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My First time in Hanoi Was a Revelation

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I touched down in Hanoi sometime around 11, and it took half an hour to clear customs. After being waved through the gate I found a taxi waiting for me, and I took the half hour ride to downtown Hanoi. I was surprised to arrive at the hostel because the area seemed so quiet. The hostel description said I would be staying downtown in the heat of it all, but the roads were empty.

Grabbing my three day old backpack, I headed inside. The cramped common room was stuffed with scooters and boxes, and I felt like I had made a mistake in coming. I did my best to reserve judgments, handing over my passport in exchange for a room key. Unlike the paltry common area, my room turned out to be large, and decorated with an inviting purple color scheme. I had a king sized bed, air conditioning, a bathroom, and a flat screen TV that mostly showed fuzzy Vietnamese soap operas.

The whole process, from airport to hostel, turned out to be less eventful than I had expected. Dubai, with it’s 90 degree heat, had prepared me for the weather. Coming off the flight and finding a taxi waiting for me had made the journey to a brand new city easier, and the deserted streets had lowered my expectations.

The City Explodes to Life

Riding a Scooter Like a BossThe next morning I woke up to the sounds of horns. I didn’t know what to make of it, last I knew I was in the suburbs where city noises didn’t exist. Nothing could have been farther from the truth, as I discovered when I pulled open the frosted glass pane covering my only window. Outside I saw a stream of scooters flowing past, going around the distant roundabout, the way water goes around a bend in the river.

I quickly dressed, stuffed my wallet into the back pocket of my shorts, and came down the steep narrow staircase. Giving a brief nod to the woman sitting behind the counter, I went onto the street and stood transfixed. I had never seen anything in my life that could prepare me for this. Dozens of rainbow colored scooters driving past every minute. Loud ones, quiet ones, new ones, ancient ones. Some scooters drove past with a single driver, some had four people on them.

It took me a minute to overcome the initial culture shock, and it took me longer than a minute to walk to the end of the block and wait for the crosswalk indicator to turn green. On my first day in Hanoi I still had a lot to learn about crossing the road in Asia. Walking down a street vertical to the one I had just crossed, I soon found out the real meaning of traffic. Where on the other street there had been dozens of scooters zipping past every minute, here there were hundreds. Nor were there any breaks in traffic. I saw the popular Hanoi lake across this seemingly insurmountable street, and I knew that I needed to get across.

How though?

Scooter Traffic on the Streets of HanoiThere were no crosswalks, nor any breaks in the traffic. The scooters came in merciless onslaughts, leaving no room for pedestrians to run across even if they wanted to. I leaned against a tree, equal parts frustrated and amazed, before I began to sense the solution. I started seeing local people wade fearlessly into the river of scooters without batting an eye. When they did this, instead of getting gored by plastic fenders and brake levers, the scooters moved around them the way water in a fast river moves around a large rock.

I needed to see a few people try this before I worked up the courage to do it myself. I’ve been conditioned my whole life to wait for a break in traffic before I ran across the street, and it was terribly difficult to overcome a lifetime of training.

After making a series of half-assed attempts, I decided to take Tyler Durden’s advice, gave up on everything, and pushed my way out into the fray. The scooters parted ways, and with an exhilarating feeling I made it across the street. The experience was burned into my memory, and it’s something that I think I’ll tell my kids about one day. Later on I recorded a video of me crossing that same street at night, and you can watch it here.

Although I now had the skills I needed to cross the street, I was still alone in a foreign country, and I didn’t know anyone on the entire continent. At first this was exciting, and I reveled in the new experience of being completely alone. After a few days I had had enough of the slow days and boring nights, and I knew it was time to make a change.

What’s the Right Decision?

I had been walking around in the crowded nightlife of Hanoi for nearly and hour, and there was only one place left in the city that I still wanted to visit. It was a modern looking club with loud house music leaking onto the street, and I had just walked thirty feet past it.581869_10151545596094131_2135034605_n The rest of the night had held little excitement. After the initial wonder of the crowded streets and jammed bars wore off, I’d decided that tonight wasn’t meant to be and I’d started walking home. The problem I now faced was an intense inner battle between the side of me that loves adventure and new things, and my lethargic brain that wants to sit in an air conditioned room and watch Netflix.

