E-Visa Mishaps and Vietnam Delays
We entered Vietnam one day later than we expected to and -- based on the date on our visas, one day later than we should have. We thought that Vietnam was a "visa-on-arrival" situation. Well, you can pay for your visa stamp once you get there -- that'll cost you $25 US. But before you even get through airport security where you're departing from, you need to have an officially stamped permission letter. We didn't have that.
Tyler assumed that we could get the e-visas using airport wifi while we were waiting for our plane to arrive in Thailand. Sadly, that assumption meant that we were scrambling in the Chiang Mai airport, much to no avail.
We arrived at Chiang Mai airport early. We have Chase Sapphire credit cards and one of the perks is getting to use a massive amount of VIP airport lounges all over the globe. We figured, why not get to the airport early and indulge in some free food and wifi before the plane came in? We went to check in our bags and were shocked to hear that we couldn't. The Air Asia agent was nice enough to send us down to the Air Asia office so we could use their computers and their internet to sort out our visa so we could make our flight in 3 hours.
E-visas have a ton of different options. You're best off getting one a few days in advance so you can pay the minimum price (around $25 US to process). If you wait, you can get one processed in 8, 5, 3, 1 hours, or immediately. Processing within 8 hours will cost you another $30 and it gets increasingly more expensive the sooner you need it. If you choose immediately, get ready to fork up ~$300 US. That's bananas.
Our flight was arriving in Vietnam 8 hours later (we had a layover in Bangkok) so we figured 3 hours processing would be plenty of time. Wrong again! We had to have the stamped approval letter to get on the plane in Chiang Mai. We tried a million different ways to create a solution, but in the end we weren't about to spend $600 to get on a plane. It made the most sense to pay to change the flight to the next day, get back into a cab, and go find a hostel somewhere nearby. Silver lining: the hostel was cow themed. It was meant to be!
First impressions of Vietnam
I did some light reading on what the airport would feel like before we arrived in Hanoi. We were ready to be swarmed by fake taxi drivers and people ready to scam you, but 8 pm on a Wednesday must have been an off-night. We were mostly ignored, which was a welcome adjustment to our expectations. We located the driver our hotel sent us (something we thought was included in the price. Wrong.)
Looking out from our speeding giant passenger van, we noticed how Vietnam immediately looked drastically different from Thailand. The highway was 8-lanes wide and well paved. The driver is on the left side, same as in the US, but opposite from Thailand. Traffic laws seem to be merely a suggestion and not rules at all. It's more of an, "If you can make it, do it" mentality. It's chaotic, but also so efficient.
We booked a hotel room for one night in the heart of Old City Hanoi. We reserved a room with a double bed and were given one with a king-sized-bed and a slightly-larger-than-a-twin bed in it. Thank goodness, because the king was just a bundle of springs. The twin was much more comfortable. After trying out all the beds and feeling like Goldie Locks, we decided that the twin bed would have to do for the night. But before sleep, we needed to eat!
We went out into Old City to find our first Pho (pronounced Fuh) which is a clear based broth soup with rice noodles, meat, and vegetables. That's a dumbed-down explanation to simplify it for anyone who hasn't tried it. It's absolutely fabulous, light, delicious, and satisfying. That being said we happened upon Bahn My first (pronounced Bon Me) which is a lovely little leftover from the French, not so lovingly, colonizing Vietnam for ages. It's a baguette with a sort of au jus sauce, paté, cooked meats, and fresh veg. It's rich and decadent and wholly satisfying.
Old City has a vibrant, electric feeling to it. Vietnam is so hot during the day that Hanoi comes alive at night when the temperatures cool off. There are countless storefronts, all open to the street. They serve food on tiny fold-out trays, the seats are simple stools that look so small only children might be expected to use them. We're all swarms of dewy skinned insects waxing and waning throughout the streets, perched precariously on doll's furniture, eating, drinking, and submitting our noise to the collection of the street. It's positively buzzing with energy.
