You’ll be pleased to hear that I was eventually reunited with my aluminium steed after a wait of five hours at the baggage office. The silver lining was that I spotted another member of the cycle-touring fraternity waiting for his bike too. My fellow cyclist was Rob from Newport. He had just over a week left of his nine-month tour during which he’d cycled through Europe, America, Australia and South East Asia. Being kindred spirits, cycle tourists always have much to talk about with each other and it is pretty much a given that you’ll get on. This case was no different and we ended up finding a hotel together and splitting the cost of a room which meant we could both enjoy something nicer than we might have afforded on our own.
The four days I had in Hanoi were shrouded in cold mizzle throughout but I was kept warm in the company of my dear friend Karolyn who has been living in Hanoi for the past few months. Unfortunately I completely ran out of time to do any cycle exploration of North Vietnam. I had originally planned to spend some time in Ha Long Bay, by all accounts an area of breathtaking natural beauty. However, the reality was that if I made the trip there I would barely get to spend any time with my friend. Given that I would probably not see her again for at least a year and a half, Ha Long Bay and the rest of the north would have to wait for a return trip.
I can’t tell you much about the city itself. I feel like I went through the formality of being introduced to it as one might be to a friend of a friend at a party and then not had the opportunity to get past initial pleasantries for the rest of the evening. I can at least tell you what it looked like, which was more low rise, personal and livable than Saigon. Lots of narrow streets with motorbikes and plastic furniture (overspill from cafes and restaurants) taking up most of the available space on the pavement, so pedestrians and traffic are forced into a perpetual dance of moving, mingling and parting for each other. Although the traffic was predictably heavy and chaotic it didn’t seem nearly as intimidating as Saigon and it was actually quite pleasant to cycle around the city. I think I found it easier to cycle the streets than I did to cross them as a pedestrian. At night the streets were almost empty in stark contrast to Saigon. Although the city is bursting with shops and businesses of every description somehow it lacks the overwhelming rat race feel of its southern counterpart. Community is more evident here too with large groups of people often found sitting outside together, unhurriedly eating and drinking. Another aspect of Hanoi that humanises it are the numerous lakes that permeate it providing quiet oases of calm from the otherwise pervasive flux of cacophonous traffic.
With Karolyn being a food lover and explorer, our days largely revolved around what and where to eat and snack. We were also fortuitous to have the sunny company of Thuy (pronounced something like ‘Twee’), the Vietnamese girl in whose house Karolyn is living. She’s an English teacher and a poet writing in both Vietnamese and English.
Between the two of them, they rehabilitated my impression of Vietnamese cuisine and I have to partially retract what I wrote in my previous post. As I suspected all I needed was a local with the knowledge of where to go and what to order. Everything we ate together was outstanding. Some examples: Bun Cha – barbequed pork in a garlicky and lemongrassy soup with noodles and diluted, sweetened fish sauce; Bo Bia – a kind of sweet spring roll with shredded coconut and sesame; Banh Ba Cua – another of the endless varieties of noodle soup, this one with crab meat and bursting with flavour, a world away from the bland pho I was eating at the beginning of my Vietnam trip; Ché – a kind of soupy dessert drink made with sticky rice, coconut, various fruits and crushed ice. On my last day Thuy led me through a narrow shopfront selling I can’t even remember what, handbags and clothes maybe, through the back and up some stairs into a hidden cafe that felt like someone’s living room, every bit of floor space occupied by people sitting on tiny plastic stools as if at an oversubscribed house party. There we drank sweet egg coffee. Yes, you read that right. Egg whites whisked and mixed with strong Vietnamese coffee that you could spoon into your mouth like a frothy, viscous coffee-flavoured cake mixture. If that doesn’t sound delicious then I haven’t done a very good job describing it because it was.
Hanging out with Thuy was a treat, not just because of her charming company but being a fluent English speaker we could talk with enough depth for her to give me an insider’s perspective on life as a young woman in modern Vietnamese society.
I didn’t take any photos in Hanoi. I’ve discovered that cities don’t inspire me to nearly as much as natural landscapes. So instead I’ll insert some photos that I took earlier of government posters demonstrating that the aesthetic of communist propaganda hasn’t changed much since the Bolsheviks. Soviet iconography it seems is a thoroughly trans-national and cross-cultural language.
