Vietnam – Part 4: Hanoi, Ha Long and Sapa

We land on Noi Bai airport in Hanoi. Nemanja orders a Grab (similar to Uber, extremely popular in Vietnam) through the app on his phone. Only transport is truly cheap in Vietnam. Converting the Vietnamese Dong to Dollars/Euros has become second nature, despite its ridiculous value (22700 VND is about 1 USD). The drive to the hostel is uneventful, peaceful, even beautiful. We actually have a chance to see greenery, unlike in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), and I can immediately tell that Hanoi is more our speed, i.e. slow. As we step out of the car in front of our hostel in Hanoi’s Old Town, I know this is where I need to be. In the air, apart from humidity, I sense peace.

A woman at work, streets of Hanoi

We arrive in Hanoi. Now what?

Unlike Ho Chi Minh City, which has opened its doors (too widely) to tourists, Hanoi, the traditional capital of the North, has kept some of its former glory. Once we settled in our hostel, a place that would become the closest thing to home in this far land, we made a game plan. As Hanoi boasted an abundance of monuments, an old town, museums and park, we got ready to explore. Wonderfully enough, the humidity was not as bad, and the rain showers were not sudden. Once you get used to the air, you could smell the rain coming hours in advance. And just like with the rain, there were no surprises in this city. Everything seemed to move more purposefully, or was that just me? Even though I eventually enjoyed HCMC, there is a bitter taste in my mouth when I think of it. Hanoi, on the other hand, still makes me smile. It was by no means perfect, but it demanded respect.

Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi Old Town

On the weekends, the streets around the Hoan Kiem Lake (eng. Sword Lake) in the historical part of town, just two streets from our hostel, would turn into the center of city’s public life. People gathered around, walking down the streets, now closed for traffic, enjoying their days off. Wonderful performances all around, a puppet theater on one corner, children playing on the other, and people shopping at the small open market in the center of it all. The number of foreigners was incomparably smaller to the one in HCMC, and I loved that. There was more sincerity and actual Vietnamese culture which the country desperately struggled to preserve.

Here, I noticed the change in our attitudes. We conversed more, spent the time talking about our plans and the future as something to be excited about. I thought less and less about the negative influences in my life and focused on the many things around me which inspired joy. I stopped dwelling on the people and their opinions and perceptions. It was as if HCMC was where I cleansed myself. Slowly, the excitement of a new country and chances for exploration were everything we thought of. We started being Us again.

Temple of Literature, Hanoi

What’s it like living in Hanoi?

Living in that hostel on Pho Ly Thai To was the best time we spent in Vietnam. In the North, people seemed to be more cordial and kind, which we saw first with the hostel staff. Due to our crazy schedule, changing rooms, extending our stay and booking trips through the hostel, we got to know every single employee. Our daily routine was quite simple. We wake up, walk downstairs to have breakfast, shoo the little bugs crawling around the eggs and cheese, help ourselves to some food. Nemanja grabs a map from the register desk with the girl there carefully drawing out the route we should take around the city.

Temple of Literature, Hanoi
Ngoc Son Temple entrance, Old Town Hanoi

We walk down the street, looking for a post office from which to send postcards. In the small pavilion in Ly Thai To Park, people are mediating together. Old and young Hanoians, gathered, in their perfect lotus poses, in the middle of crowds and noise, focusing on their inner self, in one of the most beautiful sights I have seen in this country. I saw them often, and wanted to join on many occasions, but the scene itself was too precious for me to disturb it with my foreign self. Next stop is always one of the benches along the lake, before continuing on the exploration of narrow, winding streets. On our way back, we get a table at the food corner, usually opting for fried rice and pork with zesty herbs and a local beer. Even Nemanja liked the food, and that’s saying something.

Traditional dinner and local beer in Hanoi

In Hanoi, I had no fear of going out alone. In the evenings, I would run to the shop, easily, freely, passing by the open restaurants, with their child sized chairs propped up all along the streets, with the smell of unimaginable amounts of rice filling the air. Past the shoe shops (everyone seemed to be selling shoes), across the cobbled stones, by the restaurant that sold dog meat, and the small fast food stand with blackened chicks cooked in used soda cans. In the rare neighborhood shop that worked 24/7, I would buy loads of water, and another unknown bag of crisps, praying that it’s not sweat. And every day like that, around Hanoi, on small and grand adventures.

Did you travel outside of Hanoi?

While yes, we did! We took a day trip to Ha Long Bay, the poster destination for Vietnam. On the blue waters, cruising between the incredible limestone islands, on the most beautiful sunny day, we were reminded of our first trip together. Ha Long Bay and Germany might not have much in common, but the feeling for us was the same. The same wonder at how beautiful travel is, and that we wouldn’t be living these moments if we just stayed at home. This was the pure beauty that comes with travel, in the rare moments between all the shit. Then, out of nowhere, another lesson walked up to me and smacked me right across the face.

Sailing through Ha Long Bay

When we Instagramed some of the moments of the day, we were immediately flooded with messages from back home. These were all along the lines of us living life, without a care in the world, and being so so so lucky for everything that’s happening. How is it that everything anyone else ever achieves is pure luck, but everything you do is hard work?! Hm?! Once more, the anger surfaced. Did people enjoy making others feel as if all their work and suffering has been insignificant? This is exactly why we can’ be honest about troubles, or mistakes, or choices we made or lessons learned, because no one really wants to know about your day, or your struggles. You just want to be liked, and they want to feel better about themselves.

