First Impressions of Vietnam

Heather Markel, Blogger, Speaker, Global Nomad

19 October 2018

Arriving in Vietnam I am very much a stranger in a strange land.

One of the first things that catches my attention in Asia is that I stick out like a sore thumb. There’s no hiding that I’m not from here. In Europe and to some degree, Central America, I felt like I blended in more. Here I am noticeably different. I also don’t speak the language and remembering “please” and “thank you” is difficult, so I revert to English and feel badly that I can’t say more in Vietnamese.

Street scene in Hanoi.

Photograph by Heather Markel, Copyright 2018

Wandering the streets I’m glad I grew up jaywalking in New York City – it’s the perfect preparation to brave crossing the street in Hanoi. Oddly, the traffic has a pulse and a rhythm. I find myself standing at the edge of a street and waiting until I feel that rhythm and then I can cross with confidence. The couple of times I tried to cross to another pedestrian’s rhythm, it didn’t work and I ran back to the curb. I have to plug into the rhythm myself to safely traverse the streets. As I walk along my mind is desperately trying to see a bit of France in a store window, a fragment of Chinatown down a street, unable to accept how different everything is and yet functioning with a strange degree of self sufficiency and trust.

“The traffic has a pulse and a rhythm.”

The service is unbelievably outstanding. I receive a service questionnaire for just about everything – tours and even restaurants ask me for feedback. If I try to carry my own luggage in a cheap hotel I am almost scolded.

A tour guide explained to us that a good woman needs to know how to cook, or she isn’t going to get married. This pissed me off just a wee bit. However, I booked a trip with a female travel agent, Mary. I understood that I would be dropped off at my hotel in my arrival town of Sapa. Instead, I was left at the bus station and told to get a taxi. I called Mary to see if I had misunderstood. She seemed upset and asked me to pass the phone to the bus agent. Apparently, she ripped him a new butthole – next thing I knew he was telling me to get on a different bus that would bring me to my hotel. Mary was the boss! My takeaway is that women may be expected to cook, but they also wear the pants, hell yeah!

Huc Bridge on Hoan Kiem lake, Hanoi.

Photograph by Heather Markel, copyright 2018

A Respite From The Crowded Streets

Walking along the hustling streets of Hanoi I am relieved to find Hoan Kiem lake. Though very touristy it’s refreshing to have a break from all the scooters around me. The bridge is lovely and leads to an even lovelier pagoda. I join everyone in taking lots of photos.

The one thing hard to ignore is the pollution. Though I don’t feel it in my lungs, I see it in the sky – on the better weather days it’s as if the blue is fighting to be seen but can’t quite find it’s way through the veil of dirty air in between it and me. After a few days I am missing that blue sky.

Food, Money and Shoes

Food here is not just delicious, but the preparation is beautiful. Even in a plain cafe, it’s as if an artist has designed the layout. And, you know you can’t go wrong when your meal is served on a dish shaped like a cow! And, the Vietnamese coffee – formerly a rare treat in New York City – is something I can enjoy every day.

Money is crazy. Everything is thousands of dong! My brain automatically panics thinking I will go bankrupt to buy lunch, but then I do the math and it turns out 50,000 dong is roughly $2. A pricey museum entrance might be 200,000 dong, roughly $8. I treated myself to a lovely fish dinner in Hanoi and a bottle of sparkling water. It was a whopping 300,000+ dong…$15. For that price, you couldn’t even buy the fish in New York.

The final first note is how often I am surprised at the places I have to remove my shoes. The first day I had a glorious massage and was quickly led to the shoe rack outside the door. The most surprising place, however, was the bus! Not only could we not wear shoes inside the bus, but they even provided a bucket of sandals for us to wear at rest stops. Fascinating!

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