Sunday 25 September –
MAI CHÂU – Hanoi
Wake up several times during the night, partly because that isn’t unusual, and partly because of a bloody rooster who doesn’t know how to tell the time. And each time I do, it’s raining, which makes me think of what lies ahead, when we leave Mai Chau in just a matter of hours.
It’s not pelting down that hard that you start thinking of building a boat, but it’s also far from a light drizzle.
I wake again, and this time it’s light outside. Not quite ready to get up, I just lay there waiting for the alarm to tell me it’s time, while listening to that continuing rain, as well as that bloody rooster.
Then there’s also the contemplation going on, of the bed I’m laying atop.
It’s not as hard as some of them, but it also ain’t all soft and fluffy.
The alarm eventually jolts me back to the reality of the day, and as I move to turn it off, my thoughts shift from why do they make beds so hard, to I really need to change my alarm ring tone. I absolutely hate the tune, it just plain annoys me, and I’m annoyed at myself because it happens nearly every morning, and I still haven’t done anything about changing it.
Relief is achieved as I use my powers to render the alarm silent, and yep, as has happened on every previous turning off episode, the tune then remains unchanged.
Yes, slow learner…..
The packing up routine begins, and then we’re downstairs by 8.00am. It’s still raining, and judging by how wet everything is, the rain I heard during the night was obviously pretty consistent. I also know immediately, after yesterday’s success, that today will be another double t-shirt day.
Breakfast is banh mi opla, a small yoghurt, and a banana, along with a caphe sua nong (milk coffee but hot) and tea.
The coffee and tea is drunk; I never really seem to have issues with liquids in the morning; and the banh mi opla is mostly eaten. Again, no issues with the quality of the food, but I just often struggle with morning food.
I can’t see my little dog mate, and I really hope she makes an appearance before we go, as I still haven’t given up hope of winning her over.
The rain eases, and then stops, and while I try to find an indication from the clouds that it might be clearing up, there’s nothing that I can see that gives me confidence that that is likely to be the case.
My gut feel is that getting wet today is like death and taxes.
Lisa mentions that perhaps we could ask Toan, or Xuan, about the possibility of us returning to Hanoi in a car, while Toan and Hung can return direct to Ninh Binh.
While it’s not the worst idea she’s ever had, it’s still far from the best one she’s had, and as far as I’m concerned, seeing as we started this on bikes, we’re going to finish it the same way.
And anyway, we have plenty of zip-lock bags.
Back upstairs, remaining things tucked tightly away in even more plastic, and then back downstairs to get loaded up, as well as do a ‘Goodbye’, that I wasn’t expecting I’d have to do.
While I was a little disappointed when I first found out we were to be staying in Lac Village, I really can’t fault the Ume Mai Chau Eco Homestay. But the real highlight, and the key to the whole set up, is Xuan herself.
We sit and chat with her for a few minutes, and she has a selection of those embroidered bracelets, that you often see around Vietnam’s markets.
She shows then to us, and my first thought is that she wants to sell some to us, but no, she wants to give us some.
And not only that, but she wants us to take a couple home for the kids, too.
I said yesterday, when we first met her, that she was lovely, and she is. And I honestly can’t think of a better word to describe her.
With our bags now strapped to the bikes, and Toan’s peach tree now in a bag closer to the front of the bike, it’s time to make a move. But not before a couple of photos with Xuan, which I am more than happy about.
Toan securing his peach tree.
And as we do, she mentions that if we ever return to Mai Chau, she thinks we need to stay a little longer. She’s right, of course, and knowing that she would dearly love us to stay here again, she’s now made it just that little bit more difficult to not stay in Lac Village again.
Unfortunately, the time arrives, and as I go to find my poncho, I sense something next to me. It’s my little dog mate, and she’s standing right next to my leg.
I reach down and let her smell my hand, which she does.
I go to pat her, and she doesn’t pull away, even allowing me to scratch her neck. I think I may now have her.
Finally won her over.
Moving off to retrieve my poncho, she follows. It seems she doesn’t really want me to leave, which both makes me happy, as well as sad.
