Leaving for Vietnam was an untimely decision, but I guess I felt a burning desire to “get away”, to be free from everything, my obligations, my concerns, everything that had been keeping me from being completely free.
I could have chosen, I suppose, anywhere to “escape” to, but perhaps the most logical choice was to return to my motherland, the place I was born into this world thirty-seven years ago. So little did I know of this place, its culture and its people. I’ve longed to feel home to a place, and I’ve always wondered whether Vietnam could be that place for me. What makes a place “home” anyway? Perhaps it brings about the sense of belonging, a feeling of peace, comfort and tranquility despite how troubling or difficult life presents itself to you.
18 January (Friday)
I arrived to the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, on the evening of 18th January 2008, flying Vietnamese Airlines from Singapore where I live and work. This was my second visit to this old city since 1992 when I first returned to Vietnam after my mother and I escaped the war in April 1975. My initial reaction was a feeling of how wonderful it was to be “back home”.
The familiar sounds of Vietnamese chatter was comforting and I immediately forgot about my woes which I promised myself I would leave behind in Singapore. My second reaction was amazement as to how much had changed since my last visit. The new airport terminal was a far cry from the cold and dilapidated terminal that greeted you in the past. There was no doubt that Vietnam has progressed quickly since entering the race to draw in international tourism and business. As I approached the stern looking young immigration officer, I anticipated the usual scrutiny and suspicion, but I was met with none of the sort. Once he looked through my passport and discovered that I was born in Vietnam, he broke into a warm smile and we entered into delightful small talk.
The metered taxi ride from the airport to the hotel was an hour long, but it gave me a chance to view the changes that this city had undergone in the last sixteen years. Naturally, much remained the same. The same rice padi’s, the same old Chinese and French influenced architecture. But much had changed, such as the number of cars on the roads and the modernization of certain buildings.
My small hotel, called Hanoi Plaza Boutique Hotel, at 26 Hang Non Street in the middle of Hanoi’s commercial district near the Old Quarters, was squeezed between what seemed an endless number of shops selling everything from paintings to music cd’s, clothes, handicrafts, lunar new year prayer products and furniture along a bustling little street that was just off one of the wide main roads. I was greeted with warm smiles from a group of young men working at the hotel. They had been anticipating my arrival as my room had been booked by my mother and her travel agent associate, Quyen, based in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). Once checked in, I was brought to my tiny pigeon hole of a room, large enough to just fit a queen size bed and walking space around it. A tiny bathroom adjoined the window-less room. And it was just what I wanted. Couldn’t have been any more perfect! I planned to be out all day walking around the city and only needed a room to sleep. After a quick shower to rejuvenate myself I headed out to the busy streets. Naturally, my first destination was to seek a hot bowl of pho bo (traditional Vietnamese beef noodle soup). It was cold in the evening this time of the year in Hanoi, so a hot bowl of soup was the perfect remedy to warm the body and delight the soul! It didn’t take me long to find a small sidewalk stall selling the varieties of pho. Nestled onto a tiny plastic stool with a small table, as if they were meant for children, I ordered, with a twinkle in my eyes, “pho bo em, cam on!”. Within a few minutes a steamy bowl with aroma that brought me back to my childhood was brought to my table, including a plate of a variety of raw vegetables and lime. I indulged every spoonful as I watched the busy, and noisy, traffic hurdle past me. It was great to be “home”!
Fully contented with dinner, I walked back slowly to the hotel trying to absorb all the colours and sounds of the street. Everyone was busy preparing for the upcoming Tet festivities (Tet is the name of the Vietnamese Lunar New Year), the busiest and most auspicious time of the year.
Settling in for the night, I prepared my things for tomorrow’s long trip to the mountainous village of Sapa. One of the lesser known beauties of Vietnam, this quaint village, often refered to as the Shangri-la of Vietnam, is located about 390 km northwest of Hanoi. It is nestled in the picturesque Hoang Lien Son mountain range not far from the border to China. It was once a French hill station and its architecture still reflects this history. Surrounding Sapa are smaller villages that are home to various ethnic tribes. I will be taking a train from the main Hanoi train station at 10pm tomorrow night to arrive at 6am in a town near Sapa called Lao Cai. From there I will take a one-hour minibus ride up the slopes to finally reach Sapa.
19 January (Saturday)
My second day in Hanoi was spent meandering through the numerous small streets that make up the Old Quarter next to the famous Hoan Kiem Lake, taking as many photographs as I could. The noise of the city was ceaseless! Traffic everywhere, and the hustle and bustle of people was frantic. But for some, almost self-inflicting, reason, the madness was refreshing and immensely enjoyable. A wide gulf lay between the frenzy of Hanoi and the orderly pace of Singapore. Lining both sides of every street were shops upon shops upon shops selling an eclectic mix of merchandise. And in certain areas, there would exist possibly ten shops side by side selling exactly the same things. Competition is fierce to say the least!
Hoan Kiem Lake (or the Lake of the Restored Sword) remained the only refuge for tranquility, as if the frantic world coiled itself in concentric circles around this peaceful and still lake. Legend has it that during the time Vietnam was occupied by the Chinese during the Ming Dynasty in the 15th century, the famous resistance leader, Le Loi, found a powerful sword in Hoan Kiem Lake while fishing. This mighty sword brought victory for Le Loi, and the removal of the Chinese invaders. When Vietnamese Emporer Le Thai To later went to return the sword to the lake, a golden tortoise, one of Vietnam’s four sacred creatures, took it from him to safe keep the sword in the lake’s depths for eternity. At the centre of the lake stands the Tortoise Pagoda reminding visitors of this magical story and creating an aura of mystery and charm for the lake.
After many hours of walking around the Old Quarter I decided to have dinner at one of the restaurants located along the rim of Hoan Kiem Lake. It had both indoor and outdoor dining, so of course I opted to have a table facing the setting sun reflecting off the still waters of the lake. The gentle chill of the night was made warm with the accompaniment of the sounds of a beautiful voice singing gently to me through my ipod as I thought nothing and felt nothing, but just simply absorbing the peace that laid before me.
My slow walk back to the hotel gave me the opportunity to search for a good jacket and scarves to wear while in Sapa. It is cold there this time of the year! A quick stop at the bar at the famous Metropole Hotel – they specialize in serving beer from many countries around the world – on the way back for a few drinks and to read more about Sapa in my guide book. After the deafening clatter of Hanoi city, I was eager to move to my next destination!
My first train ride in Vietnam and I was deliriously excited! It was just about 10pm when I arrived at the main train station in Hanoi, about 15 minutes taxi ride from my hotel. The station was packed with tourists, both foreign and local. My train ticket had already been booked and paid for so I only needed to show a receipt to the ticketing officer to get my train ticket and head for the platform. I was taking the King Express train, a deluxe class “soft sleeper” which was one of the cleaner and safer trains with cabins housing four beds, two beds below and two above. I shared the cabin with two young Vietnamese gentlemen from Hanoi, who I later discovered travel to Sapa each month on business. With broken English on their part and worse Vietnamese on my part, we managed to have a wonderful conversation learning about each other. The fourth passenger sharing the cabin with us was a delightful young Australian lady, named Rachel, who was traveling alone in Vietnam and on the way to be joined with her friends already in Sapa. I had thought that sleep would come easy for me on even a moving train, especially after a long day walking around Hanoi. I was wrong. Although the bed was relatively comfortable, the constant swaying of the train was not quite the gentle rocking of a baby’s cradle I had imagined it to be.