I woke up in a new bed, in a new city. I was completely deaf. I peered around the room and sleepily recalled where I was, Vietnam ! I gently eased out the foam earplugs I had popped in last night before falling into a deep and dreamy sleep. Immediately I heard the toot tooting and beep beeping of motor bike horns. Motor bikes, mopeds, trikes, tuk tuks, electric-powered push bikes; all of them armed with a high-pitched peeping horn to announce their presence and prevent the inattentive from getting squished.
As I turned my head I remembered the second reason for the earplugs; the world’s squeakiest bed. I wiggled a big toe and the whole bed groaned. I looked at my man to see if I had disturbed him. He was wide awake and watching me. How had he slept I wondered aloud. Apparently the bed had serenaded him all night as we got comfy and readjusted in our sleep. Foam earplugs; my new favourite travellers aid. Those and mosquito repellent wet wipes. Brilliant inventions.
Recalling our arrival in Vietnam the previous day I sat up eagerly and reached for my Lonely Planet. What to see today, where to go ? Our hotel was conveniently placed in the middle of the Old Quarter, within immediate walking distance of….well almost everything it would seem from the guide-book. I jumped up, showered, and then waited for the fella to do the same. Whilst I waited I perused our room. A good size room in the Royal Palace Hotel came with air conditioning, a safe, a tv, tea and coffee and an en-suite. It had ornate cornicing on the ceiling and was clean. Not bad for around £18 per night. The fella had seemed a little unsure on arrival, I don’t quite think the entrance lobby completely replicated the picture he had seen when making the booking, yet neither of us have stayed in hostels for years, so this seemed to us both a good compromise as we eased ourselves into our trip. By the end of our 4 months we’ll be in bunkhouses and dormitories I’m sure. Well, maybe, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Last night before we fell into our squeaky slumber, we ventured out for an hour or two to find a meal and a beer. A beer ! Oh how I already long for a crisp cold Strongbow or dewy glassed Aspall. I’m drinking lager, that thing that makes me feel icky and headachy at a mere glance. But its 50 pence a bottle and tastes surprisingly delicious when its 34 degrees outside and you want a thirst quencher. I’m converted ! We headed out confidently into the evening to find a meal and a drink. We found a small foody looking frontage along an alleyway that seemed to be run by a family. They beckoned us in and offered us a beer; Hanoi Beer, yummy. We then chose from the menu under the quizzical gaze of the host, and the playful looks from her daughter, who seemed to be about 3 years old, and was the cutest little dot of a human. After ordering, the fella and the little girl quickly fell into the language free and internationally known game of peekaboo, causing shrieks of delight from the tot and a dopey grin to spread across the mans chops. This appeared to win us some favour with the family and we were given a fan under the table to cool us down and soon our food was delivered. It arrived on a butane burner at the table (thank goodness for the fan) and was a big pot of broth with slices of pork skin floating in it, along with aromatics such as nutmeg, star anise and cinnamon sticks. I think there were also some onions, garlic and mushrooms. A big plate of finely sliced beef came next, with some noodles, bean sprouts and dipping sauce. We were beckoned to drop both the former into the broth and serve ourselves bowlfuls of the hot-pot when we were happy with the beef, dipping the noodles into the soy and chilli sauce if we liked. It was heavenly ! The perfect bowl of hearty and wholesome food we fancied. In contrast to China where small spoons were served alongside the chopsticks, here we were spoonless and so slurped directly from the bowls. A wonderful first night in Vietnam.
With the fella now up and freshly showered we were ready to see the sights. We first encountered the Hoan Kiem Lake and walked along the wide promenade under the shade of an umbrella of tress branches, all decorated with ornate light fittings and bulbs. We took pictures of the Red Bridge and then wandered on into the maze of alleyways, walkways, streets and pavements that make up the Old Quarter.
Immediately it became clear that it’s nigh on impossible to walk on a pavement more than a few feet. We had to clamber over parked mopeds, or dodge cars, or skirt around workmen angle grinding in the entrance to their workshop. Toy shops, tile shops, wool stores, sweet stores, metal and wood merchants all with their merchandise spilling out onto the sidewalk.
When we could walk on the pavement we had to then watch our footing; cracked, rocking, missing paving slabs of all varieties, shapes, thicknesses and materials made me wonder how do people get around who are less able ? Where are all the disabled people ? I mean there must be people who need a wheelchair or a stick or scooter to get around ? One Vietnamese guide shared with us that following the chemical weapons used in the Vietnam war, 20 generations would have to pass before all the ill effects in the genes of the people and families affected would disappear.
The variety of people who were out and about were fascinating. Old ladies with a yoke like device over their shoulder, with a basket at either end loaded with fruits, shoes, donuts (and the cooking pot of hot oil!) selling their wares to passers-by. Young women standing in shop doorways, men sitting in cafes on tiny chairs drinking cold beers or coffee, children crossing the road crocodile style on their way somewhere with their school teacher. Mostly the sellers didn’t harass us, a cheerful “No thankyou ” saw them on their way. I did succumb to one particularly insistent lady however, selling small fruits that I sampled and then ended up paying about a weeks food money for a modest bunch. Saw me coming a mile off. Delicious fruit though, a bit like a lychee come grapefruit.
Crossing the road; now there’s an experience. As a westerner I stood at the crossing and waited for something to happen to indicate it was safe to cross. Nothing happened. There was a cacophony of noise; engines, horns, people. There was no beeping little green man saying “Go for it, I’ve got you covered”. I tried to work out who gave way to whom. Again, no clues from the traffic. I think perhaps the mopeds give way to the cars and the cars give way to buses, but I’m not sure. I watched and saw that although there was a lot of movement and motors, they were all moving reasonably slowly, around 20 mph. They were weaving and dodging and cruising their machines around each other and no one was hitting anything, crashing, coming to a shrieking halt to avoid the next person. I decided they would miss me if I stepped out into the road. I went for it and arrived safely on the other side. From that moment on I joined in with gusto; walking down the road when the pavement proved too difficult to navigate, crossing the road without so much as a sideways glance. When I was glancing around however, I realised the city was beautiful. Narrow houses above shops and stores, multi-coloured and French colonial looking in style, with wrought iron balustrades and people growing plants and drying clothes on the small balconies. Nearly all the streets have a row of shade giving trees on both sides, meaning roots and branches were also added into the mellay of obstacles.
Later that day we sat and enjoyed a cold drink at a small café on the corner of a crossroads, just to ‘watch’ more than anything, but a cold beer helped pass the time. The motorbikes and their cargo are simply mind-boggling. As a motorcyclist myself I wondered at the sheer practicality of getting the load onto the back of a such a small bike. In one day we saw, all on the backs of a mopeds; 8 bottles of water that fit into a standard office water cooler, a double mattress, 10 sacks of cement, 2 or 3 huge sacks of potatoes/onions, 3 cardboard boxes, a wardrobe and a boiler. Then there are the human passages ranging from babies resting on knees or handles bars to old men, some helmetless, some with face masks, some side-saddle and some squashed on like sardines. Fascinating and terrifying !
I have really enjoyed my couple of days in Hanoi. Absolutely amazing place, great vibe, happy people, fab food, endless things to sit and watch go by as you slurp a cold beer. Tomorrow brings a 3 hour trip to Halong Bay, and then 2 nights on a boat. Our adventure continues.