“Hanoi Hanoi”

When I finally arrived in the centre of Hanoi, I found it one of the prettiest and most vibrant capitals in Southeast Asia, and aside from the capital city prices, (with another increase due to Vietnamese new year) it felt completely different to anywhere else I had been on my travels so far–the polar opposite of Bangkok.

Bangkok is a love-it-or-hate-it place. In my opinion, it was an unforgiving place for many reasons. It has its quirks, the main touristy sights and the parks were pleasant, there are plenty of chic cafes, and the most known place among travellers are the the bars of Khao San Road if partying is on the agenda. But if you can stand not being clean for the whole time, the smell getting into your clothes, eating some questionable food (whether on the street or in a restaurant), the noise, the pollution, the hassle from dodgy locals, and finally the worst thing of all is the unescapable smell of open sewers which the local restaurants and businesses freely add to in the street, domestic waste sites, air pollution and polluted waterways, then you will love Bangkok.

Whether you think you may love it or hate it, it is a must-see in Asia. To experience the thrill of almost being hit on the pavement by a motorcycle, trying with all your might to cross a road without having to read through your travel insurance’s medical policy before doing so; and to keep up with the pace of life in the capital city of Thailand, it is a once in a lifetime experience–but just once will do. 

Back streets in Hanoi’s Old Town full of chic cafes, bars and the best Luxury Hostel

In Vietnam I spent the vast majority of my time outdoors. Safety is everything. Little things like knowing your handbag will be safe by your feet in a cafe, to eating the street food without analysing the thing you are going to eat, the person who cooked it and the state of their hands. This showed as the only time I got ill was in Thailand, and most of my meal times were spent looking for an alternative, more hygienic place to go, until my appetite was lost completely.

In Kanchanaburi (Thailand) the only vegetarian food I could find was a banana pancake. Although this is was a delicious start to travelling the banana pancake trail, it doesn’t quite make it as an evening meal.

However, it wasn’t all bad. Thipsami was one of my frequently visited restaurants in Bangkok which coincidentally was next door to my hostel. Renowned all over the world as the best restaurant in Bangkok with their famous pad Thai wrapped in egg, it was excellent and certainly something worth instagramming.

The Thai food in Chiang Mai was also excellent. Street food was less common out of market times and it often felt like there were more eateries than people so there was a huge variety. In Green Tiger Hostel, I had the best curry I have ever had!

Outside of food safety there is personal safety, and I didn’t feel much of that in Thailand. Which is odd because according to the Mekong Regions 2015 figures, Thailand has more visitors every year than Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia have put together. Thailand is more popular for visitors but the other countries seem more set up to accept them into the communities.

Thailand was not all bad. I have some fantastic memories which just about outweigh the bad. I learned a huge amount about the culture and history that it leaves me with more questions, but satisfied that I have been there and done it. I just thought it was overrated. The mountainous scenery in Northern thailand is beautiful, and to wake up to that every day would be comparable to living in parts of the Lake District. Feeding a baby tiger, and riding around the outer Chiang Mai countryside on a motorcycle to some remote areas and finding quiet unnamed waterfalls were some of the highlights. But I cannot understand what the attraction is. Everwhere is populated by tourists, so much so that it feels like there is no authenticity left. I feel my time spent in some of the more untapped countries like Laos, was much more rewarding. 

Throughout Vietnam there was not one moment when I felt unsafe even during the time I hired a motorcycle to ride the Hai Van Pass. (See Top Gear Vietnam Special). The taxi scam moment was more a head-in-hands-and-sigh moment than feeling unsafe. Whereas in Thailand, from the moment I arrived in Bangkok airport until the moment I departed for Laos, the only place I felt safe was Chiang Mai, and it was so westernised I might as well have been in Europe.

Down the little streets of the old town in Hanoi, it has the cosy small city atmosphere. But when you explore outside of the old town, particularly during Tet (Vietnamese New Year) the hustle and bustle of the outer city screams busy city centre, with anything you could want from a city centre. Stick with which ever feels the most comfortable and it is easy to extend your time in Hanoi just to soak up the at atmosphere, eat some delicious cinnamon buns the size of your head, and drink some excellent Vietnamese iced coconut coffee in some artsy fartsy cafe by the lake.

Clearly, with the amount of development in Vietnam, the figures for tourism in the next few years will increase dramatically. In Phong Nha, a national park in the centre of the country hotels have filled up and extended the main street in the last 12 months, let alone last few years with so many shells of hotels being built at the time of writing. Not even 10 years ago this sleepy town was no bigger than an English country village, mostly with only women because all the men were out in the jungle for weeks at a time and the nearest hotel was a 40 minute drive away in the next city.

