I love Hanoi! But why?

 

I feel like I’m in Casablanca and it’s not even on the right continent. It’s the buildings, and the dark coffee shops, and the the dark men on the street corners drinking tea. The motorbikes and tourist tack are just a blur and can’t really rip me out of this romantic fantasy that I’m in. And I’m not working, just travelling, and everything has a different glow about it when you are not going to drudgery of your job the next day. I’m on the balcony of a 3rd story coffee shop in the Old Quarter, overlooking the  Hoan Kim lake. The traffic is noisy and so are the people – the sound scape is whirring, honking, tannoy and laughter. I think it’s hard here – I’m sure subsisting is a slog but there’s something so 1930’s about it.

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As my budget is getting really stretched now, I can’t afford anything on attractions and am doing more walking than ever.  And as always, my first day involved trying to find gluten free food. There’s plenty here, and really I don’t need to worry about it as it’s a rice based diet. So there is an immediate sense of security for me. It wasn’t until I reached here that I realised how difficult I had found China, and how I was still affected by it, as if coming out of some kind of mild trauma – which does China a disservice, because my experience there was exhilarating and  wholly momentous.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_29ddTrying to extract the essence of this city is difficult. Where did I go in my 9 days? A lot of coffee shops, but mainly Highlands because it’s the cheapest  not because it’s Western. So we can start this exploration of my mysterious affinity with the premise that the Vietnamese welcome tourists, are friendly and global in their outlook.

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The Old Quarter is just manic – having alter egos of day and night. In the day, it is street vendors, restaurants, and souvenirs, with some quite aggressive selling approaches, but intermingled with local everyday stuff. You can see many local people just sitting on little plastic stools or beer crates eating Pho on the street corner – you know this food is good because of this. Next door to my hostel, they are queueing for 45mins to buy a ‘swan’ dish. At night the same area is just a drinking and eating orgy like no other I’ve seen. One street, you cannot get up at night if you didn’t get there early. I don’t like this – but on the back street where my hostel, the BC Family Homestay is located, the street food stall and fruit and veg vendors are just sweeping up at about at about 9pm. eCEfQ2+8QOGGouj1wVd4oQ_thumb_292fA few streets away, Hoan Kim Lake is lit up, and pedestrianised, with buskers and entertainers of various quality every 20 yards. But you love it – for a while. In the daytime, the lake area is still busy, and great thrills can be had crossing the road. My skills have been quickly honed over the week – and after all I have been to Beijing and Guangzhou. to warm. For me, I have that perfect blend of city anonymity and solitude in a crowd here, and socialising if I want. (My hosts are very amiable).

JymSSxu%RYCxJCvzAcZHLQ_thumb_29ffWest Lake was worth a visit. It’s distinctly ex-pat – so it felt a bit weird. Is it that obvious I’m a tourist? You’ll find many of the comforts of home there, and the housing looks a bit Benidorm. I’m sure I wouldn’t want to live there because I might as well be at home, but I’m sure I would frequent it quite a bit. The West Lake is very big and I like that section   where you walk through the middle of it, and you could be in Canada, and there’s the beautiful wind- beaten tall, slender Pagoda on it’s little promontory.

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And I kove ask the ‘fixer-uppers’. The buildings are so beautiful, yellow,haunted, brimming with clambering weeds, discoloured by smog, – and delightful. They bustle, higgledy piggledy,  teetering over the shops and restaurants underneath, or shyly recede behind years of neglect and rambling overgrowth.

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The Long Bien bridge, overarching the milky, brown, slow slurp of the Red River is just a glorious and timeless, rusty gem. When I walk over the crumbling concrete walkway, looking through the gaps at the water lapping,  thinking ‘how is this upholding me’, to the banana plantations, and the sleepy boats, it’s like I am in a David Niven movie, and feel l have been for ever.  I can’t believe it when  a train rattles through.

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And the temples here, of which there are many – are not central attractions like they are in some other Asian Countries. But they are no less splendid. You walk along the dirty bustling street, shuffling past the motorbikes parked everywhere, and you see a hole in the wall through which you can spy some statues or curves or glints of yellow and blue. And you just walk in – it’s like Indiana Jones – you expect a trapdoor, a snake, a sand burial. I love it. Have I answered my own question?

 

 

The Orient – but not express!

xUioq7JpSAylL3yJ+k4QTw_thumb_21feI thought I would share my experience of traveling on the overnight train from Beijing to Wudangshan, as I know there are a few articles out there on the subject which might be off-putting, and some rather more matter of fact ones. In any case, the latter turned out to be pretty much accurate. Why was I going to such an obscure place in central China? As an erstwhile practitioner, or should I say ‘dabbler’ in Chinese martial arts, I have had romantic notions of this place for many years. It would have been odd to go to China and not see Wudang Mountain, and yes, I could have got a plane to Shiyan, but what would be the fun in that?

