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April 16, 2008

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Where's Aubrey?                                          Vietnam


Vietnam: Hanoi and Ha Long Bay
Cheap in some ways, rich in many others: A travelers guide
By Aubrey Lampkin

After recently resigning from my New York City 'career' in online advertising for fancy fashion companies, I decided it wise to abscond as far away as possible in pursuit of something slightly more substantive, a growing trend among my contemporaries, I've found. Given the fact that my father has been living in Hanoi for the past six months as a retirement project, Vietnam seemed like an apropos springboard to my unscripted sabbatical. I've done a fair bit of Asian exploration in my lifetime, but never have I been to Vietnam. Bashfully, the closest I'd come to experiencing anything remotely Vietnamese was dining at New York City's Union Square eatery, Republic and multiple viewings of Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now. Certain there was more to it than noodles and napalm, I set out to investigate.

You could say that my first impression of the Vietnamese started in Terminal 5 of Hong Kong International Airport while waiting to board a small plane to Hanoi during my second layover from New York City, Vancouver being the first. If I may digress to set the scene (and simultaneously dish my personal airport musings), Hong Kong's gargantuan and immaculately pristine international airport looks like it should be the set of a sci-fi movie. With miles of moving walkways and glistening floors intersected by impossibly steep labyrinth-like escalators, intimidating high-end designer boutiques and touch-screen terminal directories, it's easy to forget you're actually there to catch a plane. Hong Kong International Airport, along with most other airports in the developed world (and shopping centers, I will later find), makes New York's dismal JFK Airport look like a suburban shopping mall from the 1980s. It's safe to guess JFK probably hasn't been redesigned since its honoree's presidency and, most horrifyingly, the operation's last-call for alcohol is at the nubile hour of 9:30pm, a most sensitive factor on my personal airport rating system. Sadly, the only 'after-hours' entertainment you can find at JFK Airport is fishing around the adult magazine section of Hudson Booksellers -- yet another letdown since the magazines are armored with that 'you can't touch this 'til you buy me' cellophane shrink-wrap. But back to Terminal 5 in Hong Kong ...

While catching up on Clooney in April's Esquire, I was approached by a 30-something, Westernized-looking Vietnamese woman who introduced herself as a Vancouver resident named Tam. Like many Vietnamese, she'd immigrated to Canada as a young adult and was now living the ex-pat's dream in sunny Vancouver. She explained that she was on her way back to Vietnam to collect her elderly parents to help take them back to Canada for the spring/summer season to see the grandkids. (The grandparents divide their year between Vietnam and Canada seasonally.) Like most Asian cultures, it was clear the Vietnamese priority is family first, especially caretaking of the older generation. Tam was extremely polite and affable ... borderline too affable for my liking of airport acquaintances. She asked me what my seat number was and was excited to discover she'd be sitting in the row behind me. She also explained that coincidentally, she has a friend whose daughter recently changed her name from Stephanie to Aubrey in an act of creative expression, which befuddled her family (and me). After landing in Hanoi, my new friend wanted to team up for baggage claim. "I'll help you with yours and you help me with mine," she'd said. Her friendly invitation was too sweet to decline and so my trip began.

Hanoi is a rustically developing and uncommonly beautiful mini-metropolis, juxtaposed by the surrounding backdrop of endless rice paddies, straw hat farmers and wandering oxen -- all of which you'll see on the way from the airport to the city. The first thing you'll notice is the intensely dense traffic, consisting mostly of run-down mopeds emitting thick fumes and the complete absence of road rules, ensuring an all-day chorus of honking wherever you go. Much to my disbelief, the Vietnamese somehow manage to tote the same amount atop their rinky-dink mopeds as Americans do in boat-sized SUVs and minivans. Expect to see an average Vietnamese motor-scooter suspending a family of four, at least! Infant is often lodged under dad's arm like a football while he's driving. Toddler is riding shotgun, standing on the little footrest wedged between the driver and the handlebars. Mom is on the backseat, riding sidesaddle in a skirt. My guess is that they upgrade the baby from 'football' to 'shotgun' position the day he learns to stand. There are probably also a few household items, like a crate full of rabbits or pigs and an air-conditioner, strapped to the back by a bungee cord, Oh, and dad is probably smoking or text-messaging while driving and trying to avoid running you over. That said, successfully crossing your first major Hanoian street is a rite of passage similar to passing your first driver's test or an advanced Frogger level. Here's why: Since there aren't stop signs or traffic lights, that means no pedestrian crossings. And don't count on there ever being a break in traffic. Instead, you literally need to take a deep breath and step out into high-speed oncoming traffic. Walk very slowly in a very straight line, avoid eye contact with your possible assailants and pretend to be totally confident and nonchalant about it all. If you flinch and turn back, you're dead meat since the drivers are all professionally maneuvering around you. The excitement never ends.