As we would recognise it in the UK, it is an area of outstanding natural beauty, and a UNESCO world heritage site which is ranked on three levels. Only 10 percent of all UNESCO sites are registered for three levels: biodiversity, cultural history, and geology and caves. 

The best part about all this information is that it is run by local people so the money is put straight back into the local economy. From getting a cup of coffee at one of the cafes, to being led of a three day tour in the jungle. This is eco-tourism at its best. It is about having a circular loop of funding that does not leave the place it should. Sustainable development, and moving on without leaving a footprint. When you see exactly what your money is being spent on in the jungle, in the conservation areas, and it goes to local people who work hard for it, it would be rare if you said it is not worth it.

The only downside is that as this area becomes more popular it attracts bigger businesses, and big city companies to invest. Which eventually means the money from a big hotel chain is taken away from the area, and the locals wonder how long it will be before that happens.

A similar thing has happened with Hoi An. Once a little ancient market town, now expanded to a bigger area full of hotels and tour companies. Even ‘Hidden Beach’ is one of the most popular places in the pretty town discussed on Trip Advisor, which kind of loses its charm.

Tourism is not all bad though. Although more tourists usually means a place loses its authenticity, it means the locals get a taste of the rest of the world. It is common practice for Vietnamese children to learn English either at school or with a private tutor. If you sit still in a public place for long enough you will find multiple Vietnamese kids politely asking to practice their English with you. Although it is a little weird at first, it is a great way to learn a slice of what the Vietnamese life is like. 

Travelling is a luxury that westerners have at their disposal. There are a variety of reasons why Asian people do not travel. The first is that with the exchange rate to the Euro, Dollar or the British pound, it means it is ridiculously cheap for us but for them to travel would require their life savings. Then there is the language barrier. Learning English is a relatively new thing in comparison to the rest of the world, and if you cannot speak the world language that makes the simplest of tasks more difficult. 

Strangely enough it is not even common to travel in their own country. The two teenagers I spoke to had never been 100km out of Hanoi. In the 15 days I was in Vietnam, I had travelled more of the country than they had in 18 years! They had never even been to Laos or Cambodia the neighbouring countries, which is comparable to never visiting Scotland or Wales for an English person. The reason is that for Vietnamese people (and possibly same for the rest of the region) aside from living costs the money earned is spent on and spent with their families. Family time is highly regarded in Vietnam, and because of the two reasons above there are no family holidays. Which makes travelling not very highly regarded overall, as very few people do it anyway.

In addition to this flying is the quickest but most expensive way to get around the Mekong region. An hours flight at £150 can take up to 26 hours on a bus or train costing anywhere from £10-30. They are influratingly slow and stop for unknown reasons for long periods of time, so even travelling down to the next city is a big time commitment, and forget it if you need to go anywhere fast. 

For Vietnamese people, tourism is one way of finding out what the rest of world is like. Engaging with foreigners, learning English and talking to people in the street. Tourism brings new cuisines to their world. One girl I spoke to said her favourite food was pizza! As tourism grows in Vietnam, more young people feel more engaged with the world, they read and research about other countries, so much so that they can have a conversation about conservation projects in Germany or ask why Britain are leaving the EU. They are clued up on what is happening in the rest of the world, but they have just never been. The same girl who favours pizza said she wants to travel, just like me, and see the world as well.


All part of the experience

Experiencing Asia will leave a mark on you forever. That was the conclusion I came to after drawing a mental image from researching and hearing stories from fellow travellers, and so it has.

There are some things you cannot unsee, and there are others you may never have the opportunity to see again. Asia is the biggest traveller hotspot in the world. With the cheap lifestyle (for westerners), and something to tickle or destroy all five of your senses, it has an attraction. 

Hanoi has become one of my favourite cities in Southeast Asia. After analysis I feel it is because Vietnam resembles much more of a civilised country than its more popular next door-but-one neighbour, Thailand. But, there are a lot of similarities, like transport.  

The experience of getting to Hanoi was unforgettable and certainly was not one I would like to ever re-live. 
The sleeper bus from Vientiane (Laos) was not the most uncomfortable bus I have ever been on from my time in Vietnam; however, the dodgy service stations, the questionable borders, and the areas en route to Hanoi were enough to make even seasoned travellers feel uncomfortable.

In the western world, our borders (land, air or sea) have high security and are regulated to the highest standards. Generally the process goes: wait in a queue at the border. When it is your turn hand your passport over to a moody looking officer. Make a facial expression similar to the one on your passport. Maybe pay some money for a visa if required (and always the same amount it says on a plaque or information form) or show a pre-arranged visa, get a stamp and off you go.

Over here, air borders are the most secure, but certain land borders are known to let people through with a monetary bribe. Following discussion, everyone seems to have a difference experiences of different borders, each story worse than the previous. So it really depends what day you arrive on and with which company what experience will be had!

