We woke around 11, so missed breakfast. Downstairs, I bumped into Tom and Mera, who were booking a tour. Tom looked displeased. Apparently, he and Mera had been waiting in ‘Halfman, halfnoodle’ for 45 minutes. I didn’t realise it had been open. I’d have left after 10 minutes. Never mind. I apologized, then went out into the bustling street, and popped into Handspan cafe, where a surly waitress served us lunch. Handspan cafe was recommended by the Lonely Planet for its tours, but they were expensive and not much different to anything else offered by the other tour companies. I went back to the hotel and booked a tour from there instead. Michael, the Vietnamese chap who worked there, could clearly be manipulated, so I bargained hard and got a cheap deal – a 3 night, 2 day trip to Sapa, followed immediately by a 2 night, 3 day trip to Halong Bay. All for $65. A snip. I was to leave that very evening on the night train. Now I had a day to see the city, and I began traipsing through, taking in the exotic sights, sounds and smells of Hanoi.
People in conical hats were everywhere, just as I had imagined. Women scurried to and fro carrying huge scales on their shoulders laden with nuts, fruit, fish and anything else of consumable worth. People rushed around, avoiding the children bathing in washing up bowls, the old women cooking in their big pots, the fires, the street sellers, and of course the motorbikes. Hanoi is an incredibly noisy city. The motorbikes are like mosquitoes, crammed together and swarming in different directions all over the city, with complete disregard for traffic lights, pedestrians, pedestrian crossings, or any other rule it seemed. I had a walk to Ngoc San Temple, and took some snaps, and bumped into Tom and Mera again, who were doing the same. Then, I walked to St Josephs Cathedral, where I met the same cyclo rider from the night before, who begged me to let him take me around the city. I relented, and soon I was in the carriage at the front, relaxing and taking snaps. He took me to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex, a pleasant, traffic-free area of the city. Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, containing his embalmed corpse, was guarded by men in white uniforms. I took snaps of that, and of the Presidential Palace. Finally, I hopped back on the cyclo and stopped at the side of the street for a bier hoi – the cheapest beer in the world at just 2000 Dong for a glass of the locally brewed stuff. It doesn’t taste bad either. I invited the cyclo rider to join me, and he chugged two mugs happily. On the way back to the lake, I bought one of the huge bongs that all the cyclo drivers smoke tobacco from. I made the cyclo rider buy it, as he could get the local price, and he bought two, one for me and one for himself, for only 10,000 Dong each.
I returned to the hotel as happy as Larry. I showered and packed one backpack and a day bag, leaving some heavier things behind in the hotel to be picked up later. I then set off on a mad race through Hanoi and to the train station. Hurrying me through, our guy from the hotel finally got me on the train with only minutes left. I was in the 2nd class sleeper, which was comfortable enough. Fortunately, I was sharing the tiny cabin, with two bunkbeds and a tiny table squeezed in-between, with a funny American bloke called Jeff and his Vietnamese wife. We chatted and then attempted to sleep after a couple of hours in what was the narrowest bed I’d ever slept on, and was barely wide enough to accommodate me if I was turned onto my side. Sleep was difficult. The train thundered along the tracks, and honked its horn at times. Sometimes it broke heavily. The beds shook, and it wasn’t the easiest sleep I’ve ever had. After about 10 hours, we had arrived in Sapa.