Since I'm currently working at a university in China, I get the Chinese New Year off! That's SIX WEEKS of holiday time. I'll take it :) Being already in the Eastern hemisphere, and with so much time to kill, my roommate and I decided to take a month and visit some sights in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Enjoy the seventh installment of that decision involving Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi, the largest cities in Vietnam:
Ho Chi Minh (or Saigon)
So we had decided to fly into Ho Chi Minh City from Phnom Penh. The tiniest of flights, only about 30 minutes, but it seemed easier with visa things. However, I ended up arriving in Vietnam all by myself. OMG WHERE IS EMILY? Don't fret. You see, in order for us to receive a visa on arrival, we needed this letter from certain certified travel agencies saying we were legit. This letter has our information, and planned arrival/departure dates etc. Well, somehow someway Emily's letter had our planned departure date as the arrival date. Therefore, when we got to the airport on February 9 expecting to enter Vietnam she actually wasn't cleared to enter until the 19th. Whoops.
Long story short, I continued on our original flight and she met up with me a couple days later with a legitimate visa in her passport (you'd have to ask her for that story) and all was dandy.
Before that though, I had a couple days by myself. First, I took a cab from the airport to a Couchsurfing host named Sam's place. Well, I did not do as I should have and looked up the location of Sam's place beforehand. It was waaaaay outside the city. And since it was Vietnam's Tet holiday (a new year celebration I believe) there weren't many locals around in the neighborhood and hardly any shops open. Additionally, Sam's is more of a large free dorm than a true Couchsurfing experience. Which is very nice of him, but both of these details meant it wasn't ideal for seeing the city or meeting back up with Emily.
So the next day my new friend Florine from Germany and I braved the public buses to try and make it closer to the city center and find a place there. Another Couchsurfer directed us to the closest bus stop, and from there the driver made sure we transferred to the bus we needed when I showed him on a map where we trying to go. Since he spoke no English and we spoke no Vietnamese, he did this by stopping, pointing to a bus coming down the adjacent street, and ushering us to go quickly. So we jogged across the median (with our full packs on) and jumped on bus #2 as it paused for a millisecond to let us on then shot off on its route as our full packs caused us to bounce around in the back an excessive amount. Some nice Vietnamese people took pity on us and gave us their seat (laughing at our inability to stand).
We made it to Phạm Ngũ Lão street, known to backpackers for its plethora of hostels and all of the shops and bars that seem to accompany areas that are known to backpackers. We found a place, and spent the afternoon and evening walking around the city. A lot was closed due to the holiday though, so we didn't see too much. I'd advise exploring sometime not during this holiday. I definitely don't feel like I truly experienced all that Ho Chi Minh has to offer.
The next day I met up with an exhausted Emily, and instead of going to the war museum (we should have, if you go you should) we napped all afternoon and wandered around the shops in the backpacker area all evening. Sometimes we do really great at experiencing the essence of a new place. This time, we did not. C'est la vie.
The day after I was reunited with Emily we flew north to Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. We got in around 2:00 am, but we had let our hostel (Hanoi Youth Hostel, $5 a night, free breakfast, very kind lady who runs it, in the old quarter) know in advance and it was no problem. If you're going to be checking in at a weird time always give your place a heads up.
We spent a day walking around the old quarter and Hồ Hoàn Kiếm lake in the historical center of Hanoi trying street foods and people watching. It was beautiful and pleasant. I wish we'd had more time to spend in the city, but in order to experience as much of Vietnam as we could we booked two tours to Ha Long Bay and Sa Pa that would fill the rest of our short time remaining.