We found our way out of Hanoi train station to be greeted by a wall of taxis, taxi drivers, noise and lights in the night. We couldn’t remember the good taxi company so I asked a woman. She and her girl happened to know enough English to recommend both the well known company and a reliable cheaper one. We approached one of them but he redirected us to his mate in front of him. We agreed to a higher price than we needed to, but we only wanted to get to the hostel.
Weaving along narrow streets was a blur of noise and lights. At least he dropped us at the right place. Have I mentioned how much I like GPS? For a moment I thought I’d asked for the wrong place, but the internet cleared up my confusion.
The hostel wasn’t the usual type I’d go to, with a bar downstairs, loud music and young backpackers drinking as much as they could while happy hour lasted. Reception and the travel desk were perched off to the side of all this. I was tired and had been hungry for hours. Not the best combination. Eventually we checked in and went out to find a vegetarian restaurant up the road.
Hungry again the next morning, we were looking forward to the included breakfast, only to be disappointed at the measliness of it even after paying for extras. And the instant coffee was no match for Ninh Binh. Despite the breakfast, we joined the free walking tour from the hostel. It took us through some of the Old Quarter then through street markets for fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and still-living creatures including shellfish and what looked like big fat worms and net bags of frogs or toads. It was an interesting mix of lovely fragrant herbs and not so nice fishiness. From there we were led to an indoor market which Ben likened to markets in Melbourne and said they looked like they were selling exactly same stuff. The tour guide didn’t exactly talk it up either but then imposed 15 minutes of free time there. I forget where she took us next, or what she told us about. I remember her explaining the Vietnamese custom of burning paper offerings so the thing represented by the paper goes to ancestors in the other world, making them better off and more able to influence this world to benefit the descendants making the offering. This explained the cardboard cutout cars on the footpath behind me. Onwards to a tea shop accessed through another shop, a courtyard and up several flights of stairs to a rooftop with a view and, more importantly, a breeze. The tour was cut short by the gathering storm.
We found a bakery (in the rain) for lunch to test out the French influence only to realise that the baguette and cheese we settled on was the same lunch we’d had every day in Vietnam. We walked a different way back to the hostel, trying to get a look at the river. We ended up going along some pretty narrow streets and it felt like we were invading again, till we came to a wall. Through the break in the wall we could see a veggie garden and marshland beyond that, but no river. I saw it later that night from the taxi, but it was just a dark expanse then. Turning back from the river, along the narrow streets, the gutted carcass of a pig on the back of a motorbike was advertised by the pig’s head splayed across the handle bars. Somehow I missed seeing the head, but Ben could only wish he’d missed it.
Before we knew it, the taxi arrived at the hostel to rush Ben away. A quick farewell and I was on my own. I was sad, tired, and slightly freaking out about being in Hanoi, and doing the rest of the trip, on my own. So I had a lie down in the hostel lounge for a little while until I worked up the courage to brave the streets of Hanoi again.
The traffic is crazy. The Old Quarter and where we stayed has signs to say it’s a pedestrian precinct, but scooters and motorbikes reign supreme, to the point of the footpaths being entirely overtaken by motorbike parking. There are marked zebra crossings but they don’t seem to mean anything. Horns are going constantly. I found the best way to cross the road was to use a car going the same direction across the intersection as a shield. After walking for a bit the road and footpaths opened up so there was room for two rows of motorbikes to park and still room for pedestrians!
I came across a square with a statue at the back and children of all ages racing around on rollerblades and a few variants. A toddler plonked upright in roller skates, and one boy a little aloof with a mini two wheeled skateboard under each foot. I sat for a while in the peacefulness of being ignored and the cooler dusk. I’d found a little bit of Hanoi that I could relax in. I decided it was time to move on and managed to cross the one-way road adjacent to the square. It had five marked lanes, and closer to seven fluxuating lanes. The first was for the men peddling the three wheeled reverse rickshaws with customers sitting in the front. The second for the bicycles and slower scooters, and the remainder negotiated between motorbikes and cars.
The lake on the other side of the road is said to be regarded as the heart of Hanoi. I began walking around it for something to do. It started spitting again and everyone scattered. I was too slow to realise and got saturated in the downpour that followed within seconds. Rain ponchos materialised over the scooter/motorbike riders. People looked at me strangely as I continued walking in the rain to the hostel but I was so wet there was no point getting under cover.
And that was about it for Hanoi. The taxi driver took me to the wrong train station. I recognized it as the station we arrived at but already knew from the GPS. I’d tried telling him on the way, but whose idea was it to spell it Gia Lam when it’s pronounced Si Lum? Once he pulled over I showed him my ticket. He apologised profusely, said the hostel had said this one, and proceeded to drive much more aggressively towards the other station until I managed to reassure him that there was enough time to drive normally. The lesson this time, insist on being taught how to pronounce the destination instead of letting hostel staff wave you away because they’ll look after it.
My slow (ish) journey from Australia to Scotland by bus, train and boat with as little flying as possible.