Upon meeting my father at the airport, we hired a mini-taxi to take us to his apartment building on the west side of Hanoi's Old District (Hoam Kiem), about 40 minutes from the airport, which is also where he'd arranged a temporary apartment rental for me during my stay. Most visitors choose to stay in one of the small hotels littering the north side of the Old District, located just above the Hoam Kiem Lake, famous for the Ngoc Son Temple and the Water Puppet Show. This is the artisanal quarter and the heart of Hanoi; 36 narrow streets of densely populated craftsmen 'tube houses'. Each alley is aptly named for its most popular commodity: Toy Street, Flower Street, Sunglass Street, Meat Street and so on. You can almost picture the comedic scenario of a newcomer asking a local where to buy a camera only to be told to head to Camera Street, between Air Conditioner Alley and Refrigerator Road.

For accommodations, there seem to be tons of backpacker joints and a few ritzy hotels but not a whole lot in between. Another sign the city is still in development mode. The chicest hotel in town is probably the delightfully opulent Sofitel Metropole near the Opera House, in the quaint French district for over $100/night. A step down is the ugly stepsister, The Sofitel Plaza, which is slightly out of the center of town and less expensive. Another mega-hotel neighboring the Opera House is the Hilton Hanoi, which I'd avoid unless you're on a corporate business trip. I don't think it's been refurbished since diamond-patterned carpeting was in style. For a mid-range option (around $50/night), check out the Gia Bao Hanoi Hotel, conveniently located in the center of the Old District on Lo Su Street. The Nga Quan on Ho Huan Nghiep off of Dong Khoi is also a nice find for under $50/night.

After superficially acquainting myself with the city layout, I hit the streets to shop, prepared with my best bargaining skills. Only there was one thing I wasn't prepared for – not having to bargain! The first item I picked up (albeit a simple hand-stitched purse) was 20,000 dong, one dollar. How do you bargain down from that? I handed over the cash feeling a bit guilty. The second shop I went into was a little boutique on Silk Street, displaying handmade Oriental silk dresses in every color of the rainbow. I picked out a gorgeous Mandarin red number for a whopping $23, a real bank-breaker. I plan to go back for two more colors. That said, the one thing you'll always need to bargain for is your taxi fare. You have two choices: either motorbike taxi (which can be very dangerous at night since many Hanoians, particularly the ex-pats, drink and drive) or taxi car. A short motorbike taxi ride shouldn't cost you more than twenty or thirty thousand dong (about $1.50USD) and a short taxi car ride should be around 40,000 dong ($2USD). Taxis will always try to charge you double or triple if you're a foreigner. In some cases, they even rig the meters to make them run faster and higher. To avoid this, only use Hanoi Taxi Company. Also be wary of buying English books, especially Lonely Planet guides and such off the streets or from disreputable bookshops. If they're covered in plastic wrap that means they're pirated photocopies and won't be the best quality and the maps will be illegible. Pickpockets are also out there. I personally didn't experience this, but my father's camera was pinched right out of his front trouser pocket without him even feeling it. These situations are just as common in any city, so just be savvy. Since Vietnam is a communist country, it can be corrupt and esoteric in certain situations, but overall it's safe and self-controlled. It's unlikely to see anyone in the streets, besides foreigners, after 10:30pm.

