Hanoi and Halong Bay, Vietnam.

Goooooooood Moooooooorning Vietnam!

Getting Here:

For US and EU citizens (and others, I am sure), you must have a visa to enter Vietnam.  There are a million of sites out there to help you do that (a few there to scam you); we used vietnamvisapro.net, which gets you a “letter of invitation” ($9/per person); this takes a few days to get via email.  Once you get the letter and the approval to enter the country, you are good to go!  Tip: the letter of invitation is a cheaper way of getting a visa than going through your local consulate.

When you arrive at Hanoi Airport (an immaculately clean and well organized space), you pay $45.00 for a 30 day single entry visa per person.  Your details pop up on the screen and your name is mispronounced on a loud speaker at which point you can approach the desk and receive your visa!  Voilá!KD-HANOI - 1Sim Card: Super easy to buy, but don’t get it at the airport as it is more expensive.  Ask your hotel to get one for you; it will cost you approximately $5 for a month of 3G data!  Most places will cut the SIM to fit your phone and install the card for you.  Make sure your phone is unlocked.

Where to stay:

Hanoi Charming 2 Hotel: We stayed at this hotel as it was recommended to us by our friends, Leya and Steve.  For $25/night with a really nice breakfast included, it was a fabulous experience.  The staff at the hotel will do anything and everything for you to make the stay pleasant.  Need tickets to a show? Done! Need recommendations for Halong Bay? Done!  Everything was readily available, and there was never an extra charge tacked on to any errand that they did for us.  Oh, and the location was fantastic in the old quarter by the lake!KD-HANOI - 2What to do:

Hanoi Free Tour Guides:  a wonderful little find!  You get a private tour guide either for half a day or a full day for FREE!  Basically, a University student volunteers to take you anywhere you want (you just pay for their transport/food if you yourself are eating or taking a taxi).  It was a great experience not only for us to learn about the local culture right from the source, but also for the girl to practice her English.  Our tour guide was Thùy Linh Nguyen and she was AWESOME!  Sweet, kind, spoke great English and looooooooves “Friends” TV show!

We asked her to take us to Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (having seen Lenin when I was much younger, I wasn’t super excited to do this, but it was an interesting experience).  The plaza where the Mausoleum and his house sits is huge and packed with people.  There is no entrance fee for Mausoleum and school children and Veterans are given priority entry.IMG_9534 IMG_9549 IMG_7886 IMG_9528It takes about 30 seconds to walk through where Ho Chi Minh lays.  It is a chilling experience, but more so an interesting one to observe how locals feel about Ho Chi Minh.  They have the out most respect for their freedom fighter and ex-leader.

Temple of Literature: We then asked Linh to take us to the Temple of Literature, which is a beautiful Chinese Temple with the main message being “Education is Power”.  While there, we were lucky to watch as students were going through their graduation ceremonies.

Here are a few of my favorite little communists…FullSizeRender 8And here is yours truly…representing communism in 1989…

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Then, of course, we hung out with my homie Lenin!KD-HANOI - 3Linh then took us to her favorite local coffee shop to try their signature coffee which has a raw egg in it and butter (turns out bulletproof coffee existed way before this guy “created it”).  It was the most delicious and creamy cappuccino like tasting coffee – and I felt great after!FullSizeRenderLinh, if you are reading this, THANK YOU for a lovely tour!  We hope the “Friends” movie comes out soon! 🙂

Women’s Museum: a museum filled with TONS of information regarding the lives of women in this country. It is a beautifully done museum which describes marriage, child birth, traditional clothing and how women support their families in different parts of Vietnam.  Worth a visit!

Water Puppet Theater: for about $4, you get to enjoy a 45 minute water puppet show which depicts the story of rice farming in Vietnamese culture.  Some people that we have met thought it was super boring and silly, but we really enjoyed it.  Beautiful music and an interesting way to utilize puppets. There are 4 to 5 performances a day and they sell out quickly!

