Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Day 28-36: Unexpected

On our first day in Hanoi, after speaking to other travelers and our hotel personnel, I found out that the Chinese Embassy was closed due to Vietnamese bank holiday. A German man and his pregnant girlfriend miserably explained that they had applied for a Chinese visa right before the embassy closed and were now stuck in Hanoi without passports until it would reopen in 10 days. Another group of travelers had planned to leave Vietnam in the next couple of days to go to China as their Vietnam visas were about to expire. Now they were also left here and in need for a Vietnamese visa extension instead. I shared their concerns. I had planned to leave Hanoi after four days, but now I would have to consider other plans since the embassy had decided to take the full week off.

However, there was no reason to rush; I had enough time to think about alternatives. First, me and Daniel wanted to explore Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam and a city of many attractions and fascinating history. Like its southern sibling Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi is full of vehicles in a world of chaos. Mopeds are crowding the roads in clouds of exhausts, and when not in motion, they are parked on the sidewalks, forcing pedestrians to walk through the vehicles in the streets, making it difficult for cars and taxis to move about. The result is an orchestra of honking vehicles that goes on all day, everyday. Edging the streets are countless of shops offering clothes, shoes, souvenirs, jewelry, exchange services, tours, all forms of transportations, food, drinks and more. In between the shops are restaurants and hotels in great numbers. Surprisingly, we had a tough time finding a decent hotel at a reasonable price in Hanoi. For the first time on our way from Ho Chi Minh City we had severe difficulties finding a room that suited our budget, was available and the hotel accepted our bicycles. Selecting and finding hotels has generally been effortless, as well as bringing our bicycles into the hotel, or in few occasions, our room. We never book any rooms in advance and rarely plan what hotel to pick. At few occasions there are not many options and we must accept any hotel that is available. At these times we often end up in poor rooms with no warm water, air conditioning or TV, just a warm, humid room with hard mattresses and dirty blankets. In larger towns and cities we usually scope out an area at our arrival that seems attractive, start looking at rooms and negotiate prices. Traveling on bicycles we have the luxury of easily moving quickly from one hotel to another. Thus, we take our time evaluating a number of different hotels in order to find the best room at the best price, that is, two large beds, TV with HBO, warm water, fan and air conditioning, balcony with a view, friendly staff and last but not least, good locations to park our bicycles, all under ten U.S. dollars. Being persistent in searching for good hotels and determined price negotiation, astonishingly, we have managed to get all of the above a number of times. In Hanoi history repeated itself, and after a couple of hours and a coffee break, we found a hotel in the Old Quarter area that lived up to all of our requirements, but for the additional two dollars per night. We knew we were going to stay in Hanoi for more than a week, justifying the 12 dollars for the perfect room.

On our second day in the capital we bicycled around the city to visit a number of sights. We explored the Hoan Kiem Lake right in the heart of Hanoi, paid a visit to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and museum and soaked up the atmosphere in the Old Quarter. When darkness fell we continued to enjoy the area as we raised our glasses of ‘bia hoi’. For 2000 dong (0,10 euro) per glass, this fresh beer is a real treat, and you can easily buy your friends a round or two. Bia hoi is a locally brewed draft beer without any preservatives, which means it is supposed to be enjoyed quickly. Before the night ends, most often the beer runs out, as the travelers as well as locals disapprovingly move on regular beer at four times the cost.

As a result of the Chinese embassy being closed more than a week, we had more time in Hanoi than originally planned. Being in a chaotic, polluted and noisy city for more than a week did not appeal to me or Daniel. Therefore, on our third day we headed for Cat Ba Island located in the magnificent and famous Halong Bay. Getting there was not what we had expected. We were placed on a tour out to Cat Ba Island against our will and our wish for only transportation was completely ignored. Instead, the booking agent had placed us on a tour but excluded the food. We would get to Cat Ba Island but not before cruising around the bay and visiting some tourist sights. A one day tour without food or drink is not an agreement anyone would accept. Any human with a functional brain can figure that out. Very hungry, we still appreciated the massive and beautiful bay and all its islands sited as far as the eye can see. Cat Ba turned out to be a great place to stay. It offers kayaking around the thousands of islands, trekking in the mountains and many secluded, fine, white sand beaches and clear water. We were excited to be here and after dinner we had quickly forgotten the sorrows of the day. Unfortunately, the following day I woke up with stomach pains and the runs. For me, this has almost become a routine, but this time it was different. We had planned to go for a full day of kayaking around the bay, but strategically changed our plans to half a day. Once out on the ocean, my pains were forgotten and the awesome sights we were experiencing cruising around the islands took over. Huge, tall, massive limestone peaks shot through the ocean into the sky, covered in lush, green vegetation. One after the other they appeared as we paddled through the bay. Single, small stretches of sand at the bottom of the peaks made perfect rest stops, and we quickly found our favorite. The small, slim beach, located between two towering limestone peaks, was only a few meters wide, making it a dream spot, and I wondered why this location was not made into a postcard. Unsurprisingly, awed by the environment we got lost in the disarray of islands. When my pains returned the kayaking got less interesting and I just wanted to make it back, if we could just find our way. After two hours we finally found our starting point to be greeted by an old, angry woman accusing us of breaking one of the paddles.

