12 October – Ba Be Lake – Hanoi
Just for a change, up early again to get myself organised.
Yep, it’s here. The end of the Northern adventure.
While I didn’t want it to end, I’m kind of ready to get back to some normality. It will be nice to slow down a little, get into places a bit more, and just generally watch the world go by.
It will also be good to see Lisa again, which will happen in a little over 24 hours.
Outside for breakfast by 7.00am. Fried noodles today, but take a pass on the instant powdered caphe sua da.
Occasionally a slow learner, but not this time….
While it’s still pretty overcast, it looks like the rain has moved on. More than just a little happy, and relieved, about that.
The area around the lake is still flooded, and it actually looks like the water level has risen even more overnight.
Breakfast done, I head back to the room for the final pack. This takes a little more time than it normally does, and there’s a bit more skill required to fit everything in.
I’ve decided that on the off chance we do come across more of that water from the sky thing, I’m going to harden up and do as the locals do.
Yep, no shoes today. Going with the thongs, instead.
I’m sure toes grow back anyway, if something was to go drastically wrong…..
Backpack now working a little harder than it’s comfortable with, we’re on our way just before 8.00am.
Fortunately, we take a different road out of the park. Still by no means perfect, but far more perfect than the one we came in on.
Half an hour into the ride we come across our first obstacle. Yep, water across the road. Rather deep looking, too.
But not to worry, some enterprising locals have it covered.
They’ve positioned a narrow bamboo bridge just to the side of the road, over the water.
Toan pays the 15 000 Dong ‘toll’, and we’re on our way again.
The first part of the trip is reasonably flat and easy going, as we spend most of the time travelling through a valley.
It’s still overcast, and while it’s quite cool, it’s very pleasant.
The road is generally reasonable, but it seems every 500 metres or so we come across rough sections with potholes. It’s slow going as Toan carefully navigates around the worst of it, and I quickly become frustrated at having to hold on tight to avoid being bounced off.
Once again, that time consuming Vietnam travel thing….
While the scenery was far from the lofty heights of a few days ago, it was all still very picturesque. Mostly farm land of predominately rice fields, interspersed with small towns every so often.
And with all that, there were the usual sights of rural Vietnam.
Although one that I don’t think I had noticed before were the non la wearing Vietnamese scarecrows. Very cute!
Then there were the usual dumb chickens, just not quite comprehending that if they’re not actually on the road when a motorbike comes along, then there’s really no point running out onto it, to ‘get out of the way’.
Yep, arguably the most intellectually challenged of all Vietnam’s farm animals….
As opposed to the countless water buffalo, which, as far as I’m concerned, are easily the smartest animals when it comes to road sense.
Although I did notice one whose days of roadside grazing had come to an end.
It was in someone’s front yard, and the butchering process hadn’t been underway for all that long as we went past.
It was quite a sight, and one of those ones that takes you a second to register what you were actually seeing.
Yep, a little gruesome….
Eventually we begin to climb a few mountains, and it’s not long before we come across our first landslide. While it didn’t make the road completely impassable, it certainly made us slow down to little more than a crawl.
There were a couple of local truck drivers checking out the damage to see if they were going to be able to get through, as we went past. This ended up being quite beneficial for a local woman who lost control of her bike as she tried to navigate the mud. Fortunately, she was only going slow, which, according to Toan, happened to be the reason for her losing it, so apart from her pride, there was no real damage done.
That first landslide ended up being the first of many, and while none of them appeared to be major ones, they were still significant enough to have an impact. Some had already been mostly cleaned up, while others were being worked on as we went past.
In fact, at one point, we had to wait for an excavator driver to see that we were waiting to pass. Once he did, he merely raised his bucket so we could go underneath.
No traffic management controllers out here!
Soon the sun made an appearance and that cool, comfortable weather became a thing of the past.
Mud became less of a thing, but it was now replaced by dust.
That’s not usually too much of a thing to deal with, except of course if you’re stuck behind a truck. Which is exactly what happened to us at one point.
Winding mountain roads make it difficult at the best of times, but when you throw in an ignorant selfish driver, well, it just about makes it impossible.
Toan was extremely patient, but after ten minutes he gave up. There was just no way this truck driver was going be considerate enough to do the right thing and let us pass. In fact, it seemed that he was going out of his way to not do the right thing.
A bit later we had a quick petrol stop, and the timing couldn’t have been better. A short, but very heavy, shower of rain hit while we were there, so we waited it out for a couple of minutes.
