7 October – Hanoi (Incense Village)
Eyes open about 6.30am, which is kind of good, as the alarm is still not due to go off for another hour.
And I could do with another hour, seeing as six hours sleep – due to my inability to follow through with my good intentions of an early-ish night – isn’t really enough.
I roll over and attempt to make the alarm do its job.
It doesn’t really work. There’s just too much stuff going through my head; what we did last night, what we’ve done, and who we’ve met, over the journey. As well as the fact that we only have three nights left.
All that planning, all that organising, all that doing, and now the end is well and truly in sight.
While the alarm doesn’t interrupt my sleep, it does interrupt my thinking. Which is perhaps not a bad thing.
We get ourselves sorted, including taking the opportunity to get our dirty clothes together for one final laundry visit. Not necessarily because we’re running out of clean clothes, but more so Lisa has less to do when we get home.
Noticing several laundry places in the laneways up near St Josephs during our exploration of the area over the last week, we head up there. It shouldn’t take too long, and it can’t take too long, as we’re meeting Mike at 8.30am.
We find our first laundry sign – giat – but they don’t appear to be open. And I’m not prepared to walk down either of the two narrow corridors nearby, as I don’t know which one belongs to the actual laundry.
Our walk continues, and it’s not long before my belief that there were several laundries around here, could in fact be a mistaken belief.
Around another corner, now on a slightly more main road, and up ahead, finally, is another sign with the two words we’re looking for. And, they’re open.
It’s actually quite a large place, and full of what looks to be very new, and shiny, washing machines. And while my preference would be to find a smaller family run place, our lack of available time doesn’t make that an option.
Our bag is weighed; apparently I’ve been carrying 2.2kgs of clothes around; and the cost will be 50 000 Dong.
No problem, and it will be ready tomorrow.
A quick photo of the front of the shop just in case I forget where we are, and it’s back through the lanes towards the coffee shop.
Past St Josephs again; stopping to take a couple of photos because that’s what I do for some reason; and then down to the coffee shop just after 8.30am.
Two caphe sua da’s are promptly ordered, while we wait for Mike, who a little surprisingly, and concerningly, is nowhere to be seen.
While waiting for our coffees, I make use of the café’s wifi to check my Trip Advisor messages, and sure enough, there’s one from Mike.
Seems he’s outside a café over the road, and yep, a quick look out the window, there he is sitting on the footpath opposite.
Our caphe sua da’s (25 000 Dong each) are hastily turned into the take away variety, and we head across the road.
We sit and chat for a bit over coffee, and after Mike’s research on the incense village, he’s decided that a Grab car is likely to be the most cost effective, and simplest, way of getting there.
Sounds good to me, so he promptly orders one.
400 000 Dong is the quote, which seems more than reasonable, and a few minutes later our car pulls up in front of us.
Seriously, just so easy….
We’re quickly on our way; to where, I’m not sure, as a little embarrassingly, I don’t actually know where this village is situated, having left the minor details like that to Mike.
It does, however, seem to be in a bit of a southerly direction, as we spend the first part of the drive following the train line. The same train line that took us to Ninh Binh.
We eventually veer away from the tracks, before getting out into the more rural area.
The roads are good, with very little traffic, and we seem to make good time, which is a bit of a rarity when it comes to road travel in Vietnam.
After a while, we turn off the main road, and enter a small town. Nothing too scenic or special about it, apart from the copious amounts of recyclable materials bound and bagged up by the side the road.
Paper, cardboard, plastics, bottles, cans; you name it, it’s here. It seems we have entered some sort of recycling hub, as judging by the size of the town, there’s no way they could produce all this themselves. There is literally heaps of it.
On we go, and around 10.00am, we pull over. Apparently, according to our driver, we’re here.
Which is good, however, apart from a couple of dusty roads, a field off into the distance, and a building here and there, there’s not much else.
Certainly no colourful incense sticks, nor much visible in the way of an industry, producing said incense sticks.
The driver seems adamant, and seeing as a discussion about where we should go isn’t really going to be possible, we get out.
The three of us stand there for a moment, rather perplexed, before a decision is made to start walking. Not really sure as to which direction, we end up going down a dusty road to our right.
A few metres on, and over to our left, we come across a building with a large undercover area in front of it.
