Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Vietnam Part 1: Mopeds and pig heads

"Hanoi's like fucking Beirut" warned the classic Brit Abroad we met towards the end of our trip, whose worldly references seemed to be limited to a Middle Eastern civil war that ended 30 years ago. That's assuming he was comparing Hanoi to the once war-torn streets of the Lebanese capital and not emphasising an abundance of hummus. "Oh, we quite liked it actually" we admitted, before conceding that it's exhaustingly chaotic. And, come to think of it, a bit of baba ghanouj wouldn't go amiss.

Hanoi © Ryan Chapman

Hanoi © Ryan Chapman

Hanoi owes its chaos to the sheer volume of motorbikes, mopeds and scooters. And the alarming enthusiasm with which they're riden. On the morning of Day 1, simply crossing the road is a dauntingly treacherous prospect. By the afternoon of Day 2 you've nailed the technique: stick to a straight line, maintain a consistent pace, and hope for the best. By Day 3 you're playing Spot the New Arrivals as panic-stricken Western faces stare wide-eyed at the constant stream of traffic wondering how on earth they're going to make it to dinner on time. Or indeed, alive.

Even down the narrowest of side streets, lined with market stalls and their bouquets of fresh herbs, mountains of fruit and all the parts of a pig you can think of. Even here, Hanoians on mopeds will come speeding down the alleyway behind you, assuming you'll step aside just in time. The two-wheeler is king and you just have to be okay with that.

Hanoi © Ryan Chapman

There are, of course, plenty of places to escape the relentless buzz of the city. Such as incense-infused temples with their alters bearing offerings to Buddist deities from bottled water to multi-packs of custard cupcakes; restful gardens alive with birdsong; and cafes where you can sample the Hanoian specialty of egg coffee. Now, cracking an egg into your coffee may not sound appealing, and the idea was born out of desperation during a wartime milk shortage, but it's nicer than it sounds. I promise.

Hanoi © Ryan Chapman

Hanoi's centre-piece is Hoan Kiem: a tranquil lake in a sea of mayhem. People of all ages gather on its shores to practice Thi Chi or play friendly games of badminton that quickly turn competitive. Another local past-time, enjoyed mostly by pairs of middle-aged men, is đá cầu (also known as jianzi). Essentially it's football with a shuttlecock. I watched for a while, willing a miss-kick to fall my way but they were all too good to lose control (which is probably for the best, to be honest).

Hanoi © Ryan Chapman

It had been over a decade since I'd done any significant traveling in this corner of the world, so I was more than ready for the unique assault of the senses that only South East Asia can provide. And Hanoi, with its myriad of frantic sights and pungent smells, satisfied the craving. But after a long weekend in the capital it was time to hit the tracks and explore more of Vietnam.

The Reunification Express railway links Hanoi in the north to Ho Chi Minh City a thousand miles to the south. The railway was mostly destroyed during the American War but rebuilt following Vietnam's reunification in 1975. Hence the name. The full journey takes around thirty-four hours, but broken up into five or six legs is perfectly manageable. Especially if you book sleeper cabins for the overnight sections. And stock up on the requisite snacks, obviously.

Our first leg from Hanoi to Ninh Binh was the shortest of all with barely enough time for a quick nap and a packet of crisps. The city of Ninh Binh is nothing special, but the surrounding countryside is spectacularly dotted with dramatic karst rock formations towering over lush rice fields and winding waterways. A stunning landscape to explore by boat, bike and boot.

Ninh Binh © Ryan Chapman

It's here in the rural backwaters that we first experienced the general friendliness of the Vietnamese people. That's not to say they were particularly rude in Hanoi, but it's hard to be polite when you're constantly chasing people down on motorbikes. Children in the countryside around Ninh Binh would hurry out of their houses to shout 'hello' as we passed. And the braver kids with slightly more English would ask for our names, before giggling at the response and hiding behind a tree.

In fact, there seemed to be kids everywhere. Even our homestay was run by children. When we couldn't get the shower to work the only person around to ask was a girl of about thirteen. And then her younger sister served us fresh mango for breakfast that she'd grown in the garden. It was then I realised that this abundance of youth was no doubt linked to the coronavirus-related school closures. All the kids in the village were probably bored out of their minds and just saying hello to Westerners for something to do. But at least they did it with a smile.

Ninh Binh © Ryan Chapman

A further eight or so hours south on the Reunification Express - the perfect amount of time for a good sleep, we had naively calculated - is Phong Nha National Park. The area is best known for caves (including the biggest in the world, no less) but as impressive as they are, let's be honest, when you've seen one cave that's kind of enough. Luckily, there's plenty more to do that doesn't involve trying to recall your Year 8 geography class that covered stalagmites and stalactites during which you were distracted by scrawling flirtatious graffiti in the exercise books of mostly disinterested girls sat next to you.

Phong Nha © Ryan Chapman

Locals have got creative with their offerings to tourists in these parts. Whether you want to eat Chicken Bombs in a bomb-themed bar beside a crater formed during an American airstrike, have a flock of ducks peck seeds from in-between your toes, or ride a massive water buffalo named Donald Trump: Phong Nha has you covered.

And from there, we headed to the ancient capital of Hue. But for that you'll have to wait for Part 2...

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Hanoi tips: drink egg coffee at Dinh Cafe before and/or after a walk around the lake. Eat bánh mì at Bánh Mì 25 (bánh mì is essentially a savoury filled baguette, but Vietnamese bread is lighter with a  satisfyingly crackly crust). Drink excellent cocktails at The Alchemist.

Hanoi © Ryan Chapman

Ninh Binh tips: stay at Hang Mua Nature Homestay (run by a very welcoming family with two rooms overlooking a tropical fruit garden). Do a boat trip from Trang An and explore the Tam Coc area by bike (we hired bikes from Tam Coc Happy Home). Download the Grab app for taxis to cover the longer distances.

Ninh Binh © Ryan Chapman

Phong Nha tips: cycle out to The Pub with Cold Beer and reward your efforts with their flagship product (beware of the copycat establishment The Knockoff Pub With Cold Beer just around the corner. According to reviews their beer isn't even cold). On the way back swing by the aforementioned Bomb Crater Bar for further refreshment.