Ironically, the first stop we made (being very un-Vietnamese) was to grab a beer at my dad's favorite local hangout, an American-owned bar named R&R Tavern (short for 'rock 'n' roll', not 'rest and relaxation', which is it quite the opposite), located on Lo Su Street in the Old District. This quirky little dive is an homage to rock bands from the '60s and '70s, with Grateful Dead and Beatles posters covering its walls, and is also the central meeting point for ex-pats of all sorts: from veterans and backpackers to traveling musicians and business professionals. The R&R Tavern is evolving into a live music hub for Hanoi, which the city is otherwise lacking, and you can go there to see live bands Wednesday to Sunday nights. You can check out everything from their in-house group, the White Eagles, to newly emerging artists. There's also a convenient corkboard advertising upcoming music shows and festivals. They have cold Carlsberg on draught and a selection of imported and domestic bottled beers. Try Hanoi's famous crisp and refreshing Ba Ha Noi beer for about $1 a bottle; a much better choice than Singapore's saccharine and watery Tiger beer that's also on every list. Don't bother drinking wine (at least by the glass) in Vietnam. You'll only find very low-quality imports from California and Chile. Stick with the beer. I wouldn't really recommend the bar food at R&R since it's got greasy Tex-Mex/American fare, but if you want, you can get tacos and burritos for about $1.25, chicken or steak quesadillas for about $5 or burgers and hotdogs from $1-$3, with a choice of local or New Zealand-imported beef. Best bet is the fish 'n' chips for $4. You can't really go wrong with that.

There's no shortage of great restaurants in Hanoi, offering any genre of food you could fancy. But should you choose to stray from Vietnamese cuisine, be aware you'll probably encounter a bit of a strange mixed menu (Italian/Vietnamese, French/Vietnamese, etc.). Restaurants range from cheapy roadside Pho stands (traditional Vietnamese rice noodles mixed with beef, chicken or shrimp and vegetables in spicy broth) for about $1-$2. Certainly give one a try, but avoid eating anything raw, especially foods containing shrimp sauce, which recently presented a health scare. Hanoi is still a developing city, so exercise all the same precautions you'd take in a small town in Mexico. Brush your teeth with the tap water, but don't swallow it ... that kind of thing. Ice is usually okay. The Vietnamese love to drink beer on ice since proper refrigeration is sometimes hard to come by, but I tried to avoid it. Consult Lonely Planet for higher-end fare or ask one of the locals at the R&R Tavern and they'll steer you in the right direction. For higher-end authentic Vietnamese food against an elegant backdrop, try Restaurant 69, Green Tangerine (not to be confused with the popular Green Mango, which you should also check out), Indochine or Verticale. However, be prepared to encounter hoards of gregarious American and European tour groups that frequent these fancier eateries; most Vietnamese don't eat out at night. Most higher-end restaurants will run you around $20-$25 per person with appetizers, food, drinks and dessert.

Nowhere near as omnipresent as the seedy massage parlors littering the streets of Thailand (but just as inexpensive), Vietnam's spa and massage scene is high-end and discrete. Just finding Zen Spa was half the fun. I came across it accidentally while hunting for yoga studios (futile in Vietnam, as I found) in Lonely Planet. We trekked down a few narrow and very dusty unpaved roads asking directions along the way. FYI: The universal Vietnamese hand signal for 'carry on straight' is palm of right hand open to left going in little circular motions -- this signal became very familiar during my trip. And then a quarter of a mile down the dirt road, across from where a mangy dog was chained up, we saw the sign to make a right for Zen Spa. And the sign looked legitimate, so we kept trekking. If it weren't for its treacherously inconvenient location, Zen Spa would be a big hit. From a little bonsai entrance garden, petite employees in yellow silk quietly escort you into a serene Japanese-style tatami waiting area. We were handed a cup of Oriental tea while we perused the spa menu. We opted for the 45-minute hot stone massage for $40. Staged in a delicate bamboo hut just beyond a Zen fish pool, a trip to Zen Spa is totally worth it for the atmosphere and overall experience. However, bonsai trees and fish pools aside, the technical experience of the masseuses left something to be desired. It kind of felt like a close friend could've done as good a job with a set of hot rocks. But for $40 and for the traditional scenery, who really cares?

You probably won't believe that I just stumbled upon two spas in Hanoi by sheer accident, but I do believe in manifest destiny. Reading up on the Temple of Literature in Lonely Planet, I came across a blurb about Maison Des Arts (does that sound like a spa name to you?), touting the 'best professional massage in town', so I was forced to check it out. Hopping on the back of a motorbike taxi from Hoam Kiem Lake to the Temple of Literature, I entered a small gallery on the main road across from the temples. I was greeted by a quarry of beautiful women who escorted me into a back room where I spent the next three hours in a heavenly bliss of dexterous body handling. Starting with a narcotic-like hour-long massage of 'quatre mains' (four hands), meaning two women at once … easy boys! One worked on my upper body and one on my lower body. The massage was followed by an aromatherapy facial and manicure/pedicure ... all for $50. Technically, this was the best massage and spa experience I've ever had, and that's including my experiences in New York City. For the price of a few cocktails in Manhattan, send your friends along.

