Without saying a word, she points to a hut in the middle of the plaza. I guess its breakfast time. The ground is very wet, but the view of the fortress-esque limestone mountains that surround this old-village-style BnB (something that was invisible when I rolled in here after a 3hr bike ride through industrial suburb of Ha Noi and Ha Nam province) just takes my breath away. Probably more picturesque with the dimmed sunlight under the rain clouds. With the thought of Harvey and NoKo still fresh in my head, I sit down for a simple meal of baguette, eggs and a yogurt. A delight for me is to learn that wifi is much stronger out here. So after finishing food I go back to the room to retrieve my iPad. A grey-haired lady is looking up to the grey sky. Says they've been here for a week and this is the first rainy day.
Caroline is a Cambodian French who's been traveling with her husband through northern Vietnam, avoiding massive tourism like I do. We exchange our travel stories, but theirs completely overshadows mine; from all around Medetirranean down to Niger, even out to the American West which we agree that is one of the most distinctive and wonder-abundant terrains anywhere, and I feel lucky to reside close to (note to self: need to explore North America. Maybe on a motorbike). The more time I spend with the lovely couple, however, the closer we are brought back to Belleville, Paris; where they live and the place I fell in love with. We end up talking for the majority of the morning, or rather I end up talking their ears off all inspired by their stories and pictures. While the rain clouds don't seem to be going away soon, I cannot let myself stay within the ant-filled walls and a spotty wifi connection. Although the cost of extending my stay in the north was miniscule (compared to, say, Paris) I gotta make my 5~6hr motorbike roundtrip worthwhile. I pull out my trashbag raincoat and roll out - first to Bich Dong Pagoda, the closest POI (except for Tam Coc which is within minutes walk and slammed with white folks).
Once arriving at the said pagoda, I quickly learn that this entire Hoa Lu district is a destitnation; being the impenetrable capital of Dai Viet in 10~11th century and home to many temples and natural beauties, they accommodate ecotourism from in and out of Vietnam in their exotic cottages and village-style homestays. Local/tourist ratio is surprisingly high, but thanks to the rain not many are out exploring. Let's stretch out further now, to Thung Nham bird park which is just a few minutes away, and enjoy the ride with magnificent views that really fit the image of what visitors would picture as an "Asian countryside." No surprise that they shot parts of the Skull Island film out here.
Tourism in Vietnam may be still in its infancy as opposed to one in Bali which has been an integral particle as I detailed in the earlier posts. As I see this socialist regime making its best effort, although, I'm not sure hospitality is in the cultural nature of the Viet. Service at almost any establishments I've been to since entering the country has been sub-par, north or south. This seems to ring true for locals like Applesauce and Kem who I catch having to ask for almost everything; utinsils, condiments, bills etc. That being said, the service wasn't that much better in Europe or Japan whose "omotenashi" attitude I used to boast about but the new generation seems to lack, and the English fluency is about the same as the aforementioned tourism veterans. Dollar/Euro go much further here except for businesses that cater to expats and 1%, and you do not have to worry about those ice cubes in your iced coffee like you should in Indonesia. Some toilets might not have TPs handy, but almost every place offers MAD FAST wifi (one place had 50+Mbps on both down/up: the first ever seen) The lack of mass transit is a big setback because you really should not be riding motorbikes like I have been, at least not in Sai Gon or Ha Noi. Out here in Ninh Binh, it has been a treat. Even under this gloomy sky, the ride to and from Thung Nham is filled with serene sceneries of rice fields and domesticated animals such as cows, chickens and little piglets. And my destination turns out to have a "resort" complete with a decent-looking restaurant situated in the middle of carefully-crafted and very quiet park which apparently is still under construction. Two thumbs up.
Next morning, for some odd reason I wake up at 3:30am, unable to fall back to sleep. I have been aware of ants marching into one of the beds, so I figured they might've been crawling around my skin while I'm unconscious. Then I see them spawning out of my backpack, I admit that I freaked out and had to reorganize everything I had inside which takes a good half hour then before I know the sun is on the horizon. So I decide, instead of taking advantage of a relatively clear sky to head back into the city, that I hit another spot; Trang An aka "Ha Long of the inland" which is only a 15min ride. Early enough to avoid the massive crowd, I get on a boat with a young Vietnamese couple who came in with 4 cameras ready. This end up being a 2.5hr excursion including a few stops at pagodas and temples, and is worth every dong and minute I spent. On top of crusing through the breathtaking canyons of limestones, you go through a handful of low caves where you literally have to duck for a minute or 2 just to avoid cracking your head open. And at the end of every one of these caves you are treated with indescribable views of massive mountains. Other than other tourists spewing amazement in whatever languages they speak, it is quiet. Also, the mad skill and stamina on the guys and the gals that row these boats; no clue how they navigate the boat in the narrowest of the cave routes while scolding our dumb asses to duck, sometimes paddling with their feet almost on their backs. I try to help by grabbing the tourist oar and sweat, then it hits me - I could be doing this as long as physically capable, living nearby humbly and making just enough wages manning these boats, shooting shit with English-speaking tourists and maybe making music on the side after hours...but it might just be my wandering heart. The escapism. The fantasy. Or that I have not been working out at all. My heart was definitely pumping once at the end.