Here are the puppets….puppet-show-hanoi

And the humans behind the puppets!water_puppetry (2)

Hoan Kiem Lake: A nice lake in the middle of the old quarter with a huge park where the locals and the tourists alike hang out, eat ice cream, do a little thai-chi…IMG_7880or some bench (errr back) scratching…IMG_7882Ha Long Bay: which stands for “descending dragon bay” is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The bay features thousands of limestone isles and caves in various sizes and shapes.  Halong Bay is about 3.5 hours away from Hanoi, so one can either choose a day trip with a boat cruise, an overnight trip (recommend since you spend 6+ hours in a car traveling to and from Hanoi) on one of the thousands of cruise ships or a two night trip.  There were soooo many options to choose from that after a bit of research, we settled on our top 5 cruise lines and had our hotel do the rest for us.

The prices can vary anywhere from $30/night to $500/night.  We decided to go with 1 night on Bhaya Cruise Line and we are so glad we did.  The boat was nice, the food was decent, the guests and crew were friendly (about 10 other guests were on board).  Overall, we would have died of boredom if we did 2 nights, but for 1 night, it was just fine.IMG_9655FullSizeRender 12The setting is pretty and nothing that either one of us have ever seen before, but maybe because the weather was muggy, we weren’t overly impressed.  It was just ok; but do go check it out if you are ever in Hanoi.  I really sold this one, yeah?FullSizeRender 10 FullSizeRender 9 FullSizeRender 6 FullSizeRender 4 FullSizeRender 14 IMG_8103Where to eat:

As always, in SE Asia, most places that tend to have the BEST food are just street food vendors for $1 per meal.  But we did get to visit a few places that actually had names which we liked a LOT:

Quan An Ngon: has two locations, the staff is super friendly and the food is fresh and delicious.  Tons of locals hanging out here too!  Kieran was yet again won over even more so than in Luang Prabang as the local beer cost a whopping 0.75 cents.FullSizeRender 5 FullSizeRender 2Banh Mi 25: a delicious street food vendor stop for a nice sandwich (vegetarian options are always available and the bread is fresh and delicious).  A lunch for two cost us 0.75 cents.  It was so tasty and fresh, we came back 3 times!KD-HANOI - 4FullSizeRender 11Travel Tips:

If you ever need anything fixed (like a shirt), do it here!  I had one of my shirts fixed for 30 cents…IMG_9576Fresh fruits will be better than any dessert in Vietnam (they are NOT good at desserts, although we did love the cream of corn warm soup like creation).IMG_9577Cross the streets with your eyes closed and pray – the traffic is INSANE.  No one stops, everyone constantly honks and you always walk on the road as the sidewalk is packed with Vespa’s.  Tip: just keep moving as you cross the street; do NOT stop, do NOT walk faster.  The bike’s will find a way around you, you shouldn’t look for a way around them.IMG_9519While in Hanoi, I realized that my passport was running low on pages for future visas, so I had to go get that updated. I made an appointment with the US Embassy of Hanoi and the next day had extra pages added in just a few hours. This service used to be free, but as of 2013, no matter where you are, the cost is $82.00.  I also had to fight with security at the embassy to let me bring the Irish in.  Once I told them that he is my gateway to the $82.00, he was escorted in no problem!

And finally, a topic that is close to my heart. No matter what, DO NOT EAT DOG WHILE IN VIETNAM (or anywhere else).  In fact, don’t even make jokes about this because I will seriously ex-communicate you from my life.  This broke my heart.  I cried for days when I saw puppies in cages abused and primed to be eaten.  Some, may never notice this, but to me, it seemed like animal cruelty was on every corner.

