It’s common sense to run proper research before travelling outside of the country, especially for first-time travellers.
Unfortunately, I was not a man with much common sense.
This is what happened. In 2011, I was but a wee boy who has never stepped outside of Malaysian soil. Heck, even in Petaling Jaya there was practically only one place other than my house that I was familiar with — BookXcess at Amcorp Mall where I bought a copy of The Alchemist.
So, when my dear friend, Michelle, asked if I would like to tag along with her to Vietnam, I immediately exclaimed an over-enthusiastic “Yes”
I booked the flight, packed all travel essentials including The Alchemist, and glanced through two pages of Wikipedia about Hanoi. I mean, how different can it be? It’s just another Southeast Asian country. Same weather, same street food, same bad drivers.
I couldn’t be more wrong.
So … Hanoi has winter
I agreed to join Michelle and her friends halfway through her trip, which meant I had to fly to Vietnam by myself. I arrived at Ho Chi Minh’s Tan Son Nhat International Airport and waited for the connecting flight to Hanoi.
While waiting, I watched a Spanish soap opera dubbed in Vietnamese. Despite its diverse cast members, the show was only dubbed by one monotonous male voice. It got more bizarre when a cartoon show was also dubbed by a single voice. Don’t get me started on the Hindi film that played next.
After six hours, I boarded the flight to Hanoi. It was already dark by the time I landed in the city. Since I didn’t book any hotel because of poor research, I camped at the airport till morning.
Then the strangest thing happened. I started feeling chilly. So I went to the restroom and put on another layer of shirt. Still cold. So I put on another layer, and another. I ended up wearing my entire luggage beneath my sweater.
So, there I was — cold, homeless, and lonely. (Well, the lonely part wasn’t anything new.)
When the sun rises, I took the first taxi to Hanoi. Without research, I might have paid more than I should for all I know, but I just wanted to get to my friends.
I exchanged all of my money at the airport
I didn’t know where Michelle and friends were. I didn’t have a smartphone. So, I asked the taxi driver to drop me off at the nearest hotel because I just wanted a warm bath. I bought a loaf of bread, got a room, and took a shower while eating the bread. Bread had never tasted so good.
I came out of the shower recharged and ready to take on the world. One problem though, I had no idea where to go. So I hopped on a motorcycle taxi to … somewhere. I was aimless.
But by God’s grace and the power of the universe, I managed to find Michelle and friends amid the sea of people!
I was finally in the company of people whom I love, and loved me back. What else can a heart of a man desire?
Until … I talked to Michelle.
You see, I was supposed to bring some USDs from Malaysia and hand them to Michelle in Hanoi. But being the noob that I was, I exchanged all the greenbacks Vietnamese Dong at the airport in Hanoi. That was a bad idea because: 1) Exchange rate at airports are horrible and 2) USD is accepted in Vietnam.
“Why did you do that? You are not even my husband yet,” Michelle exclaimed.
What a specific thing to say when one is angry. Luckily I’ve mastered the art of dealing with an angry person when I’m in the wrong, and I learned this by being a son to my mother, which is … to stay quiet. And quiet I was, for the rest of the trip.
Hanoi: The Penang of Vietnam
It wasn’t hard to keep quiet because Hanoi was a marvel to watch. Partially because it was my first trip outside of Malaysia (or Petaling Jaya, for that matter), partially because of the winter experience, and partially because there were so many beautiful girls all over the city. There were beautiful guys too, I just didn’t pay as much attention.
It was 10° Celsius, enough to make me shiver for five days straight even after buying a USD15 winter jacket. It was still kind of cool when smoke came out of my mouth when I talked. Just like in the movies.
Michelle bought me a legging to help me with the cold. Which. Was. The. Best. Thing. Ever. Guys out there, you may want to try it the next time you go to a cold country. Although leggings usually don’t have enough compartment for male crotch structure, we make do.
There was a lot of warmth, too, looking at the people huddling together. Families and friends sat by the roadside of restaurants, eating peanuts. Children were everywhere.
The traffic was unlike anything I had ever seen. Motorbikes ride in waves like a trail of ants. Taxis stop in the middle of the road to drop off passengers. It was chaos, but a controlled one.
Due to my tendency to zone out, I even hit a motorbike while walking. To which the motorcyclist responded with “Ey”, and left. Just like my dad (kidding).
The food was great! Especially the street food. Since most “proper” restaurants catered to international palate, I couldn’t trust the chillies rating system on their menus.
Our three Chinese friends ate everything Hanoi had to offer and drank cheap beers to their belly content. I, on the other hand, don’t eat pork while our Indian friend doesn’t eat beef; alcohol is out of the question, too.
So take a guess, what kind eatery finally united all of us together, under one Malaysian flag? A seafood place.
The gruelling trail of Sapa village
We did many things in Hanoi, but my favourite was the trip to Sapa village. Thanks to Michelle the Queen of Dragons, the Planner of Things, and the Keeper of USDs, all itinerary and bookings were made in advance.
We took an overnight train to Sapa. Throughout the eight-hour journey, I had to sleep in a separate cabin from my friends. A passenger stole my blanket, and another stranger covered me in another blanket, perhaps after seeing my violent shivers.
When we arrived in Sapa, the temperature dropped as low as 1°-2° Celsius. Water was coming out of my eyes, mouth and ears.
The locals were warm. A bunch of people from the Hmong community welcomed and guided us throughout the way. I was particularly impressed by our 12-year-old guide who spoke English very well. Asked about her dream, the spritely girl said: “I want to travel the world”.
Despite the cold weather, muddy terrain, and slight drizzle that further lowered the temperatures,; the sights took my breath away. We passed by mountains and farms — pigs casually strolling around the village, and thin vacant houses that looked straight out of a Tim Burton film.
We finally reached our homestay owned by a villager. The fireplace inside the house was lit for warmth and to dry shoes and clothes, just like how our parents used to do.
I remember feeling so cold that Michelle covered me with three huge blankets. They were so heavy I had a sore when I woke up.
On the way back, I gave my copy of The Alchemist to our 12-year-old tour guide.
Back to civilisation
We went back to Hanoi for much-needed relaxation. We probably did a few things, like going to Halong Bay and watching a play.
The most impactful moment for me was getting myself immersed in the whole culture. The locals seemed busy trying to earn a living. Yet, I could still feel a sense of community and how people were close to each other, pretty much like Malaysia’s Penang or Ipoh.
You see, I come from a small kampung in Pahang and the thought of flying outside the country never crossed my mind. But thanks to The Alchemist and Michelle, Hanoi kick-started my interest in travelling and learning about human behaviour on the other side of the world.
I had been to a few other countries ever since where some became my favourite. But Hanoi will always be my first love.
And oh, they say that travelling together is a true test of friendship. And I think my friendship with Michelle grew stronger. I just have to research more if we are to travel together again. Perhaps like, three pages of Wikipedia at least.