Oct 102011
 

Ordinarily I save my observations posts for just before leaving a country, but after spending more than a week in Hanoi – just wandering around and “observing” – I had such a long list that I think I’ll crank one out in advance…


• Without a doubt the most overwhelming traits I’ve noticed about Vietnam – or at least about Hanoi – are its similarities to China. Having spent over 3 months in the People’s Republic and over 4 in SouthEast Asia, Hanoi is clearly a much closer relative of the former than the latter. Nearly everything from the culture and how people behave to the communist government and “general feel” reminds me of the PRC. There’s chaotic traffic and the constant blaring of car horns; There’s an almost universal lack of English; There’s government propaganda and censorship of the Internet; There are hundreds of locals sitting on streetcorners playing checkers or doing nothing at all. Even the ethnic look in general seems closer to Chinese than to Thai. It’s all very different from what I expected – I expected to find a SE Asian country with its own unique twist, but never a “mini People’s Republic of China!”

• Anytime day or night, Bangkok is bustling. You can go out at 3 in the morning to find bars overflowing with people, restaurants venting sweet-smelling steam into the air, and, well, pretty much anything you could ever need. Hanoi is the opposite. By midnight everything is closed, the streets are abandoned, and with no convenience stores at all, if you don’t have enough bottled water in your room – get ready to drink from the sink!

• On a related note: thus far, nobody I’ve asked has even heard of 7-11 (the world’s largest convenience store chain). This includes several hotel receptionists and tour guides. Trying to explain the concept of “a chain of 24 hour mini-markets,” they literally don’t seem to have any idea what I’m talking about.

• There are no McDonalds in the whole of Vietnam – but they have heard of it πŸ˜‰

• Vietnamese money is weird. Not only does every bill have a picture of the same guy (Ho Chi Minh), but every bill has the same picture of the same guy. And there are no coins, only bills. And the denominations are enormous. For my first withdrawal I took out one million dong – or about $50USD. A bowl of Pho costs 20,000.

• This is more of a tip than an observation. Vietnam has 3 major cellular networks: MobiFone, Viettel, and Vinaphone. I tried SIM cards from both of the latter two, and while Vinaphone is “supposed” to have better coverage, I found that for 3G internet – at least within Hanoi – Viettel is far superior. Getting connected is a simple matter of picking up a prepaid SIM from any kiosk and texting the appropriate activation code (see here). For example, for 30 days of unlimited data, just send “U30 ON” to 888. $10 will be deducted from your balance and you’re good to go!

• Facebook is blocked completely in Vietnam. What a hassle. As the most widespread and convenient way to keep in touch with both locals and travelers alike, that means that basically anyone I meet who lives in Vietnam will be difficult (if not impossible) to maintain contact with. It also means that I have to rely on a slow overseas VPN just to check my messages. :roll:

• Vietnam seems to have no IP law whatsoever – or if it does, it certainly isn’t enforced. Just like how you can buy pirated DVDs from even the most legitimate-looking shops in China, here, the number of “business copies” is nothing short of astounding. Especially in the tourist industry it seems like the moment a company becomes successful twenty more pop up with identical names and services. Within just a few days I saw four variations on “Ocean Tours,” five different “Lucky Hotels,” and at least fifteen clones of “Sinh Cafe.” All in an attempt to steal someone else’s reputation and success 😐

• One thing that’s incredibly convenient about Vietnamese (versus other languages in Asia) is its use of Roman-like letters. Although I may not know the meaning of a word, here I can sound it out or search for it online – approximating the names of food and the like. For as awesome as Thai food may be, an inability to read what a given vendor is selling definitely acts as a barrier to the casual “culinary tourist.”

• On the other hand…man, I thought Thai sounded funny. Vietnamese is nothing short of hilarious.

• Although Hanoi once had its fair share of nightlife, everything I read online said that, as of several years ago, it’s been all but eliminated. The police decided to crack down on “social evils” and raided all the best clubs, so even bars now have to close by around midnight. For example: Try Googling “New Century Club Hanoi.” Previously the best venue in town, it was forcibly closed several years back. Great idea: eliminate all semblance of fun in the city. I guess if I’m gonna hang out in Vietnam for awhile, Saigon is a better place to be…

• I get the sense that despite being Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi is a pretty quiet, laid back sort of place. A sleepy “communist-era” town in comparison to the hustle and bustle of Saigon.

