I ventured to one of the world’s last remaining communist countries to see Santa Claus ride a motorbike. Needless to say, it was worth it.
The weather I left in Seoul was wildly different than that in Hanoi. Fortunately for me, I do not live too far away from the metro. When I arrived in Hanoi, I got through immigration in a few minutes. Although you can get visas by other means, I went to the Vietnamese Embassy in Seoul. I paid ₩95,000 ($80) for a single-entry visa and, although it was quite pricey, I highly recommend getting one from an embassy/consulate.
My friend, Emily, met me at the airport. For those who do not know, I met Emily in Hungary back in 2013. The list of countries she has taught/is teaching/will teach in is amazing: Georgia (again – the country, not the state), Chile, Hungary, Vietnam, and Kosovo. We took a bus into town, which only cost 8,000₫ ($0.35) and took about an hour. I took a taxi to the airport when I left and paid 323,000₫ ($14.21).
When we exited the bus, I was a bit overwhelmed. I knew that motorbikes populated the roads, but seeing them in person was another experience altogether. Emily had to hold my hand to cross the street for the first few hours. As an avid believer of using crosswalks, I had to change my way of thinking. If you wait for people to stop for you, you will never make it to the other side of the road.
I got a bánh mì, which was the source of never-ending bánh-mì-tasting burps, and hiked up the stairs to Emily’s place. She lives in a four-story building of only English teachers all hailing from different countries: the United States of America, England, Mexico, and Germany. Her balcony overlooks a lake and a temple, which is a far cry away from what I am used to seeing.
Emily and I exchanged Christmas presents. I bought us matching “Merry Christmas, [insert bad word here]!” sweaters because I am the token Grinch out of my family. We walked to the mausoleum of Ho Chi Mihn (Lăng Chủ tịch Hồ Chí Minh) and One Pillar Pagoda (Chùa Một Cột), one of Vietnam’s most iconic temples. The story behind this pagoda is that Emperor Lý Thái Tông was childless. Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (Quán Thế Âm Bồ Tát) met the emperor in his dreams. While seated on a lotus flower, she gave him a baby boy. He later married a peasant girl who bore him a son. He built the temple, which resembles a lotus flower, in 1049 as a sign of appreciation.
Afterwards, we had Christmas dinner at a restaurant in town. Emily’s roommate, Dan, owns a motorbike, so he gave me a ride. IT WAS THRILLING. You cannot go to Hanoi without plopping your sweet behind onto a motorbike seat.
The next morning Emily and I went to The Temple of Jade Mountain (Đền Ngọc Sơn), located on Hoàn Kiếm Lake (Hồ Hoàn Kiếm). Lê Lợi, one of Vietnam’s greatest emperors, returned his magic sword to the Golden Turtle (Kim Quy) here. In the middle of the lake is Turtle Tower (Tháp Rùa), erected under Emperor Lê Thánh Tông, which honors Kim Quy.
We then walked around Old Quarter and shopped at various little stores. Family members, I am pretty proud of some of these gifts! We visited the Quán Thánh Temple (Đền Quán Thánh), which is dedicated to a Chinese general who lived in the 3rd century. Later, we strolled through French Quarter to visit her friend, Lenna. It was bizarre seeing buildings that could easily exist anywhere in Europe. Even though I love living in Korea, I miss the architecture of many European cities. For dinner, I finally had phở. I am not really one for soups, but it was pretty delicious.
The next day, I went to Hạ Long Bay by myself. I booked a cruise through Indochina Junk and joined an Alova day trip. I sat beside a really cool Russian girl named Anna and the ride took us about 3.5 hours to get to the bay. During the journey, we heard from our tour guide various facts about Vietnam. As an American, it was interesting hearing a different side of the story regarding the war. All my life, I have heard it be called “The Vietnam War.” My tour guide, however, referred to it as “The American Invasion” or “The American War.”
Midway, we stopped at the Hong Ngoc Humanity Center, a place that gives people with disabilities the opportunity to work. Workers were inside, stitching away. I thought it a bit rude/odd to go up to someone and take a picture of them working, so I did not take any photographs inside the building. I cannot reveal what I purchased, as I got two gifts for family at this center, but know that things purchased here are a lot more expensive than the same items found in Old Quarter.
Once we reached Hạ Long Bay, I was saddened by the fact that it was cloudy. I had Googled pictures of the area and it is breathtaking in the sunlight. I only saw blue skies for roughly five minutes the whole time I was in Vietnam. Anyway, I boarded the ship and sat at a table with Anna and four Koreans. I was elated. One of the Koreans is a mukbang star (as in he eats for people – it’s brilliant, so you should YouTube “먹방”). The others were a family – one beautiful mom and her two awesome kids (we are only a few years apart). We ended up exchanging Kakao Talk IDs and still keep in touch.
Hạ Long Bay, located in the Gulf of Tonkin, has roughly 1,600 islands and islets. We cruised around for a bit, then stopped at a fishing village. Although I love boats, I am a poor swimmer and suffer from ichthyophobia (fear of fish). This way of life is completely outside of anything I am familiar with.
We got back on the boat, sailed for a bit, then stopped at Thien Cung Cave (Động Thiên Cung). I have been in a few caves, but this one was by far the most impressive. We were herded through the cave relatively quickly, so unfortunately I did not get to capture it as much as I would have liked.
Upon arriving back in Hanoi, Anna and I crept around the night market to hunt for some more gifts for our family members. I saw numerous EXO shirts (Korean band). I desperately looked for a GOT7, BTS, or Super Junior shirt, but came out empty handed. After weaving through people for an hour, I finally caught a cab to Emily’s place. It was Saturday, which meant that I was to leave the next day.
Emily kindly took my backpack to work with her, so I would not have to lug it around all morning while sightseeing. I walked over to the Temple of Literature (Văn Miếu – Quốc Tử Giám). Founded by Lý Thánh Tông and dedicated to Confucius, the Temple of Literature was the nation’s first university.
Next, I walked to the Imperial Citadel of Thăng Long (Hoàng thành Thăng Long), but did not have enough money to enter. Instead, I peered at it through little holes in the stone wall. Realizing I did not have much time left, I power-walked to Emily’s workplace in order to get one last bánh mì and say goodbye.
Overall, my trip was pretty solid. Thank you, Emily, for letting me sleep in your bed (also sorry for screaming at all the lizards I kept coming across). I am not one for the heat, so visiting Southeast Asia during the wintertime is my cup of tea. I am supposed to see my love, Cho Kyuhyun, in a few hours. Wish me luck and many future children.
PS. I have now been to twenty countries.