14th JANUARY 2019
The omens aren’t particularly good on the day I’m due to fly out to Hanoi. I wake to find a text message from Emirates Airlines informing me that my flight has been delayed by ninety minutes, meaning we won’t leave now until 2.30pm. Then, as I’m waiting, a separate flight from Manchester to Iceland is diverted into Glasgow as some of their passengers had smelt smoke on board. This causes a bit of a commotion for a time, as the offending plane sits surrounded by emergency vehicles while it awaits the all clear. Finally, when a catering truck tries to deliver the on-board food for my flight, it is temporarily thwarted as its hydraulic platform can’t be raised high enough. All these delays mean we eventually take off at 4.00pm, having being scheduled to depart at 1.00pm.
Taking off three hours late is going to cause a problem as my lay-over in Dubai also happens to be exactly three hours long. Unless this plane makes up time, I’ll be landing in Dubai just as my Hanoi flight is departing. A missed connection really isn’t the way I want to start this trip, even though I realise the airline would look after me if they caused it. I also realise that there is nothing I can do to influence the outcome, yet I still spend most of the flight looking at the clock to see if we’re making up enough time. I’m totally wired by the time we land in Dubai, which I put down to playing non-stop Tetris as much as my constant clock-watching.
Somehow the plane makes up forty minutes in the air, so we now have that same amount of time to disembark, dash between gates, go through security screening once again and board the second flight. Luckily, a chap from Emirates ground staff is waiting for the Hanoi passengers. He manages to rush about a dozen stressed travellers through the airport and herds us all onto the next flight with minutes to spare.
Safely aboard the second plane, all my excitement and adrenaline starts to subside pretty quickly. This come-down leaves me feeling tired, and I spend most of the next flight drifting in and out of sleep. As we approach Hanoi, I gaze out my window to see predominantly green, jungly-looking countryside below, but then I see my first road and notice that traffic drives on the right hand side of the road in Vietnam. This comes as bit of a surprise to me as I honestly thought all of South East Asia drove on the left !
It’s about mid-day when we land, although in my head it could just as easily be evening. Customs is a formality, but I then spend ages waiting at the Oversize Goods door for my bicycle to appear. As I’m standing by, an assorted stream of pushchairs, golf clubs and various other hefty equipment is brought out to the arrivals hall by baggage handlers. I start to get a sinking feeling that my bike may still be in Dubai, waiting to be placed on the next available flight. This conclusion seems entirely possible, given that I nearly missed the connection myself. I’ve actually reached the stage of approaching the Lost Luggage counter when eventually my bike, shrouded in black bin bags, is dragged through the door.
As I walk out the main exit, I’m pushing my mummified-looking bike on an airport trolley past a throng of waiting taxi drivers, friends and relatives. To a casual onlooker, it’s not immediately apparent that it’s a bicycle I’m transporting under all this wrapping, so I’m treated to a few curious looks. I just smile in return. In amongst this scrum of people there is a guy holding a card with my name on it. We move to his car, where he lowers the rear seats and we manage to fit the bike inside for a forty minute drive to my Homestay accommodation. I could have cycled this, but I’m glad I took the easy option today when I see the sheer volume of traffic (especially scooters), hear the cacophony of horns and realise that Hanoi roads are truly and utterly chaotic.
After many twists, turns and a general disregard for road rules we arrive at The Hanoi Sweet Family Homestay. It’s situated down an alley which then opens out into a small, square courtyard enclosed by four storey townhouses. Because the surrounding buildings are so tall, it feels like this tiny square has been cut off from the outside world. It’s a quiet little oasis of calm in the midst of this bustling, noisy city.
The woman who runs the Homestay is a Vietnamese lady in her thirties called Bich (Bik), who turns out to be a great host. She gets me scissors and a knife to cut my bike from its wrapping and then allows me to chain it up outside her family home, just opposite the Homestay. It’s been a long journey, but I’m quietly happy that me and the bike have made it to Hanoi in one piece and at the same time. By 3.00pm jet-lag kicks in and I snooze for around three hours. I’m slightly disoriented when I wake and have no real idea what the time is. As it’s now dark outside, I’m not even sure what day it is.
The following morning I seem to have got my bearings again, and I’m up in plenty time for breakfast. It’s served downstairs by Bich and consists of omelette with a side of sliced tomatoes, toast with jam, mini bananas and watermelon slices. I wash this down with Vietnamese filter coffee, which is made fresh with the coffee dripping through a filter and into a glass below. I’d asked for milk with my coffee, but instead of fresh, it comes in the form of condensed milk. This is poured into the bottom of the glass first, before coffee slowly drips through to join it. This actually turns out to be a good thing as the sweet, condensed milk offsets the sharp bitterness of Vietnamese coffee.
My original plan had been to stay in Hanoi for only a couple of days, just long enough to explore the city before cycling South. Then I’d ride about halfway down Vietnam before crossing into Laos. However, I’d seen that one of the cycle tourers I follow on Instagram had tried to cross into Laos using an overland border, only to be refused entry because he was travelling by bicycle. I do some more on-line research and find a few more stories of a similar nature – there is a chance that Laos border officials won’t let tourists pass if they are travelling overland by bike. The common consensus seems to be that this may be for the cyclists’ own safety. If these stories are true, then there’s a chance I could be turned away from the border and back into Vietnam. This wouldn’t be too disastrous if I had a lengthy Vietnamese visa. Sadly, my visa is only valid for one month.
My plans quickly change to thinking I’ll just have to cycle right down Vietnam and straight into Cambodia so that I can avoid Laos. The problem is that Vietnam is a long, skinny country and I’d have to cycle almost 2,000km in just four weeks. Now, I could cover that distance in the timeframe if I had to, but I’d rather not. I didn’t come all this way just to cycle every day and to experience nothing but roads. I want to take time to see the country and also have the luxury of some touristy Rest Days as well. It seems that the best solution would be to try and get a visa extension so that I can stay in the country longer and not be stressed about having to make a deadline.
I speak to Bich about extending my visa as she has a travel agent friend who can organise it all for me. The downside is that I’ll have to hand over my passport for the ten days it takes to process. This might mean I’ll have to remain in Hanoi for the duration as any new Vietnamese accommodation would need to see my passport at check-in. Annoyingly, it’s also going to cost me 100 US Dollars for the privelege. The most frustrating part is that I could easily have applied for a three month visa before I left the UK, instead of the one month visa I ended up getting. Still, having to remain in Hanoi for ten days isn’t the end of the world. This way I’ll get a proper feel for the city and I’m sure I’ll find plenty to interest me in that time.