I can’t quite believe that we have already left behind Laos, but we were both really excited to tackle Vietnam head on. All that was left in Laos was to figure out how to actually get to Vietnam.
As we’ve discovered in South East Asia, travel involves A LOT of buses and very long travel times. Nothing encapsulates this belief quite as much as the popular sleeper bus from Vientiane to Hanoi, one of the two transport options to cross the border.
The sleeper bus is pretty epic as it takes you back up North to cross the border to Vietnam and takes around 27 hours in total. The second, and more expensive option, is to fly which takes just one hour – a pretty vast difference!
Like most backpackers we had fully intended to buckle down and grit our teeth through the bus ride to save as much money as possible. Due to my travel sickness – and having already experienced the hundreds of windy roads the bus would be taking – we asked our hostel to book us tickets at the front of the bus. We were quickly assured that no buses sell specific seats, only a bulk number and its first come first serve. Since we knew there would be a lot of vomiting at the back of the bus (especially by me) we put the tickets on pause in order to do a good Google to see if there were better options.
Unfortunately, our hope for a more positive bus option soon turned to despair as everyone’s opinion on the 27 hour bus was that it was (unsurprisingly) “the journey from hell”. No joke, literally everyone’s titles to their blogs included the word “hell”. While we expected the uncomfortable seating and cramped atmosphere, we were soon educated on the seating procedure of the buses which is unanimously tourists at the back, locals at the front – no exceptions. At the border, while the locals have their visas sorted on the bus, the tourists get kicked off and have to walk around 2 km with their bags through various checkpoints and have to pay whatever the officials ask for. To top it off, we read an account of people who get loaded onto nice buses, driven a while and then kicked off onto a much dirtier bus which normally breaks down. One guy had his bus breakdown and so were loaded onto an already full bus and had to stand for the 27 hours!
While this may have been people slightly exaggerating, with a feeling that they probably weren’t exaggerating that much and with flashbacks of our 27 hour train in India, we quickly decided that perhaps it was worth using some of our saved budget from Thailand to buy flights instead. It may cost a bit more, but perhaps would save us in mental scarring and anti nausea pills (of which I probably would have to overdose).
Feeling slightly less like the hardened backpackers we have come to consider ourselves, it turned out we weren’t the only ones opting for this option; packing up in the hostel to head to the airport we quickly found that 9 other backpackers were also heading there for the same flight. Piling ourselves into the back of a tiny tuk tuk, we made our slow way to the airport with Fitz and others literally having to hang off the back to accommodate the number of people and their life-size backpacks.
Arriving nice and early at the airport, we were the first ones to check in for the flight. Handing over our passports we were excited to get through security to spend the rest of our kip on a nice lunch before the flight. The gentleman checking us in asked for our visas to which we said we were only going for 2 weeks so the 15 day visa exemption applied. He agreed, it applied to my GB passport but not Fitz’s Irish passport. Panic rising, we pointed out the Irish embassy says that the visa exemption does apply since Northern Ireland is part of the U.K. After a lifetime of being shifted to the side of the queue and with supervisors having been called, we were informed that they weren’t going to accept Fitz’s passport without a visa and that we had a hour and a half to produce one before they closed boarding…. 😳
With a lot of swearing and panic out of the way, we quickly regained our composure and started to look at emergency visas for Vietnam. The costly – but quick – emergency visa set us back $70 and took around 1 hour to get our hands on. It was an hour of stress, panic and staring at our screens so hard I thought we’d burn a hole through them! This also meant our slightly more expensive flight option had skyrocketed into the ‘we can’t afford this sh*t’ league and we were stuck making mental notes of how much money we had just given away… Note to self: thoroughly check passport requirements before going to the airport.
With the emergency visa in hand and thankfully a tiny airport, we were able to get to our gate before boarding started. Welcomed by a little cheer from our fellow backpackers, we celebrated by spending all our remaining money on chocolate and crisps feeling like we’d both lost 10 years off our lives.
And like that, we were on the plane counting our lucky stars that we had actually made the flight and not (a) booking another flight or (b) having to get the sodding bus after all.
With a minor delay due to bad weather, our landing in Hanoi was still hours ahead of anyone catching the dreaded bus and we still couldn’t quite believe that we had managed to make it. Befriending some more backpackers at the common meeting point of airport ATMs, we all hopped in a taxi to save some money and headed towards our hostels. Having pre booked, we were dropped off at our Republik Backpackers Hostel and practically hugged the girl behind the desk. She checked us into the amazing hostel, showed us the incredible showers (Chiang Rai style) and our very private and comfy dorm. Collapsing into bed exhausted, we were extremely happy to be in Hanoi. 😴
For those of you that aren’t aware, SE Asia is currently in off season. This means the temperature is normally high with intermittent rain. Temperatures in Hanoi just before we arrived were hitting mid 40s with some hot pot spots in the city rising to 50! Thanks to the storm that had delayed our landing, Hanoi was back down to the 30s and was fairly grey and drizzly. While this sounds negative it’s actually a God send as it means the air stays cool and walking around is a lot easier. On our first day, we did just that. Hanoi is famous for its Old Quarter but we thought we would be adventurous and wander outside the quarter, munch on the famous Vietnamese Bahn Mi, while taking in the more touristy sights such as The Imperial Citadel and other such grand buildings built under Vietnam’s communist regime. While the sights were grand, we soon realised why people stuck to the old quarter; there’s not a lot else to see or do outside it tourist-wise.
We were pretty much the only tourists outside the old quarter and we were soon made aware of it! Having already read that the Vietnamese aren’t as friendly to tourists, we were prepared for a little aggression if we, say, declined to buy something from a street seller. What we weren’t prepared for is what seemed like full on attempts on our lives by motorists within a 10 foot radius! Vietnamese traffic is pretty mental by all accounts. They ignore red lights and definitely take on the mindset of motorists having right of way over pedestrians. However for tourists this is even more pronounced. We had motorists speed up when we were crossing roads as if purposefully trying to clip us and scooters pulled out in front of us and cut us off completely while hitting our shins on the way out! It was pretty mental. Couple that with pavements being mainly scooter parking, the main walking route along the road can be pretty dangerous! Making swift notes to keep an eye out for anything and everything we headed back to the hostel to test out their newly released pizza (I promise we don’t just eat pizza 🍕), catch up on admin and have more amazing showers 🚿
The next day we found that remaining in the Old Quarter was infinitely more exciting! While its a tourist hot spot this is by no means a tourist trap, with each street in the old quarter having its own very specific allocation. There is shoe street, hat street, lantern street, styrofoam street, toy street, etc. All locals looking to pick up literally anything can just hop on their scooter and zip around to the right street to find an enormous variety of whatever it is they’re looking for. Walking around this maze is incredible and means every street is chockablock with merchandise and locals going about their daily lives. Taking a break from the mayhem, we walked to the nearby lake and ate Pho Bo, the famous Vietnamese beef noodle soup, while looking out at the lake. Yum and yum! That night we went to a night market where we managed to pick up a few goodies before heading back to pack for our exciting Ha Long Bay cruise the next day!
📷 Pho Bo – beef noodle soup
📷 My favourite street seller of all time. They’re so supportive you literally fall asleep on them!
📷 The lively Old Quarter at night
Our short stay in Hanoi was fairly hectic but seemed to match the city perfectly. Having opted for a slightly more luxurious cruise than the booze cruise options our hostel offered, we were excited for a bit of r&r in the amazing limestone cliffs of Ha Long Bay.
Our follow up blog post on Ha Long Bay to come soon 🤗