Road Warriors

I hooked up with another backpacker, Chris, not long after I arrived. He’s currently trying to offload a Minsk motorcycle that he’s been using for the last month or so. In the meantime, he’d planned a day trip out up the Red River Valley.

Seemed like a nice idea, so I hopped out and rented a moto for $8. Nothing anywhere near as rugged as the Communist tank ridden by Chris, but it had two wheels and didn’t stall so it was fine by me. I rented from Voyage Vietnam on Luong Ngoc Quyen, not far from Bia Hoi Corner. I’m happy to recommend them – lovely people.

The original aim was to try to get to a lake around 200km out of town. However, getting out of Hanoi is not very easy, even if you have a map.

Between the one way system, helpful locals who pointed us at the wrong highway and our utter lack of a sense of direction we finally passed the city limits after over 90 minutes. We didn’t manage this by any kind of navigational means, more by circling enough times that we achieved escape velocity.

Instead of heading north west, we found ourselves going more directly north towards Noi Bai airport. Not a huge problem until at one point I realised we were the only motorcycles on the road, surrounded by trucks, cars and buses. It seems the large bridge on the way up is for non-bikes only. Which would explain why the police were waving frantically at us to pull over before we got onto it. Oops.

We swung a left at the first roundabout onto what was clearly marked as a highway on the map. Thing is, “highway” in Vietnam basically means “the main road from A to B”. The quality of that road is indeterminate until you’re on it.

In this case, blacktop gave way to dust and potholes very quickly. Chris’ Minsk had far fewer problems than my little around-towner.

However, we really didn’t know where we were. As Chris put it, “I think we’re having a Top Gear moment”.

Navigating by the sun (that is, guessing) we headed north west, finally passing a couple of towns marked on the road atlas Chris had stored in the ammo boxes he used as paniers.

The roads varied a lot from nice tarmacced ones to potholed dirt tracks. The thing is, they can change very suddenly. Whereas Chris’ Minsk had no porblems dealing with this (except his seat falling off at one point), my little bike needed a bit more care an attention, so I was a fair bit slower that him.

In many areas, the roads were covered in grass as the locals used it to make hay. At least it would give a soft landing if we fell off (we didn’t).

Realising time was a little short, we crossed to a different road and worked our way back south east again. After a petrol stop, we pulled in for a couple of beers at a small shop. Very quickly we had a small fan club – a grandfather (70, but looked 50) with his little grandson, another old chap and a few other members of the family.

The grandad took a great interest in Chris’s Minsk, first circling it for a good couple of minutes before squatting and staring at the motor. I guess he used to have one or perhaps rode one in the war.

We were made most welcome, and had a great time taking photos of each other and trying to converse. This is what makes little day trips out in Vietnam so enjoyable. The scenery and so on are lovely, but the people make it.

Hanoi was in rush hour mode by the time we got back, so it took a lot longer to return to the hostel than intended. Still, despite losing track of each other we managed to both find the place again even if it was an hour after the bike shop had closed. I returned the bike the next day and they only charged me $3 as they’d stayed open an hour late waiting for me. I’ve no problem with that and would recommend them.

My forearms are sunburned, but it was worth it. As Chris said on the way back – “Great day out.”

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Upcoming schedule – Bangkok then Hanoi

Blue Dragon Children's Foundation

Good news is that I’ve been granted a leave of absence from university so that I can head off abroad a couple of weeks earlier than otherwise. The bad news is that in waiting for this to come through, all my flight prices went up. Sometimes it’s better to just do stuff and worry later, but ah well!

The fact is I can now step onto a plane from Heathrow on Tuesday 25th of May and (weather, strikes, ash clouds and the like allowing) expect to be in Bangkok very early on Wednesday 26th.

I had originally planned to then transfer onto a flight to Hanoi, but for a couple of reasons this won’t be happening. First up, I was worried that the 4 hours I’d allowed myself to transfer flights might not be enough if there was a delay. I’d then find myself at the airport with a ticket and no plane.

Secondly, eDreams turned out to be dodgy as all hell and I didn’t trust them to get me the ticket anyway (see an earlier post on here).

Instead I’ve just booked an AirAsia flight at the crack of dawn on the Saturday.

So I’m now heading into Bangkok for a couple of nights. I’ll look into staying somewhere different from last time, but still on the shuttle bus route. I have just enough Baht to get me into the city without having to use the fee-charging ATMs at the airport.

I’ll be in Hanoi for almost 2 months, but my return flight is from Bangkok on July 27th.

This is going to be a bit of a busman’s holiday for me. I may take a trip at some point, but on the whole my aim’s to stay put in Hanoi and spread myself between working for the Hanoi Backpacker’s Hostel and Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation. The former should help fund my stay and the latter work towards my Continued Professional Development as a teacher. As well as being awesome fun!