I booked my journey on a soft sleeper many months prior to my trip, through China Highlights. It cost about £70 as opposed to the plane which was over £200. I arrived at Beijing West Station with over an hour and half to spare, and went straight through the ticket gate with ease. This was seeming far too straightforward. I do confess to cheating a bit and picking up my ticket the day before.  The queues for checking tickets were confusing but not very long and, sweeping though the station, I had to find the correct waiting room for the K507. ( you have to go specific waiting areas in China, depending on your route.) There are many waiting rooms, more than a dozen, and of course I couldn’t see the K507 on any of the notice boards . There were hordes of staff present and they directed me to No.3. Now this looked like a bottle neck – and I wasn’t wrong. After chaotically, and with much jostling, getting through the ticket checking, there followed what was probably the worst bit of the trip. The waiting room was so overcrowded,. people were just sitting on their suitcases or lying on the floor. Why I didn’t go to the toilet in the main building still haunts me. I don’t quite know how to say this tactfully, but the waiting area was clearly full of  people of an unrefined nature. There was a disheartening queue for the one toilet, coarse ladies smoking in the washroom, and the state of it was quite shocking to me. A desultory attendant was doing nothing about the smoking and would not watch my massive bags while I negotiated the narrow space. The experience was unpleasant at best, and after I extricated myself, I just found a small place by the wall amongst the heaving masses.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_220cThankfully this crowd thinned out as one of the other trains started to board. And boarding the train was very straightforward – my ticket included the car no and the bed number – and I was relieved to have a top bunk. I’ll explain why in a minute. There was a woman with a small child, a man and a fashion conscious sharing the cabin. I couldn’t see a single Western person anywhere on that train, (probably because they were on a plane), which was just a little intimidating.  The soft sleeper did not live up to my expectations of luxury. And this is where the learning part comes in. Because, to everyone on that carriage, this WAS luxury. So first you have to introduce yourself to your fellow travellers and share some food. I shared my teabags, because my GF sesame coconut crispy rolls and green tea marshmallows were too precious. And to be honest this was an interesting and enlightening intercourse.

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winter dates

I had some long liquorice like substance made of hawthorn, some delicious small apple-like fruit (winter dates) and some kind of chewy peanut toffee. The gentleman had sunflower seeds still in the shells which he continued to eat all through the night. The lady with the child wanted me to call her Helen, and had a little English. I thought what a strange name to choose if you’re going to be English. I managed to ascertain that her husband was a headteacher and worked in Xiangyang. I also learned that for many, many families this kind of separation is necessary because of economics, and that families have to live apart. A day’s travel apart. When I became tired form the usual travel stress, and trying to communicate in different languages, I was glad of the top bunk. If you are on the bottom bunk, I guess you have to wait until the top people go to bed as everyone sits on the bottom, socialising. And there is zero space.

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Helen and Annie – my soft sleeper companions

I retired up to the top bunk after visiting the toilets. There was a western toilet at one end of the car, but somehow this was either locked, or someone had fallen asleep in there. The squat toilet at the other end was also locked. The I had to go on search through the train for a toilet. The toilet situation is not a good one – and the stench is something we are not used to. There is no toilet paper anywhere in China – you are expected to have your own – so stock up and always have some in your bag or pocket. But, you know, we service these things – it’s part of seeing the world.So did I sleep? Well yes actually? There were a few things that disturbed me, attendants shouting the station names, a baby crying in the next room, some disconcerting jolting of the train. And the man cracking the sunflower shells. But really it was just like a moving hostel dorm. I had about 7 and a half hours sleep which is a good part of the trip. My charger didn’t fit the socket well and I had to prop it up with my washbag. Other things to remember are a flask for boiling water as this is the only water you will get on the train. There were various food trolleys coming round occasionally including plenty of fruit, but I read the advice and brought my own.AsL5V4BOR+yIW+7sRhJ1FQ_thumb_21fb

In the morning it seemed that many people must have left the train. The aisles were quiet, there was less smoke, and the toilets were accessible. I sat in the aisle so I could watch the scenery, but many people found me fascinating and wanted a picture taken with me. Funny. So actually the day time part was very comfortable, and passed quickly. My compatriots left me at Xiang yang and I had a couple of hours alone.

The verdict; completely bearable with a few grim moments.

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