• I’ve mentioned this before, but it still deserves its own line: it really is crazy how many motorbikes there are in Hanoi – and how chaotic it is. If you think the little green man on the traffic light means it’s safe to cross the road…think again!

• I’m a bit surprised by how few “traditionally attractive” women I’ve seen in Hanoi. My guess is that this is a consequence of culture or affluence or rather than anything else, because in my personal opinion, Vietnamese are some of the most beautiful among Asians in America. But as mentioned, Vietnam feels like a near-duplicate of China – where unlike Japan or Thailand more emphasis seems to go towards utility than appearance and fashion.

• The one exception to the above is the interesting prevalence of INCREDIBLY long hair (which I personally find sexy as hell). Literally every time I go out I notice several women with hair down to their knees.

• I once described how in Thailand, the rule at guesthouses is “once you’re in you’re in” – so as long as you extend before checkout it’s easy to play things by ear. The policy in Vietnam is the exact opposite: if you want flexibility you have to book for the maximum length of time and cancel before you want to leave. I didn’t know this, and reserved just one day – so when I arrived I was told they were fully booked a couple days later. Oops. Lesson learned.

• Upon asking at 4 or 5 different hotels, I was shocked to learn that Hanoi doesn’t have a local gym at all – the only way to lift weights is apparently to pay $20+ at the Hilton. “But how do Vietnamese people exercise?” I asked. “They don’t,” my hotel receptionist replied. “They just walk around the lake.” Unless I’m mistaken, that makes Hanoi the only capital city I’ve ever been to without a gym. I guess I’ll be doing pushups and curling my backpack once again 😐

  15 Responses to “Hanoi Observations”

  1. There are actually several gyms in Hanoi, popular with locals and expats alike:

    http://newhanoian.xemzi.com/en/c/1/cat/90/health-and-fitness-hanoi

  2. you didn’t seem to have a good experience in Hanoi. Many of your comments are negatively twisted. You judge things fast & quick on the surface – this isn’t a right approach to discover a city like Hanoi.

  3. @Tabitha: Awesome, thanks for the reference! I actually did Google a bit and only turned up very expensive touristic options, and as the staff at (both of) my hotel(s) said that no options exist, perhaps I just gave up a bit prematurely. I’ll keep these in mind for next time πŸ™‚

    @Hoai: Fair enough, but nevertheless an individual’s “feeling” of a place is unique to their own experience. While I DEFINITELY think it’s important to look deeply at a place and see it for both its faults and its merits, observations like these are simply thoughts that I note while walking around. So when I say things like “it’s inconvenient that Facebook is blocked” or “it’s silly that nightlife is cut so short,” it may sound negatively twisted, but it isn’t meant to be offensive or to imply that Hanoi is an overall crappy place. They’re just things that stood out relative to other places I’ve been.

  4. I love how money in southeast asia usually has a plastic component in it! i kept a malaysian ringgit (5 ringgit note) because it was the first encounter i had with plastic-holed money πŸ™‚

  5. Wow! That looks a lot like China!!!! But we have 24 hour convenience stores (365-24) everywhere!

    That money is a huge fail…..bot in terms of denomination and similarity

  6. hi Justin,

    yes you’re right about personal feelings of a place and this is like a personal diary to you.

    But when you post this online and it is spread out to the internet community, readers who have never been to Hanoi will tend to adopt a negative feeling of the place.

    Next time if you have a chance to visit Hanoi again, please make sure you come prepared with all the information then you will realize what’s special about this city that makes many travelers come and not leave. And keep in mind you can always ask – we are happy to answer.

    Hoai

  7. Hoai…..it looks like you are just having a knee jerk reaction to someone posting negative things about your country…..not taking issue with weather the comments were true or not.

    Is facebook blocked?
    Were the nightclubs closed like he said?
    Are there not many 24 hour convenience stores?
    Are there not many gyms?
    etc.?

    I would stop picking on Justin for posting accurate information. Justin has a history of posting the good and the bad…..and of being accurate to what he noticed / experienced. This is his personal blog. As long as he is accurate, you shouldn’t blast him.

  8. @Andrew: Justin has an attitude in there the way he writes it and as i said this is his personal blog and he has the right to do it. All i wanted to say is his observation about Hanoi is not yet a complete picture of the place and he needs to take more time/a different approach to get the full idea.