Standing thirty feet past the club I felt lost in turmoil. I knew that if I went back to my room I would regret it almost instantly, but in the moment my feet felt rooted to the ground and I wasn’t prepared to turn around and dive back into the lights and crescendoing music. I took out my phone and looked at it lamely, then put it back into my pocket when it didn’t provide any relief. If something is scary, is that a reason not to do it? I pondered this a moment, thought about the words of Tyler, and then decided that I had little choice. Back to the music, back to the lights, walk back towards the laughter and the singing. If you feel self conscious, that’s nothing a beer can’t take care of.

Going to the Club

The first thing I did was order a beer. A Tiger, the national beer of Vietnam for all I’m concerned. I drank a third of it down before I looked around. The club was conspicuously trendy. It had recently been renovated, and there was a live DJ who looked like he was young enough to still grounded. The lights were flashing the types of colors you tend to see on acid. Walking the length of the bar, selling liquor, were the two most beautiful Vietnamese girls I’ve ever seen. Dragging my eyes off of them, I turned to my left and introduced myself to the only other non-Vietnamese person in the bar. That’s how I met Joe.

He was several inches shorter than my six feet, and had the first traces of wrinkles on his forehead, and around his mouth. On top was a forest of dirty blonde hair that went well with his Aussie accent. Joe gave me a firm handshake and I liked him immediately.

“So what are you doing in Vietnam?” I asked.

“I work in a bank in Saigon and I’m in Hanoi for a week to chill out. Sort of a vacation.”

“That’s cool. How do you know about this club, is it your first time here?”

Joe took a pull of his Marlboro Light before answering with a smile. “Nah it’s not my first time here, I know about this place because I own it.”

“No shit.” I said with a grin. “Cheers!”

Thanks to Joe’s easy generosity, my first drink was the last night drink that I paid for. The night progressed, the rum and cokes went down easy, and my tongue got looser. An hour later if you had stumbled into this bar you would have seen me and Joe, smoking hookah at a table with the two gorgeous girls, surrounded by a sea of young Vietnamese party goers. At the height of relaxation and enjoyment I could do little but thank myself for making the right decision, turning around, and going back into the trenches.

It wasn’t an easy decision in the moment, but it turned out to be the one that set the tune for the entire five month trip to come. When in doubt, don’t let the fear take over. Go back and do what’s right. I thought about this as I schmoozed out of the club, lazily walking the two blocks back to my hostel.

Paying for My Sins

The next two days I spent in bed, my health shattered like a wine glass on tile. The night before was the first time I had drank in two and a half months. My body quickly rebelled, and I had plenty of time to think about Joe’s bar as I lay in my air conditioned room. I certainly didn’t regret the evening, but I did learn that if I’m going to go sober for a while, I should ease back into the hedonism.

A Beautiful Shot of the Ho Chi Minh Temple in VietnamAfter three days I was better, and I felt good enough to get out of the hostel and explore Hanoi. I saw Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, the oldest Buddhist temple in Vietnam, and the Vietnam War museum, decorated with all sorts of relics left behind by my countryman.

Hanoi turned out to be a beautiful city and I enjoyed my two weeks there. Later on it would be my tendency to embrace the unknown, and fight against my natural inclination to stay in that would give me some of my best memories from my months in Asia.

Hanoi? What a City!

Traffic Jam in HanoiI arrived at the Hanoi airport sometime around midnight. By the time I paid my $45 for a Visa, cleared customs, and made it to my hostel in a taxi, it was about 1 am. Looking out the window I lamented the location. I was depressed because the empty roads and deserted streets seemed to indicate that I was in an unpopular part of town. So naive, so young. That was a week ago and it’s the last time I’ve known tranquility in Vietnam.

