After Taiwan, we were very excited to travel to Vietnam, as we both felt like the “real traveling” was about to begin for the first time. I say “real traveling” because all the places we visited before (Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan) were pretty developed and easy to travel in (plus Julie speaks Mandarin, which made it a lot easier). At the same time that we were excited, we also came to Vietnam with our guards up, ready to argue and haggle about anything that was imposed or offered to us. After reading all the “Vietscam” stories online, we especially felt the need to be prepared and avoid being scammed to the max.
We landed at Hanoi International Airport, ready to get our visa on arrival. Having already applied for the visa online via myvietnamvisa.com, we knew exactly what was needed, the exact fee prices and how the whole process should work. It definitely made us feel better and more confident, especially after we saw this group of Spanish travelers trying to pay the USD 45.00 visa fee with four different currencies (Euros, Chinese Yuans, HK Dollars, and Taiwanese Dollars) while the officer was thinking what to do with them. Thankfully everything went smoothly and we got through the border without any problems.
The taxi we asked our hotel to arrange was also there, and soon enough we were driving on the streets of Hanoi. Upon arriving at our hotel, we faced what we thought was the first scam attempt on us. The receptionist asked for our passports and wanted to keep it until we checked out from the hotel two days later, for our first side trip. After some arguing we got him to give the passports back to us after we paid up front for the airport taxi. Though we later learned that this is a common practice in Vietnam, as all hotels are required to report to the police the guests they have for the night and present their documents.
The next morning, we finally had the chance to explore the city. The first impressions of Vietnam was that is was a complete mess, but a living, exciting mess. People cooking on the streets, scooters driving in all possible directions (by the way, there is no such thing as a one-way road here, or even either side of the road) and people constantly yelling at you trying to sell something. I must say it felt different than traveling in any other country we have been to before. It felt real. Maybe it was the adrenaline rush of crossing the roads without getting hit by a scooter or a car, or keeping our guards up expecting someone to come and try to mug us.
The streets were also surprisingly filled with a lot of foreigners, it was almost as easy to see a foreigner as it was to see Vietnamese people. That didn’t happen in any of the previous countries we had been to. It was like travelers had taken over the Old Quarter of Hanoi and it was almost more common to find English signs than in Taiwan or Hong Kong. Every single corner had “travel agents” advertising seemingly the same tours for prices that were too cheap to be real. For example, we could get a 3 night cruise in Ha Long Bay, living in a water bungalow for a mere $60. In what world does that happen? Obviously, as we started digging into the details, we would eventually find that the definitions we had for “cruise” and “water bungalows” were not quite what was offered here.
The atmosphere in the Old Quarter of Hanoi is its own living and breathing animal. There was so much going on, each block was like a mini city. Walking around was a thrilling experience, with constant stimulants coming from every direction. Should we try the banh mi vendor here? What are those children doing over there? Oh watch out, a motorbike is coming from behind you! Did that guy just holler in Chinese to Julie? Don’t step on the pile of hair in front of you…
All in all, our first few days in Vietnam were a stark contrast to all of our travels so far. We anticipated traveling in Vietnam to be a lot more difficult, trying to find reliable information, the real prices of things and watching out for our belongings. However, we were also super excited because with high risk comes high reward. Traveling is all about going to new places, pushing our limits, and overcoming challenges. It’s going to be an unforgettable journey.