 day Vietnam visa from the consulate, in the space of only a few hours.

It didn’t start well. Though I managed to get a bullet train from Guilin to Nanning at 6:30 AM, all the seats had been sold out so it was a standing affair. I did manage to find a tiny space to sit in the luggage rack though, so it could have been worse.

Guilin to Nanning bullet train

Guilin to Nanning bullet train

After arriving in Nanning, it was a case of getting to an office block in the city centre to collect my extensively arranged visa. Though UK citizens are eligible for a 15 day visa exemption, I planned to stay longer however visa on arrival is not eligible via land borders. After I made it to the consulate, I poked around for 10 minutes to find no response. It was closed for public holiday until 4 days later. This cannot be happening, I said to myself.

Do I swan around the seemingly dreary Nanning for a few days; perhaps make a side stop in Hong Kong, or just go into Vietnam for 15 days and figure it out from there? After some deliberation I chose the latter, and managed to get the ticket to Hanoi for that evening. This was some consolation at least, even though all my time and money in securing a visa had gone to waste.

Nanning reminded me of Dubai with its skyscraper lined roads and concrete-jungle ambience. The heat had turned up a notch too. I’d just crossed the Tropic of Cancer and my goodness, it felt tropical.

Tired, infuriated and hungry, I was failing in my desperate search for some food after a difficult morning. Perched by the side of the road trying to figure out where the Happy Cow app was directing me, a student called Lin came up to me and asked if he could help. It turned out, not only did he direct me, but he paid for my bus ticket, chaperoned me to a far better vegetarian restaurant 40 mins away, and even invited me to his home to have a nap. I was lost for words. Chinese hospitality and friendliness never fails to amaze me.


On the overnight train my focus was exclusively on trying to conjure up a solution to my visa issues with the paperwork that I had, but it was to no avail. Through the Vietnam border crossing, the whole train was required to disembark with all belongings – first at the Chinese exit border at 1AM, and then again at 2AM on the Vietnamese side. Security was especially tight here – all border crossing procedures thus far were done exclusively on the train. After all the shenanigans, I finally managed about 3 hours of sleep before the train pulled up in Hanoi.

A gorgeous farewell from China

A gorgeous farewell from China

My only intention on arrival was just to get to my hostel and recover from the previous day. But my journey had one final twist in store.

Jumping into a taxi I waved down, I asked to go to the hostel across town. I negotiated to paying 200k dong (about £7) which I thought was a bit steep, but wasn’t getting my haggling cap on at 5AM. To my disgust, however, when we arrived the driver had the nerve to demand 300k dong instead. Even the guy in the back (I haven’t a clue why this driver already had a passenger) helped me fight my case, but before I know it the driver was helping himself to the cash from my wallet! I had to fight my instinct like never before to not lose my temper with him and just stormed out of the car.

I was desperately upset. Getting ripped off is one thing – I had similar issues with drivers in Irkutsk and Ulaan Baatar – but being lied to and taken advantage of is what hurt most. I kept wondering, how can people treat tourists like that? Don’t they realise the value they bring to the economy? It took me days to get over it. Perhaps I shouldn’t have taken it to heart, but this experience completely changed my mindset.

After this experience, I questioned and critiqued everything and everyone. I’d only go with licensed taxis with meters. All food and products I’d inspect thoroughly before handing over cash. Any tours I’d thoroughly research reviews prior to committing to them. But adopting this mindset was more difficult than I anticipated. Sure, I could analyse everything but it came at the expense of my enjoyment. There’s a really fine line to balance between suspecting and trusting people. It was – and is – exceptionally difficult. But I genuinely thought in Hanoi I was a target to be ripped off everywhere.

Hanoi does have some interesting sights. The Old Town was incredible and unlike anything I’ve seen before. The sheer chaos of petite elderly ladies bobbing along with various produce (with plenty of live ducks) and inanimate commodities on their back, the smell of fresh street food through narrow and windy roads felt like the kind of SE Asia I’d long heard about. I love the dining culture. Plastic furniture is dotted all around the street, where locals will convene for a lively social experience in addition to enjoying a tasty meal. Eating is cheap, too. A hearty dinner can set you back less than a pound here, with the added benefit of it being freshly made in front of you.

They're snails, in case you were wondering.

They’re snails, in case you were wondering.

The museums in Hanoi are excellent. The Prison Museum is a shocking eye opener to the treatment of the Vietnamese during French colonial rule, with remnants of original torture tools and horrific living quarters still on display. Seeing pictures of some native Vietnamese treated like animals in their own country under colonial rule was sickening. The Vietnamese Museum of Enthology offers an interesting insight into the culture of dozens of tribes in the country, showcasing reconstructed traditional homes and objects.

The ex prison in central Hanoi where Vietnamese (and then American) captives were held

The ex prison in central Hanoi where Vietnamese (and then American) captives were held

Lots of fish traps on exhibit in the ethnology museum

Lots of fish traps on exhibit in the ethnology museum

A Water puppet show at the ethnology museum. It's traditional form of entertainment in Vietnam.

A Water puppet show at the ethnology museum. It’s traditional form of entertainment in Vietnam.

Getting around Hanoi was painful. The constant hassle in Hanoi really irked me, especially after my initial experience. I’d be barked at everywhere from the rather grumpy locals. “Oi! You! Moto?” It got the the point where I’d reply with the same aggression back (which I do rather regret now) and losing my temper with taxi drivers.

I’m the kind of guy who enjoys criss-crossing cities via foot, but being a pedestrian is a miserable experience in Hanoi. There are motos in places that clearly weren’t designed for bicycles let alone motos, like shopping markets and alleyways. The sidewalks exist merely as motorbike parking spaces, with hardy any place to walk. I’d usually say a quick prayer, cross my fingers (and toes) before setting off across a street. Honestly – it’s frightening. I reverted to jumping onto Uber motos just to let the driver figure out how to conquer the swarm of traffic. It’s surely safer than being a pedestrian.

A typical sidewalk in Hanoi

A typical sidewalk in Hanoi

Other experiences tainted my Hanoi experience too. Firstly, I hadn’t made a great choice of hostel. I was staying at the number one party hostel in town (I’m too old for that stuff now) with a racist owner and unsociable backpacker crowd. And to add to my already grim experience, a package awaiting me with a credit card (to replace the one swallowed by a Mongolian ATM) had been tampered and stolen.

Eager to leave

Hanoi was without question the least enjoyable stop on my journey so far. Partly because it was so unexpected, partly due to arriving through challenging circumstances, and because bad decisions on my part. Regardless though, the traffic, constant hooting and generally unfriendly locals really got to me. And finally joining the backpacker trail finally was alienating. It was as though my off-the-beaten track adventure had come to an end.

I had been due a hurdle on my trip. As I found out, not everywhere can be an idyllic travel destination, regardless of how positively you approach it. With the hope that Vietnam had less chaotic places to visit, I promptly cut my stay short and headed for Cat Ba island to explore the scenic beauty of Ha Long bay.


Next: Ha Long Bay

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