My theory is that as long as I have my passport and some money, I can figure the rest out. For my slightly more prepared and detail-oriented travel companions, this lackadaisical approach is maddening. And although I think disastrous changes of plan and getting lost in a foreign city are undervalued opportunities, I will admit there are a few mistakes I made in Hanoi this past weekend that I wish I hadn’t made. So draw wisdom from my errors and go forth!
#1 With the exception of the words ‘Thank You’, English isn’t even sort of prevalent. Before you damn me as an unreasonable tourist demanding that the world speak American, let me say that in a number of other Southeast Asian countries (Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand, to name a few) English actually is fairly widespread. Menu items had columns of English translations; the locals spoke enough English for a simple conversation and sometimes even a more involved one; even some street signs were readable. Vietnam, however, makes you work a little harder. Outside of national monuments and tourist hubs, you’re going to need to buckle up and use a phrase book. Or work on your charades.
#2 May isn’t the best month to visit Hanoi. When it wasn’t raining, it was scorchingly sunny. When I remembered my umbrella, it wasn’t the worst (could always be monsoon season) but it also wasn’t ideal for traipsing around outdoors. Our guide for our day trip to Ha Long Bay suggested September or October instead.
#3 You need a map. Hell, we used three maps: the one the hotel gave us, a printout from Google maps, and the offline map of the city downloaded onto my phone. And we still got turned around at a couple of Hanoi’s monster intersections. Not that I don’t love getting lost in new places but…
#4 The city’s most popular sites have oddly specific hours and you’ll want to arrive early. Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum is only open in the mornings and on Sundays it is MOBBED. Also you will be denied access if you’re wearing shorts. Because my pasty white thighs were really going to offend the dead guy.
#5 Bug spray. Use all the bug spray. Hanoi isn’t called the City of Lakes for nothing, and where there are lakes, there are mosquitoes.
Regardless of my missteps, I have to say I fell in love with Hanoi’s easy blend of the traditional and the modern. I loved its delicate, old French architecture and especially adored the food. And now that I’ve learned some lessons the hard way, I’m looking forward to a much smoother trip on my next visit.