First Impressions: Vietnam, Land Of The Blue Dragon

After five years of on-and-off, back-and-forth travel in southeast Asia I have finally arrived in Vietnam, the Land of the Blue Dragon (whatever that means). Oh wait, turns out that’s a book and not based on a myth. How unexciting… Anyway, where was I…

My plane landed in Hanoi’s Noi Bai airport just before 3am so first impressions there weren’t much — other than the fact it is a surprisingly small airport for a capital city. As our flight was over an hour late the few remaining staff there were impatiently waiting on us, and as such they processed us through immigration ridiculously fast. In fact they even starting shutting off the lights before we were out of the airport. Of course I was busy tweeting rather than hailing a taxi when next thing I know the outside of the airport was plunged into darkness as well, except for a few parking lot lights off in the distance. It was only then that I looked up from my phone and lo and behold there was one last taxi still patiently waiting for me.

Armed with an address and a whopping zero words of Vietnamese in my vocabulary I hopped in the taxi and we were off. While driving along the highway I got my first taste of Vietnam and I was a little surprised. The only vehicles on the road this late at night (at least until we got into the main part of Hanoi) were military trucks. I couldn’t help but feel as if I’d been thrust back into the communist era Soviet Republic, especially once I started noticing red flags and signs featuring the hammer and sickle.

Vietnam Hammer & Sickle
The sickles aren’t as common as the Vietnamese flag but you’ll see a lot of them if you keep your eyes open

Turns out Vietnam is still communist. Who knew? Not me.

Usually for first-time trips I research the country I’m visiting on the flight in but this time since an old friend of mine from the States lives here now and is — yup, you guessed it — Vietnamese I was too lazy to bother. “Ehhh my buddy will tell me what I need to know.” Yup, this is the most ill-prepared I’ve ever been for a first experience with a new country. Either I’ve just stopped caring in my old age or my apathy is finally starting to show…

After a couple hours sleep I hopped on a motorcycle and started exploring.

Thanks to all my time motorcycling around Indonesia I’ve become quite skilled at driving with one hand (or none, if need be) while taking photos. That having been said, these are all cellphone photos taken at high rates of speed so they are not the most glamorous. Oh and before you ask, no, it was not a bad weather day. Hanoi skies are always gray, never blue — too much pollution.

Hanoi, Vietnam
Hồng Hà runs north-south along the eastern side of Hanoi, parallel to the river.

Streets Of Hanoi, Vietnam
I followed this egg delivery guy for a couple kilometres, just waiting for an egg-cellent crash. Never happened.

Just A Random Street In Hanoi, Vietnam
Just a random street in Hanoi

Free-For-All Intersections In Vietnam
All intersections in Vietnam except for the really big ones essentially a free-for-all, just honk your horn, keep your foot ready to hit the brake, and hope you don’t get hit…I love it! Of course then you have my crazy white ass barging on through with two hands on the camera instead of the handlebars…

Hanoi, Vietnam
There are wide open roads…sometimes

Traffic In Hanoi, Vietnam
At various times of the day traffic can get a little backed up in Hanoi…

Traffic In Hanoi, Vietnam
…but that’s when locals use the sidewalks. I’m used to driving on sidewalks so I went for it but turns out they yell at any white people who employ this time-saving tactic :/

How & Where To Purchase A SIM Card

The largest and most popular mobile network in Vietnam is called Viettel and — surprise, surprise — they are owned and operated by the Ministry of Defence (no, that’s not a typo, just how it is spelled here). Since there is no SIM store at Noi Bai airport visitors must instead search for a SIM store in Hanoi. But as you can see below I use the term “store” lightly.

Magazine / Viettel SIM Card Store In Hanoi, Vietnam
These are the types of shops to look for when trying to purchase a SIM card

SIM Card Number Selection In Hanoi, Vietnam
Giant lists full of phone numbers advertise which are available for purchase

Magazine / SIM Card Store In Hanoi, Vietnam
I’m used to buying SIM cards in airport booths so having some lady dig through a box for the right SIM card was a new experience for me.