Very, very thankful we weren’t out in it when it hit.
Although the woman, standing next to the bowser talking on her mobile phone while the attendant filled her husband’s bike, did make me a little nervous.
The attendant wasn’t happy, and it seemed her husband even less so.
She, on the other hand, was completely oblivious.
Rain cleared, possible fiery end averted, we headed on.
Scenery is now rapidly changing, and while I’m not completely sure how much further we have to go, it just feels like we’re getting close.
Arriving into another town, we pull over and stop for lunch. One week ago Toan and I had our first meal of the trip together. We were now about to have our last. Seriously, where had the time gone….
Fried beef and onion, rice, and spring rolls, along with a can of Coke with that ‘unsafe’ ice in it. Yep, a real local now, what with wearing thongs on a motorbike as well.
Final meal done, and we’re on the move again.
Scenery continues to change with the lush green landscape giving way to more buildings, more vehicles, and more people.
Roadside markers then start giving distances to Hanoi. Yep, getting close now.
One final stop for a drink break at a vendor on the side of the road. Unfortunately for the vendor, I had to wake her up. I felt bad about that, but she didn’t seem to mind.
The fact that I didn’t look like a local may have helped with that.
We stood by the side of the road for a bit, while some other locals sat on small chairs in the shade of a rather large tree, quite engrossed in their mobile phones.
It all sounds a little idyllic, but it wasn’t really like that at all. It was quite hot, very dusty, and the noise from the passing traffic was incessant.
Added to that was an overpowering raw sewerage smell coming from a nearby drain. Staying up wind of it did help to lessen the aroma, but really, it was putrid.
While standing there, an incredibly loud roar came from overhead. It took me a second to work out what it was, and then all of a sudden the source of the noise could be seen, as a fighter jet flew over the top.
It’s funny what goes through your mind, but my initial thought; I suppose because it had been in the news before I’d left Australia; was that a certain someone in North Korea had done something really stupid.
I looked at Toan, but he was looking at his phone. I then looked at the locals under the tree, and they were still doing the same.
A few seconds later another jet followed the first. Again, nobody seemed overly interested.
Now, in Australia, apart from perhaps on a national holiday or celebration, it’s not something you see too often.
When I asked Toan if those types of flyovers were common, he just shrugged and said we were close to the airport.
Back on the bike for the last push into Hanoi, and according to a sign, we have 50 kilometres to go.
Over the last little while I’d been keeping an eye on a whopping great big, and very, very dark looking, cloud. We’d managed to avoid it but it was now getting really close. As we came to a fork in the road, it looked like we were going to veer off to the left, which would have been straight towards the cloud.
To my great relief, Toan veered right and we began heading slightly away from it. I tapped him on the back and thanked him. We’d come this far now, and it would have been more than a little disappointing to get wet when we were this close.
Not long after, still avoiding the angry looking cloud, I saw a sign to the airport. For the first time in eight days, I now finally knew where I was.
On we went and eventually we were on the freeway between Hanoi and the airport. I could see the big bridge that you go over in the distance, and as we got closer, I could also see Hanoi’s skyline.
Along with all that, I could still see ‘that’ cloud.
As we made our way up the bridge towards the top, Toan pulled over.
In the time it took to get off the bike, and for Toan to hand me the poncho, the rain had started.
And in the time it took me to put on the poncho, which incidentally is extremely difficult to do in the wind, I was soaked.
Seriously, I don’t get that wet in the shower.
And just like a couple of days earlier, I could do nothing but laugh.
Oh well, just another experience to add to the trip.
Back on the bike, and now far wetter than I thought possible, we pushed on. And before we had even had a chance to get off the bridge, the rain had stopped as quickly as it started. And surprisingly, the second half of the bridge wasn’t even wet.
That just made the whole thing even funnier.
Finally, around 3.00pm, we were almost back in the Old Quarter. A couple of stops to check directions, along with some driving in quite possibly the most ridiculously busy traffic I’ve been in, and we pull up out the front of the hotel where it all started a week ago.
Dropped my bag with the manager at the hotel, and extricated myself from the wet weather gear, which is a rather difficult thing to do when you are so wet.
I still needed to fix up Toan for the trip, so I asked him if he could take me down to Hoan Kiem Lake where I could use the ANZ teller machines, as I knew they had higher withdrawal limits.
