24th JANUARY 2019
When I first made the decision to extend my Vietnamese visa, I thought that the ten day waiting period in Hanoi might be a chore. However, as the days have worn on I’ve started to develop a bit of a soft spot for the city. It’s noisy, busy, polluted and the traffic is crazy, but somehow there’s still a nice feel to the place. And, even though the essence of a cycle trip is to keep moving, I’ve not minded being stuck in the one location for so long. A big reason for this is that I’ve been able to keep myself amused and get a feel for the city by meeting some locals.
I catch up with Thuy for a second time a few days later. This time she pops round to my Homestay with a girl called Dinh, who, like Anh before, will now get to practice her English on a real live native speaker. We take a walk to West Lake, which is the largest lake in Hanoi and start to make our way along the waterside path. A full walking circle of the lake would be a tiring 17km long, which means we don’t get very far before deciding to turn back for coffee. After sampling Egg Coffee on my last outing, today I opt to try another Vietnamese favourite, Yoghurt Coffee. When I order I’m expecting to get yoghurt-flavoured coffee, or even coffee-flavoured yoghurt. But no, when my cup arrives it contains dark coffee with a few dollops of yoghurt thrown in. This combination sounds like it would never work, but once the two are stirred in together, the result is surprisingly good. I’m finding that Vietnamese coffee is so strong and bitter that virtually anything sweet can be added to smooth out the taste.
We walk back towards the Old Quarter, with Thuy asking me for some examples of idioms to help her with her English course. Bloody Hell, I don’t even know what an idiom is ! She explains that it’s something like ‘Raining Cats and Dogs’ where the words used are not actually related to the meaning of the phrase. In other words, cats and dogs really have nothing to do with rain. The irony of a Vietnamese girl having to spell this out to an English speaker is not lost on me. In actual fact Thuy is fairly Westernised in her outlook and not what you’d expect from a stereotypical Asian girl. She’s sarcastic, drops the odd swear word and she likes a beer, which is wonderfully refreshing to see.
In the evening we go for food at a restaurant that does Hot Pot, which I’m told is a popular food choice here as a winter warmer. I soon find out that the Vietnamese version has no similarities whatsoever to a traditional UK Hot Pot of stew or casserole. Essentially, each table in the restaurant has their own little hot plate stove and we cook the Hot Pot ourselves. First we are brought a large pot of ‘broth’ and bring it to the boil. Our broth is made from vegetables and stock and tastes a bit like a Thai Red Curry soup. Then we receive a tray of pre-sliced ingredients which include prawns, cockles, chicken, long mushrooms, tofu, octopus tentacles and what looks like beef strips. You simply drop the ingredients into the broth one by one until they are ready. I’m happy to let Thuy do all the cooking as I wouldn’t be sure how long to cook each ingredient for. Plus, she’s a lot better at handling chopsticks than I am. Most of the meats cook quickly as they’ve been sliced so thinly, but I’ve got no real idea when the seafood is ready. She does a grand job and the result is delicious, although I find it quite spicy. I think it might just be me not being used to the spiciness, but Dinh also says she finds it hot, which in turn makes me feel better.
We wash the meal down with some beer and keep asking for our broth to be topped up until we finish all the ingredients. Then it’s time to walk back to the Homestay and say Goodbye. The pair of them are rugged up in warm jackets and scarves, looking as if they are about to trek off into the Arctic. For them a Hanoi winter is cold, whereas for me it’s about ten degrees warmer than the UK. Dinh drives Thuy home on her tiny, girly scooter which still looks way too big for her. It’s been another good day and Thuy’s been excellent company once again.
The following day I go for a cycle right round West Lake. I want to buy a pair of more robust touring tyres, but also want to see how I fare on a bike in amongst the demented Hanoi traffic. I’ve watched how road behaviour works here as a passenger on a scooter, so I just need to get into that mindset. I try to go with the flow of traffic and not make any sudden manoeuvres and this allows me to reach the lake without incident.
There’s a bicycle shop about halfway round that can only kit me out with a single decent touring tyre, so I buy that and sling it over my shoulder before continuing. I find that large parts of the lakeside are pretty, bordered by trendy restaurants and large expensive houses, but there are some uglier parts too. A handful of guys are fishing from the lakeshore on the way round, despite the presence of dead, floating fish on the water’s surface. The lake must be so dirty and polluted being in the middle of a huge city, so I’m surprised to see they’re still willing to catch and eat fish from there. I ride back to the Homestay to discover I’ve made a monumental cock-up with tyre sizes, and that my recent purchase is too small for my bike’s wheel. The next day I make a repeat journey round the lake to exchange my tyre for one that actually fits. Ordinarily I’d have been a bit annoyed at my own stupidity, but it’s a pleasant cycle round the lake and it’s allowed me another practice ride through Hanoi traffic.
A couple of days before I’m due to leave Hanoi a remarkable piece of synchronicity occurs. When I’d set off on my European trip during the summer, my first Couchsurfing host was a Norwegian girl called Isabelle. I stayed with her family for three days in the small Arctic town of Honningsvåg, and made my way to and from North Cape via their house. Being able to use their warm, friendly home as a base was just the start I needed for my trip. Now, seven months later, she happens to be stopping in Hanoi for three days on her way to Australia. So, Isabelle was there in Norway for the start of my European trip and now she’s here in Hanoi for the start of my South East Asian trip. I even get to thinking that she might be some sort of lucky mascot or guardian angel and that meeting her again will ensure that this trip goes smoothly. Realistically, it’s just one of those incredibly freakish coincidences that sometimes happen in life. It’s still a bit spooky though.
The hostel she’s staying at is a two minute walk from my Homestay, so I wander round and say Hello. It’s good to catch up with her again. We walk into the Old Quarter for a bite to eat and a fruit drink. At one point she takes a selfie of us and sends it to her mother in Norway, with a question of ‘Guess who I’m having a drink with?’ Mother doesn’t recognise me though, as I’ve lost so much weight from cycling since I met her last June. Isabelle left Norway in July and has spent most of her time travelling in the USA and Korea. Her destinations are heavily influenced by whether or not the city has a West Coast Swing dancing scene, and she travels accordingly. She’s even found a dancing community in Hanoi and that’s where she’s heading after our catch up. We say Goodbye and I take the long way back to my Homestay through the bright and bustling Old Quarter.
After being told I’d definitely get my passport returned on the Friday, it duly arrives a day early. Inside is a lovely new Vietnamese visa that allows me to remain in the country until the 11th of March. Although my passport gets back earlier than expected, I still keep Saturday as my scheduled departure day. Normally on a cycle trip I try to avoid large cities, but now I find I’m in no hurry to leave. I spend my final day faffing with my bike and packing everything I require for three months travel into two pannier bags. I’ve enjoyed my extended stay in Hanoi, but tomorrow the time has come to finally hit the road.