Phở-ntastic Food!

Now that I had a SIM card it was time to get some food in me. Of course the first dish any newbie to Vietnam has to try is undoubtedly pho, which is pronounced “fa” (fə) not “fo” (see, my play on words up above is verbally correct). This noodle soup, primarily served with beef but also available with chicken, is the most iconic of all Vietnamese dishes and now known worldwide.

Pho In Hanoi, Vietnam
I cannot believe I was in Vietnam for nearly eight full hours before having my first taste of authentic pho

Pho varies at every place you try it, which is good because you can hardly walk 20 steps without seeing a place that sells the delicious soup. Therefore you have no excuse not to eat a lot of it!

Pho In Hanoi, Vietnam
For my second pho experience I added lots of sriracha, a hot sauce made of chili peppers and common pho condiment

All-in-all it was a interesting yet productive first day in Vietnam.

It was only as I was pulling back in to my lakeside luxury apartment on Hồ Tây (West Lake) that I noticed this carefree local stripped down to his underwear and standing in the lake with a fishing pole. Definitely my favorite photo of the day! 😉

Fisherman In Hồ Tây (West Lake) in Hanoi
Mark my words: before I leave I’m going to go fishing in my underwear in this lake!

This photo also serves to show just how polluted Hanoi is. See that bank of buildings on the opposite shore to the left side? Those are 200 metres away. The far side of the lake visible on the right side? 1,500 metres. That’s less than a mile for my American friends yet the air quality is so bad it’s hard to see that far!

  Over the following few days I took my first motorcycle trip in Vietnam out to Nam Dinh and celebrated Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. Expect those posts to be published by this weekend. Have you subscribed to receive new posts by email yet? Or if you don’t like that many emails then please sign up for the HoliDaze monthly newsletter instead. Thanks!

Have You Ever Visited Vietnam?

What Do You Think About Hanoi Now?

Share Your Thoughts And Feedback Below!

About Derek Freal

"Some people eat, others try therapy. I travel."   Cultural enthusiast. Adrenaline junkie. Eater of strange foods. Chasing unique and offbeat adventures around the world since 2008. Derek loves going to new destinations where he does not speak a word of the local language and must communicate with hand gestures, or places where he is forced to squat awkwardly to poo -- supposedly its healthier and more efficient. For more information (about Derek, not squat pooing) including popular posts and videos, check out his bio.

18 thoughts on “First Impressions: Vietnam, Land Of The Blue Dragon”

    • That’s what I would have thought if you’d asked me years ago. But after having driven in Mexico City, Manila, and especially the mean streets of Jakarta (which still has my vote for worse traffic anywhere in the world except for Delhi, obviously, but even so I still love driving a motorcycle there) I find the traffic in Hanoi rather tame, even during peak hours. Everyone else seems to think I’m crazy though so hey, maybe that’s it 😉

  1. “Of course then you have my crazy white ass barging on through with two hands on the camera instead of the handlebars…”

    Actually laughed out loud on that 🙂 Quite an interesting read and experience.

    • Woo-hoo, glad to hear! I tried to be a little more vivid and humorous in this post without straying too far from how I naturally write. Glad to hear I made you laugh aloud brother, that just made my morning! Thanks for the comment and for stopping by, I appreciate it. Have a great Friday and a wonderful weekend, best wishes on your current journey! 🙂

  2. Your are a hoot and a half! PLEASE keep at least one hand on the handlebars when your crazy white ass is driving in a free-for-all zone! I’d put money on you fishing in that lake in your underwear! Be safe!

