I had my doubts about the 24-hour bus journey from Vientiane to Hanoi, and was even looking at flights at some point. However, when the flight was 140 USD and the bus 18 USD, then what do you do? In my case, obviously jump on the bus!
When I boarded my bus, I noticed that I seemed to be the only western passenger. Not that I have anything against travelling with Asians only (I can handle their cheesy music videos), I was just surprised that it wasn't the usual backpackers' bus. I didn't think much of it at that point, and the journey began just like any journey so far, my only worry being that I didn't have any reading material apart from the painfully boring vampire book Twilight.
I was slightly worried about the border crossing as I didn't have a visa. I had read from the internet that Finnish citizens don't need visa for trips less than 15 days, but as Vietnam is notoriously strict with visas I was a bit nervous all the same.
When we got to the border, I didn't realize we had arrived as there was nothing in sight. I had been asleep and when I woke up the bus was almost empty. There were a couple of Vietnamese guys outside and when I tried to ask them what was going on, turned out nobody spoke any English. Fair enough, we were in Vietnam after all, but these people were just awfully rude. No matter how polite and friendly I tried to be, they didn't give a damn. More people came along, and amazingly enough, all the others were just as horrible! I have never ever met people with such manners. And this is not a language barrier I'm talking about here, as I know for a fact that it is always possible to make yourself understood way or another as long as someone is willing to listen. It was a pretty helpless feeling to be there in the middle of nowhere, not knowing what to do, not knowing the language, surrounded by people who couldn't care less if you were dumped there on the side of the road.
Somebody eventually came who spoke enough English to angrily tell me to walk to the office (where the hell that was, I had no idea). I asked if the bus was gonna stay where it was and he said yes, the bus was gonna stay right there.
After finally getting my passport stamped - fortunately with no problems - I was going to return to the bus. Only the bus was nowhere to be seen. I finally found someone whom I recognised and asked where it was, but the only answer I could get was "Bus go to Vietnam", but I couldn't get anything more out of him, just an unpatient wave of his hand towards the fog and the mist somewhere there in direction of Vietnam. Everyone I tried to talk to made it very clear they had no interest whatsoever listen to me or try to help, either they were plain rude or they were laughing at my face.
I started to get really pissed off at this point. I lost my temper for a bit, but as everyone knows (especially children) the worst thing that can happen when you're throwing a tantrum is people laughing at you, so my outburst only left me raging even more. I had all my bags in the bus and I was desperate to get to them. I finally found a person who was willing to talk, but the only thing he said was "Go to Vietnam!", pointing into the fog. There was not much else to do then - I followed some people into the fog and after 10 minutes walk arrived to another building for more check-ups. On the way a car passed by with some of the rude men I had talked to earlier hanging out from the windows, laughing and pointing at me screaming something that I don't want to know. Somehow I resisted the childish urge to give them the finger. It was freezing cold and it started to rain. I found my bags next to another bus, abandoned on the wet ground. Then it was more queueing, more stamps, more fees, more rude people and a long wait in the rain before the Hanoi-bound bus appeared.
I was so relieved to finally be on the bus, succesfully in Vietnam and most importantly with all my bags. From then on it was just a long, long drive with occasional stops at disgusting toilets. After almost two whole days of not eating I was starting to get really hungry towards the evening, and the only thing I could think about was food. I was imagining doing grocery shopping in a huge supermarket and what all the things I would buy. I couldn't wait to get to Hanoi and EAT! The starvation had been worth it though, as I didn't feel sick anymore.
When I finally did arrive to Hanoi 26 hours after leaving Vientiane, it was already pitch black, and as I got off the bus I was immediately surrounded by a bunch of drivers screaming "Taxi!" or "Moto'bike!". At least a few different ones of them were already carrying my bags to their vehicles. I was so exhausted and I had no energy left for these hawks, I was hungry and dizzy and all I wanted to do was to crawl into my dorm bed and cry. That was, if I could find my hostel first. I wasn't getting anywhere with my negotiating of the price, they all wanted 10 dollars, but as I had no clue where I was in Hanoi and how far away my hostel was I couldn't know if I was being ripped off (well, that much was obvious). Finally I left them all there screaming after me and found a cab from the street for 5 dollars. The driver spent the whole journey whining "Six dollars, madam, please madam, you give six dollars". I had a little tiny amount of patience left, so I decided to completely ignore him.
My hostel Hanoi Backpackers turned out to be excellent. The dorm was really comfortable with spacious lockers and en-suite bathroom, and best of all, proper duvets! It was almost 9pm and I was starving, so when a girl at my dorm said she had had a good meal in an Italian restaurant just round the corner, I ran straight there, ordered a tomato bruschetta and lasagna, and for the first time in days (weeks?) had a meal and felt totally fine afterwards. I clearly had healed just in time for my Vietnam adventure.
