My fascination with Vietnam began in the 1990s when my dinner table conversation would be laced with stories of the Vietnam wars. Growing up in a Bengali Communist household, I grew up on stories of the brave Vietnamese people and their fight for freedom. The fascination continued all through my childhood and into adolescence, with my love for collecting stamps, and my growing thirst to read up about the political scenario of Vietnam.
Presently, Vietnam is a fantastic country to travel to, with excellent transportation, great food, and a set of wonderful places to visit. I made my Vietnam travel plans keeping in mind that I had a limited amount of time to travel to both Vietnam and Cambodia, something I had been meaning to do for a long time. I ended up staying for about a week in Vietnam, and I intend to return there, and visit more places.
My Journey to Hanoi from Kolkata
Buying Tickets and Making a Plan
I chose to go to Hanoi first, after contemplating for a while – I intended to enter Cambodia from Ho Chi Minh City, so it was much easier for me to book a flight from Kolkata to Hanoi with a transit stopover at Thailand. It cost me roughly 9000/- for my journey to Hanoi (about 6000/- for my trip to Thailand, and another 4000/- for a flight to Hanoi). After a lot of consideration, I picked Jetstar Airways for my transit from Bangkok to Hanoi.
Now, one important thing: If you want to go for a transit via Thailand, please get a Transit Visa from the Thai Embassy. It cost me about INR 3200/- plus service charge to get a double entry Thai Visa, but if you want you can always get a transit Visa on arrival. Just try and get the Visa done as soon as possible, and for that, refer to my Krabi Post . This post is also super-helpful if you want to chill in Thailand for a few days.
I landed in Bangkok at around 4.10 am, and was out of immigration and all the hoopla by 4.40 am. One thing – in Thailand, at least in the airports, in March 2017, THE MONEY EXCHANGES ARE NOT ACCEPTING INDIAN CURRENCY. I was carrying roughly INR 40000/- (a little over $570) in cash, and I was stranded in the airport WITHOUT and usable money. I quickly planned and used an ATM to take out 2000 Baht, but it cost me about INR 300/- as service charge, and that sucked. I ended up sulking and made up by walking around Suvarnabhumi Airport for a couple of hours until it was daylight, then took a cab to Khao San Road, and got a fix of coffee and some food there, and also convert some INR into USD around 8 am. I got a moneychanger to convert the cash, who gave me decent exchange rates as well. Here, please don’t go for the first moneychanger you see. Look around, you would see rates are different, and check the one which best fits your needs. For example, I got INR converted to Baht from one moneychanger, and then went and converted Baht to USD from another because he was giving a better exchange rate.
I returned around 12 pm to Suvarnabhumi Airport and quickly checked in because my flight was at 2.25 pm. At Check-in I was asked by the lady if I had a VIETNAM Visa Acceptance letter, and I did, so it was a breeze to get through that and security. I requested for a window seat and got one, so the entire process took me only about 10 minutes or so. Once I had finished checking in and clearing security, and moved towards the boarding of Suvarnabhumi International airport, I found an ATM which dispensed dollars, so I picked up some more (just in case), because at Vietnam and Cambodia, dollar was going to be the preferred exchange medium.
The two-hour plus flight to Vietnam was relatively unremarkable – you would have to pay to get water in the flight, so I suggest buying water BEFORE getting on the flight, since the price of water was $2 for a bottle (which I felt was pretty outrageous, given the fact that a meal was $3), and I thankfully had the good sense to buy a bottle of water right after I entered the international airport, which cost me about 15 or 20 Baht. I wasn’t too hungry because I’d eaten a lot of food at Khao San, and put my eye mask on as soon as I boarded and snoozed my way into Vietnam.
The addition of a Visa approval letter doesn’t help make things quick when you go – the quickest way of getting things done is to run to the Visa counter, get yourself an “On Arrival” form as soon as possible, and join the line. Start filling up your form while in the line. You would also need the following along with your filled up form:
1 – Your passport with 6 months of remaining validity
2 – Two passport size photos (4 cm x 6 cm)
3 – 25 USD for stamping fee at Vietnam airport (in cash)
Once you provide all details to the counter, you then wait for your turn. You would see names and passport photo flashing on the large screen on top of the counter – wait for your turn. It took me about 20 minutes’ wait to get my passport back, and I paid $25 to the lady at the counter who quickly gave me my stamped passport back along with a receipt.
