I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this, but for the latter part of the trip I took diazepam on every journey. This was because of the night bus journey from Hue to Hanoi. I should have known it would be shit – I mean, to an anxious traveller with an anxious bladder, all Vietnamese bus journeys are shit. I should have known it would the travelling equivalent of post-dodgy-curry diarrhoea when the bus was so late that hostel staff noticed…
Our driver was a smoker, which I don’t usually mind, except this one smoked while he drove and an air conditioning unit was right above my sleeper bunk, so all the smoke got regurgitated from his lungs and went shoooom up my nostrils. For nine hours minus a couple of toilet stops. Maxim could normally sleep on the buses, but the best I ever seemed to manage was a nap while I tried not to think about needing a wee. On this particular journey the air was so dry that my throat was like sandpaper, but you can never be sure when the driver will stop, so I sipped a bottle of water nervously until a local kid in the bunk next to me asked in broken English if he could have some because did I mention the smoke
As we neared Hanoi it transpired that Maxim was not sleeping but was in almost unbearable pain from also needing a wee. We pegged it out the bus and grabbed the nearest cab, which proceeded to take us on the scenic route around Hanoi. By the way, it was 2am. I tried not to think about all the times I’ve been the one with horrific bladder problems as I let the cabbie short change me and followed Maxim into our hostel, where the concierge was napping at his desk and several other travellers were collapsed on sofas because check in wasn’t until midday. I do remember a local lady, at around five, taking live fish from a bucket directly opposite the hostel and beheading and gutting them in the same way I make my morning coffee. I didn’t film it, because I don’t want anyone filming my morning coffee, but I suppose Game of Thrones isn’t that gross once you’ve heard live animals professionally decapitated.
I think we were in the Old Quarter of Hanoi – all narrow, windy streets a bit like London or York except with ten thousand more street food vendors selling pho. We didn’t actually stay in Hanoi that long, because our visas were running out – I would have loved to see the old prison, where John McCain was held, and Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. Then again, I’ve seen a lot of prisons in South East Asia. If you’re ever in Hanoi, though, you must do the following:
- Take a walking tour! We did from our hostel – Hanoi is too crowded to travel anywhere by anything larger than a bike or on foot and there is so much to see, it’s one of those places where you need eight pairs of eyes
- If you like eggs and coffee, visit Giang Cafe. They invented egg coffee. I unfortunately could not partake but Maxim, who enjoys both coffee and eggs, reported that it tastes a bit like dessert
- Go to the post office. Okay so this is probably me being weirdly charmed by post offices, but a post office is such a normal place, it’s perfect for seeing regular people do everyday things. A local girl helped her grandpa with his letters then helped him into a cab, which took me back to all the times we helped my grandmother in and out of cars on days out. Sometimes, when you spend every day doing something new, you need to go and do something normal.
- Visit St Joseph’s Cathedral. I believe the site was once a temple, and the whole wrecking-sacred-buildings-to-replace-them-with-other-sacred-buildings thing makes me grind my teeth, but props to the architect because the building itself is spectacular. We mooched in and the smell hit me. I don’t do churches, god or any form of spiritual enlightenment as a matter of principle, but the church smelt like… home. Like England. I was suddenly back in church as a semi-cynical eight year old singing hymns with my mum. Don’t look at me like that, I’m allowed to like the smell of childhood.
We took a trip from Hanoi into Ha Long Bay, but that’s a blog for another day. Have you ever walked into somewhere and smelt childhood?