Vietnam: Early Morning Hanoi and Banh Xeo

We arrive back in Hanoi at 6am. I remember our travel agent saying that we would be dropped off in the Old Quarter but it’s impossible to tell if that’s where we are because everything is closed!
We’re followed by people asking us if we want motorbikes or taxis to our hotel but the fact of the matter is, we don’t have a hotel. Or a hostel, or a guesthouse or anything. We were kinda hoping we wouldn’t need one.
The plan is to get a bus to Ha Long Bay today, but we hadn’t thought to plan this in advance. Now it’s a waiting game for the tourist offices to open.

We escape the incessant motorbike taxi drivers and walk in a direction that we feel is probably the way to the lake. I have a horrible sense of direction, but somehow we find the lake anyway. From here, we stop at the only open establishment we can find, which is a little café that I would classify as slightly over priced. We don’t have a ton of other options so we sit down to order some breakfast and charge our phones.
Today is a public holiday in Vietnam, Worker’s Day I believe, which makes me a little nervous that nothing will be open at all.

7:00 comes and still, no shops have opened in the Old Quarter. We sit and wait at the café until 7:30, long after we’ve eaten our breakfast and paid our bill. They don’t seem excited about it, but no one kicks us out so that’s positive.
We take a chance and walk to the little tourist centre from which we booked our bus to Sapa. The girl in there was really nice and I’m hoping if we use her again she’ll give us a good price on our trip to Ha Long Bay. The Old Quarter is almost unrecognizable without all the signs, vendors, and motorbikes around to define it. The only wonderful part about being awake this early, is watching the city slowly come to life. We see people unlocking their shop gates, vendors loading their baskets with fresh fruit, and the traffic start to pick up as we walk to our destination.

By some miracle, the travel agency is open. She can’t fit us into a tour today, and mentions that all the tours are booked because of the holiday. Obviously! Silly us. It’s probably best not to go on a busy day…but I’m still not pumped about spending yet another day in Hanoi. I’ve been in Vietnam for 8 days now…and 5 or 6 have been spent in this city. I’m kinda over it.
We book the tour for tomorrow, and ask our travel agent if she can recommend a good hostel in the area. She suggests a hotel down the road that has rooms for $12 a night. Shared, that’s within our price range so we take a look. The rooms seem okay, but they don’t have anything available until noon. It’s not even 8:30 yet. What are we going to do for four hours?!
We try to pass some time by organizing our laundry downstairs in the lobby. I’m ready to set out on a journey to find the cheapest laundry place in Hanoi, but the hotel says they’ll do our laundry for 30,000 dong ($1.50) per kilo. I’ve seen it advertised for 20,000…but the convenience factor plays in and I accept paying $0.50 more to do our laundry here. For the rest of the time we just sit at a table in the lobby and use the wifi.

At 9:30 we are told we can check-in to our room early. Oh happy day! I’m ready for a nap. It’s hard to sleep “well” when you’re bouncing around on a sleeper bus. I nap for an hour and a half before I wake up feeling hungry.
Tamara and I set out to get a bubble tea, which is 20% off because of the holiday. Bonus!

I get an e-mail from a our travel agent in Sapa, telling us that we can go anytime to pick up our Open Bus Ticket. This ticket, if you haven’t heard about it, is insanely awesome. We paid about $48 for a ticket that will take us from Hanoi to Saigon, stopping in other major cities along the way whenever we want. We just have to call them one day before to let them know when we’re getting on. The best part about the ticket, is that it’s good for night and/or day busses. So we can continue to take night busses to each of our destinations, therefore avoiding many nights of paid accommodation. Just for comparison, we’re averaging about $5/night on accommodation, and $14 for sleeper busses. If we take the night bus six times, instead of paying for each individual ticket and hostel, we’ll only have spent $48 over two weeks, compared to an easy $100.
Yeah, we’re thrifty.
The ticket is good for one month and starts the day we leave Hanoi, which we plan to do as soon as we get back from Ha Long Bay. Like, the same day. No more wasted days in this city! I do a quick look at my calendar and see that May 5th is when we will need to leave. We head over to the bus station and pick up our magical tickets.

