For nine months I’ve lived in the south of Vietnam so a trip to the north is long overdue. A brief window of opportunity to escape work only allows a flying visit of 5 days in Hanoi though, and I get the 2 hour flight with fellow-teachers Annie and Rowan. We land in what feels like a different country…and in terms of geography, culture, history, mentality, dialect and outlook it is completely separate to the lazier south. One of my Vietnamese friends in Vung Tau told me she’d never go to Hanoi because of their ways of thinking and what she perceives to be an unfriendly approach to outsiders. As a foreigner such distinctions thankfully pass me by but I notice that their dialect is sharper and more abrupt…the people here also feistier, having to live through more extreme conditions in terms of climate and poorer land. First impressions of Hanoi are that it is an infinitely more interesting place than Saigon, having a lot more character and charm than its sleazy-yet-dull consumer-driven southern cousin. We stay in the Old Quarter of the city, where the hustle and bustle of tourists and locals keep the narrow streets alive till the daily business curfew of 11pm.
Both Annie and Rowan have been to the north before, so they fill me in about the best bits of Hanoi. Rowan, a 25 year old from Scotland and Annie from Manchester, who’s a few years older than myself, make the perfect travel companions. I slowly became good friends with them while teaching in Vung Tau and I enjoy their company for the last time in Vietnam as both are due to return home within weeks. With only 5 days here, time goes very fast. Instead of trying to squeeze everything in, we mainly just take in the sights around the Old Quarter. One evening they take me to a prime spot on top of a massive 5 star hotel with panoramic view of the the city and the great West Lake. While they sip on cocktails, I treat myself to a bowl of potato wedges (a luxury in Vietnam) much to their amusement. On another day, we manage to go to the Ethnographic Museum, an impressive cultural centre exhibiting displays and information about Vietnam’s many ethnic minorities. Unsurprisingly, an exploration of the continuing impoverishment and human rights abuses suffered by these peoples as a result of government policy is absent from the museum. Despite their rights being enshrined in the constitution of the country, the reality for these peoples (comprising of over 50 separate ethnic groups with a population of over 10 million) is very different. The fact that it’s a ‘museum’ speaks volumes about how indigenous culture is treated, as is the case for all indigenous peoples the world over, who have to content with state encroachment upon their native lands.
Over breakfast on the day before I leave Hanoi, Rowan discovers online that there are trains to Ninh Binh, a place we had considered driving to on rented motorbikes. It’s 8.40am and the train (one of only 2 a day) leaves at 9am. We quickly get ready and rush out the door and into a taxi, unsure if we’ll make it on time. We arrive at the train station at 8.55 but there’s a group of people faffing around the ticket counter, having a long discussion with the cashier. It’s either jump the line and pay for the tickets or miss the train. I choose the former option, grab the tickets and run to the platform where we make the train with a couple of minutes to spare. The journey through the hazy countryside goes fast and we arrive in Ninh Binh before noon. Ninh Binh, often dubbed ‘inland Ha Long bay’ for its green hills jutting out of the flat landscape, was once a capital of what was considered Vietnam. We take a boat ride, and a quick tour of some ancient imperial buildings before getting the train back in the late afternoon.
Back in Hanoi, everything seems rushed before I have to fly back to Saigon the next day. Even though this stint of travel is short, I feel slightly knackered and ponder how much more knackering it’d be had I come on my own. It leaves me with the feeling that I’d rather not spend too much time traveling alone when I leave in Vietnam in a couple of months. It also sinks in that I won’t see a fraction of what I hoped to see of the whole country despite living here for a year – there’s just too much to see and too little time. In a propaganda poster shop, I quickly sort through the posters, buying a few as souvenirs before rushing to jump in a taxi to the airport.