I remember someone asking me once when I was planning my trip to Vietnam if it will be weird spending my birthday all alone in a new city. I knew he would not understand me when I told him it will be the best birthday ever. So, I booked a ticket from Bangkok to Hanoi at 5.30 am on 7th October 2013, my birthday.
It is not like this was the first time I was doing this. I had done it in 2011 when I spent my birthday in Siem Reap, Cambodia. On that day, I visited Angkor Wat at sun rise, spent the day cycling around the city and ate a crocodile meat burger. It was great and I wanted to do it again, this time in Hanoi.
On 6th of October, after having late dinner with my cousin in a very shady restaurant in Nana, Bangkok we went back to our hostel in Siam and called it a night. I had an early morning flight and it was raining heavily. I was awake most of my planned 3 hours of sleep, staring out of the window at the lighting and the rain, wondering what Hanoi would be like.
My cousin who was a nice guy, came to see me off till the taxi stand outside the hostel, braving the thunderstorm. He was half asleep when he wished me Happy Birthday. I would have laughed but I was half asleep as well. It was 2.30 am. Thankfully, I caught up on a few hours of sleep in the Don Meaug Airport, sitting on an airport luggage trolley waiting for the check in counters of Air Asia to open.
The real fun started when our flight touched down in Noi Bai International Airport and after exchanging some of my USDs for VNDs, I hopped into a taxi with a Chinese couple, who kept asking me about India, Three Idiots and WhatsApp. I was sitting next to the driver, whose two front teeth were missing, and helped him kill a couple of mosquitoes that came out of the air conditioning unit. I knew my Hanoi adventure had begun when my door flung open suddenly while we were driving down the highway towards Hanoi. The driver leaned in and slammed the door shut, as I froze in my seat, shit scared.
“It’s loose” He said in a thick Vietnamese accent, flashing a toothless smile.
A stay at the nice three star hotel was the birthday gift I had given myself. The hotel was in Hanga Street in the Old Quarters, and I reached there well before my check-in time. The lovely receptionist gave me a map and asked me to explore while they prepared my room. I wanted a shower and a change of clothes, but the idea of exploring Hanoi on foot did not seem that bad.
Hanoi was everything I expected it to be. It was congested with shops and restaurants. The roads were filled with motorbikes going in every direction all at the same time. There was the constant noise of honking, and every now and then a cyclo driver start following you, asking you to hire his services. There were also these hawkers wearing Nón lá (a conical hat), selling fruits, sweets and vegetables.
Following my map, I first reached Hoan Kiem Lake. I decided to sit on one of the lake side chairs and take in the beauty of the lake. It was a Monday morning and I was surprised to see most of the chairs occupied. There were families sitting on the chair and on the pavements, picnicking.
After about half an hour, I picked up my map again and headed off towards Hoa Lo Prison (Hanoi Hilton), which once held John Mc Cain as a PoW. I went through the big iron gate of the prison and roamed through cells.
Another short walk later, I reached a beautiful old church. Students were playing soccer in front of it, while the motorbikes continued to zoom around. There was a newly wed couple trying out different poses while the cameraman ran around and taking pictures of them from different angles. Right by the side of the road leading up to the church, there were a couple of local food joints. People, mostly locals, were sitting on small plastic chairs on the sidewalks, sipping on iced teas and talking. I decided to join them. It was the best iced tea I have ever had. It was refreshingly cold, and the hint of jasmine made all the difference. I had two glasses of it and got out of there before I ordered a whole jug. It was so good.
My room was ready when I went back to my hotel, and checked in. The room was big, clean and pretty. It was a refreshing change from the small hostel beds. Having ran out of shower gel in Bangkok, I decided to head out and buy another. I did not want to use the hotel soap and shampoo on my birthday. (In hindsight, I wish I had.)
After a few unsuccessful attempts at various smaller shops around my hotel, I finally found a store that sold shower gels. However, thanks to my sub par math skills I messed up with the exchange rate calculations and bought a 355000 Dong product. I thought it was costing me just over 100 INR. Turns out, it cost me over a 1000 INR. (DAMN!!!) After that debacle, I decided to punish myself by cancelling my birthday lunch.
So, after a very relaxing/expensive shower I decided to head out and explore a bit more of the city. The good thing about staying in the Old Quarters was that I could walk to quite a few landmarks, thereby not only saving a lot of money on transportation but also giving myself the flexibility to stop at random stores, talk to the locals or click a few pictures.
I decided to walk towards the Army Museum, which was near the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. While walking along the busy main road, I noticed a building outside which there were hundreds of people standing around with flowers in their hands. There were police men and journalists as well. Turns out it was the funeral service of their beloved General Vo Nguyen Giap, who was 102 and was considered a national hero for his services during the Vietnam war.
A little further down the road was the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. The mausoleum is a big scary building made of solid grey stone. The mausoleum was closed for maintenance so I decided to sit on its stairs, admiring it and taking some much needed rest.
Hanoi is an entertaining city with so much going on in the streets, so I did not mind walking all the way to the other side of the Old Quarter to the Water Puppet Theatre. From the amazing street stalls to the road side bars, I admired them all on the way.
Here is a useful tip on crossing the busy streets of Hanoi. Do not make eye contact with the driver. When you think there is an opening just look straight at the other side of the road and walk. Apparently, if you make eye contact, the driver might get confused. And if you do not make eye contact, the driver will know that you will not hesitate and try to run back. He will adjust his speed and direction accordingly. Trust me, it works!
Water puppet shows are an ancient Vietnamese tradition, in which the puppet, controlled by their masters from behind the curtains, perform in waist deep water.
I would be lying if I said that I understood the show. I would also be lying if I said that I was awake most of the time. But judging from the thundering applause after the show, which woke me up, the show was grand.
It was dusk when I gingerly made my way out of the theatre. My legs aching out of exhaustion and rest of my body was demanding some heavy duty food. I found a decent restaurant on the second floor of a building and had my dinner of chicken noodles and veges, while overlooking an amazing view of the main square and Hoan Kiem Lake.
Heavy dinners never make you want to walk afterwards, so I found myself a cyclo, which charged me a foreigner rate of 30000 dongs and dropped me off at my hotel. For those who do not know what a cyclo is, it is basically a cycle rickshaw that we usually find in the smaller cities of India. The only difference is that the driver sits in the back and peddles while you are sitting in the front in a comfortable chair with no handle bars to absorb the abrupt stops and turns. At times you feel like you are in one of those 4D movie theaters as you sway around unexpectedly, avoiding cars and two wheelers. It was so much fun albeit a little scary.
Right outside our hotel, was a chilled out road side pub, where I decided to sit, drink and see Hanoi slowly fall asleep. I took the seat right at the edge of the sidewalk, overlooking the busy road, best seat in the house, and ordered the local brew. The night progressed as I found myself engaged in an enjoyable conversation with a few awesome new friends, knocking down beer bottles till the road went quiet, the nearby shops pulled down their shutters, and the bar owner begged us to leave so that she could go home.
As I slowly traced my way back to my hotel that night, I remember thinking “This is the best birthday ever!”