A quick aside: We were told that Thailand is "the land of a thousand smiles" and that Vietnam was full of people disinterested in engaging with you. I found our experience to be the complete opposite. In Thailand, people seemed friendly enough, but they appeared a little bit more exhausted with tourists (and likely the incessant partying) and wouldn't engage too much. In Vietnam, people are so friendly and engaging that at first I was so skeptical, I thought we were being scammed.
People are definitely trying to make a profit, that's a guarantee most anywhere in SE Asia, but Vietnam seems full of people who are genuinely invested in the hospitality industry. We have been thanked repeatedly for choosing to travel to their country and for spending our money at their business. It seems that the burgeoning tourism industry has really helped (in many ways) their economy.
Our first night in Hanoi I was smitten with everything I saw around me. I took a million pictures of the streets, the people convening in them. I wish I could have captured more of the spirit that caught my attention. The next morning when we searching for food, I got to see the city in the daylight and it did not disappoint. Tall, narrow french colonial buildings fill the scenery. The buildings are all tarnished with the patina of a few decades, but the flush of dusty rose, sunny marigold yellows, and ardent verdigris teals still shine through. They're decorated with signs boasting whatever the shop is selling, all in current-time fonts, Vietnamese words, and primary colors. The buildings still have the scalloped trimmings of traditional Vietnamese style architecture. They exude the power of dragons and lions, as the iconography is built into so much of the city's atmosphere. It's a beautiful clash of cultural influences. It rings harmoniously; I'm sure quite contrary to the time when they were initially erected.
We made our way around the city, trying as hard as we could to escape the 95°F/35°C heat (which felt like 115°F/46°C) by ducking into coffee shops for thick, rich, iced-coffees. (Vietnam has arguably the best coffee I've ever had in my life.) We even went to see a water puppet show where all the puppets dance above water. They're controlled underneath the water by, what seems like rods and wires. It's a pretty rad little show and the traditional music was fascinating to watch live. They were playing a whole swath of instruments I've never seen before! There's an instrument called the đàn bầu which is one string attached to this bamboo stick. Where you pluck the string and how you wiggle the bamboo stick makes the coolest noises. Check out a YouTube of someone playing it here.
We checked out of our Goldi Locks and the Three Bears cottage in search for something better. I could have probably stayed there in that tiny bed, but the bathroom smelled heavily of stagnant poisoned water. Possibly having to do with ancient plumbing, dubious water, and deep cracks in the tub and tiles. The next place we found was half the size, twice as clean, and the same price. Small victories!
The fact that Tyler and I schlepped ourselves through the city, leaning in to the thick humidity, and braving over 110° heat is truly a testament to the beauty and depth of Hanoi. I continued to find Old City captivating, no matter where we turned. We stayed two days before shedding the city for what would be my first cruise ever.
The Delirious Ups & Downs of a Summer Cruise
Perhaps part of the reason why I've delayed so long the writing of this blog post is because of how defeated this weather has made me. It's also likely due to our spacebar being broken and typing has become an infuriating task.
Up until now, I'd say Tyler and I have been cost-effective with our spending while still feeling ever-so-slightly over indulgent due to getting private rooms in hostels 95% of the time. My need for a clean, well, everything means needing to fork over a few extra dollars. And that's literal, not figurative. The difference between $10 and $13 is HUGE here. I've been dealing with a lot of guilt because of needing to spend the extra $3 dollars to accommodate my additional needs, something I'll maybe dig into in another post, but we decided to really treat ourselves for this outing that seemed like something you couldn't easily replicate anywhere else in the world. Are you seeing these pictures I'm showing you? The landscape is positively breathtaking.
Tyler and I allowed ourselves to be charmed by the ladies of a reputable-on-Trip Adviser travel agency located mere steps from our hotel. Our hotel had tried to sell us on a cruise, but we thought $170 per person was a bit insane for a cruise, considering how cheap our on-land accommodations have been. We knew we wanted to go, but we wanted a second opinion.
In the end, I loosened my tight grip on our pocket book, bending to the understanding that we're out here to cultivate beautiful memories together. "This," Tyler and I both agreed, "was one of the moments we talked about where we can splurge for the sake of experience." So, we dished out $180 a person for a 4-star, all meals, all non-alcoholic drinks, all activities included 3 day, 2 night cruise around Ha Long bay. It sounds great, doesn't it? Keep reading.
