18th JANUARY 2019
On Couchsurfing you can meet up with locals either by sending a personal message or by creating a ‘Public Trip’ for the location you’re travelling to. I wasn’t really sure which way to approach this in Hanoi, so I just decided to create a Public Trip and then sit back to see if any locals wanted to get in touch. I’d tried going down this route in Europe without much success, but in Hanoi the response turned out to be an awful lot better than I expected.
One of my responses was from a young lady named Thuy, who had suggested meeting up for an afternoon. I join her just outside the Old Quarter of Hanoi to find that she’s another tiny woman in her twenties who again looks younger than she is. She finds a place for lunch and orders me a big bowl of noodles, although declines to have any herself. It feels slightly awkward being the only person at the table eating, especially when I’m trying so hard to concentrate on correct chopstick use in front of a local. Thuy then asks if we can be joined by one of her friends, Anh, who would like to practice her English. It turns out that Thuy teaches at an English language school and quite often invites travellers to her school to speak with the students.
Anh’s English is not as good as Thuy’s, but I think this might be a confidence thing. She’s OK once she gets talking, although Thuy has to constantly prod her to speak to me. We walk round one side of Hoàn Kiếm Lake, an iconic Hanoi location where students learning English are encouraged to come and approach tourists in order to practice. There are two islands in the lake, one of which is tiny and unreachable, housing a 17th century stone tower with arches on all sides. The second is home to the small Ngoc Son Temple where we go for photos on a red wooden bridge that leads to the island. We don’t actually set foot on the island though, due to the temple having an entry fee.
Then it’s into the busy Old Quarter as Thuy wants me to try Egg Coffee, a drink she says Hanoi is famous for. We spend a while walking, with Thuy asking shopkeepers how to get to Giang Cafe, the home of Hanoi’s original Egg Coffee. Apparently this odd sounding beveridge was invented in the 1940’s, when fresh milk was scarce and replaced in coffee by whisked egg yolks. The cafe looks nothing more than an open doorway from the street, but opens up, Tardis-like, inside. We go upstairs to find a busy cafe, where every table seems to be filled by either Vietnamese students or tourists. Our table is the only one with both. When our coffee arrives it’s served in a white china cup that sits in a small dish of hot water to maintain its temperature. A creamy-coloured top half is the egg part and is so thick that I end up using a spoon to take only small measures. Ingredients that are predominantly egg yolks, sugar and condensed milk ensure that it is also extremely sweet. This is just as well as the Vietnamese coffee in the bottom of the cup is toe-curlingly bitter. However, once they are mixed, these extreme tastes of sweet and bitter cancel each other out to form a smooth, vanilla tasting coffee. I can just about understand what all the fuss is about now.
Thuy asks if I wouldn’t mind coming to their school and talking with some students to help them practice English. I’m not sure about this, but I can hardly decline after she has been showing me round all afternoon. She orders me a Grab Bike, which is basically a motorbike taxi where the driver speeds through Hanoi traffic and charges you an absurdly cheap fare. All you have to do is pop one of their green Grab Bike helmets on, sit on the back and you’re good to go.
When I reach the school I’m sat down at a table in reception, while Thuy captures students as they come in so they can chat with me before going upstairs to their lessons. A steady stream of kids walk through the door and are corralled into sitting at my table. We ask each other all the normal questions you would expect to hear during a language class. Some have a decent grasp of English, others aren’t so good. At one point I have half a dozen eager students crowded round my table while I ask them their ages and suchlike. With some of the more fluent ones I can have a better conversation and find out snippets about their lives, while they ask me all about living in the UK. It’s quite interesting, but I’m still relieved when the last of the students troops upstairs for their proper English lesson and we can finally go for a beer.