As a result of a long, tedious day and my stomach problems, I was motionless for the rest of the afternoon and evening. The next morning I was extremely weak, pale and had high fever. We agreed to go back to Hanoi and if I was getting worse I would consider seeing a doctor. In these parts of the world a high fever can mean the start of many dangerous diseases, thus you do not want to take your changes if not improving quickly. After a five hour journey by boat and three different buses, I was not exactly feeling better. I tried to rest but felt worse by the minute, and after checking my body temperature (38,8 Celcius) I decided to make a short visit to the doctor. A couple of hours later, 50 dollars poorer, and unfortunately not wiser, I was informed that I had contracted a virus or bacteria that caused the fever and diarrhea. I was prescribed lots of various medicines that could be picked up at any local drugstore. Tired of spending money, I decided to let my body handle the problem. It took me two days to recover and by the time I was feeling fine, Daniel started to complain about stomach pains and before he knew it, he also had fever. There is much more to see in Hanoi so when we both were back on our feet we took the opportunity to stop by a few of Hanoi’s museums, I went to see the famous Hanoi water puppet performance, and Daniel made sure to do some shopping before heading back to Sweden. On our last evening we went out for dinner at a finer restaurant than usual, looking to enjoy our last Vietnamese evening meal. After inspecting the menu, Daniel turned to the waitress to ask if they serve dog, since it rarely appears on the menus. Vietnamese people consider dog to be a very fine, delicious and exclusive meal. Throughout Vietnam we have seen huge packs of dogs living among villagers, and we have suspected that they do not only keep them as pets. Now it was time for Daniel to give it a try. Not only did the restaurant serve dog, they had several alternatives how to prepare it. Daniel chose dog with ginger and garlic. A few minutes later a fur-smelling brown mix of dog flesh, bone, skin and fat was put in front of Daniel’s face. I was about to vomit and expecting Daniel to do the same. Instead, he started taking in the awkward mixture, chewing it slowly. His movements were slow and careful, and his face displayed clear signs of disapproval. A few bites later he gave up, having eaten dog probably for the last time in his life.

After several days in Hanoi I was looking forward to getting my Chinese visa and proceed with my travels. At the day of opening I was there early in the morning to get a good position in line. However, after four hours of queuing, the line had not even moved half a meter. Instead it had grown more than twenty meters behind me, and before I knew it the gates were closed in front of hundreds of queuing travelers. Frustrated I headed back to the hotel to gather my thoughts, and realized that right now it will take at least a week to get a Chinese visa, even with express service.

Many alternatives are currently lingering in my mind, and by the next post they will come together to the perfect solution. Two things are now certain, though; I will leave Hanoi and I must get back in the saddle.



  1. Bastard, I who always wanted to try dog! Ginger and garlic would have been my pic as well. But don't forget, you have to do the cobra in Sapa....Make it snap against the glas, point towards it and ask them to fry it up for you. Maybe some garlic and lime would do the trick....;-).

  2. My mind was also set to try some of Daniel's dish, but I can promise you that you would never have touched that. It literally smelled like wet dog, and looked like dog shit. Basically it was dog mixed in a blender and then boiled in its own blood. Daniel could not even taste the garlic and that says a lot...

  3. Vi får inte längre något newsletter när du har skrivit ett nytt inlägg! Tur man går in här och kollar ändå.

    I övrigt är det bra här, jobbet är trist dock. Hade jag inte haft bruden hade jag nog tröttnat på att stanna i Tyskland... Uffe den svikaren har ju åkt till USA ett par veckor. Lyxlirare. Eventuellt ska jag åka på affärsresa till Dortmund snart...

    Ha det!

  4. I was in Ha Long Bay 2 weeks ago. Now, i am to work.