Vietnam: A four stage stopover
Stage 1, Hanoi: Having crashed into Hanoi the day previous, all I wanted to do was relax and get some headspace having finally packed-up the day job in London. At first glance, this might seem impossible in the city of Hanoi – it is a hive of activity with every nook and cranny commandeered by the entrepreneurial folk that call this place their home. Shop fronts bristle with items for sale, bars and restaurants appear every few yards, and the roads swarm with over 4 million motorbikes.
But by taking a little stroll up to the spacious Hoan Kiem Lake, you are able to pause for a moment, take stock of the situation, and suddenly the pace of life seems to become a lot more manageable. The lake stretches as far as you can see, and the stillness and coolness of the water will completely absorb you. It is no wonder that city-dwellers assemble at this lake each morning to perform a daily ritual of Tai Chi.
The city is truly a welcoming place for a foreign visitor, even for a visitor with no experience of Vietnam or even of South East Asia. Folks seem enthusiastic to great you, and there are an abundance of places to take a moment to yourself or to enjoy the supreme delight of a Vietnamese coffee.
I happened upon just such a place on the return leg of my walk around the Hoan Kiem Lake. The café was named the Banh mi Ngon Pateta and I would highly recommend it to anyone passing through the Vietnamese capital. Sitting on their wooden veranda I felt so far removed that I may as well have remained standing by the peaceful lake. In reality you are overlooking a busy cross-junction right in the heart of the city, but with an iced coconut coffee and a freshly baked Banh mi (a kind of baguette stuffed with sweet chilli tofu and fresh herbs) in my hand, I found it a wonderful place to relax.
One last thing to mention – As night descends in Hanoi, the most unusual thing occurs; and the streets become almost entirely empty. This is a seriously surreal thing to experience as contrast starkly with vibrancy of the streets by day. Standing on an arterial road that leads straight through the city, I may as well have been on a quiet country-lane in the depths of rural Vietnam. There is a well-respected curfew that draws most inhabitants back to their family homes as night descends. I came to learn that this is a mark of the cities’ close association with the communist values. But whilst strolling through the capital in the calm of the night, I was not dwelling on the heritage of this Communist state, but instead my mind was occupied with thoughts of the overnight train I had only an hour to board!