When I walked out of the airport terminal, I choked. I literally choked on how thick the air was. My driver laughed. He had probably seen it happen a thousand times. I had been through the same thing when I arrived in Thailand a few weeks before and in Cambodia a few years prior, so I should have been accustomed to the blanket of heat and humidity as I left the airport, but I wasn’t.
I am no stranger to hot weather and actually love it, but nothing, not even the apartment I had as a teenager that resembled an airless tuna can prepared me for this part of the world during the rainy season. It rains frequently, usually a daily downpour that can get pretty intense, but they never last long and certainly never cool anything off or reduce the humidity as one would think. And hope.
So there I was in the northern city of Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam in heat that chokes you. Fabulous. Even some of the locals remarked that it was hot, yet half of them wore long sleeved shirts, pants, traditional Vietnamese hats and the seemingly obligatory face mask, looking unaffected by the heat and downright cheerful.
Hanoi is quite unique with an urban landscape that is obviously Vietnamese, characterized by very tall narrow buildings. Most of the shops that line the streets have apartments upstairs with balconies chalked full of plants, laundry and a tired looking air con. However, there is also plenty of French architecture from the colonial days, which provides such a contrast and adds to the city’s charm.
I stayed in the Old City which is a labyrinth of crowded streets, chalked full of motorcycles, food stalls, vendors, culture, and people. So many people. Or in blunt terms…a shit show. And an absence of traffic rules meant that it was a constant frenzy on the roads, but surprisingly people made it work. Aside from the incessant horn honking and slamming on brakes, I saw no overt road rage, not one accident. I assume they happen, I all but guarantee they do, but it seemed to gel and flow more than it didn’t. And by the end of the four days there, I was barging across every street when I needed to cross, without hesitation. I won’t lie, I was scared for my life every time, but seeing how the locals did it and lived, I figured I could too. Sure enough, every time I stepped off a curb and into the melee, the motos just slowed, swerved or moved aside.
In the Old City, there aren’t a ton of grand sites, so I did a few museums and markets and wandered. I had a city map and I usually have a good sense of direction but I was constantly lost, always wrong when I was sure this place was right over here or that place was just over there. I always found my way out of the maze by simply asking where I could find Hoam Kien lake, which sits in the centre of the city, but every time I returned to my hotel room, I’d tear open my map to see where I went wrong. I don’t think I ever figured it out. Not one time.
On the third day, I decided to go to Halong Bay, which is a UNESCO protected area, a collection of 2000 islands, rock formations, caves and endless beauty. Most people tour Halong by way of a ‘junk’ boat, which are large luxury boats that have sleeper cabins, full kitchens and services that advertise cave, swimming and kayaking adventures along with amazing views from the comfort of a deck chair.
My group seemed to be hitting it off and looking forward to the next few days, but just before the 3 1/2 hour drive there was done, our guide informed us that we would be arriving in 10 minutes but would have to leave a few hours later because a monsoon was coming that evening. Not even out of the van yet, we were all in disbelief that our getaway to paradise would now be a quick day trip instead. It also meant that we all had to contact our hotels to see if there’d be room for us when we came back that night unexpectedly.
My shite hotel was more than happy to take me back, but when I arrived I had been put into another room because my previous shite room was being enjoyed by someone else. When I walked into Room 204 which was more ‘The Shining’s’ Room 237, I was hit with the worst smell I think my nose has ever bared – mold, mildew, and I’m convinced rotting corpses. I immediately started gagging (my eyes are watering just thinting about it now) and I had to run into the hallway. The little guy at the front desk who was as sweet as he was stunned, didn’t know what to do as I was bent over gagging. At one point, I think he thought I was vomiting and probably by instinct, tried to “catch” my throw up….nothing there….but it was a funny reaction on his part that I’m sure he was quite happy was a false alarm. I was immediately moved to their “sister” hotel down the street, which was a bit better than my original room and worlds better than the room of rotting fish carcasses.
Not sure where to go next, I had contemplated going north to Sapa which is an overnight train ride from Hanoi and the best place for nature and fresh air, which I badly needed. However, a young backpacker from England had gone missing a week or so before and was presumed dead from a fall while climbing a mountain nearby. I had been following his disappearance while in Thailand through his family’s frantic media pleas in search for him. And I know tragedies like this happen from time to time, but when they found his body, I was crushed. I was heartbroken for his friends who stayed in town that day while he went off by himself, his girlfriend who got the last text from him that he had hurt his arm in a fall and was lost, and for his father who had flown there to search for him personally. So I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t bare to go up there and hike the mountain where he died, as I knew I’d be constantly thinking about this young man – who did many of the things I did, lived for many of the adventures that I did – and all that his life would not be.
I was so ready to get out of there and away from the black cloud I felt was hanging over me even though there were some amazing parts of Hanoi and the people were lovely. I think I just needed some sunshine both the figurative and literal kind, so I headed for Central Vietnam for beach, beach and more beach. I didn’t leave upset though. A few bumps in the road, but they are all part of travel. All part of the journey.
And I was alive, doing what I love.