Another pat, and a neck scratch, before I reluctantly do what I have to do. Damn goodbyes, first with Xuan, and now with her dog.
Here we go again….
We’re on our way just before 9.30am, and yep, those clouds are once again doing their rain drop thing. Although, fortunately, it’s not too heavy at the moment.
Out of Lac Village, and towards the main road of Mai Chau, and the rice on either side of me looks absolutely stunning. I really liked Mai Chau the first time we saw it in 2014, and I still like it. To the extent that I would like to return for a third visit, and yes, probably stay in Lac Village at Ume Homestay again.
Gee it annoys me when I have my mind changed….
Out of Mai Chau, but this time a different way, in the hope that we might be able to get away from some of this rain. I’m not terribly confident in that regard, but I’m happy to give it a shot.
It’s a really local road, kind of heading up a mountain, and we pass lots of stilt houses. There’s also the obligatory farm animals you see, as well as a few groups of locals collecting incredibly long lengths of bamboo, and then loading them onto the backs of trucks, that could perhaps be longer.
It’s all incredibly picturesque, and I love it, but can’t help but feel that we’re missing a lot of it because of this rain. It’s dark and dreary, which, while adding something to the whole thing, also impacts visibility. And with the rain, in the hope that you don’t any wetter than you have to, you tend to position yourself in a way that doesn’t allow you to see everything that you’re riding past.
It’s frustrating, but really, what can you do?
And no, there are no regrets about not exploring the car option.
We come across a rather impressive waterfall on the side of the road, so stop for a brief break. Poncho is moved ever so slowly, and methodically, so as to direct the accumulated water in my lap away from both Toan’s bum, and my shorts.
I think I was successful, but I never did ask Toan.
Lisa takes a photo of said waterfall, while I pass because I can’t be bothered fumbling around with wet fingers and a zip-lock bag containing a phone.
I’m glad Lisa made the effort.
We continue on, and the weather keeps doing what the weather is doing. We find ourselves riding above a really large dam over to our left, and apparently it too is a hydroelectric dam. It’s huge – well, the bits you can see through the mist and cloud are.
On we go, kind of now heading down the mountain, and the jungle starts to give way to more farmland type countryside. It’s all still very scenic, and it does help to take your mind off the rain, although the holding onto the poncho, to first of all remain covered as much as possible, as well as limit the lap pooling water, continues to be a constant.
It’s reasonably successful, however I am fast becoming aware that it hasn’t been a total success, as I begin to feel a wet coldness from my shorts, against my skin.
But that soon becomes inconsequential, as we ride through an unavoidable puddle, and water not only splashes my legs, but runs up them all the way to where you really don’t want cold water to go.
If I wasn’t wide awake before that, I well and truly am now, and I could do little other than to laugh.
Down off the mountain, and while still grey and overcast, the rain has at least now become intermittent. And with that, I decide to loosen my grip on the poncho, carefully removing the remaining lap water, although there was probably now less point in doing so, and allowing some airflow to aid in the drying process.
Now onto a more main road; more traffic to deal with; and the attempt at expediating the drying thing has somewhat worked.
But the feeling of smugness, and comfort, doesn’t last long, as we meet another puddle, and all my good work is undone.
On we go, stopping occasionally to stretch our legs, and soon the green colours of the countryside begin to change to the colours and sights of slightly more built up Vietnam.
It’s now also significantly warmer, and judging by what we’re riding past, the rain that we’ve come through hasn’t been a thing around here.
I notice a sign to Hanoi that says 30 kms, and while that feels close, it still feels like we have a fair way to go.
Not long after, we veer off the main road and find ourselves coming into a small, but not really small, town. Being around 1.00pm, it’s time for lunch, so we keep an eye out for somewhere suitable.
Toan slows down, and as we go past a street off to the right, a guy a couple of doors down, who looks like he may be standing out the front of a restaurant, notices us go by.
Before I have a chance to say anything, Toan, who obviously saw the same thing that I did, is already doing a u-turn. Hung and Lisa follow, and as we approach the restaurant, the guy we saw from the main road has a happy and excited look on his face.