While not overly interesting in itself, the sight of maybe 200 people? gathered there, is.
And it seems that as we first spot them, every single one of them spots us at the same time.
The initial awkward feeling is quickly replaced with one of total surprise, as a couple of them race over and welcome us in.
And before we know it, people are moved, chairs are found, and we are now sitting at a table about to eat some of the copious amounts of food in front of us.
Food begins to be dished up for us, and then, to someone’s horror, rice wine finds its way into little shot glasses.
Yep, that certain person, who only yesterday muttered; several times; the words, ‘I am never going to drink rice wine again!’.
The look was priceless, but she also knew, as I did, that declining their offer, and thus potentially insulting them, really wasn’t an option.
To her credit, she ‘manned’ up, and confronted yesterday’s demons.
The food, which ranged from ‘interesting’, to very good, continued to be placed in front of us, and as that happened, we met, and shook hands with, more people than I could count.
The shots of rice wine also didn’t let up.
It was all just so surreal, but at the same time, it was just an unbelievable thing to be welcomed into, and allowed to experience.
Even though we weren’t completely sure what it actually was that we were experiencing.
After we’d eaten more than we were comfortable with, Mike got ‘talking’ to one of the guys. He was then shown some plans, and it seems the whole event was some sort of fundraiser for a new Buddhist temple, or building.
More rice wine ensued, along with meeting more of the guests, including one guy who was adamant that the longer he spoke to me in Vietnamese, it would all eventually click and I would understand.
Not surprisingly, it doesn’t actually work, and I can do little else than smile, shake his hand, and give him far too many cam on’s.
As a lot of the guests began to disperse, it was then time to do several photos, before we too made a move, thus ending one of the strangest and weirdest, but also most amazing, hours I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing in Vietnam.
We headed back up to the road that we’d been dropped off on, to see if we could actually find what we originally came here to find.
Although, after what we’d just been a part of, did it all really matter?
Still without any more knowledge on where we might find these incense sticks than we had earlier, we could do little else other than walk in a different direction.
Up the main road a bit, and then off down one of the narrower side roads. It’s really warming up, there’s not a lot of shade, and so far, there’s not much to see.
But then, a minor breakthrough, when we see cut lengths of bamboo.
Well, I think it’s a breakthrough.
We keep walking, and then, sighting skinny bamboo sticks, it feels like we’re getting closer.
We’re just not completely sure what we’re getting closer to.
It soon becomes apparent that there are so many factories here producing these sticks, and before we know it, Mike has gone into one for a closer look.
Lisa and I look at each other, before quickly remembering that we are in Vietnam, and not Australia, so we follow.
And yep, inside, we find sticks. And dust. And ridiculous amounts of both.
But it’s more than that. It’s the whole thing, the whole process of how these things are produced.
And the hands on, labour intensive way, they go about it.
It’s absolutely fascinating, and it’s one of those things that just stops you in your tracks, while you stand there and watch, trying to take in what you’re actually seeing.
A girl sitting there, gathering up a never ending supply of sticks into bundles, and then going through a process, that is rather difficult to explain, to remove all the ones that are not of the correct length.
While it sounds mundane, the speed, and the way in which it’s done, is just incredible.
And all in conditions that most people would find hard to imagine.
We walk around the corner, having now lost Mike, and we find the area where the bamboo is actually cut up into the skinny sticks we just saw being sorted.
And that earlier dust?
Well, this is where it comes from. Dust, hanging and floating so thick in the air, it makes you think twice about breathing.
But again, the whole process is absolutely fascinating. Although, it does make you try and imagine what it must be like to work in such conditions.
We watch for a bit, which the workers were more than happy for us to do; they were incredibly friendly; before Mike reappears from whichever part he’d wandered off to.
We then headed back outside, very pleased with what we’d just seen, but still in search of the next process, which involved the colour component of the sticks.
A bit further down the road, Mike pops into another factory.
With less hesitation this time, we follow.
It’s far quieter in this one, and it has none of the dust of the previous one. It does, however, have countless bundles of the sticks all stacked up.
Initially, the place appears deserted, until we look over to the right and see a small group sitting down having lunch.
I think it would be fair to say that they were a little surprised to see three strange looking Westerners standing there, but we quickly received big smiles and lots of ‘xin chau’s’.
