Good morning Vietnam - My adventure to the “last true Southeast Asian city”

Image by Dominic Jordan

Between July 5th to July 25th of this year, I visited Vietnam, joining two friends who had been travelling through South East Asia for several weeks prior. I knew the risks – I was going to be playing the third wheel – but much to my delight w ended up becoming a strange sort of family unit over the course of the trip, and we discussed all sorts of amazing topics, from prostitution and police brutality, to gender roles and Star Wars. Travel seems to facilitate bizarre thought processes; maybe it is something in the air.

I arrived at Noi Bai International Airport, Hanoi at about midday after a long flight. It was a connecting flight of about fourteen hours, and so I stopped off at Doha, Qatar for a couple of hours on the way.

Arriving in Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, I took a cab to my hostel located in the Old Quarter – the city’s “urban core”. The taxi driver was friendly, and he had never heard of the Rolling Stones, he greeted me by tossing a pack of cigarettes onto my lap.

Hanoi is a strikingly different and perhaps challenging city to a suburban Londonite such as me. One traveller I spoke to at a hostel in the rural North of Vietnam described it as the “last true Southeast Asian city”, while another called it “the Rolls Royce to Saigon’s Toyota”. I had planned to surprise my two friends, who were already in the city, by finding out which room in the hostel they were staying in and walking in unannounced. Unfortunately, I had booked the wrong hostel (be careful of similarly named places), so, I decided to sleep after a long day of travelling. When I finally made a rendezvous with my friends from back home, we decided to celebrate by having a few beers in what seemed to be a James Blunt-themed bar. Word to the wise – DO NOT flush toilet roll in Vietnam, ALWAYS place it in the bin adjacent to the toilet. It does not go down well.

The next day, we wondered around the city in search of ice cream. We were approached by a late-middle-aged looking gentleman, I think he was Swedish, who had also spent extensive amounts of time in London, apparently with Paul Weller and Joe Strummer? Anyway, he seemed to be an English teacher, and asked the three of us to interact with his students and converse with them in English. We obliged and conversed with the students for about an hour or more, before getting some food and visiting a museum dedicated to “Uncle Ho”, Vietnam’s legendary Prime Minister turned President. Ho Chi Minh was a man utterly dedicated to his people and was a key figure in the country’s freedom from Western intervention. His is a long and complicated story, but completely fascinating – I highly recommend the Ken Burns documentary “The Vietnam War” available on Netflix to anyone interested in learning more. The museum itself was fantastically curated, with dozens of artefacts from the American War and the preceding revolts against the French occupation.

After a long day of local history, I returned to my hostel, where it transpired that they had a couple hours of free beer at the bar. Unfortunately, the beer tasted like cement. In an effort to liven up the night a bit, I asked my drinking buddy if she wanted to join me at a local jazz bar. I am not massively into jazz music normally, but this was one of the most atmospheric live performances I have ever seen, and I felt like such a boomer smoking a cigarette and drinking whiskey in the dark while the band played.

The next day we moved on to the mountainous Sapa via bus – a respectable six hours journey. The mountains were a welcome escape from the extreme crowds and traffic of Hanoi. What immediately struck me about Sapa was the coolness of the air. It was a very peaceful little town, bordered by mountains and rice terraces. The mountains were green and misty, and reminded me of Jurassic Park, or Arthur Conan Doyle’s “lost world” of dinosaurs. We wandered toward the rice terraces in the evening and found ourselves following a fairly steep path away from the main town. We saw a water buffalo, and a considerable crowd of people surrounding it. I was not entirely sure what was going on – we saw a young girl who could not have been older than about fourteen, being dragged away in chains. We got talking to a ten-year-old named Martin, who spoke excellent English and showed us around the area. He explained that the girl in the chains had been caught stealing food from one of the homes. It was a rather harrowing glimpse into a completely different world to the one I came from, made surreal by how fleeting it was. We continued with our little tour of the farming village and got some amazing views of the rice terraces.

Image by Dominic Jordan

We decided we wanted to climb Fansipan – the highest mountain in the country – without a guide. I was a little scared – people had died on this mountain – but my friend Danny was sure we could do it. We set off around 5am packed with Banh Mi (Vietnamese baguettes, stuffed with all kinds of interesting ingredients), fruit, and cookies. A friend of mine who I had been messaging warned me about climbing the mountain, saying that the incident with the bird and the rooster was a kind of omen. He claimed that the unfortunate bird represented me, and the chicken represented a giant chicken that lived up in the foggy mountain.

Happily, we made it to the roof of Indochina alive. It took about six hours to hike all the way to the top, and it was exhausting but so rewarding. The air felt different up there. But apart from the flag, there was not really anything to see at the top because of the thick layer of white mist; so, we immediately got the cable car back down to Sapa.

Vietnam will remain a memorable trip, from the uncannily dreamlike mountainous regions to the heaving cities. There is an incredible sense of camaraderie with other travellers here; is a country with so much personality, and I miss it every day like a beloved friend.