I loved this little girl and visited her on daily basis after I saw her being beaten and living in a cage (she is also blind)…

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After some research, I found Hanoi Pet Rescue and spoke to the owner at length about rescuing this pup.  She sent an English speaking volunteer who went with me to speak with the family that owned the dog.  I stayed surprisingly calm as I tried to ask them questions about how they were treating the dog, if the dog was healthy, if I could take the dog to give her a bath (she was filthy) and then, I just tried to educate them on how to discipline the dog other than beating her.  I did try to buy out the dog and give her to the shelter, but the owners would not budge.  IMG_9730Every day and sometimes a few times day, we would come by to check on the pup and bought her a few toys and a cooling mat to sleep on in the cage.  I hope and think that I got through to the owners on my daily visits as I saw that the dog was finally bathed and was even allowed to play outside of the cage.  Here is hoping for change!FullSizeRender 3 IMG_9574I couldn’t wait to get the heck out of this country.  I did give it a shot! We traveled for almost one month from North to South Vietnam even though I did not want to, but felt like I had to give the country and the culture a chance.

Twenty-five days later, my opinion stayed the same.  I do not like it and I do not foresee myself EVER coming back.  Even as a cultural psychology major who really tries to embrace and understand various cultures, some of the things are just simply beyond me.

People here are educated enough to understand that there is really no good reason to eat dogs and with every single person owning the latest iPhone and/or tablet, the truth is just a web search away.  Even the poorest of people have access to vegetables, rice, tofu and other sources of protein.  The dog eating is based on old traditions and facts that are simply not true (i.e., great source of protein, eaten for “good luck”, etc.).

Editor’s Note (Supplemental)

Alina and I have spent many hours (and days!) discussing this topic. While Alina is all emotion, I am completely the opposite, preferring to look at reason and logic, like a certain science officer aboard the USS Enterprise:

“May I say that I have not thoroughly enjoyed serving with humans? I find their illogic and foolish emotions a constant irritant.” – Star Trek, S3, E7 (“Day of the Dove,” 1968)

Like many tourists, I was so busy taking in the sights that I hadn’t taken any notice of the ‘real’ environment around me. Until Alina pointed it out that is. Though I had known in advance that dogs were eaten in these parts, I hadn’t absorbed what in fact that entailed – it’s one thing to kill an animal, it’s another to torture it. And once you know, it is very difficult to forget. You can read more here.

For the record, I’m totally against the practice, whether cruelty is involved or not. It was depressing to hear, first hand, young tourists express a desire to ‘try’ dog meat, without any thought to their actions.

Do people really think they can abandon their supposedly highly evolved ethics and values when they travel overseas to less developed countries?

Final thoughts on Hanoi and the rest of Vietnam . . .

  • Any country that eats dog is no friend of mine;
  • Any tourist that jokes about dog eating and in fact does eat it is no friend of mine (this happened a few times);
  • Needless to say, Paloma never left our backpack, for obvious reasons…
  • It is a very harsh culture and a very loud one; people sound like they are super angry most of the time.
  • A country that doesn’t cater to my extreme sweet tooth will never be on my “must visit” list;
  • And finally, on a lighter note, any country that blocks Nordstrom.com and takes away my ability to browse through high end fashion is also no friend of mine . . .

Although we have already left Vietnam, stay tuned for two more posts about Hoi An and Saigon!

  • Amanda

    wow..harsh!! i never saw any dog meat while traveling. perhaps i didn’t know what to look for. i guess i mainly ate pho ga and bahn mi! did you eat che (don’t know how to add the accent over the “e”) from the little carts with 20 different sweet concoctions to mix together (beans, coconut, jelly, etc)? if you missed out you can get it in san mateo 🙂

    • Alina Basina

      Yeah, eye opening experience. I walked around with hands over my eyes half of the time. It’s not that this doesn’t happen all over the world, it’s that we are very sensitized to it by having perfectly packaged meats at stores. I never thought about what animals actually endure until it is in your face (and this is not just about dogs, I saw this with pigs, chickens as well). YES! I did try Ché and it was refreshing!