We left the hotel at 7:30 am, crammed into a moderately air conditioned van for a 3.5 hour journey from Hanoi to Ha Long harbor. Once we arrived, we were met with the most jarring, stale, oppressive heat I've felt all trip. The harbor was a vast stretch of concrete, not only clutching to, but reflecting the temperature back at us. Any semblance of energy we had quickly deteriorated. Any pause in a journey in Vietnam (or anywhere, really) is simply a reason for you to buy something at a shop. Tyler and I grasped for water, but didn't eat anything because we were meant to have food on the ship.
We waited for what seemed like endless-moments too long for a tiny boat to fetch us from Hell's harbor and deliver us to the cruise ship, likely a 3 minute journey. None the less, we were instructed to put on thick life vests, something we couldn't refuse due to government regulations. So that's how we started this cruise, exhausted from the heat, wearing vests that trapped all our body heat in.
Once we boarded the ship, I was aware of its immense beauty in my periphery, but couldn't focus on anything but my lack of strength, energy, and air. The ship was beautiful, but buttoned up, completely lacking any cross breeze to cool us down. As they ushered us into the dining room, it felt like we were trapped. No one was talking, except for the ship guide. The dining room seated around 14 of us plus the crew. There were two fans on either end wafting a paltry breeze only in the immediate vicinity of where they stood.
The guide let us know that we'd be served lunch soon and then we could check in to our rooms, after he let us know a brief history of Ha Long Bay and gave us our itinerary. This speech went on for over 30 long and tedious minutes. He was essentially speaking to a room of fried fish sticks. We were catatonic. I was getting tunnel vision and starting to panic. Tyler looked like he was seconds away from passing out. We somehow managed to get through it and eventually were served food. Hot soup (!) was the first of a never ending 7-course meal. It was delicious, but in a way that a different version of my human shell, hiding somewhere in the cooler recesses of my brain, was telling me "if you were comfortable right now, this would be a great experience."
More speeches. More terrible jokes. This man was saying and doing things I would have chuckled at and adored if I were at a moderate temperature, but at the moment I was boiling and I wanted to skin everyone alive. Myself first. Before we got our room keys, they let us know that we wouldn't be able to use our air conditioners until 5:30 pm. It was 2 pm. Until then, we could spend the time relaxing on their upstairs sun patio (that had no shade) or we could go on a hike. I was livid.
We also found out that there were free meals, but drinks--of all kinds--were to be bought. This included water, which they served in tiny bottles for $1 a piece. This bit of information would be at the center of my anger for the rest of the cruise. It would be the thing I would go back to in my exploding tirades about -- well, basically everything. Tyler would catch earful upon earful about it, but he had already resigned himself to the much better "there's nothing we can do, better accept it" strategy. This is not a tactic I would easily learn on this trip, and so I would continue to whirl myself up into a tornado of stress, and in turn, suck Tyler into it as well. As if the heat wasn't enough, my endless agitation about drinking water would have to sink us as well.
I don't know how I made it through the day, into the evening, and through dinner. We got to our room/sauna and tried to take a shower, but the tanks had been heated by the sun so it was liquid magma searing our skin. (I'm having PTSD flashbacks just writing this. I want to write everything in screaming capslock.)
Dinner came and went, our AC was turned on but heckled us with the most feeble of air flows. I skipped the after-dinner gathering of the couples our own age who were drinking on the sun deck upstairs and in a fit of anger put on my eye mask and ear plugs and willed myself into the following day.
I woke up hot--shocking!--at six FUCKING thirty in the morning of my vacation cruise I splurged on, something a person should never have to say, because we needed to eat an early breakfast so we could be shuttled off to the next heat-soaked activity. Turns out the next activity was touring through a massive cave and it would be one of the only times during the entire trip where I would be a decent temperature.