So if anyone reading this is heading through Hanoi in June/July, please do come and say “hi”. It’s a great city and I’ll be happy to show you around!

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Back at the Dragon… and back home :-(

Blue Dragon Children's Foundation

Blue Dragon Children's Foundation

My last day in Vietnam and the last proper day of my trip. A sad day, as ever, more-so due to some events back home over which I had no control, but that is for another blog.

To cheer myself up I hopped on a xe om up to the Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation to catch up with Mike and the staff. As I blogged last year, they’re in a new building not far from the Red River though this time it was much quieter. When I visited in 2008 it was the summer holidays and there were children everywhere. Today there were maybe a dozen or so making use of the facilities as the rest were attending school.

Over lunch, I got talking to a couple of the staff and a few ideas began to germinate. There are a couple of IT-related questions they’d been pondering over and I managed to throw in a bit more information which will hopefully help them make some decisions. It’s nice to feel useful!

I also sat and talked to two of the Vietnamese staff for over an hour about my travels, predominantly around Vietnam. Both have been around their home country as well as to Thailand and Cambodia. It’s really interesting to compare their experiences with my own, particularly impressions and the way people respond to you.

Overall my experiences with people in Asia have been fantastic. Sure, there’s always someone trying to make a fast buck out of you (or cut to the chase and steal your wallet) but name me a European country where that’s not the case. But for every one of them, there’s a table of seven in a roadside restaurant that insist you share their food and drink. Or a Javanese grandmother on a train proffering doughnuts during Ramadan. Or a Japanese train guard that insists you wait there until he finds someone who speaks better English than him so that you can get the information you require. Or a taxi driver who actually wants to save you money by taking you to a bus stop nearer by so that you don’t miss the coach to Hoi An. Or two men sat on the beach who don’t speak a word of English, but just want to sit with you and share shots of rice wine. Or…

You get my point.

Every time I arrive in Hanoi, I get a little tingle. I feel like I know the place, I know how it works, I know where to go. And yet every time it’s different. There are new shops, new places to get food, a new nightclub to go to, new faces to see and get to know.

One thing that never changes is the hustle and bustle. It’s a city that’s genuinely alive. The only other place I like anywhere near as much is Bangkok and of the two, I’d prefer to stay here than in the Thai capital. It’s a tight decision, I admit, but Hanoi nudges it.

A major factor in this tipping of the scales is the Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation. If I’m here, I can be useful as well as enjoying myself. If I’m feeling low, as I was today, then the warm greeting from Mike (seriously – is he ever not happy to see someone?) and the smiles and laughter of the children is enough to lift anyone out of a deep blue funk.

Another is the Hanoi Backpacker’s Hostel which has – deservedly – gone from strength to strength over the six or so years it’s been open. Near tripling in size last year and now the proud parent of it’s first proper offspring in Hue. Mike and Max really know how to run a great place. Without a doubt there are cheaper places to stay in Hanoi, but there is absolutely none better for the independent traveller.

Fifty-some countries, probably a similar number of hostels and this is still the best one I’ve stayed in. No argument.

So I’m sat in the BDCF office, tapping this up as Mike’s in a meeting. In an hour or so I’ll have to say my goodbyes before I return to the hostel, grab some dinner, then hoik my rucksack onto my back and catch the airport bus.

At 20:55 (delays allowing), I’ll be on an Air Asia flight to Bangkok. At 08:45 tomorrow, I’ll be airborne courtesy of Etihad on the way to Heathrow via Abu Dhabi (the next place I’m likely to get online – Bangkok really needs to get its act together as regards wifi).

All going well, I’ll be back on English soil by 18:30 on Wednesday.

And I’ll be that little sadder for it.

I love my home country (and my adopted one north of the border), but I’ll miss Vietnam and Hanoi in particular.

So until the next time, Vietnam. And there will be a next time. There is no doubt in my mind about that.

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Leaving Hanoi… AGAIN!

Time to leave Hanoi again. Got the bus from the Vietnam Airlines office, and managed to get a seat – it got busy as 11:00 approached as I believe they take a break from then until 13:00 for lunch. We got talking to Hannah, a girl from Leicestershire who looks uncannily like Talia from Bristol – and who’d bumped into those three English lads from a previous post as she had been leaving the same volunteer post when they were arriving.

The usual fun at the airport – trying to find food that didn’t come in a packet, didn’t taste like plastic and didn’t cost a fortune. Not much luck… Flight to BKK uneventful.

Used the AE1 bus to get into Silom rather than a taxi. Due to the busy traffic, we hopped out just past Lumpini Park. As we were getting off, I saw an American guy trying to talk to the driver about where he was and where he should get off. I had a look at his map and gave him a rough idea. Thing is, once I got off I realised that he was on the wrong bus as he wanted to go to Hualamphong which is the AE4 bus, not the AE1. Had I not been in such a rush I’d have got him to get off with us and put him in the direction of the MRT – it’s only a couple of stations from where we were. So, sorry and I hope you got where you wanted to go!

