My First Week in Vietnam – Hanoi and Halong Bay

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The first days in Hanoi

In every country I have visited I have experienced an emotional journey from the initial nervousness of leaving a place I have become familiar and comfortable in, to the anticipation of arriving in new and different city with no expectations and often, sadly, little preceding knowledge.

It was no different on September 17th 2019 when I left Hong Kong, a city fighting for its survival and independence that had also been so welcoming, to fly to Vietnam.

It is unfortunate that my knowledge of Vietnam before this trip was shockingly lacking, a combination of war films from Hollywood and the Top Gear special. Visions of motorbikes and air strikes.

I landed in Hanoi and, on the advice of my hotel, had arranged for a driver to meet me. Apparently it is common for taxi drivers to try and convince you to use them and they then take you to a completely different hotel leaving you lost, confused and down a few dollars. So it was I sought out my driver and confirmed our agreed code word ensuring I would get to the right place. A reassuring first step in a new country!

The hotel itself was incredible. At prices competing with some basic motels in America I was treated like a VIP rather than the dishevelled backpacker I was. Whilst being checked in I was given a free welcome dish of fresh fruits and fruit juice. Once all the admin was done the receptionist then spent nearly half an hour explaining the best places to go in Hanoi, drawing a custom map of things to see and answering any questions I had. She even taught me my first words in Vietnamese – cảm ơn (thank you).

Over the course of my time in Hanoi the staff at the New Vision Palace Hotel worked ridiculously hard to make my stay enjoyable, I am very grateful in particular to Annie & Tony.

Within less than 2 hours of being in the country I had already started to love the friendliness and desire to help of the Vietnamese people and feel back in my comfort zone.

That first evening I didn’t venture far, but I did find the unusually named Train Street. I learnt over the next few days that many streets in Hanoi are named after their prevailing trade, for example one street may deal only in metal works whilst another focuses on coffins and memorials; similar to the way car dealerships tend to congregate in England it seems businesses of every kind like to find each other in Hanoi.

Train Street is slightly different in that it does not sell trains, rather it is a narrow street with no real access to motor vehicles (although as my guide to Road Rules in Vietnam shows nothing is off limits if you really want to!) due to a single pair of train tracks running down the middle.

What would normally be an area off limits in Western countries has been turned into a bustling tourist attraction with restaurants and bars set up parallel to the railway line, chairs and tables stacked up against the steel tracks. Whenever a train comes through patrons and owners quickly gather their loose articles and breathe in to allow it past before resuming their drinking.

The layout of the street with chairs and tables on each side of the track looking onto the line itself does create the rather odd situation of having staring contests with the complete strangers sitting opposite you. A distance too wide for anyone to consider splitting their own party over, but narrow enough that you can easily over hear everything being said and make repeated eye contact each time you look up.

Sadly it seemed I had missed the evening train and after an uneventful dinner and beer in my new home for the week I returned to the hotel.

The next day I explored Hoa Lo Prison, a colonial French prison from the 1800s used to house political prisoners before being converted into a POW Prison during the American/Vietnam War. It was unexpectedly hard hitting learning about the abusive regime the French implemented and the uncensored photos pre and post guillotine executions were particularly impactive.

I also went to the National Museum of History however I feel I was spoilt by the larger budgets of Japan and South Korea for their museums and left knowing little more than when I arrived.

The following day I got more than I was expecting whilst at the Ho Chi Minh Museum. After discovering that most museums close for lunch between 12 and 2, by discovering I mean getting kicked out, I found myself talking to a Slovenian man who I never actually got the name of. That didn’t stop him from following me across 9 miles of Hanoi as I continued to explore. He was friendly and polite, if a little clingy, and I could find no kind way to explain I was quite happy exploring on my own!

Eventually I managed to say goodbye when he went to the loo and I was able to escape back to my hotel to prepare for my trip to Halong Bay tomorrow.