Hanoi makes New York City look like a Buddhist retreat town during the off season.

What’s been most shocking to me are the scooters. They’re everywhere. The road, the sidewalk, inside restaurants, outside of restaurants, outside of my hostel, inside of my hostel. If it’s physically possible, a scooter can and will occupy a space at some point. They’re the universal powerhouse of the city. I’ve seen people carrying hundreds of beer bottles, trees, dozens of gallons of water, and entire families on a single scooter. It’s humbling really.

The Attitude Towards Tourists

Scooter Traffic on the Streets of HanoiUnlike Ukraine, I can’t blend in here by just keeping my mouth shut. Anywhere I go it’s obvious I don’t belong. As far as I can tell though, most people don’t seem to care. I don’t catch people staring at me or even treating me any different. I’m as likely to die in a scooter related accident as anyone else. That attitude goes further too. I took a taxi ride on the back of a scooter and the driver ripped me off for 50,000 Dong! Of course, losing $2.50 is no biggie and I’m coping with it fairly well.

I definitely feel like I could stay in Vietnam a while. Despite the taxi guy, and some lady selling bread who I’m pretty sure charged me triple the non-tourist rate, I feel very welcome. Everyone seems nice and very friendly. The other day I was sitting in a park and staring at a church. A 16 year old kid named Sunh approached me and we talked for 15 minutes. That may be the first time something like that’s ever happened to me in my life, and I thought it was awfully neat.

The Food

A night picture of the city view cafe in HanoiI eat out every single night, and never in the same place. Hanoi is a city of restaurants and the food is awesome. However, it’s been difficult for me to figure out what the hell to order. For instance, I tried to order eel today. The waiter looked confused, and then he went to get the English speaking manager. She explained that they only sold whole eels. Fresh, whole eels, and that surely it would be too much for me. I agreed, and ended up ordering two fish that stacked together would the size of a smartphone.

One of my favorite dishes here isn’t a dish at all. It’s a treat called brown coffee. It’s basically fresh brewed coffee sweetened with condensed milk and other mystery spices. Freaking delicious. I have trouble only ordering one when I go to the cafe. The fresh smoothies are mind blowing too. I ordered two of them the other day. I felt like a pig but it was worth it. In the coming weeks I look forward to eating at more restaurants, and hopefully figuring out a few dishes that I really like.

Plans for the Future

Famous Temple in Hanoi VietnamI’m staying in Hanoi till next Thursday. I paid for a private room in a hostel which has been nice. However, it’s proven difficult to meet people to hang out with. Unlike other countries, I found very few Couchsurfing events, and my hostel doesn’t have a common area where people hang out. So at my next hostel I made sure to book accommodations in the dorm. That means it will be harder to sleep but easier to meet people. I’m really looking forward to it though because my hostel is 2 minutes from the beach. I love to swim and I plan to take advantage of it.

When I touched down in Hanoi I had no plan. Now, after a week I’ve begun to formulate some ideas. Next week is the beach town of Da Nang. Then after, the beach town of Nha Trang. Then I’ll hit Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). However, what I’m really aiming for is Phu Quoc Island. This remote piece of real estate is mostly a national park, which means I’m expecting to find some awesome, untamed beaches there. There’s also rumors of motorbiking up through the park. If I have the chance to rent a dirt bike and ride it through a national park, I don’t care how much it costs I’ll pay it.

While that’s the skeleton of the plan, the plan lacks timing. If I like a place, I’ll stay. If I’ve seen enough, I’ll move on. Working online provides me with this lifestyle. Even though I’ve been out enjoying the city, I’ve also been working my ass off. In the last week I’ve written 10 articles and I’ve gotten about $250 for my efforts. I’ve also found myself getting a bunch of repeat customers. The more I write, the better I get, the more people want to hire me. It’s a high coffee lifestyle, but it allows me the freedom to more or less do whatever I want.

If you want to find out how you can work online and travel the world, check out my introductory post: how to make money online.