…Hanoi’s where it’s at…357 days in.
On returning to Hanoi, there was only one thing on our minds, and it was not the triggering of article 50; we wanted to know if China had accepted us! With Helen’s foot growing like a plump aubergine we decided to take a chance that just one of us would be able to collect the passports, and with the two hour window fast approaching I decided the best (cheapest) approach would be to run. So donning my running singlet I headed off in the mid afternoon warmth and 95 % humidity to the Bank of China. I arrived leaching sweat out of everywhere. I handed over crisp dollar bills with a sheen of residue du Mike to the lady behind the counter and left more than just my signature on the receipt. It was then a three kilometre dash to the embassy for the moment of truth. I arrived at 3 pm, wafted my receipt to the guard and was ushered to counter six; no pat down this time. I was second in the queue, the lady infront collected two passports, good sign. I handed over my slip, a bit of thumbing through rows of green passports followed, then the crimson ones, then out popped two banded together. A brief gaze inside and then out from under the counter they came. No drama, no protests required, no hidden charges. It was a bit of an anticlimax in truth, but I guess that will all change when we get there, China, we’re coming!
With the Exeter marathon now just seven weeks away, I have tried to up my mileage. Cities can often be tricky for long runs, especially cities where it appears the main purpose of a pavement is for parking and repairing scooters and using them to drive against the direction of one way traffic; and those parts of the footway that are accessible are the uneven bits where parking and repairing would be a risky business. Fortunately, I only needed to do battle for a few kilometres of such terrain before reaching Ho Tay, the large, misty lake in Hanoi’s residential north quarter. As ever, setting off a six in the morning gives you a different perspective of life. Gone are the columns of tourists on $50 street tours and shoe-shine touts and in their place is a wave of dance classes, meditation sessions, serious cyclists clad in branded Lycra and individuals performing aerobics. Those public fitness machines that you see dormant, graffitied and burnt in public parks back in Blighty are well oiled and in full swing. Everywhere you turn elderly women who have spent a lifetime stooping in fields are hanging off tree bows stretching sinued limbs. Others are stripping down to their underwear and embarking on an early morning swim as others recoil their fishing lines. As the sun rises school children begin to fill the quieter back roads on their bicycles wearing bright white shirts and ubiquitous red neck scarves. Myriad stools begin to fill the pavements as I return to the city centre and the bustle is well and truly in full swing. Now I simply run as close to the motorbikes as I dare as together we head straight over crossroads hoping to avoid anything bus shaped. It seems to work, green men signals do not prevent buses coming through anyway.
A comfortable nine hour train ride took us to the border town of Lao Cai, the gateway to China; but for us that was still a few days away. Between now and then we had some exploring to do in the popular destination of Sapa. As we alighted our train the con man began his work and led us to the only bus anywhere to be seen outside the station and demanded £10 for the ride, I’m simplifying for you guys back home, this guy was no fool and he certainly didn’t want anything to do with the uncertainty of sterling, but if I begin to type the amount of Dong he was after I’d probably get RSI from hitting all those zeros. Anyway, when I got him to £4, I was happy as back in Hanoi they had tried to sell us a pickup for that price and she announced the journey could not be done cheaper. So we boarded the bus, straight passed a sign stuck to the window that read ‘Sapa £1’. During my protests I was even shoved off the bus as the man who took my payment began to act as if I’d just taken his last Rolo and he was not the sharing type. As I returned to my seat, perturbed but prepared to put it behind me, a local lady, dressed in traditional Hmong clothing (think bright colours, beads and lots of pleats) told me as a tourist I had to expect it. After explaing to her the faults of her philosophy, we actually chatted away happily for the next twenty minutes, until a broken down lorry blocked the carriageway and she left, leaving us waiting for 45 minutes for things to get going again.
Following a night in one of the most comfy beds in Asia we headed off to the quiet village of Ta Van to experience the real rice terraces. With Helen’s foot on the mend we decided to taxi downhill for eight kilometres to our homestay. We arrived in time for the promised hearty lunch, which was far from undersold; with six dishes to knock back even I was struggling! It was then time to explore, but what with the weather being inclement and visibility interrupted by waves of mist, a short walk along the concrete roads between rice fields was all we could muster. This left us whiling away the hours in our cold and draughty homestay, and as our minds wandered talk of jobs on our return began to fill the aptly chilled air! Well, it would have done if the air wasn’t already filled with the noise of gun fire coming from 46 foot TV that dominated the room and was constantly under the stewardship of the families ten year old son. A fine evening meal never broke the ice and so it was an early evening.
A wet morning greeted us, but we were determined not to hang around for a planned second night, so said our goodbyes and committed Helen’s foot to 500 metres of ascent back to Sapa. The views cleared as we gained height and hundreds of uniquely carved rice paddies revealed themselves. By lunchtime we were within sight of Sapa, but the spot where we were perched at the top of the valley to eat also offered simple accommodation, and so we decided to have another night’s stay with a family. This time the sun was out, the views were fabulous and the families four girls were far less prone to blasting zombies on a computer (though you may suggest that combing the hair of a barbie doll on a PC is far creepier).
Lying 22 degrees north and at 1600 metres above sea level, things turned cold as night fell, but as all eight of us sat around the short table for dinner, Mr Lau produced the talking water and the place felt a little warmer. The following morning, as promised we tried to help out Mr Lau with his homestay business by adding him to Google Maps and TripAdvisor. There is a strange disconnect between all the technology that all these low income households have (two large TV’s, PC, laptop, smartphone and Nikon camera) and their ability to use it at even a basic level. Still, an hour of our time was neither here nor there, and he’d be thankful right? Well, if he was he certainly wasn’t showing it when he tried to charge me double the standard price for a bottle of water, and I’d even taught him the three rope magic trick so he could impress his daughters!
Back in town the next day our planned outing to Love Waterfall was curtailed as the visibility on the roads was 10 metres at most, though this didn’t stop the hotel owner giving me a lift on his moped for a terrifying 200 metre journey before I insisted we had reached my destination! In fact, we were moving hotels what with our first choice being above the construction sites of three hotels whose builders only appeared to stop at 2 am for a hours nap. We took the easier option to walk to the touristy but kinda quaint village of Cat Cat; imagine walking from Hornchurch to Rainham and then finding that you needed to pay £2 to get in. Actually, that’s unfair, let’s say Gidea Park. Actually, that’s also unfair, Gidea Park doesn’t have 50 shops all selling identical bracelets and headscarves. Cat Cat did have some water driven rice pounders, although these were strictly ornamental, and I’m sure the Queens Theatre doesn’t put on dance performances every hour, so on the whole it was a fun few hours and our last bit of touristing in Southeast Asia as tomorrow, China awaits!