Overnight to Hanoi.
20.10.2010 - 24.10.2010 25 °C
Our minibus pulled into the Dien Bien Phu bus station and as soon as we descended to gather our bags we were mobbed by a group of locals offering all sorts of things, from bus tickets to food and anything in between. Yet the worst part was that the good old ‘ignore them and they will walk away trick’ didn’t seem to work, as they would start to tap you on the shoulder or pull your bag to get your attention. We had been warned about the haggling attitude in Vietnam but this was worse than we expected. At this point the group of backpackers that was on the minibus with us starts to disperse as we all have different itineraries, most of them wanting to head for the North towards. We wanted to head East from here into Hanoi. We promptly realised the local’s curiosity towards not only tourists but western tourists, we were ogled by everyone on the streets, really everyone. We were such a rarity that at one point one of the hagglers started touching Teresita’s golden locks perhaps in awe that such beautiful mane could exist. Our departure time is set, we are to buy tickets for the overnight ‘camel’ bus to Hanoi, leaving at 6.15pm and arriving at 6 in the morning the next day. A dash to the closest cash machine, fast-cash withdrawal and we are millionare’s 1’500’000 Vietnamese Dong (about 75 dollars), some food, tickets and we are ready to go. In the meantime we explore the surroundings; we climb to the top of the famous hill that simbolises the victory over the French and although we do not find this town particularly pretty, we do feel Vietnamese people are very approachable and friendly. By 6pm we buy the usual overnight bus snacks and we head to the bus. This one was unlike any other we had taken before, the camel bus as they call it, is basically a dormitory on wheels; 3 rows of bunkbeds covering the length of the bus. We have been assigned seats, yet somehow these are occupied and we land the crappiest seats on the bus. The right row by the bathroom, where the seats are actually shorter and despite city boy’s Latin-American stature it is hard for him to stretch his legs and feels rather uncomfortable. Somehow the little swede has a much comfortable seat in the middle row, so after much consideration we swap seats. A movie is playing in the background, some Jackie Chan Flick dubbed into Vietnamese, there’s people laughing and it is hard to sleep. We are also the only westerners on the bus. A couple of hours later Teresita is gone, mouth open and all, we are woken up by the conductor as we have stopped for a meal. We get off the bus and although not terribly hungry, we are convinced to take a seat by the friendly travellers which explain to us this meal is included. As we move towards the table we feel everyone’s eyes are on us, but as we look around we get some friendly smiles, plus food is good. A run to the facilities before we leave and few minutes later, la monita snoring away, she was loving this camel bus. It is 5.30 am and there is a lot of commotion on the bus, people are getting off, but we have no clue where we are. We have arrived it seems. We collect our bags and move away from the swarm of xe om (moto taxis) drivers offering us a ride. It is better we head to the main station building look at the map and try and figure where we need to go. It is no better at the other side, taxi drivers around us charging inflated amounts for a ride to the old quarter, so we take the bus. The ride takes no time and in less than half an hour we have made it near Hoan Kiem Lake, right in the centre of the old quarter. Most hotels are conveniently located in this area, so we walk. At this time of the day, 6.30 am the city seems very peaceful, there is a lot of greenery and we find people exercising. Finally after having breakfast and a few missed attempts we find a hotel and with the old ‘it’s our honeymoon’ we get a discounted rate and the staff seem incredibly friendly. We shower get changed a few phone calls and we’re out to town. Just when we thought things could not get any crazier, we have arrived in Hanoi!
Forget about the tales, the backpacker stories, this is unlike anything you have ever seen. Hundreds of mopeds, motorbikes of all types, with up to four people on them and sometimes even cars, all driving through an intersection at the same time from all possible directions; regardless of whether there is a traffic light or not and all honking their horns in unison. It’s hard to imagine, you’d have to be here to believe it, but you have to take our word for it, it’s absolutely insane. Now, if you can believe it, try and imagine what is like to cross the streets. It’s a bit like playing frogger. Even walking on the sidewalk is complicated as these are more like an extension of the street, along them motorbikes are parked over this once pedestrian territory and one is forced to meander along the streets with the traffic, now an easy prey to the ever present get-out-of-my-way-I-am-coming-behind-you-horn. One could write an infinite list of Hanoi’s (and for that matter Vietnam’s driving crimes) but the thing is that underneath this dense layer of chaos, mayhem and blaring horns lays a city with a lot of charm and with a fantastic blend of flavours. An underlying communist spice, with some mild French undertones, but above all richly Asian. We explore the city by foot always in search of local grub and much to our delight we find that the Hanoi hagglers are nothing like their Dien Bien Phu counterparts, there is no touching and a simple no is enough to stop the offers of fruit, books, dvd’s, xy clos (bike taxi), xe om (moto taxi) etc. Or maybe is more to do with the fact that at this point in our travels our well-honed haggling skills (Teresita has become ruthless in the art of bargaining) no longer make us easy prey. We try again very many tasty dishes, Pho (or soup with noodles), Bun Cha (Grilled pork and crispy spring rolls over a flavourful noodle broth) and Bahn Cuon (a cooked rice roll filled with pork or chicken) all cooked in the most basic restaurants and in some cases with very basic tools, yet more flavourful than those you’d eat in the more upscale and pricey restaurants The city thrives on local eateries where one is sat on low plastic tools all along the sidewalks and in similar fashion on ‘Bia Hoi’ (Beer Hoi) bars frequented by locals where the beer goes for around 3000 to 5000 Dong (or 25 cents). In the middle of the Old Quarter is Hoan Kiem Lake, a green respire from the mayhem of this city. Ironically enough the streets around it are rather busy, but is easy to walk around the lake and forget about what’s going on around it, it’s all serene until you need to cross the street again. We find that like the lake this city has many corners in which one can easily relax even if in the background one can still hear the honking horns, which make this city (so far) unlike any other we have been to in South-east Asia. After three nights (with an in-between Halong Bay break) and undone by the traffic we decide to head south; overnight travelling yet again!