    • Hahaha thanks Susan, your approval means a lot to me 🙂 Really appreciate you stopping by and staying up to date with my adventures…have a great weekend! Best wishes from Vietnam 🙂

    • I completely agree! As such I find it kind of funny when travelers are too scared to try and explore on their own via motorcycle. One of my bloggin’ buddies wrote a post about why she wouldn’t drive a motorcycle in SEA. That prompted me to write a post on why you should. It ended up being more of an Indonesian “how to” post than a generic SEA by motorcycle post but long story short just the other day my friend (the one who originally wouldn’t try exploring by motorcycle) finally tried it and LOVED IT! Just goes to show…by motorcycle is always a better way to see the country 🙂

      So where else have you traveled by motorcycle?

  3. Vietnam for sure. I am terrible at remembering specifics. I think It may have actually been Hanoi. One time I cruised side streets and came to a dead end where two people were spinning pottery. When I motioned, “sorry,” they waved me in. I sat and watched for a bit and then bought a small piece. Another time I broke away from my tour group and headed out of town. I found a beach and sat and ate fresh crab by myself. There was also a time I took a tour group buddy with me and we explored a city. Everyone else found it boring, but we had a blast! Vientienne?

    I miss my scooter!!

    • That is a great story, thanks for sharing! I love the things you accidentally find while exploring on motorcycle — it’s a great way to get off the tourist path. And I’m actually in Hanoi right now hehehe 🙂

  4. Wait wait wait…. like Sriracha sriracha? The big red roostery bottle? I thought that was a fortune cookie sorta thing that was actually from the West? Vietnamese eat it too?

    • Yup. I’ve only seen it once in the bottle but almost every place I visit has some sort of hot sauce in a communal bowl on the tables. Not sure if it’s the same stuff or if each one of those is homemade, all I know is if I don’t see any hot sauce then I won’t stop there to eat 😉

  5. Vietnam is very high on my list of places to visit. Growing up I read a lot of historical pieces on the Vietnam war and found their culture fascinating. To see an Asian culture that was so heavily influenced by the French occupation first hand has to be pretty neat. It’s funny that you mention not researching places, Lauren and i have pretty much stopped researching anything before we do it. We find it fun to be surprised by what we get ourselves into 🙂 Have fun in Vietnam and make sure to get out of the cities.

    p.s. I would have followed that egg guy for hours… 🙂

    • Suppose I should have elaborated a little bit more on the research part. My new country research consists of using airport wifi pre-departure to load the Wikipedia and Wiki Travel pages about the upcoming country, then leaving those tabs open until I am on the plane and without wifi (usually). There I spend a few minutes perusing the basics and seeing if there are any scams I should be aware of (taxi or otherwise) and then boom, my research is done. Certainly not the elaborate research that most foreign travelers do, but hey then again, I’m not most travelers 😉

      So yes, I completely agree with you, it’s so much more fun being surprised by what you find in the country. It’s also better arriving without any preconceived notions or bias, which can happen if you read to much about a place before visiting.

  6. Ok bro, I will mark your words. Haaha.

    I am so amazed at how you could take the photos whilst riding on the busy roads in Hanoi. It must have been hard. And I am so jealous with the fact that you tasted authentic phos. I watched the latest Masterchef US and I think this was one of the dishes that the contestants need to cook?

    Did you encounter any propaganda activity when you were there? When I was in Chau Doc, the other part of Vietnam, the authority played some kind of speech on the loudspeakers hanged on a pole along the main road. Haha.

    • After fine-tuning my motorcycle skills in cities like Jakarta driving in Hanoi was a walk in the park. People here complain about the traffic but I think that’s only because it’s busier here in Hanoi and Saigon then, well, everywhere else in the country. However I could name a dozen cities that are worse to drive in.

      Nope, haven’t seen any propaganda yet, at least none that was blatantly obvious. I have much more exploring to do though so I may see some soon 🙂

    • Scooter city — err country — it definitely is. Of course you can always instantly spot the real badasses b/c they’ll be the ones with a Harley or imported crotch-rocket — neither of which is cheap in this corner of the world 😉


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