We left Chiang Mai early on Tuesday after encountering a bit of a runaround at the airport. We arrived at the domestic terminal, since our first flight was a Thai Airways jet back to Bangkok to connect to a Qatar Airways flight to Hanoi. But we were told that since our ultimate destination was international, we had to hoof it over to the international terminal. After a few more escalators and checkpoints, our bags were successfully checked to Hanoi and we were comfortably borrowing Wi-Fi from an airport coffee shop.
The food on each of our flights was actually quite delicious. Both airlines are well-known for their in-flight service, and they didn't fall short. Thai Airways gave us a phenomenal croissant with some kind of curry confection inside, along with a peanut butter cookie and a selection of coffee and juice.
We had been given special stickers in Chiang Mai, and we were instructed to wear them on our shirts to identify us as transit passengers. Sure enough, they came in handy when we were led through the Bangkok airport to a security checkpoint before being left on our own to hike all the way across the several terminals, through the most upscale duty-free selection I have ever seen, to the Qatar Airways transfer desk, where we were given our second boarding passes. Our second flight was equally nice, with hot chicken sandwich wraps and a full selection of beverages.
We were met at the Hanoi airport by our hotel, and the difference between Thailand and Vietnam's development level became immediately obvious as we left the airport and immediately began driving through rice patty after rice patty, punctuated only by dilapidated buildings. After settling into the very nice Maison D'Hanoi in central Hanoi, we headed out onto the city's streets for a uniquely Vietnamese experience: bia hoi, or fresh beer, on a street corner. This local concoction is made every day and sold all over the city to local regulars and unsuspecting tourists for about 25 cents a glass.
We were only able to make it to the beer stand thanks to the advice of a friend, who warned us about the insane traffic in Vietnam. And we thought traffic in Thailand was tough! In Hanoi, where 90 percent of the traffic is motorcycles, you have to just look straight ahead while crossing the street. No looking both ways — there will never be a moment when the road is clear. Instead, you have to ignore the dozens of oncoming motorcycles, trusting that they will swerve to avoid you, and walk steadily but slowly across the street. It was absolutely as terrifying as it sounds, and we are lucky to have made it out of Hanoi alive.
After our drinks, we headed to 69 Restaurant, widely reviewed as one of Hanoi's best restaurants for authentic Vietnamese food. We started with fresh spring rolls and a Vietnamese chicken salad. We were almost taken aback by the spring rolls, which were very different from what we'd been having in Thailand, though equally different and very similar to the best Vietnamese food I've had back home. The salad was equally great, though again, it was very different from Thai salads. I think both of our taste buds were in shock to have a full meal in which no item was numbingly spicy.
I had my favorite Vietnamese entree from restaurants in the U.S. for the main course: bún chả, or pork on vermicelli noodles and greens in sauce. Emmy opted for a similar dish but with fish, complete with veggie accompaniments and served over a charcoal fire to keep it sizzling hot. Because we were seated directly under a high-powered fan, the ash started getting blown at us, and we had to switch sides of the table.
The dishes were excellent. They made a great change from Thai cuisine and a wonderful introduction to Vietnamese cooking. We were seated next to another table of American travelers, recent Penn grads who are also documenting their travels around Southeast Asia in a format you'll enjoy reading. After dinner, we grabbed a quick drink at a pub recommended by one of our guidebooks, and spotted a great sign. We headed back to our hotel on the early side, exhausted from our travels and looking forward to starting early to hit Hanoi's sights.