Saturday, 6 October 2012

Good Morning, Vietnam

It’s 5:30 in the morning and I’m on the back of a complete stranger’s motorbike, zipping through the streets of Hanoi. The early morning air is still blessedly cool, the growing light still dim. In almost any other city in the world this time of day would be quiet, peaceful even.

But this is Vietnam. And at 5:30am in Hanoi, it is madness.

Motorbikes buzz by us like a swarm of bees, grazing my elbows as they pass. The traffic of bikes, cars and roaring trucks flows like a river through intersections; the lack of traffic lights transforming every side street into a tributary. There is constant honking on all sides of us as the sidewalks, alive with activity, speed by in a blur. 

A man on a motorbike passes us, straddling two freshly butchered pigs, their lifeless hooved legs bouncing as the bike flies over the pavement. We zoom past a woman on a bicycle, a conical hat tied with a red checkered bow under her chin. On the handlebars of her bike hangs a live chicken, its legs tied together over the metal bar so that it sways upside down like a feathered handbag. On every side of us people pass on their motorbikes, most wearing surgical face masks to protect them from pollution. I vaguely wonder why I don’t have a face mask when we are cut off by a scooter driven by a young women who deftly steers her bike with one hand. With the other hand she is holding a tiny baby on her knee like a sack of groceries as she weaves through the traffic.

We pass a lakeside park where crowds of people are doing their morning exercises. There are countless joggers around the lake and groups of 50 people doing Tai Chi or following an instructor in an open-air aerobics class. Old men in sandals stretch against a tree trunk. Several people are playing badminton on sidewalk courts, while others kick around a soccer ball. It’s incredible: the sun has just risen, the shops are still shut tight behind metal grates, the office buildings won’t open for hours, but the streets are positively packed with people.

Crazy-busy streets seem to be the norm in Hanoi, regardless of the time of day. The narrow streets are a constant stream of motorbikes, making the city a veritable obstacle course for pedestrians. We quickly learned that if you wait for a break in traffic to cross a street, you will wait forever; so we did what the locals do: take a deep breath, close your eyes and just walk, letting the traffic go around you. Any hesitation or back step will throw off the timing of the endeavor and is the best way to get hit by a bike. You just have to walk with confidence and trust that the drivers hurdling towards you are paying attention.

Hanoi is crazy and dynamic, and seems to be the most Asian of the cities we have visited. Communism has left its mark and while there are a few Western chain restaurants and shops, the city is largely resistant to mass tourism and globalization. Yes, there is the typical tourist ghetto that one finds in nearly every big city, but it only comprises of a street or two and is easy to avoid. Just a block or so from the tourist center and one finds local bars serving 40-cent beers and market stands selling dog meat. It’s authentic, frenetic and fascinating. And it hit us like a punch in the face after the laid-back tranquility of Laos.

A dog meat stand in the market
Commie propaganda 
Men playing Mah Jong outside of a temple

We had a couple days to kill before we were to meet Vincent’s sister Elodie in Hanoi, so we headed out to Cat Ba Island via a bus-boat-bus-bus combo that sounded way more complicated than it actually was. Cat Ba Island is one of the larger islands (or possibly the largest, I'm too lazy to Google it) in Lan Ha Bay, which connects to the famed (and overly-touristic) Halong Bay. Both bays are famous for their striking natural beauty: tall karst cliffs blanketed in green trees that jut out of turquoise waters. It really is an incredible area and Cat Ba Island ended up being a perfect jump-off point to explore it.

To get a feel for the bays, we took a one day/one night boat trip through Lan Ha and Halong Bay, passing through floating fishing villages and stopping to swim in the clear blue water and kayak in hidden coves among the towering rock formations. That night, we slept on the roof of our boat, which was docked in one of the protected natural harbors in Lan Ha Bay. We enjoyed a delicious meal as the sun dropped behind the cliffs and woke up with the sun as it rose again, bathing the harbor in soft, pink light.

Vincent and his beard on a boat
Sleeping on the roof of the boat at dawn
One of Halong Bay's floating villages

The next day we decided to do something a little more adventurous: free climbing on the cliffs over the bay. We piled with two other climbers and a climbing guide into a small dinghy and headed to a slightly over-hanging cliff which dropped off into deep water. The boat would bring us up the the cliff face, where we would climb onto the rock. Once we were on, the boat would back away, leaving nothing below us but our safety net: the water. With no ropes or harnesses to hold us, we climbed until we couldn’t go any further or until we got tired (which, honestly, wasn’t all that high- we are relative beginners when it comes to rock climbing). When we were ready to drop, we would let go of the rock, pushing off slightly to clear anything jutting out below us and falling around 30 feet (10 meters) into the water below.

It was a blast. And, if I'm honest, we felt pretty badass telling people we had free climbed in Halong Bay, like we were a couple of extreme sports enthusiasts instead of complete beginners.

We could have stayed longer in Cat Ba, but we had a date to make: we had to meet Elodie in Hanoi. It was so strange and wonderful to meet up with family on the other side of the world. The first five minutes were quite surreal, but then we all fell back into our normal ways and before we knew it, we felt like Elodie had been traveling with us the whole time. We spent another couple days in Hanoi shopping, getting a massage and eating some delicious food from street vendors and beer houses, where we enjoyed our meals elbow to elbow with locals who were all too happy to explain to us just how incorrectly we were eating specialties like dried beef and green papaya salad, fried tofu with tomato and garlic sauce, and noodles with beef and fresh mint.

After several days in Hanoi, we were ready for something a little more peaceful, a slower pace. We were ready for Sapa, Vietnam’s trekking capital. 

But that is another post entirely. Laos and Cambodia kind of got the shaft on this blog, what with all the rushing and the lumping, so I'm not about to make the same mistake with Vietnam. If history has taught me anything, it's this:  
You don't f-ck with Vietnam.


  1. SAPA! Get excited!!!

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  3. Oh so strange : for the first time I read your blog and I have the exact pictures in my mind. You are a so great travel teller (does this word exist in English, too late to google it ;-)).
    I am looking forward to read the next post.

    I had the exact same feeling : so weird to see you in Vietnam the 5 first minutes then it was as if I had always travelled with you.
    But I can not tell more for now, this blog is only the begining of my journey.

    Gros bisous
    PS; c'est trop dur la reprise..... I miss you