16th JANUARY 2019
I settle into Hanoi life while waiting for my visa extension to come through. Breakfasts at the Homestay are the same every morning, although I notice that Bich starts to give me extra servings of toast as the days progress.
With ten days to kill, I try to make use of the Couchsurfing website, just so I can meet up with some Hanoi locals and see if they can show me their city. Often Couchsurfer locals can host travellers, but it seems that most Vietnamese stay in the family home until they get married or live in tiny flats that couldn’t really house extra guests. This effectively rules out being hosted here, which is a shame as it means missing out on that cultural aspect. It also rules out being able to save a bit of money on lodgings, although it won’t make a huge difference to my budget with Vietnamese accommodation being so ridiculously cheap.
A couple of days after my arrival I meet up with Couchsurfer Yen. She pops round to my Homestay on her scooter and picks me up for a day of sightseeing and getting to know Hanoi. From her Couchsurfing profile I know that she’s in her mid-twenties, but in typical Asian fashion looks younger than she is. And she is tiny! I jump on the back of her scooter and we plough through busy traffic for the short journey to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. I’m told this is a ‘must see’ for foreign visitors to Hanoi, but it’s also where Vietnamese will come to pay homage to their national hero.
Once inside the complex we come under the watchful eye of stern looking soldiers in brilliant white uniforms. Most of them don’t look much older than teenagers, but our movements through the grounds are strictly regulated by them. We have to stand in line outside the mausoleum as only a small amount of people are allowed entry at one time. When it’s our turn we file slowly into a dimly lit hall and round a glass case that contains the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh himself. Everyone adopts a hushed, reverential tone as we walk round the outside of the room, within a few feet of the casket in the centre. Photography is prohibited and no-one is allowed to stop on the way round. The soldiers in this hall look especially stern and are armed too, so we all stick by the regulations. Even Yen, who has been here a number of times, looks very solemn as we shuffle past the body. We are in and out of the building in thirty seconds.
Next it’s the museum, where I position myself before a large gold statue of Ho Chi Minh so that Yen can take my picture. As I’m standing there two Vietnamese ladies rush forward and link their arms through mine so they can have a photo of themselves with the tall Westerner. I feel like a minor celebrity for all of sixty seconds. Yen is surprised that I show an interest in Vietnamese history as other foreigners she has taken here just pass through quickly. She tells me that Ho Chi Minh’s army had helped end French rule in Vietnam, before he inspired the North Vietnamese to fight with such determination during the Vietnam War. Despite this hero status, he apparently led a very modest life. Instead of living in the ostentatious Presidential Palace, he chose to live nearby in a small wooden house beside a lake. He would receive overseas politicians in a simple ground floor room underneath his first floor living quarters. My history lesson continues as Yen explains how tough life was for ordinary people during the Vietnam War. She tells me how hard the country had to struggle through US bombings and food shortages, with the starving population reduced to eating anything that moved. When she’s finished she pauses, before looking me directly in the eye and proudly announcing ‘But WE won.’ In that moment I can almost see in Yen the defiance and tenacity of an entire nation. With that spirit I can understand how they won.
We go for lunch in a sort of Vietnamese street food cafe that has a wide, open entrance onto the pavement outside. Our food is cooked right in front of us by a hardy looking old woman, and I’m relieved to have a local with me as I have no real idea yet what I’m ordering from these places. Yen suggests Bun Cha, which is a traditional Hanoi dish, and I’m happy to go along with that. It’s like a noodle soup with veggies and what can only be described as ‘lumps’ of pork. It’s tasty and filling, although I feel like I’ve had my weekly intake of coriander in that one meal. We have salad and spring rolls as sides. For future reference I’m glad to find that the Vietnamese word for spring rolls is the easy to pronounce ‘nem’.
After lunch she takes me to the Museum of Ethnology, before we head over the Red River and out of Hanoi towards the ceramic pottery village at Bat Trang. We must look an odd sight on the scooter, with me at the rear sitting about a foot taller than her. It begins to rain lightly on the way to the village, so we end up a bit cold and wet by the time we get there. The village is basically just a big market that sells home-made pottery, which isn’t hugely interesting in itself. We only spend a short time looking round, but it’s so cold that we abandon the pottery and go for a coffee to heat ourselves up. For the return journey Yen wraps up well in waterproofs and offers me her father’s big jacket to keep warm. The sleeves only reach halfway down my forearms, which isn’t a great look, but at least my torso stays warm.
I get a very different perspective being on the back of a scooter and right in amongst the bedlam of Hanoi traffic. At first all I can take in is the noise and the chaos. It looks like traffic anarchy. Then after a few kilometres I begin to relax and realise that, somehow, it all seems to work. Plus, I haven’t witnessed any Road Rage here either. I can only begin to imagine the carnage that would follow if people drove this way in the angry UK. Here, it feels like everyone is constantly sounding their horns to announce they are coming through, but as long as we maintain our direction and make no sudden manoeuvres, then we are OK. Now I just need to transfer this mindset to my cycling.
I thank Yen for taking the time to show me around. It’s been really good of her and I doubt I’d have seen most of today’s sights without her help. As is often the case with Couchsurfer locals, I’m left wondering why someone would give up their whole day just to show a foreigner round their city. Maybe they are genuinely proud to show off their country ? Maybe they do enjoy meeting people from other cultures ? Or maybe they just want a chance to practice their English ? Whatever their reason, I’m glad that they do.
The following evening I meet up with some fellow cyclists from the Warmshowers website. My contact is a teacher from England called Hazel who has lived in Hanoi for the past six years. She wants me to meet her friend, Mick, who recently cycled 2,100km down Vietnam from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. This is more or less the same route I’ll be taking so it will be interesting to hear her stories and get some advice for the road.
Hazel has suggested meeting at their favourite roast chicken restaurant, which is within handy walking distance from my Homestay. It’s dark by the time I set off and I’m a little taken aback by how chilly it has become. It’s midwinter here, and although the temperature is about ten degrees warmer than Scotland, I’ve still got my long sleeved fleece on. The restaurant turns out to be more of a street food cafe, and our outside table, surrounded by tiny plastic chairs, is across the road on the opposite pavement. Hazel orders all our food in what sounds like flawless Vietnamese, and the owner begins the process of shuttling our meals over from his restautant across the street. We have chicken breast, chicken leg, salad and beer.
After half an hour or so, Hazel’s partner arrives by bicycle and joins us. He’s a New Zealander and is also a teacher, although he has no formal qualifications. While travelling he did a spot of Teaching English as a Foreign Language, and just took it from there. Now he teaches for twenty-two hours per week in a posh private school, which apparently allows him to ‘live like a king’ in Hanoi. After the food is finished we carry on with more beers and I get the chance to talk cycling with Mick, who is Welsh, but not annoyingly so. She is a powerfully built lady, with quadriceps that put my skinny wee legs to shame. With a few little side trips, it took her two months to cycle from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. I’ll have just over six weeks to cover the same distance once my visa extension comes through.
It’s been an enjoyable evening, with a good solid feed, a few beers and a bit of a laugh. I could happily have sat there for longer talking shite and getting drunk, but the teachers have to be up early for work tomorrow. When we go to leave they won’t allow me to contribute at all to the bill, which is really very decent of them. I walk back to the Homestay, reflecting that having to wait in Hanoi for these ten days might not be such a chore after all.