Honk! Honk! Beep! Welcome to Vietnam! Honk! The land of tiny chairs with tiny tables, chaotic traffic, excellent food, chain smokers aplenty, bootleg copies of everything (even restaurants next door to each other), useless sidewalks, wicked good prices for custom tailored everything, and the place where surviving crossing the street is a victory. This trip became much more exciting (see stressful) and scrappy due to the escalation of COVID-19 and the involuntary cancelation of our flights.
We landed in Hanoi and took a shuttle bus directly to our homestay. It costed us 200,000 Dongs. That’s the currency. The Vietnamese Dong. ~23000 dongs to a dollar. For a punny 12-year-old like me, that was an enjoyable fact.
We immediately noticed that sidewalks are luxuries. The physical sidewalk exists but is generally unusable because people are parking or eating on it, or there’s a giant hole in it, or somebody is repairing a motorbike there, or a storefront commandeered that area, or any number of other reasons that you need to walk in the road. Road walking seems to be normal. Going whichever direction your heart desires, at that exact moment, seems to be normal. Somehow people live.
Hectic Hanoi with great food
Hanoi was a busy place. If you couldn’t adapt quickly to the consistent level of commotion, noise, and disorder, one might call it “hannoying.” However, the food is excellent, fresh, and cheap. Jyn’s favorite meal was the “Cha-ca” (pan fried turmeric fish with herbs and rice for $5). It was good, but, I loved the classic banh mi, pho, and fresh spring rolls ($1-$3 each). We tried the Bun Cha which is considered to be the local Hanoi dish, but it wasn’t our favorite (a bit greasy). Also, the “Hong Tra Milk Foam” (chinese black tea with milk foam, pronounced “froam”). The black tea by itself was an unusual flavor, but when it was coupled with the dense salted milk foam, it was magic. Jyn enjoyed hers with lotus nuts. Unfortunately, even though AHA Cafe is a chain, that particular tea could only be obtained at that one location. We have discussed flying back to Hanoi solely to overdose on this tea.
Some of the Hanoi highlights were the train street (huge train passes within a couple feet of hundreds of store fronts/shops/cafes), Hoa Lo Prison Museum aka “Hilton Hanoi” (where John McCain spent time), the old quarter, Hoan Kiem Lake, and our day trip to Ha Long Bay and Lan Ha Bay.
Fun fact: Currently, Hanoi is ranked as the #1 least expensive destination of all 137 destinations on the Backpacker’s Index. You can backpack travel here “comfortably” for US $19.65 per day. For reference, Los Angeles costs $83.72 per day (https://www.priceoftravel.com/world-cities-by-price-backpacker-index/). Looking to be financially independent? Hanoi is the champion destination, by the numbers.
Ha Long Bay and Lan Ha Bay
For this portion of the trip, we noticed the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on tourism in Vietnam. Since Vietnam closed its borders with China, the number of people who would have been on our Ha Long Bay tour was dramatically reduced. The tour is designed for around 30-40 people. Our tour had a total of only six people, two of whom left in the middle. We had a huge greyhound style bus for four people. The three-story ship that took us through the bays had only a few people on board. It was odd. The boat staff outnumbered the passengers. This situation wasn’t unique to us. Ha Long Bay is usually crowded with boats, but this time it was sparse. We rented kayaks and had plenty of free space to roam through the karst landscape waterways. We were lucky enough to paddle up to a tree that was the temporary hangout for the Cat Ba Langur. There are fewer than 70 left in the world, and we saw maybe seven of them. It was quite a treat.
Our odd lodging
After a Ha-Long day of activity (6am to 10pm), we just wanted to shower, relax, and get comfortable for a little bit. Well, our odd and dysfunctional dwelling had other plans. We unlocked the padlock for the metal scissor fence directly outside of the front door (think about getting out during a fire), opened the door, walked past the festering clogged sink of aging stagnant water, up the narrow stairwell, past the bathroom floor where some dude was chopping raw chicken into bits, by the random Christmas tree, and to our room with the handle-less sliding door. Also, the lock was a bit too close to the door frame so I could barely unlock the door with my finger sausages. We get inside and our place is cold and very humid. Clam-tastic. This is already gross. The wood floor was sticky moist. The sheets were damp. The bathroom floor had a layer of water on it and smelled like legit butt-foot. The circulation fan made noise and spun, but did nothing to curb the mold growth. It was like a summer day in the bathroom of a busy children’s waterpark. We were not thrilled but proceeded with the plan to relax. Jyn tried to shower, but halfway through, the water simply stopped coming out. The faucets were wide open, no water, and she was still covered in soap. After a couple shrieks, I started heating some of our drinking water so she could rinse off and contacted the owner. The owner said someone “forgot to turn on the pump in the building” and she will take care of it in ten minutes. The water did eventually come back on, and Jyn did rinse clean, but it trickled out and was not very warm. I lowered my expectations and took something similar to a shower as well. Alas. Even for $20 per night, I expected more. You have to remember that some days you are the pigeon and other days, you are the statue.
Hoi An is fantastic
At this point, we were ready to move on. Our next destination, Hoi An, was great. It was so charming that we decided to extend our stay for a week. Around almost every corner was something beautiful. Hoi An is known for its colorful lanterns, the old city, and all things custom made to fit you. Inside the old city, the buildings are an aged yellow, lined with bougainvillias, many colorful lanterns, old wooden doors, narrow alleys, and people wearing Ao Dais (pronounced “Ow-yai” in southern Vietnam) with traditional conical Non La hats. It was very picturesque and still fairly crowded, even though we were told that things were slow due to the virus. Hoi An is a lovely place with more than tailors and lanterns. They have many great places to eat/drink (Bep1919, Reaching Out Tea House, Highlands Cafe) and others that are the front end of someone’s house… that they are living in… while you are eating there. Apparently, a baby was changed in a crib behind me while I was enjoying a smoothie at dinner one night.