We get off the bikes, and as we do, he can’t do enough to help us with our wet weather gear, and welcome us to his restaurant.
Inside, and there’s a girl off to the right with something like ten different dishes in front of her. It’s like a buffet, and it seems we merely point at whatever we desire.
This is kind of good, as we can determine the amount we receive, but also not good at all, as there are so many dishes that I know it’s going to accumulate very quickly.
Choices made, choices duly delivered, and we take a seat nearby. The food is all nice enough, without being great, which isn’t any big surprise, seeing as the number of dishes they do.
But it was all a lot of fun, as they were all just so incredibly happy and pleased that we had ended up in their restaurant. And apparently, according to Toan, one of the things that stood out the most about us, was how white we were.
It was funny, and I was pleased we were of such interest.
Lunch done, we head back to the bikes. Our original guy follows us out, and I know he desperately wants to chat, but I also know that he has only slightly more English than I have Vietnamese. He does manage to ask where we are from, and I tell him. He seems to like that, but the conversation quickly comes to an end.
We’re soon on our way, before making our way back to the highway. All of a sudden there’s a sign saying 15 kms to go, which both excites me, but also saddens me, as the realisation hits that the tour is almost over. And that also means we’re not far off having one of those dreaded goodbyes to do.
The traffic builds, as does the heat, although it’s lucky it’s still overcast, and the rain is now a very distant memory. The elevated train line returns, as do the tall city buildings of Hanoi, and before we know it, we’re back in the Old Quarter. Just before 3.00pm, we’re back where it all started a little over five days ago, standing outside the Holiday Emerald Hotel.
A sign we’re getting close.
Not only bigger than Toan’s, but also potted!
Bags are unstrapped, and Toan asks us when we think we’ll be back? I hadn’t really thought about the next one; well, I had, but not so much about when; and I reply with ‘probably two years’.
That hurts, as two years just feels so long, and thinking about that sort of time frame is just too hard to imagine.
We do a few selfies, partly because I really want to, but also to put off the goodbye, before it just has to be done. Again, it was more a see you later, rather than the more permanent sounding goodbye.
A final momento with Toan and Hung.
We watch Toan and Hung ride off up Hang Manh, and then we head inside. A quick stop to get reacquainted with Jenny, before retrieving our bag which has been waiting patiently for our return, and then it’s upstairs to sort out some clothes that no longer smell like they should.
That done, a text message is sent to see if the catch up, which was organised back in Melbourne on a cold Winter’s day in early August, is still going to happen.
It is, and she’s only five minutes away from the hotel.
Final unpacking and laundry sorted, we head downstairs to find Kerstin sitting in the lobby.
I’d ‘met’ Kerstin, who is from Germany, years ago through Trip Advisor, and we’d ‘talked’ occasionally, on and off, since then. She then made contact again months ago, while on an extended trip that would eventually lead her to Australia, and as luck would have it, she managed to ultimately find her way to Melbourne. Fortunately, seeing as both Lisa and I were free at the time, we were able to catch up in the city on one of her days in town.
We didn’t do a great deal on that day; just showed her around the place, and introduced her to a pub or two; but we had a lot of fun, and it was nice to be able to finally put a face to the name.
While walking around the city that day, she mentioned that she had organised her return flight home to have several days stopover in Hanoi, and it turned out that a couple of those days would coincide with our time here as well.
And thus, a second catch up between a German and two Aussies, organised in Melbourne, was pencilled in to happen in Hanoi, almost two months later.
I can’t believe that day has now arrived, and it’s so great to see her again. And just to make it even easier, she’s even staying at the Emerald as well.
We head out in the direction of St Joseph’s, with the initial goal being to alleviate my need to carry a bag of dirty laundry around. Finding the laundry we used in 2019, that first goal is achieved.
Second goal is to find a drink, as well as somewhere where we can sit and have that drink, while catching up on what we’ve all been doing.
Down the lanes near St Joseph’s, and we find a place doing fruit juices and smoothies. And, they have seats, which is important, since it’s not like we’ve been sitting down all day…..
