Even though international travel was off the cards due to Covid 19, we had planned to cycle from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City for some time. So, although many of our other plans had been put aside for now, we had been fortunate to choose to stay in Vietnam rather than return to Australia. 2020 had been a shitty year for many people, but we at least had something to look forward to, some kind of normality in our lives.
Due to the escalating cost of visas, we were forced to go back to teaching English to acquire a Temporary Residency Card and work permit. This would keep us out of visa trouble for two years as well as earn some extra money to exist.
For me (Tim), going back to teaching was a hard nut to chew. I never liked school as a kid, so the irony was not lost on me. The first day of December seemed so far away. In truth, though, returning to a working routine made the time go somewhat faster for me. We also got to meet a lot of very nice new people we otherwise wouldn’t have met. So the time passed, and planning began in earnest.
By November 30th, we had sent our bikes to Hanoi, cleared our apartment, put everything into storage, and headed to the Havana Airport Hotel near the terminal as we had an early flight the next morning. It was a great feeling getting on a plane again to travel.
NB: Please note that I haven’t gone to the trouble of using Vietnamese characters in the spelling.
Day 1 – December 1st: Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi.
It had been some years since we’d visited Hanoi. It had exploded! Our bus ride from the airport took us around West Lake and many new apartment towers. Traffic streamed around us, much like back in Ho Chi Minh City. Bikes scattered in all directions, heedless to any road rules, just following their noses to where they wanted to go.
We got off the bus on the edge of the Old Quarter, a ten-minute walk to our hotel, The Hanoi Lullaby on Ngo Tram. Our rather decorative room was on the 1st floor, with a small balcony that overlooked the busy, one-way street. We were finally here, with new things to look at and new places to go. We were eager to explore.
We headed straight to Hoan Kiem, a small lake in the center of the Old Quarter and Hanoi’s most recognizable landmark. It’s a very popular destination for travelers and locals alike. A great green space to either relax or exercise around its banks. Today though, one year almost since the beginning of the pandemic, the place seemed nearly deserted.
We were hungry by now and looking for something to eat. Unfortunately, many places around the lake have closed due to the pandemic, and we spent a fruitless lap of the lake before heading into the Old Quarter to see what we could find.
Lunch had turned into an early dinner as we sat on the 1st-floor balcony of the Bancong restaurant on Đinh Liệt, Hàng Bạc, watching the busy street scene play out below us. We quickly looked at the map and realized we were just one block away from Beer Street, a more recent, popular destination for backpackers and young locals. However, there would be a distinct lack of the former tonight.
We wandered up to the main intersection. Plastic chairs and tables were arranged outside on the street in front of each establishment, hundreds of them! Beer Girls waved us in, but we weren’t interested in their mass-produced lagers; we were on the hunt for craft beer and soon had front-row seats at the C-Brewmaster Tap Room (now closed 🙁 ) with a tasting flight of eight different beers to try.
Working our way through the various beers, we watched as Beer Street’s small red, plastic chairs began to fill up. The corner had gradually become crowded and noisy, and a treat to watch from our slightly elevated viewpoint at the front of the pub. But, no sooner had the street come alive, than the police arrived and forced everyone to leave and the seats and tables to be packed away inside.
We were as disappointed as the local publicans. The whole atmosphere of the street had dissipated. Our people-watching plan was ruined for the night. The police satisfied their job was done, got back in their truck and drove off – good riddance, I thought!
No sooner had the police truck turned the corner than the pubs began setting up their tables and chairs again. Within five minutes, the place was heaving again! We had to laugh; it was another win for the little guys!
On our way home, we stopped at a place called “The Rows.” We had seen it earlier as we came into town, so we decided to drop in and have a look (it had a sign saying Craft Beer out front). It was down a small lane leading into some shops and a bar. A sign read “Barett Beers,” but they didn’t have any as the pandemic had claimed another victim. They did have a “Thom” beer, though, another Hanoi brewery, so we settled for that instead.
Day 2 – December 2nd: Hanoi.
We went for breakfast in Food Street – Ngo Cam Chi, a few blocks away. The next street over is called the Hanoi Street Train, a narrow street with a railway line running down the middle of it and lined with small cafes and stalls. You can sit and watch the train pass inches from your chair while you enjoy your coffee. There’s a timetable so you can know when to go for this rather weird experience, but I fear it has become another victim of the pandemic.
Back at our breakfast shop, I settled for Mi Xao Bo (beef noodles), although I’m no fan of savory dishes in the morning. Sharyn thrives on a cooked breakfast and has her daily bowl of pho. It was quite cool this morning, very different from Ho Chi Minh City.
After eating, we took a Grab car out to West Lake to the Hanoi Bicycle Collective. This is where we sent our bikes a few weeks ago, and today we would pick them up and ride them back to the hotel via a lap around West Lake. We also picked up our new riding shirts with “Catch Our Travel Bug” emblazoned across them, and I got myself a new helmet.
It was our first test riding in Vietnamese traffic. It was exhilarating and, happily, without incident! Hanoi will probably be the worst traffic we need to negotiate until we reach Ho Chi Minh City. By then, we should have developed the skills to get through its famously bad traffic. At least we’ve lived here for some years and understand how it works. It’s another thing to get out there and mix it with them on a bicycle!
That night, after a couple of hours of sleep, we went over to our friends Wendy and David’s for dinner and a couple of drinks. They were full of good information about Hanoi and various other places we’d pass through on our way down.
Head over here to read the next episode: A Change of Plan: Hanoi.