Custom clothing time!
The Ao Dais are stunningly beautiful and elegant. Each time we walked by one in a shop front or saw someone wearing one, I told Jyn how pretty they were and that she should consider getting one. She heard that quite a few times. Then, to double up the level of dorkiness, I told her that I would get a custom tailored suit to match. It seemed that I wasn’t the first to think of that. A fair number of couples, friends, and groups matched. Some people had head-to-toe banana outfits and matching backpacks. Hilarious. Eventually, Jyn decided to get a custom Ao Dai. There are around 400 tailors in Hoi An so to narrow it down, we found Bebe (the most reputable and the most expensive one), as well as Peace (the one that was recommended by the guy who runs our hotel). This is not your typical walk into a mall, grab something from a rack, and leave scenario. No. It is an experience all by itself. In fact, you can’t even try a similar piece on before you buy it because they only make things to order. We walked into Peace, were surrounded by gorgeous fabrics, and were immediately helped by their small staff. Since you design your own pieces and pick out your own fabrics, it isn’t easy. We did manage to select a combination for Jyn (purple and silver). Then, it was my turn. I ended up buying a blue three piece suit with a bright red interior. Our clothing was ready for fitting the next day. That’s amazing. After a few marks, we were told to return the next day. Now, everything fit perfectly. Of course, it was time for a photoshoot. And we went back to buy two shirts and another Ao Dai… and a pair of custom leather shoes (not pictured because I decided to get them the night before we left).
Roaming the Hoi An area
One day, we rented bicycles and biked through rice fields, to the silk village, and to the beach. There was a time where we were in the middle of rice fields trying to ride our bicycles in the sand, when Jyn almost fell into the irrigation canal…and then we heard a terrible one-man karaoke event. We ended that day at the beach before returning the bikes.
Then, the travel difficulties began
We left Hoi An to get closer to the airport and to see the city of Da Nang. Upon returning to our hotel after a walk by the beach and over the dragon bridge, Jyn looked up our flight scheduled for the next day. Oddly, VietJet indicated that our flight was two days away. We had a receipt that confirmed the flight was tomorrow. Well, I guess we will see. Then, Jyn looked at the news and saw that South Korea was rapidly becoming an undesirable vacation destination as the US Department of State had just raised its travel advisory to Level 3. We were scheduled to fly to South Korea in two days. We were not allowed to miss the flight to South Korea, we were told: we had to be on that flight or our entire round-the-world itinerary would be cancelled. That’s what Singapore Airline’s Star Alliance Call Center customer service agent told us. And the frustration began again. Even calling them was a pain due to international calling limitations on our phone plan. So I upgraded my plan for this call and the numerous others we would soon make. The Singapore Airlines call center is the worst! Even though I already knew that they are the worst, they exceeded my expectations for being the worst! Before booking our huge 14-flight ticket (all at once), we confirmed that we could move dates, but not places (section 4.1 of their rules says we can). This time, however, the customer service agent said no, we can’t move dates either. Furthermore, the agent told us that we couldn’t move anything, even if we paid a fee. What?! They were basically forcing us to fly into South Korea with booming COVID-19 or self-cancel our business class round-the-world ticket. We called back and had the same experience. We had one shiny metaphorical gold chip in our pocket that was not available until this moment. As a transit stop, we had to fly into Singapore about 12 hours before the flight to South Korea. We had to get to the Singapore Airlines Service Desk, in person, to figure this out. They can’t hang up on my face in person. Plus, I’m betting the service will be a bazillion times better.
It’s time for this thing to play out. We went to the Da Nang airport very early because we suspected a foul up and tried to check in. We couldn’t check in. VietJet had cancelled our flight without telling us that they had cancelled our flight. Now, were we stuck in Vietnam? Would we miss the Singapore-to-Seoul flight, or miss our chance at changing it? If we can’t even get to Singapore, we can’t straighten out the South Korea shenanigans…Frig! We rushed over to the VietJet customer service desk and did get a refund for our canceled flight. Ok, small victory. We were told that there was another flight going to Singapore so we went to the SilkAir counter and waited in line. While in line, we bought the tickets for that next flight. It was a little tight with time, but we made it onto that plane.
Upon arrival at Singapore, they are telling people who are coming from China to place themselves on a “14 day leave of absence.” Then, they mention that everyone will be health screened as we go through customs. If you don’t pass, you would be quarantined for 14 days. We pass the health screening (thermal imaging). Yay. Then, we scrambled to the Singapore Airlines customer service desk. The agents had no idea what just strolled up, sweating, to their counter, but it went great. Actually, better than great because we ended up with an involuntary reroute. Wow! That was a stroke of luck and a typical display of excellence by Singapore Airlines (remember, the call center is at the bottom of the rotting garbage pile, not the airline). We just cut out the next two months of our plan. South Korea and Japan are gone. Sigh. Maybe next year, cherry blossoms. Now, we are going to spend some time in Singapore to figure out the next two months of our lives and deal with the cancellation fallout. Phew. That was close, but our round-the-world trip IS STILL ON!