Big Asian capitals can be oppressive if we’re in the wrong mind set. The incessant busy-ness, poverty and squalor can weigh on the senses. On the one hand these things are less widely alleviated by the friendliness of Asia’s smaller towns and villages. On the other, unlike in western cities, they are unalleviated by cleanliness and order. In short, Asian capitals can give the worst of both worlds – and we’re most likely to encounter them at start of a visit, with jetlagged fatigue magnifying all things negative.
I flew at 22:30 on Monday, a great take-off time for long haul since it’s easy to get to Heathrow for an eight pm check in, and you’ve a better than average chance of getting some shut-eye. I got into Hanoi close to midnight local time on Tuesday. Flying east, you can add 7 hours to that of course but it’s still a low transit time in my experience since, for once, I didn’t have to overnight in Guangzhou.
All the same, I’ve been jet lagged, tired and out of sorts for two days. In an Asian capital city. Usually I find the combined effects more than offset by excitement at being once more in Asia, but not this time. Have I come once too often to Vietnam, I ask myself, but I doubt it’s that. This is my sixth visit, but not till now have I come to the north. Truth is, the colder climate has put me off. I do so like the sunshine of the south and Central Highlands, especially enjoyable this time of year with is sunny days, low humidity and temperatures comfortably in the thirties, Here in Hani they’re closer to twenty and there’s less sunshine. Even so, jeans and t-shirt are adequate.
So what’s been up with me? One thing is that unless I make a flying start, the first few days of my trips can see my habitual serendipity – one of many luxuries blessing the solo traveller – actually working against me. With neither plan nor to-do list I can wind up aimlessly wandering the streets without the alertness and readiness for social adventure that comes later, when fatigue has worn off and the old travel magic kicked in. I’ve never been big on sightseeing; that’s not why I come. For me it’s all about the chance encounter on the street, the coffee sipped on street corners as life unfolds in its richness of detail; life in a hot climate and very different culture, where, as with EM Forster’s oft-cited past, they do things differently.
Last night two young students, girls from up country, approached as I enjoyed the night scents on a bench by the Hoan Kiem Lake. Could they speak with me a while to practise their English? Of course! It was laboured and tedious if I’m honest. Their English, though immensely better than my snippets of Vietnamese, didn’t allow for much in the way of range or subtlety but I was more than happy to keep going for an hour or more. It’s a small way to pay back a fraction of the many courtesies done to me so when they made their farewells, to head for a university dormitory shared with a dozen other homesick young women, I felt all the better for having helped.
In any case the gloom of the past two days had already begun to lift. When the girls came up to me I’d just spent close to an hour in meditation. They should introduce that in our schools and work places. Letting go of the nonsense, the boil and froth our central nervous systems never cease to throw up as side products of being sentient, opens up the possibility of new and healthier ways of being. But meditation, and these earnest but sweet young women, weren’t the only things to have lifted my soul. I’d finally begun to formulate and execute a plan. That afternoon I’d been to the central station to book myself on the sleeper train tonight for Lao Cai on the border with China’s Yunan province; legendary to those of us who read Mao in our youth. I shan’t go there though, but will stay in Vietnam’s mountainous north west, remote and populated not by ethnic Viets but more ancient peoples, including the Black Hmong and Red Dao. If I’m up for it I may do some trekking with a guide – and will certainly want to hire a motorbike to explore outlying villages – before swinging west, close to the northernmost border with Laos. Close too to Dien Bien Phu, site of the Viet Minh’s epic and decisively victorious battle with French colonial rule. That was in 1954, with me not yet two years of age.
So there. For one reason of another I got my mojo back and am up for adventure. If you don’t hear from me for a while it may be that I’m a tiger’s dinner, or dead from snake-bite or hopelessly lost in the jungle. Or maybe it’s just that I’ve no internet connection.
With the livelong day to while away I went in search of the Red River, east of the Old Quarter where I’ve holed up since arrival in the Big Papaya. On paper getting to the east bank is a doddle but not for the first time a local map, handed out at desk of backpacker hotel, proved absurdly oversimplified. Scale is wrong, and formidable obstacles don’t feature at all: like the maze of alleys and snickets twixt Old Quarter and river which, without your being aware of the fact – you being too preoccupied making life threatening crossings of roads fairly described as insanity on wheels – take you below this part of the city’s only two bridges. Before you know it you’re wandering urban Asia at its most impoverished and teeming, looking up from the depths at the French built bridge, high and hopelessly inaccessible from the slums, on its way to first the flood plain then the river itself; a cool kilometre before it’s even glimpsed the currents sweeping out of China. Take a scene from Dickens, add a dash of Kipling and a soupcon of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and you have it. For a mad moment I contemplated a vertical iron ladder, ten metres top to bottom and probably there for the benefit of maintenance engineers, from the garbage bedecked base of a concrete pillar to the bridge’s parapet. It wasn’t fear of censure that stopped me. Viets are a practical people. It wasn’t even that this ladder made the rusting and vertiginous walkways of Dolomite Italy’s via ferrata look positively safe. What stopped me was painful awareness of the unreliability of a body once agile but now lacking the flexibility for such stunts. With discretion the better part of valour, I returned defeated to my hotel.
I have now seen the Red River in Hanoi – and will see more of it as I travel north towards the Chinese border – but must now stop. I’ve a train to catch