After a little hand gesturing and broken English, it became apparent that they weren’t actually in the incense stick business.
Their business was toothpicks.
After everything Mike had already helped us experience this morning, he had now also been able to show us our first ever toothpick factory.
I believe it may have also been his first, too.
Slightly more enlightened, and with another box, that I didn’t even know existed, ticked, we headed off to keep searching for our ultimate aim.
Down along a few more narrow roads, before heading back up to the main road. Still no luck with what we’ve set out to find, but it is far from boring.
I’ve always said that one of the great things about Vietnam is its sights; as in the everyday stuff you see as you walk around. And the country towns, or villages, are no different.
Cows walking down the centre of the road, seemingly ownerless, along with a chicken here and there. As well as the friendly locals, going about their business, but always with a smile and an acknowledgement when they see you. More genuine people, you will not meet.
And now, it seems, school is out, as kids ride on past, waving and yelling out hello. Unlike my kids when I get home, they are genuinely happy to see you.
As Mike wandered up ahead, I noticed a flash of colour down a narrow road to our left.
Could it be?
I wasn’t sure, but seeing as colour had been a bit of a rare thing this morning, I called out to Mike to come back, so we could take a closer look.
Down the narrow road, some excitement building, but at the same time, some trepidation that we may be disappointed.
And then, as we get closer, the realisation hits. We’ve finally found what we set out to find.
Bunches of incense sticks, drying on the side of the road off to the right, as well as a much larger group over to the left, next to a lake.
More beautiful, and stunning, than coloured sticks have any right to be.
It truly was a ‘Wow’ moment.
But then again, the whole day had been one great big ‘Wow’ moment.
The work then began to try and get the camera to do a job that I suspected it was incapable of doing, while also spending a bit of time just trying to take in what was in front of us.
With both tasks proving to be a little difficult….
We continued our walk, coming across several more bunches / groups / clusters / or whatever the correct word for lots of incense sticks in one place is, as well as meeting more of the incredibly friendly locals.
Not to mention more school kids, who could never resist the temptation to call out hello, to us.
We eventually get to the stage where we run out of colourful sticks, and that coupled with the fact that it’s now become uncomfortably hot, we decide to call it a day.
Mike looks up a driver on Grab, and just as when we left Hanoi, the quoted price is 390 000 Dong. But before he has a chance to accept it, a taxi pulls up looking for a potential job. Mike shows him the Grab amount on his phone, and then asks him if he’d drive us back to Hanoi for 400 000 Dong.
“Yep, no problem”, is the answer, so we jump in. Back through recycling town, and then onto the main road that brought us here, all in the comfort of the much appreciated car’s air conditioning.
We’re soon back into the mayhem of Hanoi’s busy streets, and just 45 minutes after leaving the incense village, we pull up outside St Joseph’s Cathedral.
Fare paid, we bid Mike farewell with the promise that I’ll see him at beer corner at 4.00pm.
A short walk back to the hotel for a much needed recovery session, along with lots of contemplation of what we’d actually seen and done.
It had truly been an amazing morning, and one that would never have happened had I not got to know Mike through Trip Advisor, all those months ago. Without him, and his almost throwaway suggestion of a possible visit to the incense village, we would never have gone and experienced what we did.
And for that, I will forever be grateful to him.
Recovery session successful, we head back out a bit after 3.00pm. With a strong desire for a caphe sua da, we make our way up to our café. Fortunately, there’s vacant seats outside, which always makes world watching that much better.
Coffee done, and leaving Lisa to do something she’s never done before – go into a Vietnamese bank to change some 500 000 Dong notes into more user friendly sizes – I start making my way up to beer corner.
There’s been a light shower of rain, which is of no real concern, but it does however make Hanoi’s footpaths rather slippery.
Well, it does if thongs are your footwear of choice.
Treading carefully, and looking rather ridiculous in the process, I manage to make it to Underwear lane without falling over.
But only just.
A quick 3000 Dong pitstop, and then back on my way.
Well, I was, until the fourth attempt since I’d left the café, at trying to remain upright, resulted in a broken thong.
Fortunately, I was able to fix it, before continuing my journey, treading even more carefully, as well as looking more ridiculous, than I was before.
Eventually managing to reach Ma May street, I quickly find Mike. My beer lady, as well as grumpy beer guy, haven’t set up yet, so Mike suggests another beer place a bit further up, that he’s been to before.
