Two Backpacks

Hanoi street Old City

Chapter 19 - Hanoi, Vietnam

            Our plan for reaching Hanoi was to spend a few days in the city and then travel to the coast to visit Ha Long Bay.

            We fly from Hue to Hanoi as neither Ron nor I fancy another Vietnamese overnight bus journey or arriving in the city in the early morning without knowing how to navigate the transport systems.

            The hotel I’ve booked, Little Hanoi, offers an airport pick-up, a much simpler way of locating our accommodation in an overcrowded city.

            Our driver is waiting for us at the arrival gate. Once we’ve stowed our bags in the boot, we set off for the centre of Hanoi and the old city where our hotel is. The journey takes us through industrial parks, where internationally known brands have warehouses and manufacturing facilities on gigantic sites.

            As we near the city centre, the buildings become smaller, the modern glittering facades replaced by older, more dated shop fronts. Turning from the main thoroughfare, we’re surrounded by a melee of motorbikes and cars. Progress is painfully slow as we edge closer to our hotel, the roads clogged with so much traffic it seems impossible to imagine anyone reaching their destination in such chaos.

            After an hour, we arrive outside our hotel, wedged between two similarly old and slightly dilapidated buildings.

            ‘I hope it’s better inside,’ I whisper to Ron as we climb the steps to the entrance.

When we walk through the door, our worries disappear. The place is clean and modern. Once our passports are checked and registered, the hotel’s receptionist hands us our key.

            ‘Your room is on the fourth floor,’ the receptionist advises. ‘I’m sorry, but there’s no lift,’ she adds, probably wondering if the two tired retirees in front of her can make it to the fourth floor with their bags.

            ‘Why is our room always at the top of the hotels?’ moans Ron as, being the gentleman he is, he bends and picks up both our backpacks.

            ‘Do you want me to see if they have anything on a lower floor?’ I ask as Ron sets off towards the staircase at the far end of the reception.

            ‘I’ll manage,’ he replies as he disappears from view.

            The climb leaves us both breathless and Ron sweating from the exertion, but our room is comfortable and quiet.

            We both collapse on the bed and take out our computers. I have to look for onward accommodation, and Ron’s checking on weather forecasts. We’d heard a storm approaching, which may impact our plans.

            ‘I don’t think we’ll be able to make Ha Long Bay. The typhoon is strengthening and will move inland in the next few days. Perhaps we should think about getting out of Vietnam tomorrow.’

            Ron shows me the weather reports and the latest satellite predictions.

            ‘So, where do you want to go? We planned to stay in the north for a week or more. Any ideas?’ I ask as I open the Air Asia website to check on flights out of Hanoi in the next few days.

            We decide to fly Air Asia to Kuala Lumpur, the airline’s hub, and I manage to book two seats on the eight o’clock flight the following morning.

            ‘Do you fancy going out for a walk, exploring the neighbourhood while we can?’ I ask.

            Ron, still engrossed with information on various websites, looks up and grins. ‘I could certainly do with a beer or two. Okay, let’s go out and stretch our legs.’

            With our laptops secured in our padlocked bags, we set out to discover Hoan Kiem Lake, which, according to my travel guide, is a ten-minute away.

            Outside our hotel, a cacophony of noise hits us, car horns honking, revving motorbike engines and pedestrians shouting above the din.

            I look at Ron, ready to turn and head back inside the hotel.

            ‘C’mon,’ he says, taking my hand. ‘We’re only here today; let’s at least look around.’

            He’s right. We’ve only got a few hours before we have to leave. It’s impossible to walk side by side, so I follow Ron, hoping he has some idea of where we’re going.

            Since I’ve known my Scot, I’ve realised he has very little sense of direction, that every trip out is an adventure, the destination one of mystery!

            ‘Do you know where you’re going,’ I ask when we stop at a crossroad jammed with traffic.

            ‘Not really, but I’m enjoying just wandering the streets. Maybe you should take over, only it will get dark in an hour, and we still haven’t found the lake.’

            I reach for my travel guide and flick to the page with the city map.

            ‘It looks as if it’s only a block away,’ I state. ‘This way.’

            Crossing the intersection is madness. No one stopped; each line of traffic determined to gain as much distance as possible before the lights turned again. Ron and I squeeze between scooters and cars, fearful that they may inch forward at any moment.

            I check that Ron’s behind me as I take a road to the right. A block further on, and we’re at the lake. The contrast between the serenity of the lake and its grounds and the noise of constant moving traffic is immense. Relieved to be away from the chaos, we find a park bench.

            Ron and I sit in silence, taking in the beautiful gardens and still waters of Hoan Kiem as the sun begins to set over the city.

            ‘I wish we had more time to explore. It’s such a shame we’re leaving tomorrow. I was looking forward to our trip to Ha Long Bay and Sapa.’

            Ron squeezes my hand. ‘Never mind. We can always return one day.’

            We sit in silence for a few minutes, gazing at the city lights reflected in the now-black waters of the lake.

            ‘How about Ko Samui?’

            ‘What about Ko Samui?’ I reply, not understanding what Ron’s saying.

            ‘Ko Samui. Our next stop. We could stay there for a few weeks.’   

            He’s onto something. We wander back to our hotel, stopping for something to eat at a small restaurant opposite, where customers sit on rickety plastic stools and eat from an upturned crate that acts as a table. The food is delicious.

            Back in our hotel room, I get out my computer and search for somewhere to stay on Ko Samu. I find a hotel giving great rates for long-stay customers.

            ‘How about this?’ I ask Ron as I hand him my laptop showing pictures of the hotel I’ve found.

            ‘Looks great. How much?’ he asks, forever conscious of our budget.

            ‘If we stay for a month, we’ll be just inside our monthly allowance. It looks lovely; there’s a pool and beautiful gardens. And, check out the apartment’s interior; it’s modern,’ I say, hoping to convince Ron to say ‘yes’.

            ‘Let’s do it. I could do with unpacking for a while. Go on. Book it before we change our minds,’ he insists.