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Road Rules in Vietnam

The Vietnamese highway code in t-shirt form

When driving in a foreign country it is a good idea to know and obey the local laws. I have therefore put together this short guide to aid you and avoid legal troubles.

Drive on the right – Unless you don’t want to, in which case you can drive wherever you want, in whichever direction you choose

Stop at red traffic lights – You can turn right on red lights outside the city. You can also turn right on red in the city if no police officers nearby. You can also go straight on or turn left if you want to as well

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Haircut in Hanoi – The Best Haircut of my Life

It’s been a little while since I wrote anything on here, I’ve got a bigger post planned soon about arriving in Hanoi and visiting Halong Bay, but I just had to share my story from today. What should have been a normal task became a unique experience.

When I left to go travelling in June I decided to celebrate my escape from custody from work by not shaving or cutting my hair the whole time I’m away. For the first time in my life I have the decent beginnings of a beard (although even 4 months in I still look more homeless than distinguished).

Recently that plan seemed ill advised and the new joy of knotted hair and worried glances from passing locals only added to the urge to cut it. Plus my photos to remember this trip with are plagued with an unkempt hairy yeti (thanks Lisa!)

So this morning, on the recommendation of my wonderful hotel receptionist, I set out for a haircut in Hanoi, and I have never had a haircut like it.

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Climbing Hong Kong’s Victoria Peak

Hong Kong is more than the city you see on TV.

Taken from Hong Kong Island looking across the bay to Kowloon

More than 200 islands make up the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong however due to the steep hills and mountainous terrain the majority of development is limited to Hong Kong Island, the cityscape famous in every photo, Kowloon (the peninsula which looks out onto Hong Kong Island from which many of those photos are taken) and the New Territories, the land joining mainland China.

Having spent the last few days walking around the steep climbs of the populated area I dread to think how steep the unpopulated parts are, my legs are already numb!

The iconic skyline of Hong Kong is the ‘Central’ business district and it sits at the base of one of the tallest peaks in the region, Victoria Peak – also known as Mount Austin.

Victoria Peak behind the Central district

Before heading out to the more extreme hikes I set out to climb The Peak.

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Exploring Hong Kong’s Incredible, and Free, Parks

Although I landed in Hong Kong 4 days ago the first two nights don’t really count. On the first day I didn’t arrive until the mid-afternoon and by the time I had checked into the hotel I only had enough time to see the buildings at night and stumble upon a protest before it was time to sleep.

The next day doesn’t really count either as it involved becoming a human pin cushion again for a Hep B vaccination booster and the fun of my first of three rabies jabs. Fortunately having to get the rabies course did give me an excuse to extend my stay in Hong Kong.

So although it was Day 3 officially it was the first day of actually being able to explore and appreciate this unique city, a strange combination of British and Chinese influences. And already I have come to appreciate what an amazing city it is.

Hong Kong photographed from a plane
Hong Kong from the sky

The day started early and it was already hot and humid, perfect weather for the miles of walking through the city I had planned! The first stop was Hong Kong Park, like many city parks I would come to visit in Hong Kong it contained many surprises.

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Hong Kong’s Central Mid-Levels Escalator System

Did you know Hong Kong has the world’s longest outdoor covered escalator system? Well now you do!

It runs over 800 metres up the mountain side to connect the Central business district with the wealthy Mid-Levels area. And now you can experience it for yourself without even leaving your computer on the newest video by escapefromcustody!

If the above video doesn’t work please click here.

My Week in Seoul, South Korea (and a little bit of North Korea!)

Following a much needed rest at Incheon Airport’s Spa on Air I took the Airport Rail into Seoul, an express train which takes about 45 minutes and cost around £3 one way, I’m still struggling to get used to the cost of things away from the UK!

Checking into the hostel I then explored a small part of the river side and found dinner before calling an end to Day 1.

Day 2 began with a trip to the War Memorial of Korea. The name is slightly misleading as it is more than just a memorial with a fantastic museum over 3 floors going through the history of war on the Korean peninsula from early ages to the Korean War.

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