As we headed into what I call Optical street, which is just around the corner from the hotel we usually stay in, I kept an eye out for Hai, my bookseller from 2014, and my lunch advisor from 2016.
Sitting on the back of the bike, with my helmet on, I spotted him.
And just as I spotted him, he happened to look my way.
The look on his face when he saw me was one of shock and surprise. But I suspect that the look on my face when I saw that, was probably one of even greater shock and surprise.
I just couldn’t believe that he had recognised me after not having seen me for 18 months.
It made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck, and even now, it does the same thing when I think back to it.
It was just incredible.
Trying to talk to me as we went past, I called out that I’d be back in a few minutes.
Around the corner and now on the road beside the lake, we continued on towards the ATMs. Toan concentrating on the crazy traffic, while I sat on the back shaking my head and contemplating what was quite possibly the biggest ‘Wow’ moment that I’d ever had in Vietnam. And quite possibly anywhere.
Finally at the teller machines, I start withdrawing money. I’m always very wary of my surrounds when doing this, but I was even more so this time as I needed to make several withdrawals.
Everything went well until the third one, when the machine spat out a 200 000 Dong note. My immediate thought was that it had severely short changed me, until I took a look at the receipt.
Yep, somehow, and I still don’t know how I did this as I’ve never done it before, (or since) I had forgotten a zero.
And adding insult to injury, was the fact that with the ATM fee; my 200 000 Dong cost me 40 000 Dong to get out!
I’ll just have to blame it on my excitement at seeing Hai a few minutes earlier…..
Now shaking my head for a different reason, I head back to Toan who is sitting on his bike. There’s no putting it off; it’s time to do that thing I hate so much.
And yep, it was tough. I mean really, you’ve just spent the last eight days together and there’s no knowing when, or even if, you’ll see him again.
Yep, didn’t enjoy it one bit.
Toan offered to drive me back to the hotel, but I declined. His day was still not over as he now needed to get himself back to Ninh Binh.
And I felt rather bad about that. Although I’m sure not having me as a dead weight on the back of his bike was going to make things a little easier for him….
Goodbye done, I headed back along the road beside the lake. My shorts, along with everything else I was wearing, were still pretty wet. While trying to work out the rest of the money I’d just withdrawn, as well as turning my phone back on after it got wet, I felt something I didn’t recognise in one of my pockets.
Pulling it out, I discovered that I still had the key to my room from the homestay.
Oh well, I’ll take it back to them the next time I’m up there. In the meantime, it can be a small souvenir of my time with Toan. And I can hang it next to my cow bell when I get home.
Back into Optical street, and sure enough, Hai is there. I shake his hand and we catch up for a few minutes. Again, it was just an amazing moment.
I tell him I’ll see him again in a few weeks when I return with Lisa, and then head back to the hotel to clean up. It’s been a fairly long day, and while the unexpected downpour had washed some of the dust off me, it didn’t get it all.
Feeling much better, as well as a lot drier, I head out for a bit of a walk. First goal is to find ‘food street’, which is actually Tong Duy Tan street, just for a bit of a look. We’d walked past it before, but I don’t remember if we’d ever walked down it.
Anyway, found it, walked down it, and then walked out of it. Good, I now know where it is, and I, or perhaps we, will return for some food there at some point. Maybe….
But food right now isn’t high on the agenda. No surprises here, but it’s beer that I need. Which brings me to the second goal of this walk; find a bia hoi place in Bat Dan street that I’d heard about.
A few minutes later, along with one or two consultations of my map, and I’m two for two.
Seat taken on the usual small plastic chair out front, and young beer attendant is off doing what beer attendants do. He soon returns, placing my beer on my even smaller table, as well as a small clipboard next to it.
Turns out it’s to record how many beers I’m going to have. Hmmm, a little more upmarket than my usual establishment, and even the glasses are actually glass.
Not totally convinced it’s worth the extra expense, because at 10 000 Dong a beer, it’s double the price I normally pay.
Oh well, gotta splash out occasionally….
I settle in and watch the world go by, and then end up talking to a couple from England who’ve spent the last week or so having a look at Hanoi and Halong Bay. They actually fly out tonight to head back home, and it makes me think how lucky I am to still have another three weeks to go.
An hour later I head back to the hotel, grabbing a couple of take away beers on the way, to give Lisa a call. I’d tried to text her earlier, but once again, for reasons I still don’t understand, my phone is not playing nice.
More than just a little frustrated and annoyed at that!