We walked down Silom to the hostel, stopping at A&W for a burger. At the hostel, we had enough time to check in and turn around as we’d arranged to meet Hannah at the Paragon to see Batman on the IMAX. Unfortunately, due to our slow bus and Hannah’s problems getting a tuk-tuk to drop her at the right place, we all arrived around 20:10 and by the time we got to the cinema, the film had just kicked off.

We bought tickets for the 23:00 performance instead, and wandered down to the basement food court to while away the time. And stare at food. And drink fresh fruit smoothies. And eat McD’s (Hannah!). And ice cream (*cough* not Hannah).

The time came for the film and we got there in good time to be shown in and take our seats. You all know what IMAX is and I’ve already documented watching Spiderman 3 and Superman Returns on the BIG big screen. But Batman: The Dark Knight blows them all away. Absolutely amazing. A great film, excellent use of the technology and Heath Ledger genuinely puts in a star turn as the Joker. Every bit as great, if not better in his own right, as Jack Nicholson‘s version. Certainly far scarier. I do think the film was cut, though, perhaps for violence. This could be a Thai thing, an IMAX thing or just bad editing. Either way I’d love to see a director’s cut but I’d just have to see it on IMAX again.

We got out of the cinema around 1:30 which was a bit of a shame for Hannah as she’d booked a trip the next day which she had to be ready for by 5:30. As I write this, I’ve not heard from her and I sincerely hope she made it onto the bus!

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Temples and enthnology and puppets

All good things… the last full day in Hanoi, but at least it was to be a good one. Starting with lunch in Pepperoni’s, which now has several branches in the city. I stuck to the old favourite near the hostel, though.

Then off to the Temple of Literature. A biker outside the hostel had tried to charge us 50,000D for the ride (each, using two bikes) and seemed offended by our refusal. As we walked off, one of his mates caught up with us and offered the ride for 25,000 with us both on the same moped. Leah panicked for all of 3 seconds then agreed. Good girl!

With my sandals in my hand so they wouldn’t fall off, we zipped through the streets and prayed he’d not get stopped by the police (I didn’t have a helmet and he’s only alowed to carry one passenger) but we had no problems. At the Temple, we gave him 30,000 partly as he’d had the cheek to make fun of Leah’s size. Brave man. I’ve covered the Temple before in another post, so I’ll not wax lyrical here about it.

Next stop was the Museum of Ethnology and we were about to flag down a taxi when two xe om drivers gave us a good price to head up there. They turned out to be a great pair of guys, all fun and games, not at all pushy and became our companions for the rest of the afternoon. Again, I’ve covered the museum in detail elsewhere so I won’t repeat things, other than to highly recommend it to visitors.

We had time for an hour at Blue Dragon where we got to see a workshop they’ve started up so the kids can learn how to repair biked and car engines. Smashing idea. I also met Van again, the wonderful guy who showed me around Hanoi when I was working for BDCF the first time. He’s now married with a little kid of his own! And his only quibble was that he didn’t know I was coming so he couldn’t arrange to take me out. What a guy.

A little more time playing rock/paper/scissors with some of the smaller children and we went outside to get our motos… only we couldn’t see them. They’d popped round the corner for a beer and were checking intermittently for us reappearing! We could easily have hopped on two more bikes and vanished, but they’d been genuinely great guys so we weren’t about to screw them over.

They had offered to chat to us over a beer, but our water puppet tickets restricted our free time and they got us to the show as the doors were opening. We overpaid for their time/distance but the extra was well worth it for the fun we’d had and it was still peanuts.

Once more, water puppets are in an earlier post though I think the show is now a little shorter than it used to be. Not a bad thing as I felt it dragged the first time I saw it. We’d also gone for the 20000d “cheap” tickets this time and the only difference was being seated further back.

We decided to have dinner in a new restaurant next door to the city view, above a posh clothes shop. It has a balcony, but unfortunately the rain and wind made this unusable and we walked down a floor to their inside room instead. A great decision as we ended up with our personal waitress, a room to ourselves and a TV with the remote control… and an absolutely superb meal. It was the Bon Mua (a Hapro restaurant) at 38-40 Le Thai To Street, just opposite the north bank of Hoan Kiem Lake.

Bia Hoi next (for a change) where we met some folk we’d bumped into on the first night. Leah tried some of the dried squid sold on the street and declared it tasted like “smelly feet”, but struggled to get rid of it. The problem being that the woman who sold it had to get the little plastic plate back and she kept watching us so we couldn’t throw the food away! Back at the hostel, we had time for one quick beer before a comparatively early night in our crowded but comfy dorm.

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