The Promised Land (part I) – Cycling in Northern Vietnam

With Christmas fast approaching and an apartment booked in Hanoi for the festivities, we quickly climbed our way from Laos to the border with Vietnam. Filled with anticipation and excitement we eagerly waited for the bus that should have taken us to Vinh, to then catch our connecting train to Hanoi. Skipping our way up North was a no-brainer as our designated Vietnamese route would have taken us all the way North to South, from Hanoi to Saigon.

After a while, however, the silly grin on our faces disappeared at the realisation that on the other side of border there was no such thing as bus transportation and all we could do was to keep on cycling and attempt to catch a lift on the way. It was already 3pm when we managed to find a shared taxi, and Vinh was still 90km away.

We haggled our taxi fare down from 60$ to 20$; we sat in the minivan happy to have found a way to get to our destination, but after 18km we had to rethink it all when the driver dropped us in a town and told us to catch the local bus, because “obviously” he wasn’t going to drive to Vinh. I say obviously, because this would be a recurring theme in our whole Vietnamese experience, during which a lot made sense to the locals, and almost nothing made sense to us.

Without even realising, we were already being sucked into the spiral of unpleasant events that would take place in Vietnam, coming face to face with the sad realisation that with great expectations, often come great disappointments.

The Reunification train took us from Vinh to Hanoi with no hiccups. We sat there, already contemplating the awesome food and the fortune of being able to spend Christmas in such a buzzing city.

However, a series of small misfortunes (a lost pair of sunglasses, 3 apartments changed, an unrecoverably broken hard disk with our journey’s memories, and sleep deprived because of nocturnal building works and confused roosters), made our stay in Hanoi less relaxing than expected. The excitement was all gone and, with an ever growing indisposition, we walked around town like zombies, trying to hunt the glorious food everybody kept talking about. Confusion and noises were almost blurring our sight. We had been “rural” for so long that the buzzing vibe we were so excited about almost became torture.

After an average Christmas Eve meal in the Old Town, we decided to make the most of the apartment’s kitchen by cooking an awesome Christmas seafood feast sourced at a local market , whilst hiding from the world furiously going by on the streets below. Ross had fun and relaxed cooking, something that he really loves doing, whilst I organised the prep and watched my favourite Christmas movie. “Home Alone” never felt more appropriate and more delightful.

Market-food-vietnam

We spent New Year’s Eve with a group of fellow cycle tourers who happened to be in Hanoi, too. We had a jolly night, a fair bit to drink, and far too much glitter on our faces, but we were happy to finally feel less on edge. I also had one amazing birthday celebration over-indulging at the famous Sofitel Metropole buffet lunch and watching the amusing Water Puppet show in theatre.

Soon enough the holidays were over and it was time to get back on our bikes. We left Hanoi on a rainy day, which was followed by another rainy day, which then became weeks of rain.

On the road on the way South, we struggled to find any edible food which wouldn’t resemble a chicken broth. We stumbled upon some weird sleepy towns with hundreds of restaurants and guesthouses closed down; we saw cats being blowtorched and sold as “baby tigers”; we unknowingly, and regrettably, had some dog meat; we got ridiculously overcharged in most of food/beverage/sleeping transactions; we dragged our miserable selves for miles and miles through the chaotic roads of a country that never shuts up. The locals seemed not to care about a thing but themselves, and even the kids would shout at us in a clearly derisory way.

The mood was low and we struggled to lift each other’s spirits up, making us question what the heck we were doing there.

We kept on following the grey and empty rice paddies until we reached the seaside. “This is it” I thought, hoping to finally reach some mental peace watching the waves crashing the beach and zoom out from everything, only to discover tonnes of litter trashing it and leaving us very delusional. Being Southern Italian, I often feel very strongly and passionately about the things I care about. But very rarely I felt SO much rage rapidly growing inside me.

We thought about buying a plane ticket straight out of the country. Yet, as crazy as it sounds, there was a little voice inside urging us not to give up on Vietnam, that things would get better, that the rice paddies would be greener, and that the sun would start shining once again upon, and inside, ourselves and the people inhabiting the country. Even other cyclists urged us on carrying on towards the South of Vietnam, as word of mouth sweared it was going to be more merciful than the North.

And so we carried on. We followed the busy Highway 1, trying to ignore the little misadventures that kept being thrown at us on a daily basis, with the stubborn hope that, soon or later, we would finally reach the promised land.

[To be continued..]

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