Side note: Okay, I am going to stop belaboring you with the now excruciatingly obvious point that we were overheated and just say one last thing. When we stay in shit rooms for a night that we paid $5-10 dollars for, I am not endlessly complaining about our lot in life, because it's a cheap as hell room, we'll fix it tomorrow. But when we splurge $360 on a "four star" experience where I can't even get remotely comfortable for a single second of the trip, I am losing my ever-loving mind. The principle of the matter absolutely infuriates me. What was the price tag of a cruise that was enjoyable? Is it even possible in the summer months? And can I please not have to spend $100 trying to keep myself from utter dehydration?
After a tour through the caves, I wished that we could stay there forever. Maybe I could pretend to be a stalagmite and they wouldn't force me back into the heat? Against my wishes, we went back to the ship and ate yet another suffocating meal inside the dining room. Only now, we got ballsy and slid some of the panel windows open to catch a cross breeze. Napkins went flying everywhere, but who cares about table presentation?! Let us breathe! (Okay maybe I lied about easing up on talking about the heat)
Tyler and I opted to spend one night on the cruise ship and the next night in a bungalow. We loaded into another smaller boat which would journey us an hour south to the private island we were staying at. The instructions of our new guide were to go atop the boat to listen to him tell us things. Everyone was much too wise for these shenanigans so we told him we were staying put downstairs in the shade. There was another couple making similarly sassy and defiant statements, so we immediately fell into a lovely commiserating friendship that would wind up lasting us well into our Vietnam trip.
Gabriella and James are from England, near Manchester, and are set to travel for 6 months before moving to Perth, Australia. We immediately latched to them like velcro, although only figuratively because 1. It's much too hot for close contact, and 2. that's not good behavior upon first meeting someone.
Have you noticed yet that it's hot? Have I said it enough? I really am trying to stop.
I think having them around, and having people to make jokes with, helped us get through the trip. The island had a bit more of a breeze and lots more shade, so that helped, too. Also I think the heat broke our spirits so much that our prerogative about accommodations completely changed. Our bungalow had wasps actively burrowing their way through the thin bamboo walls, but it also had AC! And it sorta worked. Or, it would end up working once they gave us the remote at 6 pm. It also was hot as hell inside, but the windows opened and the shower was cold! I shed some of my privilege and learned to appreciate the small things.
We opted to do truly nothing the entire time we were on the private island. Gabriella had her sights on bicycling, but the guide practically begged her to not make him take her because it was too hot. Actually, he did better than begged her, he bribed her with beer. When a local doesn't want to move in the heat, you know it's bad. Turns out it's the hottest it's been in Vietnam in the past decade. I feel absolved!
Night time finally arrived and, after eating a million pounds of food, I was looking forward to a good night of sleep. During dinner, the locals were having a raging party next to us, taking shots and singing karaoke. Towards the end they made a bonfire and starting blaring dubstep. Usually, something I would enjoy... but after a series of terrible sleeps and days of heat-exhaustion, I wanted to enjoy my very expensive retreat in peace. Well, that wouldn't come. The party went on into well into the morning, despite my frustrated attempts to get them to shutthehellup at midnight. James said he had to go fetch another fan for their bungalow around 3 am they had simply moved the party a bit off the beach and into the water. JOYS.
I'm going to spare you the trail of rambling about how we spent another full day being shuttled around in heat traps and just say that Vietnam's beauty is positively riveting, but do not visit in summer unless you have a hearty disposition and can weather this type of heat.
I lament the fact that we've somewhat given up on it and spend most of our daylight hours stretched out in AC rooms. We're basically wasting away our days until we can go home. We go out at night, sure, but it's still 95-100° and humid. It's a relief, honestly, from the daytime, but I miss sunshine and I wish we were doing more. Doing more also includes exercise. I sure do eat enough, but I definitely don't move enough and I'm ever so depressed about the pudge I'm collecting, considering I had notions that this trip would make me tan and lean. Well it's too hot to tan, the water (we've seen) is too polluted, smelly, and murky to swim (we tried it once and it was an experience), and the heat is over the top.
PLEASE READ the follow-up blog post: The Journey & Gaining Perspective where I have full realization of my privilege and apologize for my incessant whining.
Still, I love Vietnam. I'm really happy with it, I just wish we were stronger so we could spend more time with her.
Until next time, beloved friends.
xo - Tawnee