In a manner that mirrored our arrival in Dalat several weeks earlier, our sleeper train pulled into the station in Hanoi well before sunrise. Under a black sky and laden with our packs, we slowly made the walk back towards the Old Quarter (this time, there was no need for a taxi, after all, with most of the city closed, there was no rush to be anywhere).
We found ourselves a bench beside the Hoan Kiem Lake and waited for the sunrise, taking it in turns to go for a wander and stretch the legs, whilst the other was left in charge of the bags.
Unfortunately we failed to enjoy a gorgeous sunrise over the lake as we’d been hoping, as the dull overcast sky failed to clear, but there was some small compensation with the chance to observe the the various forms of morning exercise, the dance aerobics proving a favourite.
As the city slowly woke, we indulged in breakfast by the lake before finding ourselves a room for our last nights in the city. Having some extra time in the city allowed us to take in a few additional sights we hadn’t allowed for in our first stay several days earlier. What we hadn’t factored in was a bit of travel fatigue combined with a return to the heat and humidity and we felt a bitter flatter than we had at any stage of the trip.
We took in some more of the classic colonial architecture in the French Quarter, before deciding to wander over to Lenin Park. Sarah was already of the opinion, and I was slowly reaching a similar mindset (perhaps it was because it was my first encounter with Vietnam), but Hanoi was feeling a lot more somber to me than Saigon which seemed a lot more buoyant and open to the world.
Not to say there weren’t highlights. As already mentioned, the Bia Hoi scene here was much more prevalent, and the colonial footprint, both faded and restored gave the city a level of charm. There was just a different vibe.
The Temple of Literature also proved a well preserved traditional Vietnamese building, with lovely surrounding grounds and full of relics, it was incredible to think it was found almost 1000 years ago.
We took the time for a final round of Bia Hoi on a corner of a Dao Duy Tu (the same venue we frequented for most of our Bia Hoi in Hanoi). Again it was just us and a myriad of locals, many of whom we watched with interest as they took drive through to a whole new level. Guys would pull up on their scooter (as it was mainly men here other than the ever watchful owner who pulled the beers), hand over their 8000 dong and proceed to neck a beer before cruising on. It was riveting viewing!
We still felt a touch jaded, so we thought we’d move farther afield and arranged a trip out to Mai Chau for our final full day in the country. Around 3-4 hours from Hanoi, Mai Chau is home to another of the countries minorities, the White Thai who live in stilted houses in the most gorgeous valley.
The roads began to wind and climb as we got ever closer, and as our destination beckoned, our mini-van pulled to the kerb to allow us the chance to take in the spectacular views and spy our destination in the distance.
Whilst much of Vietnam is lush, we were immediately struck by how green and peaceful this place was. While this place seemed as though they were prepped for tourists with most of the stilted houses set up with small stalls beneath, there was just nobody around, so we were able to wander around in peace.
After a delicious lunch, it was back onto the bicycles (much to Sarah’s joy) as we took in the sights on peaceful roads and narrow trails.
There were few people and no vehicles so this proved an ideal way to get around. We took the time to stop and sample some fresh sugarcane, try our hand at weaving on a local loom and visited a local brickworks. We completed our tour of the valley by visiting the home of an elderly local man where he generously shared several cups of tea with us.
It was suprisingly cool in their elevated homes, built not to keep them safe from floodwaters, but a legacy of the days past when tigers would emerge from the surrounding hills.
It certainly was a relief to get away from the hustle and bustle, so it was with much better spirits that we returned to Hanoi for our last night before our departure the following morning.
So, what to do for our last afternoon? Why back to Bia Hoi of course! As usual, we found ourselves again amongst a sea of locals, people watching and the odd bit of broken comversation. It was some of this conversation and having had a round of beers bought for us that lead to the offer to try some of the food these men were tucking into.
After some discussion we discovered it was the stuff you hear children’s stories of, dog… Out of politeness I tried some, to find it tough like leather and very chewy. Sarah made an attempt, but had to make the call whether to spit it out, or bring back lunch. She chose to spit it out, but our new friends took it all in good humour.
After bidding our new friends farewell, we tucked into a delicious street barbecue dinner (devoid of dog) before settling down for the night.
A fairly dull night was made lively when having closed a bedroom window before bed, it was revealed that I’d accidently locked a local rat into our room. Awareness of this situation was to come as it raced past our bed head, just beside my head.
Normally this wouldn’t freak me out so much, however we’d very recently been sharing tales of overnight trains/buses with other travellers when one had regaled us with a story of being woken by a rat gnawing at their foot!
Opening the window, we eventually got him out, only in the morning learning that he’d managed to take with him half a snickers bar (at first Sarah had assumed I’d just eaten it)!
Making our way through immigration at Hanoi the next morning, we were approached by a gentleman in a Vietnam Airlines polo who was very excited to see us. After a moments panic, it turned out we’d not been suspected of carrying any illicit substances, but it was our friend from the Bia Hoi place who’d bought us a round and fed me dog!
Beer had again helped us make friends everywhere!