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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Warm Welcome in Hanoi


Hanoi, Vietnam
with Ms. Ha and her family :)

We had almost two days for layover in Bangkok from Nepal, before I take a flight to Hanoi, Vietnam. We soaked up the sun and tropical weather of Bangkok just to have a sense of home. Two months spent in cold Northern India and freezing Nepal, despite all the amazing experiences we had, proved to be a little bit too much for the tropical and island people like us. We treated ourselves with pad thais, fruit shakes, beers, and relaxing thai massages. But despite all of these, I just couldn’t shake off the fact that in almost three weeks, I would be back in the Philippines and all the other things it meant – finding a job, looking for a new place, figuring out what I was going to do next. And just how much I missed Nepal – the mountains, trekking, and just the wonderful people we met along the way. 

Khao San Road, Bangkok

And I was going to be travelling solo again. It had been wonderful travelling with my good friend Paul, but I also enjoyed travelling alone when I was in Malaysia. 

The flight going to Hanoi was quite an emotional one for me. But I promised myself during that flight that I will make the most out of the few weeks left of my Big Trip. I will try not to let my Nepal hangover hinder me from enjoying Vietnam. 

After almost two hours in transit, I was in Vietnam. My first trip to this country was in Saigon almost two years ago with my friends. We had only two days in the city. My first impression of the country was its bustling streets and crazy parties, tasty pho and spring rolls, fake cheap books, the best coffee!, and the strong and tough Vietnamese people. I initially thought that the Vietnamese were cold and a little bit unwelcoming. But I told myself upon arrival in Hanoi that I will be more open-minded. And I promised myself that I would ride a motorbike in Vietnam. 

After almost thirty minutes of waiting for my baggage, I stepped out of the airport. Unlike warm and humid Saigon in June of 2010, Hanoi in December 2011 was the complete opposite. It was drizzling and cold, I immediately regretted shipping back home most of the winter clothes I used in Nepal while we were in Bangkok. Eager to travel as cheap as possible in terms of transportation to be able to – 1) eat more pho and spring rolls, 2) drink lots of coffee, and 3) buy more Christmas gifts in Saigon – I decided to ride the bus going to the city proper. 

The bus dropped us outside the Old Quarter. With only the printout of the directions to Hanoi Hostel, I knew I had to find a way to get a map of the city and the Old Quarter. While the other backpackers from the bus either headed to a different direction or rode a cab, I looked for a person to ask directions from. Luckily, I saw two old Western couples with a small map. They were really nice to me and even gave me one of their maps and suggested good places to eat in the Old Quarter as well. It felt good to remember how wonderful it is to travel solo and to rely on the goodness of strangers. 

It was quite a long walk around the Hanoi Old Quarter. It was a bit confusing at the start. But I was starting to like this part of the city. Small stalls and boutiques outline the narrow streets, locals sitting on small and low plastic chairs eating pho or drinking tea and coffee. People in Non La (the traditional conical hats) on their bikes with baskets full of flowers, pastries, and other food. And the signature and uniquely Vietnamese scene - scooters, cyclos (three-wheeled bicycles where the passenger is in front), cars, and bicycles fill up the narrow streets. But what I was most thankful for were the blue posts at the end of each street which made it easier to find my way around the Old Quarter.

Hanoi, Vietnam

When I arrived in Hanoi Hostel, I was welcomed by this small petite lady. She asked if it’s okay that I be transferred to the new hostel just a few blocks away. After saying yes, she led me to her small scooter. I thought we were going to walk. Unprepared and surprised how soon I will be able to cross-off one of my travel goals in Vietnam, I excitedly rode her small scooter. It was a quick ride, but it was so much fun. 

For only US$5 a night, Hanoi Hostel was a surprisingly clean and cozy hostel. And the comforter was so nice and warm. We even had a small balcony where you can just enjoy observing the daily life in the Old Quarter. 

First goal for the day was to look for an authentic pho experience. One of my bestfriends gave me a list of the phos I have to try, apparently there are different kinds. First on the list was this supposedly hole-in-the-wall type of food place where they serve Bun Bo. Despite my efforts to look for it, I just couldn’t find it. Really hungry and exhausted from an early flight, I decided to just find the first pho stall I can find. 

