It was an adventure in itself to get to Hanoi, Vietnam from Phonsavan, Laos. The crossing was the least used by travelers and tourists. When I boarded the only bus at 6.30am, I realised that I was the only foreigner, but being an Asian myself, I blended in nicely. I relished my anonymity and solitude as the bus cruised slowly to the border. But the cat was out of the bag when the immigration officer called out my nationality when my passport was returned to me.
That’s when I met Hoan who helped me to change some Vietnamese dongs with the bus driver as there was no ATM nor money changer at the border. We needed to change bus at Vinh and since he traveled a lot for work, he knows quite a lot of bus drivers. So instead of buying the ticket at the counter, we bought from the bus driver himself and got a special price. I had never seen a bus like those in Vietnam, there are no seats on them, just 3 rows of narrow bed. It actually looks comfortable. I slept the whole way from Vinh to Hanoi.
The landscape in Vietnam kind of reminded me of that of Thailand and Laos, lots of green and the occasional karsts jutting out from the flat land. Instead of the Buddhist temples, they are Christian churches among the padi fields.
We arrived in Hanoi very early in the morning. Hoan actually wanted to take a day off so he could show me around but couldn’t. So he called a friend who met us at the bus terminal. Tuyen was very excited to meet me as he was learning English and wanted the opportunity to practice his English. I was more than willing to help. So I got on his motorbike with my backpack and we went on our way, shakily at first.
Have you been on a motorbike in Hanoi? Or anywhere in Vietnam for that matter? The first few minutes almost gave me heart attacks as we weaved through the early morning traffic. I have never seen so many motorbikes in my life. But then I got the hang of things and was to enjoy it. It’s amazing to see how these throngs of motorbikes move as one organism. Riding here is more a thing of intuition than learned skills.
Besides given me a ride, Tuyen also took me to the Temple of Literature, Hanoi’s first university. The place reminded me a lot of China, with its architecture and landscape. There are hundreds of stone turtle carrying stelae of the names of ancient doctors and masters of the university. Tuyen told me that each year on the first day of school term, students would come to the temple for a ceremony to pray for good results for the year.
Hoan also introduced me to another friend of his, Van Anh. We met up one day and she brought me to a night market. We had food at the side of a street sitting in one of those very low wooden chair and eating with our fingers, while people watching.
One Sunday, Van Anh and her family took me on their motorbikes to the West Lake. We rode around the enormous lake and people were having a lazy Sunday afternoon by the lakeside. We stopped at a bamboo stall and had lotus tea while we chatted about our lives. I was mesmerised by them telling me their stories, about how it was growing up in Vietnam and what they aspire to be.
That was my last day in Hanoi. It’s not the most beautiful place I’ve been but I grew to like it because of the people who made me felt so welcome, and showed me the side of the city that not many tourists get to experience.