Hanoi

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!

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