We stop at a small road-side restaurant that serves banh xeo (pronounced like Ban-Shaow), a hot pancake-like dish stuffed with bean sprouts and beef. A lady sits at the front of the restaurant, surrounded by numerous hot skillets, where she multitasks, cooking banh xeo after banh xeo. That’s all they serve, no menu. We walk inside, sit on little plastic stools and are brought a bowl of lettuce and mint leaves, a mildly spicy dipping sauce, and some rice paper. A few minutes later two steaming hot banh xeos are placed on our table. We watch the people at the table next to us, who roll bits of banh xeo and mint leaves into the rice paper, then dip it into the sauce. We try to follow suit. My rolling skills are not superb but I get the job done. The food itself is, in my opinion, just alright. It’s oily and relatively bland (what can you expect from bean sprouts?) but we have fun rolling and dipping our dinner. We eat a total of 4 banh xeos and only pay 40,000 dong ($2) each.
I really like the word banh xeo.



I look forward to getting back to our hotel, where we have a fancy shower! It’s not actually that fancy, it’s just not a shower head on the loose in a bathroom like most hostels/guesthouses. I still have yet to master the art of keeping my towel and clothing dry without a barrier shower curtain like I’m used to back home. This hotel though, actually has a glass wall separating the shower from the rest of the bathroom! What luxury!

Okay so I’ve misjudged things. It’s not a whole glass wall barrier. It’s like 1/3 of a glass wall. The shower head has such intense pressure that it’s stabbing me, and any water that hits the wall projects itself back off and onto the bathroom floor. Before I’ve even finished shampooing my hair, there’s water all over the place. My clothes, which I had left in a pile by the door, are sopping wet. There’s so much water that I’m worried the whole bathroom might just rot out from underneath me and I’ll fall through the floor. Naked.
I finish my shower as fast as humanly possible and use the provided towels to mop up the small ocean I’ve created in the bathroom. I have to literally wring out the bath mat and hang my clothing to dry. Worst shower ever.
That wasn’t the indulgent experience I was hoping for, but at least I’m clean.

Upon a second glance at my calendar, I realize that we won’t be coming back from Ha Long Bay on May 5th, but May 4th. God damn. The office will already be closed and we leave early tomorrow morning. Oh how I wish I paid more attention to detail. I am NOT spending another day in Hanoi waiting for May 5th to come, so I need to fix this. On our way out to go get a beer, we ask the front desk if they could call the bus company tomorrow on our behalf to explain our situation. He scribbles down some information and says he’ll call, but I’m a little nervous. I won’t have wifi for the next couple days, so I’ll have no way of contacting him to make sure he’s called. We must leave this up to fate. Tamara is super chill and doesn’t seem to mind at all that I almost cost us an entire extra day in Hanoi. She’s been here 2 days fewer than I, but she’s totally over it too.

We try to find a bar called Half Man Half Noodle because we’ve heard it’s good and also because…well, look at the name. Who doesn’t want to be at a bar called Half Man Half Noodle?
My Google Maps lead us astray and we don’t find the bar, but we’re lead to a cool area of town with a few other decent looking bars. We sit down on a street-side patio and order a big glass of draft beer for only 10,000 dong ($0.50). A total weirdo sits down next to us and keeps forcing conversation so we casually pay and leave as soon as we finish our drinks. We set out to find another bar where we can relax, but we mostly find tacky (and empty) looking clubs or overly crowded tourist bars serving buckets of alcohol. It’s not that kinda night.
We finally find a relatively quiet bar and order one more beer before calling it a night and walking back to our room. I can’t wait to start traveling South where we can always be sure to find a good beach bar.

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