When I landed in Hanoi at 8 in the morning, I was so exhausted I was delirious. I’d slept only an hour, my health was on-edge from pushing myself through Songkran, and I was absolutely starving – I’d used up the last of my cash on a dishonest taxi driver who took me for an extra 10km ride to the airport.
Hanoi airport was…wow. Pretty ramshackle. Whereas Suvarnabhumi is towers of shimmering glass, packed with expensive designer brand shops and Western restaurant chains, Hanoi’s arrival hall felt more like a small domestic terminal in some backwoods Soviet town. Faded signs, unclear directions, and not well-maintained at all. Basically just a place to land, stamp your passport, and be on your way.
My first order of business was to get a visa-on-arrival, a simple matter of presenting a pre-obtained invitation letter (don’t forget this!) and $25USD. Next I headed to an ATM to withdraw my first 1 million Dong (about $50USD), and hopped on a minibus into town.
(Hanoi Airport did have all the typical touts trying to hustle me into their cabs, but if there’s one word you can shout at me to get yourself ignored, it’s “taxi.” One of the first things you learn as a traveler is to never, ever get into a taxi that touts its presence. If you need one, flag one down – you’ll end up paying half.)
The road leading into the city had about the same feeling as the airport. It was dusty, full of potholes, and lined with small, simple-looking concrete huts. Many of the buildings were quite oddly-constructed – extremely thin and deep with such narrow facades that you could almost wrap your arms around either side. They reminded me of something you might find in Japan, except that these weren’t at all close together; they were built as if packed along a busy street but were in fact standing alone in the middle of big empty fields. Strange.
As we arrived at the city center, I was shocked at how “rustic” it continued to feel; next to this Bangkok was a sparkling first-world metropolis. Half the buildings were falling apart and EVERYTHING was covered in dust. For the whole ride I didn’t see one other foreigner, nor one foreign business – no Starbucks, no McDonalds, no Pizza Hut. Not even a convenience store of any kind. Nothing but small, local-owned shops.
Maybe the best word to describe my first impression of Vietnam would be “raw.” As I found my way to the hotel, thousands of motorbikes whizzed by in every direction – as if streetlights didn’t even exist. Everyone lay on their horns the entire time they drove; a continuous choir of car horns that made it feel far more like China than anywhere I’d seen in SouthEast Asia. This really is gonna be a new kind of challenge.
Since I was so exhausted and sick, I did little on my first day aside from check in, eat, and of course, pick up a local SIM card 😉 Knowing that I’d be arriving so early in the morning I actually had reserved a room – so although finding it took a bit of effort, it was nice to be able to settle in almost immediately.
For the rest of the day, I slept.
Note: These posts are behind realtime; the above took place on Wednesday, April 20th.