While this place is twice the price at 10 000 Dong per glass, they are slightly larger serves, as well as being glass glasses. Which is never a bad thing.
We sit and watch the world go by, as well as chatting about our morning, which I think we were both still pinching ourselves over what we’d seen and experienced.
Beers done, and plans made to meet up for dinner, along with round two with the rice wine, I head back for a quick balcony drink with Lisa, just before 6.00pm.
Once again in my favourite spot, watching the goings on, but not really concentrating on any one thing in particular.
When all of a sudden, a guy walks out the front door of the Artisan over the road.
Amazingly, we both immediately recognise him. It’s Gary from Hoi An, who we first met back in 2017.
While I knew he was planning on doing a trip up to the far North around this time, as well as spending a night or two in Hanoi, I thought that we were going to miss each other by a week or two.
And now, here he is, not only in Hanoi at the same time as us, but also staying in the same hotel that we are.
I’m stunned, and can’t help but wonder about all the things that needed to fall into place, to enable this chance encounter to occur.
And, for it to happen on this particular day, which is a day that just seems to keep on giving.
We call out to him down below, and it takes him a second to work out what’s going on. I think he’s just as blown away as we are.
He comes up and we chat about what he’s been up to, including his recently completed trip. John, who we also met in 2017, then makes an appearance, and once again, it’s just great to see him.
The catching up means time gets away from us, so it’s a hasty shower before heading back up to meet Mike at beer corner.
We eventually get there about 7.30pm, and feel rather guilty about that, and it takes us a few minutes to track him down, in the crowd that is always there.
The easy decision is made to go to Nam Bittet again, and we’re soon back enjoying both the food, and the atmosphere, of my favourite Hanoi restaurant.
A few shots of rice wine to finish off, and because I now know it exists, I make a visit to the second best toilet I’ve been to in the Old Quarter.
But, of course, forgetting about its sloping ceiling.
Yep, wet foot, or bumped head, it can, unfortunately, take a little time….
A couple more rice wines, and then we make our way back down Ma May street to my beer lady.
It’s busy, but not quite the weekend type madness, and there’s no problem finding a seat. And as usual, she’s happy to see us.
We sit and chat some more, while doing what you do when you’re sitting at a place that sells beer for 5000 Dong per cup.
Lisa’s struggling a little – probably blaming this morning’s rice wine….. – before Mike decides to make it a bit of an early night.
My Siberian guy from the other night, then turns up, and he makes a point of coming over for a brief chat before catching up with some other friends.
We sit some more, just watching the world do its thing, before noticing a tourist couple looking interested in doing what we’re doing, but also perhaps looking for some kind of re-assurance that it is, in fact, a good idea.
I give them the acknowledgement they were looking for, and they come over and take a seat.
They’re from New Zealand, but living in Hong Kong, where the guy is a pilot, and his girlfriend, Kate, is a teacher.
They are really lovely, and just so easy to talk to, and when he told us that he was a pilot, I’m sure I saw Lisa roll her eyes, as she knew there would likely be much quizzing on all things planes and flying, coming from my direction.
She was right, of course, as I do find the whole thing fascinating, so the next little while, or it may have been a long while, was spent doing exactly that.
As a thank you for putting up with my inane questions, I introduced them to some of the remaining rice wine, which I think was much appreciated.
Kate, needing a toilet, asks for directions. Hoping to find her a user friendly experience, I suggest the Backpacker’s over the road.
She heads across, but is promptly knocked back.
Returning, I give her the second option, but not before the usual warning of what she’s about to find.
She returns a few minutes later, both relieved, and I think, thankful for the life experience.
Eventually it becomes time to call it a night, so we head off towards the Artisan. The streets of Hanoi are very quiet, which always feels a bit strange, and when we get back to the hotel, it’s in darkness.
We head in, feeling the need to apologise as we do, for some reason, even though it’s still well before midnight.
Up onto the bed for one final beer; that I really didn’t need; before giving in to what I should have done before I actually opened the beer.
We’ve had some good days here in Vietnam over the journey, but today was right up there with the best of them.
It will certainly be one that will be remembered for a very long time, and again, a fair chunk of it was all thanks to Mike.
And that, I will never forget.