Juices are good, and much needed after our long ride, but it was all just about relaxing and chatting, and talking about our respective adventures.
Juices done, it’s beer o’clock. Lisa sticks with her routine of no afternoon footpath beers, while Kerstin, possibly because of her German background, is keen to partake.
We drop Lisa back at the hotel, and then head across to, and up, Stainless Steel street, before turning into Bat Dan street. Up Bat Dan, and there on the right, exactly where I left it, is my beer place. Seats taken out on the street, this time with company, and I’m back doing my favourite thing.
And after six days of travelling around, it may have even been enjoyed that little bit more. It certainly was nice to be back, and it was good fun to be sharing it with Kerstin, after last doing similar, but not really even remotely the same, in Melbourne.
We sit, chat and watch, and the time just flies.
We reach the point where something needs to be done about dinner, as well as a very much needed shower for me to rid myself of the remaining puddle water, so we head back to the Emerald, stopping for a couple of takeaways from my Stainless Steel Street convenience store on the way, as I know I’ll be asked as soon as I get back.
Shower had, we meet Kerstin downstairs not long after.
Decision needs to be made, and in the end it’s not a difficult one. Kerstin knows all about our association with Nam Bittet, and she’d actually stumbled across it earlier today while out exploring Hanoi, so Nam Bittet it’s going to be.
We make our way through the streets, arriving to find it’s rather busy. But, we’ve never been knocked back, regardless of how busy they are, and we’re found a table. It’s not ideal, as it’s in front of an air conditioning unit inside, which has a rather powerful fan, but we take it while keeping an eye on anyone about to leave.
It doesn’t take long, and we’re soon seated in a much more user friendly area.
Beers arrive, followed shortly after by our meals, and it seems something got lost in translation. Rather than looking at the outer ‘casing’ of the animal on my plate, I seem to have a number of chopped up items that normally reside inside that ‘casing’, on my plate.
Oh well, food is food, unless it’s tofu, so I suck it up, for want of a better term, and set about completing the job.
It’s, well, kind of confirmation of why I don’t order these types of dishes, but it also perhaps wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be.
Dinner complete, and kept down, we head off up to Bat Dan street, and once again find a table on the footpath.
Beers ordered, and then enjoyed, the usual chatting and watching ensues.
While it does, we notice a group of locals on a nearby table receive a plate of those wrapped up banana leaves, that contain something inside that I’ve never been able to work out what it actually is.
I ask the guy, with the help of Google translate, and he responds with ‘fermented pork’.
He then hands me one, which makes me feel bad, so I try and give it back to him. He won’t take it, and insists that we try it.
I reluctantly agree, giving him a heartfelt cảm ơn, and not for the first time, it’s the generosity of the locals that never cease to amaze me.
The three of us then share it, and yeah, it’s alright.
A few more beers, lots more chatting, and it’s just a great night as before we know it, it’s time to make a move.
Back to the hotel, and before Kerstin heads off to her room, I tell her, seeing as she leaves late tomorrow night, that she needs to think about what she wants to do tomorrow. Whether it’s with us, or not, it’s her day.
We part ways, and I drop into the Mum and Pop convenience store up the road for a couple of 15 000 Dong beers, a Coke that cost the same, and a packet of chips, to help with offal taste still in my mouth.
Back to the room for the usual on the bed, and another beer or two I may, or may not, really need.
It’s been a good day, but it was also a day that saw the end of something that most of this trip was planned around. And while that’s a little milestone I wasn’t looking forward to reaching, I am pleased to be back in ‘our’ Hanoi.
And to make that even better, is the fact that we’ve been able to meet up with Kerstin again.
It’s amazing, when you think about it, of how things pan out, to enable things like this to happen. Not just the timings of flights and tours, but how things happened in the first place, when we first got ‘talking’ all those years ago, through Trip Advisor related stuff.
But, now we have tomorrow to deal with. Or more to the point, tomorrow night.
And I ain’t looking forward to that one little bit.
Once again, too late…..