More about that later, though.
I left Zhengzhou on Jan. 25 as a heavy snowstorm was just picking up steam. The snow was so bad that even the high speed CRH trains, which run on schedule 99% of the time, had to slow down or even stop, because of poor visibility and slick trackage. My train to Futian station in Shenzhen would normally have taken seven hours. We arrived four hours later.
Second-class ticket: 735.50 yuan ($116).
My plan was to stay overnight in Shenzhen anyway, and my flight to Hanoi was in two days, so no big deal.
There are many bargain flights out of Hong Kong, and I love Hong Kong, so I spent the second night there. My Jetstar ticket was $180 round trip, including an extra checked baggage fee. I stayed in a guest house near Causeway Bay for $65. My Shenzhen hotel near Futian train station was $60.
[I’ve blogged about visiting Hong Kong before, but briefly, you can walk from Shenzhen’s Futian checkpoint to the Lok Ma Chau checkpoint in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, passing through two immigration and customs control points. That takes about an hour. From there, you can take the MTR (Hong Kong’s efficient rapid transit system) anywhere you like. From the checkpoint to Central station takes about another hour. There’s a similar procedure at the Luohu/Lo Wu checkpoints.]
Shenzhen and Hong Kong were a little chilly, but there was no snow. A definite plus already. My plan for the 26th was to just chill in Hong Kong. My flight to Hanoi was the following afternoon, so I had very little time pressure.
Vietnam requires American citizens to have an entry visa, but it’s very easy to apply for a visa on arrival (VOA) online. I used Vietnam Visa Choice, as recommended by Lonely Planet. You fill in their online form, pay $20 for a single-entry 30-day visa, or more for others, and within three days they email back two official documents to present to the immigration officers at your point of entry.
They also offer a one-day express service.
On arrival, you hand the documents to the immigration people with your passport, a passport-sized photo of your visage, and $25 for the “stamping fee.” Within a half-hour (if all goes well), you get your passport back with a shiny new visa inside.
The Hanoi airport is rather small, so navigating it is a breeze. But it was not obvious at first where I should present my documents. I asked another tourist who was standing around, obviously waiting for something, to get the lowdown.
In the immigration hall, straight ahead are the immigration control officers in their booths who check passports and let you in. Opposite them, behind a long counter, are the VOA processing officers.
When I arrived, most of them were engrossed in a football (soccer) game on the TV.
Not just any football. That very evening Vietnam was playing Uzbekistan in the final match of the Asian Football Confederation U23 Championship tournament in (ironically) China. The score was 1-1 in the second half, and it’s safe to say an entire nation was sitting on the edge of its seat.
After I got my visa and my bag, I stopped at the Viettel shop to get a SIM card. The salesclerks, gracefully dressed in blue and white áo dài, were glued to their cellphones, also watching the game and cheering on their team.
“Vietnam is a very small country,” one of them apologized. “So, you have to understand we are very excited now to be in such a big game.”
The SIM card with 30-day 4G data plan cost 280,000 VND ($12), by the way.
The taxi driver had the game on. (Fare was 488,000 Vietnam Dong or about $22 to my Airbnb in the Old Quarter.)
Everyone in every restaurant around my Airbnb was watching the match.
I picked one at random, and the game had gone into extra time. The waitress begged for my patience until the game ended. She brought my beer and some snacks to munch on in the meantime.
There was no joy in Mudville that night. Uzbekistan’s A. Sidorov, assisted by D. Khamdamov, broke the tie, winning the cup for the Uzbeks.
You can watch the highlights to get a feel for the atmosphere that evening.
Despite the loss, the team got a hero’s welcome on their return.
Dinner was nothing special (280,000 VND with beer = $12). I had chosen a bar, and the only hot food available was roast pigeon, which was tasty but not especially filling. And overpriced. I supplemented it by visiting one of the convenience stores near my Airbnb.
When looking for a place to stay, i wanted to stay in the Old Quarter. This particular one had caught my eye, because it had a balcony. I had thoughts of sitting on the balcony, drinking a Vietnamese coffee and eating a Vietnamese French pastry on a springlike Hanoi day, so I booked it immediately.
I didn’t count on the weather.
While the Airbnb was everything advertised, the entire region was experiencing unusually cool, wet weather. I had one day of sunshine to enjoy my balcony sitting, and instead I used it to hang out my laundry.
The drizzly weather had one advantage: it encouraged me to work on my editing job in the flat. Aside from going out to eat or to work on the job in a nearby café, I stayed inside.
Tranquil Books and Coffee (5 Nguyễn Quang Bích, Cửa Đông, Hoàn Kiếm) had a lunch special — sandwich and salad — for 70,000 VND. Coffee was another 35,000 VND. Total cost: $4.60. I had an interesting experience there, which deserves its own post. You’ll have to wait for that.
The drizzly weather may have contributed to my getting a headcold. Or it may have been my fiddling with the aircon to warm up my room. Either way, I was useless for the last two days of January, as a tourist or a proofreader, grateful for a warm bed, my tea supply and the Alka-Seltzer I found in my toiletries case. And instant noodles.
Once I recovered, I had to make up for lost time to meet my Feb. 2 deadline. So no sightseeing or goofing off. As I was editing, I decided to stay two more days in Hanoi to replace the days spent in bed sleeping, sniffling and coughing — not necessarily in that order.
For this trip, I had decided not to organize a busy itinerary, as if I were my own group tour guide. Instead, I decided I would wing it. With the many tools available online for travelers, this is not as crazy as it sounds.
At first, the famous Ha Long Bay scenic spot beckoned, but fellow guests had just been there, and told me it was too foggy and cold to really enjoy the scenery from an open boat. So, I decided to find a warm beach not too far away and settled on Da Nang.
Then I decided I would take the train there, and booked a hotel next to the train station for convenience. Then I discovered flying to Da Nang cost almost the same as a first-class sleeper ticket, so guess which I chose.
Da Nang turned out to be a very good choice, too. So, good work self-tour guide!
NEXT UP: Reflections in a café.
Also published on Medium.