Hanoi is packed with restaurants and street food stands, so much so it can be challenging to know where’s good and where might have you running for the bathroom all night. Luckily, I have an easy solution.
Way back in January, as our time in Laos came to an end, we found ourselves in the beautiful Vientiane for a little over a week as we waited for our visas to be approved to enter Vietnam. It was by no means the worst place to stay: this charming and quiet capital city was – much like the rest of Laos – a perfect place to relax.
During one of Vietnam’s bank holidays a few months ago, we decided to hire a scooter and head to Hoa Binh for a night. We chose the place purely because of it’s easy accessibility from Hanoi, at just a couple of hours of easy riding. It was our first time hiring a bike since moving to Hanoi just over 3 months ago, and despite Graham having a motorbike licence in the UK, the trip didn’t go as smoothly as I’d hoped.
Settling into expat life can be a challenge, wherever you decide to live. Making new friends, keeping in touch with old ones, adapting to new food (this adaption may take place predominantly in the bathroom…) and getting used to the speed of the city. In Hanoi, that speed is fast paced. It seems everyone has somewhere they need to be, and they need to be there 10 minutes ago. When you mix this pace with a dire lack of public transport and low income, the result is streets filled with, what the Vietnamese like to call, motorbikes. To me, they will forever be called scooters. And the sound will remind me of hair driers and 17 year old boys from the town I grew up in, smoking and trying to get an adult to buy them some cheap booze. Having spent most of my teen years perpetually teasing anyone that ever mentioned in passing the notion of buying a scooter, a little piece of me died when asked for the first time in Hanoi “do you have a scooter yet?”.
It’s official, the Year of the Golden Goat is upon us. Hanoi is slowly returning to its usual levels of crazy and people are returning to work – I know because, as I write, I’m listening to the rumble from one of the many building sites that encompass my flat and have been blissfully silent for the last week. Restaurants are opening again, and we made it all the way through the week without running out of drinking water, though the bread situation became desperate. For those that are unfamiliar with Tet, it is the lunar new year celebration in Vietnam, which generally falls on the same day as the Chinese new year. It’s a huge celebration here, and also marks the start of spring.
We’ve been in the lovely city of Hanoi for about two weeks now, so I thought this might be a nice time to look back over our stay in Luang Prabang. When we arrived in the city we were planning to stay for a week. Following the directions we’d been given to some affordable accommodation we headed for a small alley next to the Nam Khan river.
Mui Ne is the adrenalin capital of southern Vietnam. There’s no scuba diving or snorkelling to speak of, but when Nha Trang and Hoi An get the rains, Mui Ne gets the waves: Says Lonely Planet, before going on to describe a beautiful beach that has maintained much of its charm. When we were there, however, only the closed kitesurfing shops hinted at Mui Ne’s adventure hungry nature. Out of the surf season, Mui Ne is still firmly on the backpacker trail, and I’m here to ask one question: why?
Last week we were in Vang Vieng, Laos’ most famous party town. Its fame comes from the alcohol-downing sport of tubing. Basically, you hire an inner tire tube, go a few kilometres up river and float back into town, trying to drink as much as humanly possible in the river side bars and get your tube back before you lose your deposit at 6pm. Like every other traveller ever to stop here, we drank ourselves silly and had a great time tubing. Unlike every other traveller, our Vang Vieng based misadventure didn’t take place on the river.
My alarm started shrieking at me at 5.30am one morning, which is a time I don’t particularly relish for anything, never mind what we had planned for this day. The previous day we had hired a taxi to drive us from Hoi An to Hue, over the Hai Van Pass. And today, we would be hiring a moped to go back to the top of the pass, and complete what turned out to be a six hour round trip and make it back to Hue in time for our bus. Any why were we planning to return to the top of the Hai Van Pass? Well, because it’s just so gosh darn beautiful. And to correct a terrible error from the day before.
For many ex-pats, the need to go on a visa run is a simple fact of life. Yes, it can be frustrating and the bus journeys can be a nightmare, but they can be a fun chance to explore a new town for a little while. In Luang Prabang there are loads of ex-pats choosing the best way to renew their visa – often booking a flight into Vietnam or Thailand, or taking the bus down to the the capital, Vientiane, and then hopping over the Friendship Bridge into Thailand, stocking up at the closest 7-11, and then doing the journey in reverse, back over the mountains to Luang Prabang. A less popular route is to take the bus west from Luang Prabang to Chiang Rai, via Huay Xai, which is what we decided to do.