Me, Thuy and a young bloke named Dung go for drinks and snacks at a little bar just round from the college. The snacks come wrapped in banana leaves so, although I get told what I’m ordering, I’m never really sure what the food will be until I open the package. Most of them open up to reveal variations on sausages or pâté. I notice Thuy is watching me with interest as I eat, presumably to see if the Westerner is going to baulk at consuming these strange new foods. When I tell her the snacks tasted OK, she ups the stakes by asking if I would like to try a type of fertilised duck egg that Vietnamese call Balut. Like a fool I say ‘Yes’ and we arrive at a street food stall before I can change my mind. She orders and returns with two large boiled duck eggs. The difference with these eggs is that they have been fertilised and left to develop for just over two weeks. This means that the yolk inside has started it’s journey into becoming a chick. It’s quite a thought to be putting this in your mouth, especially when I can see where the yolk has begun to solidify and form what looks like veins. Nevertheless, I dip the egg in salt and give it a try. The texture is a lot more chewy than a standard egg, but thankfully it still tastes of nothing more than plain egg. I think I’ve passed the test. At the end of the evening Thuy phones me another Grab Bike and I’m taken back to my Homestay through the night time city traffic. Today has certainly been an education, and not just for Thuy’s students.
My days in Hanoi seem to morph seamlessly into each other as I wait for my visa extension. I try to meet up with locals from the Couchsurfing or Warmshowers websites as much as I can, but there are still days when I’m left to amuse myself. Fortunately, my Homestay is handily placed for a short wander to Hoàn Kiếm Lake or into the bustling Old Quarter. I’m also only 400 metres from the surreal spectacle that is the Hanoi Street Train.
This length of train track was really only known by locals until fairly recently, but has now become a surprise tourist attraction. What makes this section so unusual is that the train thunders through a tight corridor of shops and houses that sit within a few feet of the line. There are no safety barriers and locals go about their daily business as if the tracks didn’t exist. I see kitchen pots and pans being washed on the train line outside someone’s house and kids playing on the track right next to their front door. There are even little tourist cafes that have sprung up, where you can have a trackside coffee or beer while waiting for the train to pass. Only a handful of trains use this line per day though, so most visitors have to be content with taking train line selfies, minus the train. There can be a lot of waiting involved unless you know the timetable. Luckily I’ve come prepared as my Homestay has a list of the train times at reception.
I make my way down around half an hour before the train is due just so I can sit with a coffee and take in the whole event. By this time the tracks are swarming with tourists in anticipation of the upcoming extravaganza. There’s almost a carnival-like atmosphere. Groups of Asians are posing on the line and being snapped making that ‘V for Victory’ hand gesture that they always do in photographs. The first sign we have of the train’s imminent arrival is the sound of its horn tooting, followed by the sound of shop owners shouting ‘Train Coming!’ and ushering everyone from the track. It probably wouldn’t be in their best interest to have a tourist squashed outside their shop. The train itself is a big old square-fronted beast that takes up almost all of the available space between the buildings as it rumbles past. At my side there’s only about a one metre gap for me to stand in between wall and train. It’s so close I can feel the air moving and ground shaking as the giant locomotive and its ten carriages pass. I could reach out and touch it if I wanted. It’s only once the train passes and clatters off into the distance that I can see how perilously close it gets to the buildings. Health & Safety can kiss its arse on the way through.
That evening I’m heading out for some food when I hear a huge roar from a bar across the street. It appears that Vietnam have just equalised in their Asian Cup football match against Jordan. I carry on till I find a cafe with a television and settle down with some beef noodles and a Hanoi Beer to watch the rest of the game. It’s my good fortune that Hanoi Beer translates into Vietnamese as nothing more complicated than ‘Bia Hanoi’.
The game finishes 1-1, so I move to a proper bar to watch the extra time. Thirty minutes later the game has gone to penalty kicks. I’ve started to get quite involved in the match by this point, although its nothing compared to the locals. They are tremendous fun to watch during the penalties as they get so endearingly happy and excited. At the end of penalties Vietnam have one kick to win the game, and when the ball goes in the place erupts ! Everyone in the bar is jumping, grinning and overjoyed. Then there’s almost a feeling of mass disbelief, like they can’t believe that they’ve actually won. For me, it’s just good to see such a happy throng of people. I walk back to the sound of multiple fireworks being set off to celebrate the country’s victory and I feel a warm glow of happiness for them. Although, to be fair, that happiness could just as easily be attributed to the Bia Hanoi.