Riding my bicycle across Vietnam
As I should have expected, the weekend was an absolute whirlwind. I landed on Friday afternoon, and fortunately customs went smoothly. It was about 75 degrees and humid as I stepped out of the airport. In the back of a taxi cab, memories came flooding back. Hanoi looked just as it had last year: green, rural, industrial, expansive, all in one glance. I made my way to my sister’s friend’s parents’ friends’ house a little after 1:00. Jill and Darren live in a relaxed, but still lively expat community called Tay Ho, situated right on a lake outside of downtown. They are both teachers, traveling the world as work allows. They just moved here from Ghana in August, with their two sons Sai and Renzo.
I had one errand to run that afternoon: picking up a SIM card for my phone. This allowed me to try Vietnam’s “Uber”, known as Grab. But the twist is that you can just hop on the back of a scooter instead of into a car. It’s cheap and fast. This became a common mode of transportation for me over the weekend, allowing me to see the city and its traffic in a really neat way.
One of the highlights of the weekend was a belated Friendsgiving dinner with my host family and a bunch of their friends. Not only was the food excellent, but the company opened my eyes to a new way of living.
In addition to spending time with Darren’s family and friends, I had time to meet up with several mutual acquaintances for coffee or food. Martin is one of my school teacher’s friends, Nguyen is my mutual friends’ daughter-in-law, and Donald is a South African expat who met one of my cycling acquaintances on the road last year.
Martin and I met for breakfast on Sunday morning. He stepped out of his apartment with keys dangling from his waist, and large, reflective sunglasses perhaps covering the result of the previous nights festivities. Martin is only here for a year teaching science, and he’s a bit of a pessimist. He doesn’t like the air quality, the traffic, and some of the expat community. He tells me this sitting ensconced in his favorite Western bakery / breakfast cafe.
“This is where I come when I just need a break from all of this,” he tells me as he gestures out the window and onto the busy street below. Indeed, the room is quiet, sedate almost. The food is Western, as is the coffee. And I have to agree with him, after spending the weekend eating and sipping coffee on street corners (which I love) it is nice to have some peace and quiet and a plate of eggs. Martin is going to be heading back to the U.S. after a year, he is quick to add that his time in Hanoi was only ever meant to be a head-clearing time in his life, not a permanent move. Walking back, he wishes me luck on my travels before peeling off to sit with some expat buddies at the corner bar sipping on green-bottled beer.
Donald the South-African is an earnest, tall fellow. When I was first researching this biking trip, I stumbled across a blog authored by a Brit who completed the ride in November of 2018. Stuart told me about a place called “The Bikers Rest” that he found on the first day of his trip - a hostel and coffee shop owned by Donald and his wife Thao. As of now, The Biker’s Rest is no longer in existence, but Donald and Thao moved to Hanoi. Donald and I grabbed coffee at Hanoi’s “coffee club”, a 5th floor lounge overlooking Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem Lake District. It’s nicer air conditioned with relaxing music and plush chairs. Donald is a hairy guy, with a few understated bead bracelets on either wrist. My goals for the conversation were several: to hear some of his life story, to get some advice for the first days of the bike trip, and to try to dig into my research question a little bit. We hit all three.
Donald worked in the South African navy for quite a while, getting to travel the world. In 1985, he first came to Vietnam with a bunch of his navy buddies. They had Honda CB500 scramblers shipped over which they rode from Hanoi to Saigon. At that time, the wounds of war were still fresh on the country. Donald remembers the depressing state of abject poverty that he and his touring mates saw so much of. But the country was still beautiful - it’s that first trip that drew him back after a successful career as a general contractor in Dubai.
He had a couple of interesting things to mention in regards to how Vietnam is changing. He pointed out, as I have also seen, that there is quite a bit of construction going on everywhere. But apparently a lot of it is under the table, and projects start and stop all the time, leaving half-finished buildings strewn about at random. The culture in Hanoi is changing also, there is a push to make more restaurants and bars open late-night. He remarked, as did Martin, about the lack of garbage collection infrastructure, which leads to trash on the streets being burned rather than collected. I am going to keep in mind what Donald said as I ride through the country, looking for parallels and ways to further my understanding.
Nguyen is a mutual facebook friends daughter-in-law. The degrees of separation are starting to stretch beyond reality, but I find it pretty funny. Nguyen is a tattoo artist, and she does some really beautiful designs (don’t worry Mom, I DID NOT get a tattoo). Nguyen and I grabbed a cup of coffee on the lake. She moved here from Saigon, and does not like it nearly as much. Her ultimate dream is to get to the U.S. but apparently the power of the Vietnamese passport is quite small. She would have to prove that she had a certain amount of money in her bank account. To add insult to injury, Hanoi does not recognize tattoo parlors as a business, so her work is under-the-table. Singapore is a more achievable reality.
Darren treated me to a Shiatsu massage at his favorite massage parlor, and we had one last dinner in his neighborhood, Tay Ho. The hospitality of this family made my landing and integration in Vietnam much easier, and all the harder to leave Hanoi. I called it an early night, sleeping surprisingly well considering that tomorrow would be the first day on the road for my most ambitious trip yet.