Going to my Hotel from Noi Bai Airport
I got out of the airport and a host of cab drivers surrounded me almost immediately. Now, this is the thing: In Hanoi, you don’t have a lot of reliable taxi services, so it is a good idea to ask your hotel to pick you up from the airport. Any price under $15 is acceptable, you can negotiate for less too. The airport is roughly an hour’s drive from the Old Quarters, where I was staying, so it is probably okay to pay the amount for convenience’s sake. If you really want a good cab service, I have seen that Mia Linh cabs are good, but you should always clarify with them about going via meter, and keep Google Maps open (make it offline) to see where the cab is headed. I ended up splitting my cab fare with a guy from Netherlands, who spoke to me at length about the way he was travelling around South East Asia and would be in Japan at the end of March, and of course, I was fascinated. We ended up paying more than what we were thinking of paying, but the man did drop us at our hotels, so we were quite satisfied paying $10 each.
Hanoi Graceful Hotel
While picking hotels, especially to one I have not been to before, I tend to read a lot of reviews online, checking what people are saying about the location, the rooms, the service, etc. Based on all these factors, I booked Hanoi Graceful Hotel, located at 21 Hang Phen, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi, Vietnam, which fit my budget perfectly.
Now, the reason why I picked Hanoi Graceful Hotel was simple – after reading through the numerous reviews, I saw that most commented on the service, the excellent breakfast they had, and the rooms, which were clean, cozy and comfortable. I honestly wasn’t expecting much from them, but the hotel ended up being a favorite, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to visit Hanoi, because of its convenient location (quite close to the famous Night Markets, but in a slightly quiet area), peaceful and quiet ambiance, and the fact that it was close to a couple of ATMs, the very famous Hoan Kiem Lake, and a few really good food stops (one being right opposite).
Also, they were super nice when it came to catering to my needs, and not only booked me a cab at 6.30 am on the day of my flight to Ho Chi Minh City (which was supposed to take off at 8.45 am), but also packed me a simple breakfast of bread, cheese, butter, jam, and sweetened milk. I have to admit – the bread was plain white bread, and I have never had anything like that after Vietnam. The baguette at Hanoi was also something I could sing paeans about – soft, milky, beautiful in one word.
After I had checked in, the lady at the reception (I think her name was Moon) provided me with a map of Hanoi (which proved to be of immense help, I kid you not), a sheet which discussed how to shop at the Night market, and she also gave me change for a $20 which was converted into 440000 VND. As I had landed there on a Friday, the night markets were bustling after 7 pm, and these markets stay open till 11-12 pm., with plenty of options to eat, shop, or just plain browse.
Here are some tips while buying at the Night Market in Hanoi:
- ALWAYS bargain, until and unless you see a fixed price shop. At fixed price shops, you can bargain down something if you are buying more than 2 pieces.
- If you are not interested, don’t make eye contact with the people in the shops. Eye contacts generally indicate your interest.
- Bargaining in VND is always better than in dollars.
- I bargained down a couple of things for about 50% of its price, so start really low (For example, if someone says 100,000 VND, start with 30,000, or if they say $5, you say $2. Eventually you’ll settle somewhere in the middle, depending on your bargaining skills and the willingness of the seller to sell the product).
- Do not be rude or unpleasant. I realized that the best hagglers were those who would smile and flirt and be nice – niceness gets you a lot of free stuff as well. As I was a female solo traveler, I got a lot of things just by being nice – like the free coconut ice cream from this one seller, or an extra pair of chopsticks from this lady who “liked my smile”.
I would say that apart from Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi, I really didn’t get the chance to see a lot of the city, except walking around the Old Quarters, for which, I feel quite sad. Maybe next time I’m there, I’ll go see more sights. Here’s a video to help you check out what you can do in Hanoi when you have some time in your hand.