In my experience at this particular border, if you are white and non-Asian your passport is put to the bottom of the pile straight away. That is after the westerners and yourself have attempted to form an orderly queue, but generally Asians only know how to queue when they have a ticket with a number on it. This was not available at this particular border, so climbing over each other to the desk whilst shouting at each other in the process is the only way.

Once you have waited an age for your departure stamp, you must proceed to the next unnamed building to find out what is next.

It is 07:00, raining and cold like a normal British day and once again the westerners have to wait until the end to get their passport checked by a rude, sexist and obnoctious young boy who feels the need to comment on every females appearance before letting them through the gate anyway. The European women and I were pretty disgruntled, but as it is unknown whether you will be allowed to proceed, and you could be denied entry ‘just because’ the person with the stamp is in a fouler mood than normal, you have to take what you get.

Meanwhile his colleague performs the obligatory yelling in Vietnamese at you before you can continue to the visa desk–whoever said German was a harsh language has not been to Asia.

With the same process as the departure desk, no orderly queue, arms and sharp words flying everywhere, the western passports are put at the bottom. But the Europeans are the lucky ones. If you are from the USA yours gets put on a separate desk to look at after everyone has passed the border, and after the guards have all had their morning fag breaks. If you are a lucky American, you might not even have to pay a second time for your visa.

Three hours later all but two on the bus managed to cross the border. While we continued the journey to Hanoi, in which it became obvious the only rule of the road over here is to use your horn, two were left stranded at the border in the rain and cold.

Leave voters: what do you think about our borders now?

If you are not interested in how our borders then scroll down a bit.

The UK does not enter into the Schengen Agreement. Which means it retains control of its borders and every single person who passes through them, whether British, European or any other nationality has to be checked for the appropriate documents. For European countries who have entered into the Schengen Agreement it means citizens can freely pass through the borders without having their passports checked.

The advantage is that it is easier for the free movement of EU citizens, however it also means it creates a small loophole for immigrants or migrants to enter Europe. It is not the sole reason for migration in Europe, but it is one of the contributing factors. However, to get to the UK every single person still needs to have their identity checked, which makes immigrating to UK difficult without official documents.

Back to Hanoi. The worst part about Asia is the constant harassment. Any country, any place, any time. Trying to adjust to your surroundings while you depart from the bus is impossible when you have five different blokes screaming “TAXI TAXI”, “MOTORBIKE MOTORBIKE”, “WHERE YOU GO? WHERE YOU GO?” at you. Asia might have a poor rating on the poverty and human rights scale, but they are world-class at the sport of harassment, bargaining and making westerners feel uncomfortable in such situations.

But it is not just taxis, it can be anything from toilet roll, to them forcing you to take a photo of them and make you pay for it. Even the children are in on it. The very young ones learn two words of English and anytime they see a white person they put on the cute face, hold out their hand and say: “Hello, money?”

In Bangkok it is fairly easy to work out which taxis are safe. Choose pink or the green and yellow ones, and ones with a meter. In Hanoi, the fraudsters are a bit more intelligent and there is no way to tell if you are being scammed or not until you get into the taxi and watch the meter crank up twice as fast. As you are in a new foreign place, they can happily drive you around the streets for an extra 10-15 minutes, until you realise: “This is the second time around this lake.” They have ‘fast-meters’, so just when you think you are safe by getting in a taxi with a meter, they hit you with a 600,000VD fee. (About £21). As I had read about this, realised what was happening about half way through the journey, but yet could do nothing about it, the guys I shared the cab with bartered him down a few 100,000VD and gave him less than he was asking for but unfortunately more than the journey was worth. 

The most free I felt was in Chiang Mai, a richer and more westernised area in Northern Thailand. Poverty was almost non-existent, or at least nearly invisible so there were less people to harass you by saying a noun twice. Here the taxis are pre-booked through a company, any stalls or street food almost always belongs to a market, and less people have to nag for business.

In Sapa, (Northern Vietnam) after ambushing us from the bus, one woman stood and watched a friend and I have breakfast and drink coffee, meanwhile she tried to persuade us to go to her homestay–I lost count how many times we said no. On another occasion in Sapa while the same friend and I were in a coffee shop, a young girl no older than 11 stood next to me for over half an hour trying to sell me a bracelet. After I bought one, she continued to stand there and I suddenly felt responsible for the kid as her mother had vanished.

Whether it is taxis, tuk tuks, random strangers in the street pointing you in the direction of something then requesting money for it, dodgy blackjack games you get invited to, or weirdo locals saying the temples are closed today and to go with them for an “alternative city tour”, being scammed is all part of the Asian experience, but the skill is trying to keep it to a minimum.

There are however many enjoyable parts of Vietnam…