Night ensues. The pearl-like lights encircling the still lake twinkle as though a gigantic necklace is adorned. Vermilion barriers that span the bridge, are flooded in a light red glow. Nearby, the facades of buildings, left in the colonial style, are lit-up. Then comes the endless bolt of motor bike lights, throttling the need for silence.
To soak in this atmosphere you need days – at least – not hours.
I still felt the need for companionship – safety in numbers – particularly after getting deposited in what felt like the middle of nowhere.
The New Backpacker’s Hostel, as well as being conveniently situated, provides free breakfast, roomy bathrooms and showers; and the dorms are quite comfy. It’s also got good computers spread around a high table with reliable wi-fi. I am not one for much boozing or partying – age creeps up, I guess – which the bar area caters to, particularly as the day matures, along with noisy, and noisier, music. If you want to stay cheaply then you have to do a bit of compromising.
Having polished off a couple of jam and butter baguette sandwiches and two bananas rinsed down with breakfast tea, I dashed out to top up more Dong. It doesn’t last long. I needed a lot more to pay in total for a two-day cruise I’d booked to Halong Bay, called the ‘Rock Long Rock Hard’ tour.
There I go, following the Brit guys who’d opted for this package. I sheepishly emulated them without considering other tours and prices from other agencies.
One of the guys called Steve thought a trip to the Ho Mausoleum was out of the question because it closed sharply at 11:00 am.
“Well, we can always stand outside.”
“We hadn’t strode more than fifty yards towards the landmark before another of the guys, also called Steve, was accosted by a vendor selling the pointy straw hats.
“Na, too much. Twenty?’
Having won the contest, he immediately put it on his head, stretching the pink plastic chin strap in the right place.
“I’ve always wanted one of these hats,” he admitted.
“They’re certainly a symbol of Vietnam,” although how he was going to get it past customs and onto the plane was anyone’s guess, unless 20,000 Dong – the equivalent of 60 British pence – was that much of an investment.
I hummed and hard about bartering for a green cap with the word ‘Vietnam’ sown above the lid, but I decided I didn’t like the design. Steve helped me see off the woman’s persistence; she wouldn’t accept anything below 20,000.
We caught up with the others and strode out of the old quarter and into the more spacious area which celebrates the founding of the country as a socialist state, although not before Mike, the tall Scot, and the other Steve, got into a heated dispute about which way was the right direction. Mike ended it by calling Steve an “incompetent (something or other.)”
At one busy stretch, a driver tooted his car horn at the last-minute, frustrating Steve’s unimpeded progress. I did what you’re supposed to do; walk slowly while looking to the left. The riders slow down and miss – unfailingly.
The other Steve thought one of the guards clad in a white uniform looked wonky, so couldn’t resist a photo. I posed for one with the suspended baskets of one vendor’s supply delicately bridged across my left shoulder. By donning the hat, I looked the part.
We ambled around the Army Museum, largely a celebration of Vietnam’s victory in the War. The mangled wreckage of a dived US aircraft which was shot down, and captured weaponry on display, is adequate testimony. However, the outcome was costly both in lives and in Vietnam’s GDP.
I got inexplicably barred from entering the nearby Hanoi Flag Tower – the entrance gate was locked, although I did get into a quaint little temple with manicured gardens celebrating the country’s achievements in literature and learning. The shrubbery, cut into animal shapes, invited a few photos, although the daylight was diminishing.
Sauntering around Vietnamese playing knock about badminton in a close-by dingy park made us decide instead to hop in taxis back to the hostel.
It was mistake. Everything on the road jammed to a halt, as though all of Hanoi’s traffic through the old quarter, intended to take the same route.
Stuck in the crush, the taxi meter digits increased rapidly as though some air-pressure was about to explode.
“Oh hell!! Look what’s happening! The fare’s becoming ridiculous. I’m getting out,” said Toni, a Dutch girl who flew into a panic.
“I agree,” concerned about my budget going all to pieces.
“I don’t like getting scammed like this,” she confirmed.
The driver muttered something equally hostile.
“OK, you’ll get your money,” Toni intervened, as we each forked out 50,000 Dong.
“It’s still peanuts,” argued Steve.
“Yeah, but we can leg it back just as fast, given the state of that jam,” I reasoned.
The others had little bother in their taxi, paying the correct fare and getting back much sooner.
Toni led us through the maze, stopping to ask several locals, by using a map, the way to the hostel. I wanted to linger awhile and take pictures of crowded motor bikers and stalls that were prettily lit-up with lanterns and traditional memorabilia. Why the sudden rush?
I decided to follow the others – again – by booking a trip to a snake village. Apart from tasting snake meat and bone, sitting uncomfortably squashed before a low table during a six-course meal, I wish I hadn’t.
After handling one of the harmless reptiles – a firm smooth texture that slowly wriggled – I watched one or two others kill two that were available, and others show off by gulping down the still-beating heart. Yuk!!
“What did it taste like?” My curiosity at last getting the better.
“Like you were swallowing blood.”
“Is that it?”
Hat-wearing Steve wanted to confide in me by quietly relaying what he thought about the snake event:
“Those guys who got a chance to slit the snakes’ throat and swallow their hearts, were just being alpha-male: oh look how cool I am – how much braver I am than you.”
Perhaps also they would have felt like swallowing their own hearts if they had missed the chance.
And to think I used to be a vegetarian.
How my charms have changed.