My journey to Vietnam: be ready to change your expectations

As soon as we approached Vietnam, we could start seeing Vietnam’s cities. It was my first time in Asia. I also got my first stamp on my passport. The first impression was alright because it did not surprise me. Of course, I was shocked to be there and hear the loud beeping, but I had already imagined the hustle and bustle of being there outside the airport.

 It only started to hit when we got closer to the city centre. I genuinely did not expect so many communist symbols, propaganda posters and red flags all around the city. It is worth noting that Hanoi was part of North Vietnam, also known as the communist part of divided Vietnam.

The hotel we stayed at (TK123 Hanoi) was excellent, primarily because of its location. It was only a short walk away from the old town, with fantastic selections of authentic memorabilia, such as paintings, posters, gold, silver, designer clothes, shoes, and plenty of restaurants. 

One of the most striking things about Hanoi was that it did not feel like a tourist trap. I am sure it is, but it did not feel like it. Most of the tourists coming to Hanoi are Vietnamese from different cities (based on what the students told us). And because there were not many tourists from abroad, I felt like I was constantly being watched. I was an outsider. Maddie said it pretty well that, as a woman, she did not feel more unsafe or notably different from me. We are both white Westerners who face the same safety issues. None of the group felt unsafe in Hanoi anyway. The fact that we were different here was evident every time we visited places where youngsters would also be.

Since Christmas was approaching, we were joking that our families are getting fake designers as presents this year – Gucci jackets, Louis Vuitton bags, etc. The currency exchange in Vietnam is about £1.00 to 28,000 dongs, and 1 million dongs is about £35.00. The average salary in Hanoi (the capital) is about £350.00 monthly. Everything is relatively cheap for tourists, but not for locals.

When we went to the Temple of Literature, I felt like a superstar – the young girls and boys came up to me and asked if they could take a photo with me. That felt so strange. Why would they want to do that? I said ‘yes’ every single time. I loved the attention. Farhang then joked they would brag about these photos to their friends and even put them on their walls. Imagine that – a picture of me on some random Vietnamese girl’s wall.

I expected the traffic to be crazy, but when you are there, it is much different. They do not care about traffic lights. For real! Especially the motorbike riders. A guy on the bike was crossing the red light at a junction; they beeped at the cars with a green light coming from his right and left. Imagine that! And God, they beep so much. It was so annoying and crazy. And the pollution was terrible as well. You could see how grey the air is above the roads. Sometimes the sidewalk will suddenly end, so pedestrians move to the road.

We also had some classes at Hanoi University. Farhang taught me a very important trick when I want people to understand something. Rather than tell them – this is how it is, ask questions for them to find out the answer themselves. That way, you do not force your opinion upon them, but they stumble upon it themselves. That is what I did in Hanoi University classes. I wanted Thi (our Vietnamese lecturer and a kind of helper/guide in Hanoi) to realise that this Vietnamese communist/socialist/capitalist system is nonsense. Maybe I got him thinking.

One of the places we visited was Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. It was such an interesting experience. The government makes school children and kids from kindergartens stand in long lines at the mausoleum to show the whole world how much everyone adores him – all of that to see a dead body. No filming, loads of guards around, walking only in pairs, and not even thinking about talking to anybody. Then you go on to see where he lived and studied, and they show you his car collection even though he did not know how to drive (ironic). 

Before the end of the trip, we went to Ha Long Bay. That was amazing. And Farhang celebrated his birthday on the second day as well. The cruise was beautiful; I had never seen anything like it. The scenery was fantastic!  I swam in the freaking South China Sea – 10,000km away from home. And that is it! After a week of crazy travels, I am home with my family in cold, peaceful, lovely Latvia! It was all worth it.

Valters Davids Ostrovskis

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