So now that I’m returning to the UK it seems appropriate to take a moment to reflect on the trip so far. As a preparatory exercise in getting my feet to move in circles and bunking-off the British winter I feel I’ve done well. The landscapes, cities, towns, villages and people of South East Asia, their god-forsaken karaokes and the roads that link them all together linger in my mind, a whirling sweaty dustball of memories. I’ve hinted at some of the inner paths that I’ve begun to explore but I’ve made less progress there so far. Google has yet to deploy its mapping vehicles along the pot-holed roads and winding dirt tracks of my mind. Until they do I’m travelling blind, feeling my way along and hopefully not hitting too many dead ends.
So far I think I’ve learnt two lessons. The first is to keep in reserve a little faith in things working out when belly-flopping into the unknown. ‘Faith’ is a dirty word as far as I’m concerned so this isn’t something that comes easily to me. I don’t believe in any higher power watching over me so what exactly is it that I am putting my trust in? I think it amounts to a growing confidence in the statistical probability of everything working out as I put myself in more and more unknown situations. In most people’s lives, mine included, as we get older putting ourselves in an unknown situation becomes an increasing rarity. So much so that we start to forget what it’s like altogether and become cemented into our comfort zones. If the only experience we remember is being cocooned in a concrete comfort block, then we have no reason to expect everything will be alright when we hear the pneumatic drills. Conversely, if we deliberately and regularly expose ourselves to unknown situations, then although we may have no rational basis for predicting whether everything will be alright for any specific new unknown we are about to face, we can take reassurance from the knowledge that it did work out the last n times we faced some unknown. I am using the word ‘unknown’ in it’s broadest possible sense here. In most cases on my trip so far this has been nothing more earth-shattering than: What will happen if I don’t find somewhere to sleep before dark? What will happen if I try to cycle up this mountain that’s steeper or longer than any I’ve cycled before? What will happen if I injure myself? What will happen if I injure my bike? What will happen if I trust this dodgy looking person? What will happen if I go that way even though I have no idea where it will lead? What will happen if I completely run out of peanut brittle and dried kumquats?!! But I think we can extrapolate from this to any unknown and in so doing unlock the possibilities in our lives by readily living more adventurously.
The second lesson, well it’s more of a theory really, is to do with the experience of meeting strangers, particularly those from a different culture to one’s own and why this is so often such a powerful experience. When you have a positive interaction with stranger, even a fleeting and superficial one because you share no common language and may have wildly different upbringings and life experiences, you are left with an affirmation of common belonging to the human tribe. As social animals, belonging to a tribe is a fundamental desire. Usually we find it within far more exclusive and homogeneous groups such as family units, teams of people with whom we work or play, clubs to which we belong that may be held together by anything from political persuasion to taste in music or support of a football team. Members of these tribes have a default positive predisposition towards each other and often behave altruistically within the exclusive confines of the tribe. The tribe of all human beings on the other hand, does not define itself in opposition to anything or anyone else. To feel a kinship with all human beings is immensely empowering and comforting. It means you can travel anywhere in the world and depend on support from your fellow humans. Whatever personal idiosyncrasies, eccentricities, oddities or deficiencies you may feel that you have, you can still find belonging in a super-tribe, the members of which are found in all the inhabited regions of the Earth. To be reminded of this, whether as the recipient of unsolicited generosity from an individual or by the thousand collective smiles and salutations from strangers, is tremendously uplifting. It’s no wonder then that these encounters form the basis for some of our most vivid and treasured memories.
This being the last blog post from SE Asia and not having found space for it previously, I wanted to include this series of photos of the wonderful diversity of pedestrian warning signs I have come across in Vietnam.
And the very final salty snack! As I’ve been sitting on buses and trains or walking around cities lately and not doing much cycling I’ve had to raid my stash of salty snack photos to bring you this one. It’s been there for a while and I can’t remember which country I ate it in. Take a look at the pack and see if you can figure out what flavour these crisps are. It wasn’t at all obvious to me. Answer at the bottom.
Lime flavoured crisps and very tasty at that.
This blog will become dormant for the next few weeks but I’ll revive it shortly before or after I climb back on my bike and set out in the direction of India.