Cát Bà was barely a speck on the rear horizon when the farmland gave way to suburbia, the vivid green suddenly overwritten by shades of city. The frequency with which the bus driver narrowly avoided vehicular homicide increased tenfold and the low thrub of the engine became punctuated by the flatulent honking of horns, our vehicle’s harsh roar answered by the plaintive beeping of the bikes swarming around us. We were in Hanoi.
I will commend Vietnam on the consistency of its roads. No matter how great or small the local population may be, crossing the road here is a matter of confidence and bloody-mindedness; you must be aware of the drivers around you while positively daring them to hit you as you play chicken.
In that regard, the beehive that is Hanoi’s streets was surprisingly familiar: admittedly, the city capital has a greater chance of exciting intervehicle encounters than somewhere as quiet as Mūi Né, but Hanoi somehow feels less bananas than its southern counterpart Hô Chí Minh. The roads here are a warren of overhead cables and underfoot salesmen, with stalls lining the pavements selling everything from bugs to Burberry as bikes laden with products weave precariously past you.
Roam Hanoi’s Old Quarter and get lost in its seemingly random network of side alleys and spontaneous markets. The time-stained façades of the area clash with the brilliant colours of Vietnamese markets and their sellers; you’ll be taken off-guard every time you turn a corner and come up against a spectacular old building, even though they seem to occur on every other street.
One of the city’s most famed sights is its Train Street – a narrow, gravely alley lined with shops and eateries, which must all be swept away twice a day to barely make room for a huge locomotive to barge past. Typically, when I arrive at 2pm I was informed the train wouldn’t be passing until 8 that evening, so make sure to check the train times before going; it only passes a few times a day, and it pairs nicely with a local beer and a folding table at the side of the tracks.
Suitably deflated by the absence of train, I headed further out from the Old Quarter into Bà Dinh, the political hub of Hanoi. This being an important part of the city, every building seems to have its own regiment of stern olive/red-clad military protection, with the exception of a few younger soldiers who eagerly, if somewhat incongruously, gave me the K-Pop ‘v’ sign as I passed by.
My target on this particular walk was a lake (in actuality, barely a pond) concealed behind rows of claustrophic alleyways in the middle of Dôi Cân. Huu Tiep Lake is a grimly elegant memorial of the American War – consisting of the untouched wreckage of a B-52 Bomber that crash-landed in 1972 and left to rust. I’d heard of this place first from a friend living in Hanoi – had I not, it’s hard to imagine I would have stumbled across it by chance.
True to any city worth its salt, Hanoi transforms after dark. During the day I found myself periodically swamped by survey-wielding schoolchildren practicing their English, or narrowly avoiding concussion by selfie sticks along the banks of Hô Hoán Kiêm Lake; at night, the main risks are renegade groups of dancing septuagenarians and falling into said lake while trying to get a photo. Lights illuminate Jade Island and the Turtle Tower out in the water, and the air carries incense and steaming phô from every corner of the city.
Having successfully dipped a toe into the urban scene of northern Vietnam, it was time to make a break for the final destination in the country – the giddying heights of Sapa, in the mountainous Ha Giang province.
The travel office agent warns us sombrely that the weather up there is much colder than here in Hanoi, and that we need to wrap up warm. Trying not to show our enthusiasm for such a change of climate, we solemnly reassure her that we’ll do just that before hauling our bags onto the waiting bus.
The WiFi doesn’t work but the scenery’s alright.