Looking to book a weekend tour package to Ha Long Bay and Cat Ba Island, we stopped into Kangaroo Travel where the service was impressively professional and friendly. In addition to offering the best tour deals in town (you'll gasp at the low rates), they also serve delicious breakfast, lunch and dinner in a casual, no-frills street-front setting. Peruse the different tour package options and book your trip while recharging with fresh spring rolls (a local favorite for about $2 -- the friendly waitress will even show you how to properly wrap them yourself), a spicy seafood pasta dish (about $4) or a western-style omelet (about $3). We were stunned to book an all-inclusive, three-day tour package to Ha Long Bay and Cat Ba Island for a steal of $85 each! The tour includes transportation (shuttle bus to and from Ha Long Bay ferry), one night on the 'junk' (traditional Vietnamese house-boat), day-trips of hiking, biking and kayaking on and around Ha Long's famous limestone islands and caves (not a tour for the fitness-fearing folk), one night at a beachfront hotel on Cat Ba Island and all meals (including mouthwatering, caught-that-day seafood fare on and off the boat). On our second day, they even erected a fully set folding table on a deserted island, where we were served a three-course lunch – and beer. Everyone in our tour group kept checking their payment receipts over and over, trying to figure out where we'd been grossly undercharged. My father quipped that he should keep doing the tour every three days to decrease his everyday living expenses.

We met many lovely folks in the group including honeymooners from Canada, Thailand and Columbia, a globetrotting athletic Australian couple on a six-month leave from work and two effervescent waitresses from Maui with whom we forged a special bond, bantering over the casual topic of -- constipation during travel. What better conversation-starter among travelers? I could write a separate article (thesis, rather) about the black-market style advice exchanged in this rapport, but I shall spare you the details. Unless you want them, in which case I charge a consultation fee. I'll also have you know, for the record, I was not the afflicted one. After our three-day jaunt to the waterfront, we arrived back in Hanoi feeling fresh, with the beginnings of a tan! Vacation had officially started -- and there were many other places to explore.

Vietnam has so much to offer besides Hanoi and Ha Long Bay. I didn't get a chance to experience Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) or the beautiful and relatively untouched beaches of the east coast, but plan to when I next return. Vietnam's traditional unscathed beauty along with its escalating development make it a worthwhile visit in Southeast Asia -- along with the country's convenient access to China, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. Now time to hop a plane to Bangkok, then Koh Samui to continue my adventures ... and get my own motorbike, too, of course! Tam biet (goodbye) and Cam On (thank you), Vietnam.

Aubrey was born in Norwalk, Connecticut in 1979. In 1986, her family relocated to Tokyo with her father’s company. Aubrey lived in downtown Tokyo for the next five years where she attended the International School of the Sacred Heart, made friends from all over the world and traveled in Asia, Australia, Africa and Europe, catching the travel bug. Aubrey is currently living in Koh Samui, Thailand acquiring her scuba dive-master certification. She proudly owns more swimwear than actual clothing now – and, most importantly – hasn’t seen a BlackBerry or used the acronym 'ASAP’ since leaving her corporate job in March, 2008.

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All information presented here is accurate at the time of publication but prices, dates and other details are all subject to change. Please confirm all information before making any travel arrangements.

Pictures From

The Trip


Hanoi Traffic


Hanoi Traffic


Hanoi Window View


Hanoi Window View


Family Outing


Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum


Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum


Rice Paddy Worker


Rice Paddies


Friend on Rice Paddy


With friend at Pagoda in Hanoi Suburbs


With Dad and Monk at Pagoda in Hanoi Suburbs


Monk Suiting Up For His Photo


Proud Monk


Pagoda in Hanoi Suburbs


Pagoda in Hanoi Suburbs


Pagoda in Hanoi Suburbs


Village boy in Hanoi suburbs


Village Family in Hanoi Suburbs


Houseboat, Ha Long Bay


Houseboat Roof Deck, Ha Long Bay


Kayaking With Dad Off Houseboat


Hiking Group, Ha Long Bay


Houseboat Bedroom


Ha Long Bay Harbor


Ha Long Bay Harbor


Limestone Islets, Ha Long Bay


Limestone Islets, Ha Long Bay


Houseboat, Ha Long Bay


Lunch on Deserted Island, Ha Long Bay


Water Worker


Rockin' My New Silk Dress, Vietnamese-Style


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