I found this stall at the corner of the street. There was a huge pot of pho being cooked. Only a few locals were seated eating and chatting their way through the cold afternoon. A young girl approached me asking for my order. Once they realized I only speak English, they hand signaled for me to wait. A few seconds later, a woman came out and greeted me with an infectious smile. She was wearing a typical business casual attire but with flipflops on. Her name was Ms. Ha.


Ms. Ha is in her early forties and is part of the family that owns the place. She speaks fairly good English and from time to time stops to think of the right English word to say and asks me if it’s correct. She orders a bowl of pho for me and when I asked if they serve coffee, one of her nieces went to the small coffee shop next door and ordered one for me. The memories of our encounter in Saigon were slowly being replaced by this wonderful woman and her family. 


She told me about her family, and that she teaches English part-time. She was surprised to know that I’m a Filipina and that I’m travelling alone. She told me how she also wants to someday be able to see other countries too. She asked if I can practice English with her. And of course I said yes, it was proving to be an interesting laid-back afternoon in Hanoi. 


After finishing a bowl of a tasty and warm pho and paying for it. Her sister came out and gave me a roll of sugary bread (like a pianono). Once I was about to bring out some VNDs, she shook her head and said in Vietnamese that it was free.

Hanoi, Vietnam   

Soon afterwards, they invited me to the coffee place next door and ordered beer. Once they even bought rice noodles dipped in a minty and chili sour sauce for us to share. After an hour of sharing stories and practicing English, I headed back to my hostel. We were set to meet that night as she invited me to go to a karaoke place. 

After having dinner in another pho place with Alex, my roommate in the hostel, we were headed to the karaoke place. Alex, a Greek guy on a 2-month vacation in Southeast Asia, was also interested in finding out what a Vietnamese ‘karaoke night’ would be like. We entered a typical apartment in the Old Quarter, on the second floor was the karaoke place. It wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. There was no big tv. But it was a medium sized room, and a bit cozy. Chairs and sofas can be found circled around the room. With a small platform on the other side that was supposed to be a stage, there was a big clay pot with long-stemmed plastic flowers in it. On its right was a keyboard. And we were surrounded by middle-aged people dressed up and made up. Alex and I felt so underdressed. The host welcomed us and everyone smiled at us. Soon people started to sing on the stage with the keyboard accompaniment, while the others were choosing songs and waiting for their turns. 

The karaoke place was owned by the host and her husband who was also the keyboard player. They hold it every Wednesday to catch up and spend some time with their friends. Ms. Ha also explained to us that if someone likes the singer, he/she can go up to the stage and give him/her one of the flowers. 

Of course Alex and I were not spared from the whole night. They asked us to sing. I was hesitant at first but I thought of how unique and authentic the night was  and that I should reciprocate their hospitality. I chose Frank Sinatra’s The Way You Look Tonight. I wasn’t surprised that they did not know the song. I told the keyboard player that I can just sing without accompaniment, he insisted otherwise. He said that he was just going to follow my singing. It wasn’t exactly my best performance, Alex kept on telling the keyboard player to let me sing acapella, but he was just really enjoying it. I had to cut the song short because we weren’t making music anymore. haha Nevertheless, everyone clapped and they even gave me flowers. A few hours more of swaying to Vietnamese songs we couldn’t even understand but still having a good time, we decided to call it a night. We bid goodbye to the group and thanked them for welcoming us. They told us to go back again next week. 

It was such a memorable night being in that place and getting to experience and be a part of their daily lives. Alex was also surprised by just how much he enjoyed the karaoke. I’m pretty sure only a few travelers get to be invited to a Vietnamese karaoke night. 

I told her I will drop by their pho place after my tour in Halong Bay, and before I leave Hanoi. Hanoi welcomed me so warmly despite the rainy and cold weather. I knew Vietnam will prove to be one of the most wonderful countries I’ve ever been to. :) 

And there is magic in traveling solo. :)