After a late departure following ferocious storms, I depart for a sky trembling with turbulence in an almost empty Chinese plane. The Vietnamese scientist I befriended in the long wait in Beijing keeps me company, and worries as I become increasingly shaky from the late night and rough ride. It’s always like this, she laughs.
Finally, we arrive in Hanoi, where my silent guesthouse driver collects me at 2AM, after I have survived a friendly, half-hearted attempt by a customs’ officer to solicit a bribe. He asks if I have Australian money for him, I say I don’t. He waves me along.
I arrive at my guesthouse, the streets of the city quiet and shut-up. There’s no indication yet what the morning will bring. The air is sticky outside, but my room overly air-conditioned, making it almost too cold to sleep.
After dreams of turbulence, I wake to the noise and heat and colour of my first day in Vietnam. I spend the morning wandering the streets of old Hanoi, meandering languidly around Hoan Kiem Lake, chatting to locals, and watching in admiration the hard-working women, balancing whole households on their heads whilst navigating across rivers of traffic.
As exhaustion creeps, I contact the scientist, who collects me on her puttering scooter. We race into the argument of wheels, riding skin-to-skin with thousands of other sweaty motorists. She asks if I’m hungry, then skids to a local restaurant for pho. Fresh and fragrantly delicious, my beef and noodles wash away with bia hoi. Cheap and refreshing, the local draught seems to refill itself in my glass. For the next course, we ride to another restaurant for BBQ and rice, then take a final spin around town, before returning to my guesthouse.
After a better night’s sleep, next morning I wander to the Temple of Literature, tranquil site of the oldest university in Vietnam. In the afternoon, a trip to the cathedral for a traveller’s prayer, then gift shopping for the family back home.
Returning to the guesthouse with the hope of an early night, I’m met by a group of Dutch tourists who persuade me to join them for beer and street food. It’s impossible to resist. Eventually, we find ourselves in a Hanoi nightclub, from which the morality police eject us onto the street, and sweep us back towards our hotels in the early hours of the new day. As we wander, someone regales us with stories of her trip to the Snake Village, site of a vile backpacking rite de passage, in which adventurous young travellers swallow still-beating hearts plucked from the split sides of cobras.
Next morning, it’s off to the seaside!