    @Justin: I don’t mean to pick on you in any way – I’m actually glad that you had came to Hanoi and wrote about it. Just hoping next time you will experience the place on a deeper level.

    Hoai

  9. “All i wanted to say is his observation about Hanoi is not yet a complete picture of the place and he needs to take more time/a different approach to get the full idea. ”

    Justin isn’t writing a book called “The complete guide to Hanoi”…..this is his PERSONAL blog. These are his PERSONAL observations. The title of this post was in fact “Hanoi Observations”…..NOT “The complete and total full guide to Hanoi”. I think he was honest, clear and truthful. He may have an attitude, or an opinion, or a perspective…..but that isn’t strange or bad on a PERSONAL BLOG.

  10. Funny, Andrew. we shall see about his next experience on a deeper level, and i can’t wait to get there myself

  11. I really relate to Justin’s assessments and think he is incredibly open minded. I would do the exact same thing as he; quickly judge the livability of the place in comparison to places I have been. I would look for a gym, a badass night club, a place to buy stuff I am familiar with and trust at any time of night (711), and check facebook to keep in touch.

    Justin is not negative about Hanoi at all in my opinion, just relaying a well traveled and educated westerner’s assessment.

  12. I liked it πŸ™‚

  13. @Linda: Yep – Hong Kong is like that too, as is Israel if I remember correctly πŸ™‚

    @Hoai:

    please make sure you come prepared with all the information

    I don’t know why you assume I didn’t have all the information; in fact, I read every single page of the Vietnam Lonely Planet as well as many online resources. In all my years of travel I’ve only ever met one person who researches as thoroughly as myself.

    then you will realize what’s special about this city that makes many travelers come and not leave

    To be perfectly honest, it really sounds like you’re just trying to blame “non-positive observations” on “not understanding.” I never said that I don’t like Hanoi, I simply listed facts which I do think are true – not many 24 hour stores, feels a lot like China, Facebook is often blocked, etc. Listing these observations doesn’t mean I was unprepared or uninformed or shallow.

    Just hoping next time you will experience the place on a deeper level.

    Again, it seems like you’re mixing up “deep level” with “no negativity.” For instance, if I were to invert each of these observations (i.e. “There are loads of convenient 24 hour stores, and gyms on every corner!”) would you still say that I need to experience it on a deeper level or that I was uninformed? The content of the observations would of course be the same.

    he needs to take more time/a different approach to get the full idea

    What approach would that be, exactly? I’ve visited dozens of countries and hundreds (?) of cities, and (for fear of sounding arrogant) do think I have a pretty reasonable amount of experience in getting a feel for places and peoples. In the case of Hanoi, I spent over two weeks in that city alone; virtually every other traveler I met spent only a few days. And in fact, I *did* return several months after my first visit – which I haven’t even gotten to writing about yet.

    But when you post this online and it is spread out to the internet community, readers who have never been to Hanoi will tend to adopt a negative feeling of the place.

    Fair enough, but again (and as Andy pointed out) I simply post my observations – both the good and the bad. If a place feels dangerous I can’t very well write that it’s safe, just as it would be unfair to call a safe place dangerous. So if a traveler looking for info on Hanoi is expecting 7-11’s and McDonalds and nightclubs like in Thailand…well…what’s wrong with giving them a little info beforehand? πŸ˜›

    @Andy / Allyn: Thanks for your kind words, and for appreciating what I’m trying to convey πŸ™‚

  14. I didn’t think your post was all that negative — many things I LIKE. In fact, that statement “Hanoi is a pretty quiet, laid back sort of place. A sleepy β€œcommunist-era” town in comparison to the hustle and bustle of Saigon.”, …is exactly why I think I’d prefer it. (I’m not a late-night party guy, and Saigon might be just a little TOO crazy?)

    In that crossing-the-mass-of-motorbikes-street photo, haha, I’ll bet that blonde farang in the background would have an easier time parting the stream?

    I’m checking out your Hanoi posts too because going there much later end of my trip.
    Great photos and all!

  15. I didn’t think your post was all that negative β€” many things I LIKE.

    Glad to hear it!

    I’m not a late-night party guy, and Saigon might be just a little TOO crazy?

    Haha, then we’re *definitely* not that alike πŸ˜‰

    I’ll bet that blonde farang in the background would have an easier time parting the stream?

    Wow, you’ve quite the eye – I never even noticed her πŸ˜›

    Great photos and all!

    Thanks!

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