Unbelievable amount to catch up on so we'll start from where we left off which was jetting off from Hong Kong and arriving in Hanoi. The flight was much better than we expected and Hong Kong airlines was a great airline to fly with. We found a typical pre-aeroplane Starbucks and apart from a moments panic with regards to our visa documentation (the woman got confused and thought we should have booked a flight leaving Vietnam) the flight took off smoothly. The flight was comfortable and time flew by (no pun intended).
We were both dreading the border crossing into Vietnam as we had opted to collect our visa on arrival. Surprisingly this went remarkably smoothly. Basically we acquired a letter from the Vietnamese embassy permitting our entry (we used www.vietnamvisa.com) which cost $19.99 and then we had to go to the VOA desk at Hanoi airport with this and a landing document and wait for them to process it (for a further $45 ouch). At Ho Chi Minh airport we've heard reports that this can take up to 3 hours, but the whole process was completed within 10 minutes. Would definitely recommend if you're flying to multiple countries as it saved us sending our passports off multiple times to various embassies.
As we had expected this to take longer, and due to our relatively late arrival (7.30pm) we decided to splash out on an airport shuttle. We had been warned by countless people about the various ways you can be scammed by different taxi companies so we thought we'd save a lot of hassle doing this. Our hostel, Hanoi Downtown Backpackers, arranged it for us for the reasonable price of $23 for both of us for a 45 minute journey. By the way, sorry to keep quoting price in dollars but everywher in Vietnam accepts them and its easier than quoting in Vietnamese dong which has an exchange rate of 35,000 dong to £1.00!
Upon arrival at the hostel, we were really pleased as its a very social hostel with excellent facilities- would definitely recommend! We grabbed a quick bite to eat in the onsite bar and restaurant and then went out to gather essentials. First we found an ATM- annoying fact that you can only withdraw 2million dong from an ATM (about £50) and you get charged 40,000 dong plus international bank fees!! After sorting some money, we had a wander round to get our bearings. Old town Hanoi is an intense experience and when simply walking outside the front door you need to have your wits about you to avoid the thousands of motorbikes, cars and cyclos (rickshaws which are steered from the back) which are ready to mow you down!
We had a relatively early night after our first taste of Vietnamese beer (super cheap and good) and prepared for a busy first day in Hanoi. Our plans were scuppered when we rose early to find that it was torrential rain outside. We got a few bits and bobs done waiting for it to clear (laundry and booking a Sa'pa tour for later that week- more to come on that) and when it shifted at around lunchtime we went for a walk around the Old Quarter.
We headed to the market which was interesting. Seemed to sell anything anyone could ever need and a lot of stuff you don't need. We bought some sorely needed rain ponchos (it covers rob from head to toe) and saw some strange soft shell turtles in a bucket. Also some puppies and kittens in cages which made us want to cry. You get a fair amount of hassle walking around from various women selling fruit and pastries hanging from sticks across their shoulders.
After the markets and a general wander around for a few hours (this is attraction enough in Hanoi) we wanted to try our first Vietnamese food, so after a quick change, we headed to a local restaurant called Pineapple which we stumbled across. The food was amazing and we have since returned there and been to another Vietnamese restaurant. It may even rival most of the other food we've had!! At pineapple we were surprised to see motorbikes driving through the restaurant but it seems par for the course in Vietnam. The grilled lemongrass chicken and the Hanoi spring rolls served in a pineapple were our favourites.
That night we also went for the pub quiz in our hostel which was a lot different to our usual Wednesday night one in England. We did pretty well considering we only had two on our team and it was quite an interesting quiz in a typical backpacker bar. After the quiz we went on the pub crawl which the hostel runs every night which was good except that all the bars in Hanoi are shut by the police at midnight and you are forced to hide in underground bars while trying to remain deathly silent. Doesn't create a great atmosphere.
Part 2 to follow...