The view of Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

The reality of that day in Ha Long Bay, which I decided to capture in a single beautiful frame, was a lot more than these people could see. It was me being stung by a jellyfish, posing for 78 other photos with the sunset, all of which failed and were followed by “I am so fat, I could might as well be called a walrus” cry session, almost slipping and dying inside a cave, seeing trash floating through the once pristine water, getting annoyed by other shit tourists, having to rush everything because we were on a schedule, spending altogether 8 hours on a bus to get to Ha Long and back, getting brutally sunburnt, and having the most lying, yet kind and positive tour guide ever, whom you just couldn’t hate as he was so nice. Damn it! And all that could not possibly fit in one photo. That post was just a second out of a 24 hour day, and life and travel is so much more than just that. I didn’t choose that photo so that people can be envious or think I am on this perfect trip (because I am all about being brutally honest), but the point is in taking that entire day, most of which was crappy, and choosing to stay in that one perfect second.  Acknowledge everything, but choose the joy. Sit there, getting sunburnt, and pretend you’re getting a nice tan.

Sunset in Ha Long Bay

What other places did you visit?

A couple of days later we went to the Sapa village, high in the northern mountains, near the Chinese border. The problems started even before we left. Here’s some more irony. With all the fears and problems I brought from home, I apparently decided to get some new ones while in Vietnam. A new fear was getting on a bike on the streets of Vietnam. I was so adamant about it that I forbade Nemanja to rent one. This made me partly disappointed with myself, but also made me feel like Jeremy Clarkson, so all was good.

Centralna mapa

This was a founded fear, and I’ll paint you a picture why. Imagine the most chaotic traffic mess you have ever encountered in any of your Western countries. Now throw that image out of the window cos that shit’s got nothing on the Vietnamese. This is a country built for bikes by people who were born and grew up on bikes.  Throw in some newly imported cars in the mix, which they are innately unable to drive. Seriously, they suck at this, God bless them. Then take out every single traffic rule you have ever known, all the traffic lights, road crossings, moving out of the way of ambulances or fire trucks, spice it all up with an occasional rain shower, take a turn around insanely huge roundabouts, and imagine hundreds and thousands of cocky tourists who think they know shit about driving in Asia and want to feel like ‘locals’. Then multiply this insanity by 799 and you get driving in Vietnam. So, nope, I was not planning on getting on a bike, ever, period.

So, I end up on a bike.

We are waiting for the bus outside the hostel and a guy on a bike shows up and asks if we are going to Sapa. When we reply yes, he gets a second helmet, hands it to me and says to Nemanja that someone would come for him in a moment. “Death has come for me” is all I thought. I was somehow ushered to his bike in a matter of seconds, carrying my backpack, still in shock, probably shaking, with Nemnaja shouting, “just hold onto the bike.” Like hell I would forget that! I was holding for dear life. The guy drove as if this was the most common thing and there wasn’t a person shitting herself behind him. He cut through the streets, around tight corners, luckly, not so crowded as it was night time. I don’t think I have ever felt so many emotions as I did in those 5 minutes. As he delivered me off at the bus stop, getting me off the bike like I was a bag of potatos, he rushed off to pick up someone else. Nemanja somehow got there before me, and I had to admit that after the primary fear, it was, kinda, somewhat, maybe not as deadly as I expected. Being just one foot of the ground, on that bike, I truly felt a new connection to the country in which I have already been for more than a month. I too wanted to feel like a local. Damn it!!

Taking in the Sapa view

Now we get on the weirdest bus we have ever seen. It was a sleeping bus with capsule-like bunk beds where you take off your shoes when you get in. It was also the most psychedelic bus ever, with a kaleidoscope of lights hanging from the ceiling, small bulbs hiding in the nooks and crannies, and all of us high on the smell of people’s feet, lying in the plastic beds, hallucinating our way into sleep.

A boy and his friends in Sapa, Vietnam

The Sapa experience was a turbulent one. High in the mountains, the rice fields cascade down the hills towards the valley, with a river running smack down the middle, indigo and hemp plants growing on every corner, kids caring for water buffalos, sun shining, burning even worse than in Ha Long Bay, and miles of greenery as far as the eye can see. The beauty of Vietnam’s nature was somewhat diminished by its people (as was our entire experience in this country).

Women of Sapa in traditional clothing

Being taken around by a group of women who are truly the backbone of this country, I could see how they lived, and ate, and made their own clothes. I could also see tourism and capitalism slowly eating away at this calm and old culture. I could understand why they were ready to sell everything they had, and let foreigners like us waltz through their houses and fields in exchange for a few dollars (more than just a few), but it still didn’t feel right to me. The wonder mixed with shock and disappointment (of which I will tell more in the next story) stopped me in my tracks. My mind was once again consumed with travel, diversity, people and the world that is too huge to explore in one lifetime. The months and years of self-doubt that I carried with me, the ego, the shyness and shame were all tossed aside in favour of greater thoughts and purpose – the ineffable world all around us.

The rice paddies in Sapa valley

Only one stop remains. We book our tickets to Da Nang.

Final chapter coming soon.

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