Fortunately I can still make calls, and it turns out she’s now sitting at Tullamarine airport in Melbourne, waiting for her flight. She’s excited, but also a little anxious about making the trip on her own. Not being the best flyer in the world probably isn’t helping either….
Care and concern faked, I tell her that I’ll see her tomorrow.
Back downstairs to head out for something to eat. But before that, a quick chat to the manager about a private transfer to the airport in the morning.
I wasn’t going to do it, and my intention was to catch the No. 86 bus back there, but the flight is at 9.40am. I hate rushing last minute, and always look at getting to the airport with plenty of time to spare, and if I do get the bus, well that’s going to mean I have to get up an extra half an hour earlier.
And yep, that extra half an hour of sleep looks pretty good at the moment.
So, transfer booked for 6.45am, I head out. No real plans, but decide to make my way up to beer corner and see what happens.
I happen to walk past the restaurant that has become known to Lisa and I as our ‘last place’, as we stumbled across it on our very last night in Hanoi back in 2014.
Yep, that’ll do, and I head over towards it. I’m quickly snapped up from the street, which they tend to do as soon as you look interested, and shown to a spare chair. It doesn’t seem to matter how busy they are, they always seem to manage to find you a spot.
Beer ordered while I peruse the menu, and before I know it, beer has returned.
Food selection then made, and to be honest, I wasn’t really fussed what I had. More of that ‘eat to live’, type person.
Sitting there enjoying my beer, I started to notice that a few that had arrived after me were getting their food before I was. It didn’t concern me, as I was happy with my beer and wasn’t in a hurry anyway, but it obviously did worry a couple of locals on the table next to me.
They called a waiter over and began talking to him while pointing in my direction. He quickly disappeared and then returned a few minutes later with my food.
I thanked them and we had a bit of a laugh about it. It was only a small thing, but it was nice having someone look out for me.
And the food?
Well, I can’t actually remember what I ordered, but I’m not sure that what turned up was my choice. It didn’t matter anyway as it was good, as every meal we’ve had there has been. It was a beef dish with a type of gravy, but it also had some chips with it. And it was that addition of the chips that made me think I may not have ordered it.
Anyway, I may have actually ordered it, but if not, then it didn’t matter. And I couldn’t complain about the price; food and beer, 95 000 Dong.
Lone restaurant dining done, I headed back towards the bia hoi places around beer corner. I saw my guy from a week ago where Rachael and I had had a few drinks, and decided that would do.
He, however, had a small problem. He’d just lost all his chairs in one of those dubious and rather pointless, in my opinion, police raids.
They’re not supposed to have chairs and tables on the footpath, but everyone does it. And I mean everyone.
And really, it’s one of the great appeals of Hanoi. It just adds to the vibrancy of the place.
Anyway, with him now being chairless, I went to his neighbour who promptly found me a seat.
A couple of beers there and I decide it’s time to move on. I’d tried to engage the other tourists I was sitting with but they didn’t want to know me. Maybe I really have become that weird old guy….
But probably my bigger desire to move on was as a result of needing to get rid of some of the beer that I’d drunk. And it needed to be done sooner, rather than later.
I fixed up my beer tab and headed back towards the hotel, reasonably quickly, I might add.
Knowing that there was a toilet in Underwear lane, that was my target.
As I got closer I managed to find a couple of 2000 Dong notes in my pocket.
A little tip here – those paper notes; the 1000, 2000 and 5000; while actually worth very little, are extremely handy to have when it comes to using toilets in Vietnam. Just about every public toilet you’ll come across, charges a small fee to use the facilities.
Anyway, as I got to the toilet, I thrust my two 2000 Dong notes towards the girl at the entrance to pay the 3000 Dong charge, and rushed in. There really was no time to spare.
Happily, and very thankfully, relieved, I headed back out.
And as I did, the girl tried to give me my 1000 Dong change.
I told her to keep it, and truth be told, I probably would have quite happily paid 100 000 Dong at that particular moment.
Feeling far more comfortable, I headed back to the hotel. Stopping, of course, along the way to pick up a couple more beers that I really didn’t need.
The beers on the bed, as well as a bit of Trip Advisor-ing, it wasn’t long before I crashed.
It had been a big week, and in fact, it had been pretty full on for the last week and a half since I’d left Australia. Tomorrow was the beginning of the next chapter of the adventure, and I was really looking forward to that.
And there was also seeing Lisa, too, I suppose….