Once I get back on the motorbike though, I am paying the price of having pushed my old system to its limit that I am seldom aware of. I do admit that, already at the start of another 2~3hr ride northbound to Hanoi to return the bike and catch a flight, I am pretty wiped. But once I get on the road the sun comes out, whipping on my back with the Vitamin D that I needed to boost my immunity, or draining whatever the minuscule energy that I have left. Then comes back the rain cloud, dropping massive drops of Southeast Asia onto my bare shoulders. I need to pick up a shirt with some sleeves on, which I had forgotten to pack in my half-counscious state when we left Sai Gon. So I stop by at a local supermarket and do exactly that, meanwhile the rain becomes more intense. The next 2 hours I kept my head down and focused on the road with Kraftwerk "Tour de France Soundtrack" in my earbuds. Much like the city ride, this is another case of real-life video game moments where all kinds of obstacles come at you from every direction; huge potholes on the road often with muddy water, dogs, chickens, locals pushing food carts, pedestrians trying to cross, busses and trucks passing each other, swarms of other motorbikes, cops stopping traffic for no apparent reason, toll booth who yell at you cause motorbikes are not allowed, so you turn around and drive wrong way while behemoth of busses and trucks honking at you head on etc. and the rain never stops. I legitimately thought I might not make it.
Upon arriving in Ha Noi, I grab a 4-wheel uber and pass out until the airport. The flight is delayed an hour so I grab another nap, but I am a horrible napper. I cannot. Once I'm out, I'm out for hours. Can't do cat naps, or the ideal 20min power naps that every productivity blog suggests you do. I'm a deep sleeper. So when I have to wake up in the midst of my REM sleep, I'm useless. Stepping off the craft, dragging my way out to Sai Gon streets, I make a crucial mistake of using Grab, an Indonesian-based ridesharing service/app, let along Grab Motor. Guess I was trying to save 3 dollars, but this backfires. Somehow Grab app reads the address from Google Maps incorrectly, so my driver on a Honda Dream 100cc goes off to an opposite direction. I stop him and find out about the glitch, but the even bigger glitch is that Grab app does not let you cancel or change the destination once in transit. And the driver does not speak a word of English. My phone is almost dead and my exhausted brain cannot deal with Google Translate which is less than half-useful anyway. So we park on the side of the road, the driver calls the tech support to cancel the ride, he hands me the phone but the tech support has the thickest of the accent making him unintelligible to me, 45 minutes after we manage to book another guy, so this poor driver waits around until the next guy comes to us which surprisingly takes another 20min. By the time I roll back into my lovely Sai Gon home it was past midnight, and I spend next couple of days nursing a cold.
Pix and vids though, totally worth all that.
Through 4 days in Paris, 8 days in Tokyo, 16 days in Bali I have fought humidity - but this place, the capital of Vietnam, has taken the crown of the most uncomfortably thick atomosphere that I have experienced. It doesn't help that we got a massive squall on the Day 1, plus we've been riding bicycles once the sky cleared, and the shoes are still wet.
Yes we've been riding bicycles, and I do agree with Applesauce; it's rather nice to catch finer details of this millennial city at a leisurely pace. However, it's still the second populous city of the country and the traffic is just as intense as Sai Gon, so yes - you'd be pedaling alongside with hundreds of motorized vehicles very closely, which is definitely my first. Luckily this is Day 28 of my Southeast Asia, and I've been training on this. If you dare, and I mean upon making an informed decision to do this yourself, it'll be the closest thing to feel like a superhero standing on your two feel right in the middle of a massive intersection.
Be kind/rewind; within a few hours of checking into a gorgeous old-style house, the heavy rain came and said SUP. Upon acquiring raincoats which is nothing but a human-sized plastic bag with some holes, we walked to the infamous Old Quarter. Right away I get a bad feeling about the English signs for drinks and "backpackers." Hello whiteness, my old friend. So us Three Tomodachi find a place to eat that has plastic stools as tables, and only one dish; Nem Cua Be (crab spring roll) which is served with rice noodle, various greens incl. basils, chives, rau ma etc and a dipping sauce.
While I scuff down this gem, Applesauce notices a sign for "mask maker" across the street, right above some hippie bar. Within minutes, some random local stops by to pick up her spring roll, overhears our convo and proceeds to tell us that she once asked this guy to do some custom-made masks for the bar she used to own. Intrigued, Kem the go-getter walks up to Mr. Hipstache and asks about his neighbor upstairs, but he tells her he knows nothing about no mask - just that the old man upstairs is his landlord. After some confusion and figuring shit out, we are invited upstairs by the Mrs Mask Maker. The tiny apartment has one wall occupied by about a dozen masks, in front of which sits the Mask Maker in his 70s who turns out to be also a retired Hat tuong (Vietnamese version of Xiqu, Chinese dance-drama) performer. With a radiant smile he reveals that his father was also a premiere tuong leading man, then pulls out a DVD-R copy of an early 90s TV program which features his performance and his father as the host. I'd assume that they both were fairly well-known then, but he says that it is a dying art form which even his children wouldn't dare try - and I think I saw him wipe his eyes.