The next day had a wonderful start when I found out that my hostel had the first burning hot shower I had experienced since my parents' hotel in Krabi. Then it was time to explore Hanoi. Well, if I had found Bangkok very normal and organized and easy to navigate - and therefore not that exotic - then Hanoi was exotic all right! It was sheer madness! After I had walked to the Hoan Kiem lake and found a bank with a good enough exchange rate to get rid of my US dollars (I'm obsessed with the rates and I WILL walk around until I find something close to the official one), I was already exhausted. I felt like I needed to consult my map every few minutes, but taking out a map was the perfect invitation for the Vietnamese to surround me, trying to sell anything or offer a motorbike or cyclo ride.
I visited the Ngoc Son temple, one of the most photographed spots in Hanoi, that is situated on an island in Hoan Kiem lake. After that I was done for the day! It's the chaotic traffic that tired me, the constant stream of motorbikes that never stops, and having a near-death experience every ten minutes. One would think one would be safe walking on the pedestrian street, but no, they seem to merely be there for the Vietnamese to build their motorbike workshops on. And of course when they can't fit any more motorbikes on the road, it's perfectly fine to drive on the sidewalk. Just to honk some horn to give a little warning!
Vietnamese people also seem to be carrying anything on their bikes. I saw one man with a massive mattress hanging from the back of his bike, and another navigating the impossible traffic with a tiny baby - the baby sitting on a highchair! Yes, he had attached a highchair to his motorbike! Some people are casually texting as they go - as if they wouldn't be almost destined to die in the traffic even if they paid their best attention. I saw a couple of crashes, but instead of people yelling at each other and figuring out whose fault it was, they just shrug their shoulders, get back on their bikes and move on. I took motorbike taxi once, only because it was getting late and I needed to check out from my hostel. It was hardly enjoyable, but after hanging onto my dear life I was delivered home safe and sound (and cheap).
I did a fair bit of sightseeing in Hanoi, mainly because the admission fees are really low, often just 5000 dong (that would be approx 20 cents in euros). I mostly walked everywhere - in a city like Hanoi it takes some effort and lots of patience, but with a good pair of trainers and a couple of maps it's doable. I went to the Temple of Literature, which was pretty, but pretty boring too if you ask my opinion.
The most interesting sight in Hanoi for me was Hoa Lo Prison Museum, better known as Hanoi Hilton. It was possible to take a look at the shocking cells where the prisoners were kept, the guillotine and numerous items that belonged to the prisoners from their toothbrushes to their cigarette packs and clothes. The pictures didn't turn out good though cause it was so dark in there. One of the most famous ex-prisoners include John McCain.
Unlike in Thailand and Laos, in Hanoi I didn't experiment with street food. Let's just say that the sickening smell coming from their pots did little to my appetite... So it's a little wonder that somewhere along the way (starting in Laos) my budget's gone out of the window. And to think that when I started my trip I was carefully writing down everything I spent money on, and would've never stepped inside a real restaurant! I used to get upset if my meal cost 60 baht instead of 30 baht, and would walk around town trying to find the cheapest bottle of water. I must say that I can be very good at being on budget when I set my mind into it, but I suppose the moment comes for even the most budget conscious traveller when they just have to let it go a little bit. In my case, I went from getting upset if I had to spend a whole euro on meal to finding myself holding a 5 dollar jar of Nutella in a Vietnamese supermarket, with an obvious intention to buy it. Before reaching the till some voice of sense was screaming in my head CHUCK THE NUTELLA! NOW! (I now know that I did wait until Australia before getting some Nutella. And then some.)
On my last day in Hanoi I went to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, where Vietnam's much-loved late president's corpse lies for all the world to see. Apparently Ho Chi Minh himself wanted to get cremated but well that didn't happen. One Vietnamese man explained that the Vietnamese loved him so much that they didn't want to let him go, instead they wanted to keep a part of him there. Weird!
It was a rather bizarre place. They let in small groups of people at time, and once you're in it's all over in five minutes. Visitors can walk around his corpse and it's strictly prohibited to lift your arms above your waist. There's lots of guards keeping a watchful eye over the people.
The mausoleum complex is well worth visiting though, as there's lots of things to see. I didn't have much time over there as I was in a hurry to get back to my hostel to check out, but I did take a little walk around. The area is quite pretty and there is lots of places to visit such as the Presidential Palace and Ho Chi Minh Museum.
I enjoyed Hanoi, even if the weather was freezing cold. When I left from Finland I thought I had packed too many warm clothes, but since Pai it's been clear that I should've packed more! In Hanoi I had to layer on all the jumpers with long sleeves and put on a scarf and a hat. Before I had been gutted that I didn't have enough time to visit Sapa, supposedly amazingly beautiful town in the north, but after experiencing the cold in Hanoi I was actually glad I wasn't going to brave the freezing temperatures over there.
I was still regretting that I had so little time in Vietnam. It was obvious from day one that this country was going to be so interesting and not a place I would like to rush through!