Tom’s Adventure Through Southeast Asia Part 6 — Hanoi & Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
As any backpacker will tell you, travelling the globe with everything you own on your back has its shares of ups and downs. Sure, it all looks like sunshine and rainbows when the highlights are curated on your Instagram feed. But when you leave your old life behind and put yourself into experiences you never imagined, you’re almost certain to have the best and also the worst experiences of your life.
Like when you get food poisoning, stubbornly not look after yourself and end up with a fever of a hundred and three farenheit a week later. But let’s backtrack.
When I landed in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, the weather was terrible. While March is normally part of the dry season, it rained every day I was there. Hanoi was my first experience in a party hostel, something every young backpacker should experience. Assuming you drink of course, but even then these hostels tend to be the most sociable and fun places you’ll stay at. This one however was a full-on party hostel. The bottom floor was essentially a nightclub with music booming until two in the morning, but if that sounds terrible most of them are not that intense. I wasn’t dipping my toes in party hostel life as much as I was plunging straight into it.
The next morning I took part in a walking tour with people from the hostel. Our first stops were a temple, a local market, and a walk around the famous Hoan Kiem Lake. It was at this point that I did not feel well at all, at first I thought it was a hangover but as it got worse I realized that I probably had food poisoning.
Regardless, I struggled on through the tour. We visited a very fancy mall full of designer brands. The tour guide explained that this mall was strictly for tourists as very few Vietnamese people can afford to shop there. On the way back to the hostel we walked through Ta Hien, a famous "beer street" with many bars serving bia hoi. Bia hoi is a homemade beer unique to Vietnam. It’s very light, about three percent alcohol, and contains no preservatives. With no way to store the beer made that day, whatever is left is thrown out, so you know you’re getting fresh beer made that day. Best of all, it’s only about thirty cents a glass!
While I didn’t get to enjoy bia hoi on this street, I very much did so back at the hostel. After obtaining some antibiotics and electrolyte water at the local pharmacy, I was starting to feel better again. As a result, I took full advantage of the hostel’s happy hour where kegs of bia hoi were brought in and one could have as many glasses as they wanted for the hour! While the lads I was hanging out with scoffed at the beer for its low alcohol content, it was easily the freshest, tastiest beer I had on my entire trip. If you’re in Hanoi and like beer, drink bia hoi. You (probably) won’t be disappointed.
So now that I was supposedly over my sickness, I decided to sign up for the hostel’s Ha Long Bay tour called Castaways. Ha Long Bay is one of Vietnam’s top destinations with its beautiful blue water and endless limestone karsts. Most tours of the bay involve a relaxing dinner on a boat and an overnight stay at a nice hotel, usually on Cat Ba Island. However, Castaways was a little different.
In the spirit of a party hostel, Castaways is a weekend long bender complete with a booze cruise and a private island with a massive bar and dorm-style accommodation. While the weather wasn’t the greatest, there were lots of activites to do on the island. There was a volleyball net, rock climbing and even a high speed boat for tubing and wakeboarding. It really was a party backpacker’s paradise.
Unfortunately, the Castaways lifestyle brought my sickness back in full force, and I spent half the time cocooned in my dorm bed due to fever chills. For the other half, especially closer to the end, I was able to party a bit and had a great time. But don’t be dumb like me, make sure you’re in prime health before committing your liver and your wallet to Castaways. You’ll be sure to have the time of your life!
After a bus ride back to Hanoi described in my daily review notes as "excruciating," I was back at the hostel for a much needed rest. For my last full day in Hanoi, I tried my best to fight through my sickness and enjoy some of the city’s sights. I went to a cafe and had egg coffee: a Vietnamese coffee made with egg yolks and condensed milk. It’s closer to a dessert than a coffee, it’s so thick that you eat it with a spoon!
I also visited Hoa Lo Prison which was a very interesting historical site. Only a small portion of the original prison still exists, but it served two very different purposes throughout history. The first was to imprison Vietnamese revolutionaries seeking independence from France at the time. It was later used during the American War (what they call the Vietnam War) for American prisoners of war, most notably Senator John McCain. While depressing, this was a really good museum and a must for any history buff.
While there were other things I wanted to do in the city, at this point I was feeling so feverish and fatigued that I had to retreat back to the hostel where I did little else but drink electrolyte water and eat digestive cookies.
I don’t mean to scare anyone planning a backpacking trip through southeast Asia, but you will probably get food poisoning at least once. From talking to other backpackers throughout my travels, it seems to be the rule rather than the exception. It’s just one of the prices you have to pay for going on an adventure. Whether it’s getting scammed, pickpocketed, losing your debit card or breaking your phone, things don’t always work out the way you plan. But that’s part of the experience of travelling. Rolling with the punches, dealing with the mistakes, and growing as a person as a result.