Sllightly heartbroken, I show him the footage of the dance drama I saw at a Banjar in Bali, then he demonstrates the stylistic differences between Vietnamese (solidly grounded stance) and Balinese (more fluid often with one foot off the ground) dances - you could tell his passion has not withered at all. I couldn't help but think about the coincidence of meeting the two last guardians of old art forms; him and Sarga who still remains active and visible partly thanks to the existence of a community that appreciate his craft, whereas this Vietnamese master, outside of a few foreigners and the students at a nearby college he has taught, doesn't seem to receive the love for his. Although he might not be the self-promoting type, how does the white tenant not know that his landlord is a legend? Is the Old Quarter just the name and does not care about its thousand-year-old history?
The answer, my friend, is blowing in the douchey EDM blasting from Beer 17 or 19 or whatever their numbers may be. They dont even bother to be creative with the naming - just slap street address after the universal magic word, put out plastic stools and "tables" facing the street, and throw on Tiger-brand tight dress on some skinny girls to hand you the menu then start yelling which beer you should order without missing a beat. We almost sat down at one of these joints, then a middle-aged lady (from the next door?) started screaming blue murder at the front row plastic seats and rearranging them fanatically, so we left fearing for our sanity. A few hours later, I'd come back to this very establishment with Don from my high school whom I failed to reunite with in Tokyo but managed to here while on his business trip. We drank 2+2+2 of 333 each with another around of Tiger and Tuborg, and ordered some fried stuff incl. frog legs which did "taste like chicken." Night market is fun but food stands are outnumbered by cheap souvenirs and brand knock-offs. The lake in the center hosting the old temple is quite beautiful and full of family-friendly action such as kids on motorized toy cars, a tug of war (have you done this since adulthood? It FUCKS you up) and a magnificent sunset. But overall, this whole Quarter feels like just another tourist trap with money exchange, motorbike tours/rentals and never-ending supply of booze, coffee, fruit smoothies, SIM cards, free wifi and misspelled ads.
The food game, on the other hand, has been nothing short of spectacular; the aforementioned Nem Cua Be meal was complimented with an amazing black rice pudding, dinner at New Day restaurant on Ma May street which we struggled to find earlier due to Applesauces hazy memory, weird but addictive egg coffee (caphe trung) and even weirder but invigorating egg beer at Giang Cafe, grilled assortment skewers at Night Market, Pho Bo breakfast at Quan Pho Thin, a stellar ice cream and the cone at Quan Kem Ho Tay (by Applesauces old stoping ground), a fancy dinner of stir fry beef, fish soup and grilled duck at Home restaurant (what an original naming) AND the last lunch at a filthy street stand tucked in the corner of a massive inyersection; the mad-spicy egg noodle dish which I could not get enough of. I admit that the names of dishes have been the toughest to remember when I'm being blown away by the flavor, the heat of food and the environment, PLUS I'm still struggling to get the very-tonal sounds of Vietnamese language right. The mighty Google has been epicfailing on this department ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ but I hope I'm compensating with the pictures and if any of the dear readers are familiar with the subject, I'd appreciate any correction.
The contrast between North and South has been intriguing me the whole time I have been here as well, such as its more Chinese-influenced food, more images of Uncle Ho and the underlying communist vibe, MORE HUMIDITY, more stern and possibly less friendly nature of its people (due to their dislike of Southerners according to some) etc. But I, mistakingly, had expected to be surrounded by the remnants of its rich history full turmoils. Fine Arts Museum offered a colorful peak at the timeline from pre-historic era of quirky designs on fisherman boats, Buddhas and Bodhisattva, impressionism to modern abstract and propaganda arts. At a small park by Ba Dinh Square and Ho Tay lake, I caught a short performance by a stunning beauty in a white dress waving her left hand in a Clara Rockmore manner, its sound gliding up and down fluidly with very slow attacks, and being too far away to see a string running across the wooden body I freaked out and thought she was paying a theremin (unfortunate that the piece was a Twelve-Girl-Band-style overdramatic worldbeat atrocity). Good times for sure, but the more I read up on Northern Vietnam and its natural beauty (Don has arrived in Sapa after a 6hr bus trip by now) the desire to extend my stay and stretch out of the city and into other parts begins to emerge. Changing my flight, booking another Airbnb, renting a beat-up Honda 125cc all have been a piece of cake (even though this tiny and fierce lady at a rental joint took hostage of my passport...What do I do when I get pulled over by one of those corrupt cops?) and I say bye to my friends for a few days - then I slap on a helmet, pack my plastic bag raincoat and ride solo down south for 2.5hrs on QL1A. Off to Ninh Binh where, I heard, they eat goat.
Soundchaser/two-time Independent Music Awards finalist. New EP "Six Songs from Insomnia" is out on all major streaming platforms.