Living and working in the Arab Gulf has afforded my husband and me some remarkable travel opportunities, including a visit to the incredible Vietnam.
Although in Vietnam for merely a week, my husband, Bishara, and I had managed to sample the exotic cuisines and districts of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, cruise picturesque Halong Bay, bike on lush Cat Ba Island, climb Sapa’s impressive Dragon’s Jaw, and visit the intriguing Hmong village of Ta Van in the Hoang Lien Son mountain range. Our itinerary now included a highly anticipated return to the Old Quarter of Hanoi on an overnight train from Lao Cai, an hour’s drive outside of Sapa.
While initially apathetic over the prospect of visiting Vietnam, Bishara’s avidity for experiencing this unconventional vacation destination, in conjunction with a plethora of affirmative anecdotes from friends regarding this Indochinese nation, ultimately persuaded me to assent to the trip.
From the moment we entered the outskirts of Hanoi a week earlier, I became captivated by this delightful dizzying city – the tall narrow French colonial-style buildings, ubiquitous scooters, and an almost tangible buzz and spirit on the streets.
While the original plan was for Hanoi to be our primary domicile and launching point for convenient expeditions to Halong Bay to the east and Sapa in northwest Vietnam, the frenetic metropolis had become much more than a “home base.” Bishara and I felt strangely invigorated, yet relaxed, in this raucous city despite normally being partial to holiday locations with appealing natural settings – white sandy beaches framed by banyan trees or pristine mountains flush with pines, evergreens, and clean fresh air.
Although feeling somber about leaving the splendor of Sapa and the surrounding mountain-scape, we were keen on wedging in several more indulgent hours before departing for the train station in the late afternoon. In this spirit, we patronized the dynamic Sapa marketplace where Bishara purchased a florid dress and “earthy” toned Hmong skirt he insisted were “me,” and strolled to the lake, replete with paddle boats, on the far side of town. Lunch ensued at the Sapa Nature View restaurant where open windows allowed us remarkable views of the “Tolkinese Alps,” positioned along the fringe of the Himalaya Mountains. Fresh mountain breezes swept throughout the room complementing our meals of shrimp and chicken soup, sweet and sour shrimp, and grilled chicken with noodles. Leg, shoulder and upper back massages on the second floor of the restaurant building enriched our delectable lunch outing yielding more incredible mountain glimpses. Yearning to linger in this charming town, we rambled down the road to an open air café and relished sips of fragrant Vietnamese milk coffee and stunning foliate terraces in the distance.
Towards dusk, we reluctantly left Sapa by private van travelling through the undulating mountain ridges and late afternoon light. Reaching Lai Cao, an hour later, we lugged our suitcases through town and joined hordes of other tourists, and nationals alike, dining at casual outdoor cafes or otherwise passing the time as they waited for their trains to depart. Following our hurried meal of Vietnamese noodle dishes, Bishara and I felt somewhat debilitated after the representative at the train ticket booth told us in severely fractured English that we needed to “go over there, to that hotel” and speak with ‘so-and-so’ to confirm our tickets. As we squeezed by, and slammed into, other train travelers trying to make our way to “that hotel,” good fortune shone down, as we unwittingly bumped into the ‘so-and-so’ representative. “Oh, I’m sorry,” I tendered, as I collided with a professionally dressed and coiffed woman holding a clipboard. I took the offhanded chance that this official looking person amidst the multitudes of faceless strangers might be able to assist us. Showing the matron our paperwork, a glint of recognition showed in her eyes. “Ah, yes” she submitted, as she signed and stamped our documents and pointed in the direction of the waiting area.
Bishara and I stood, crammed up next to other commuters, near the sliding glass doors adjacent to the train tracks, as we did not want to miss any communication signaling our train was ready for boarding. Of course, this resulted in some missteps with Bishara and I jostling, along with everyone else, to get onto the train platform when the glass panes opened. After one announcement, Bishara and I propelled forward, stumbling through the doors, only to knock over a snack kiosk as we turned back when we realized it was not our train; the kiosk vendors were not pleased. Our discomfiture continued once beside the train tracks, when Bishara hoisted our suitcases up onto the train carriage convinced a certain train line was ours, before becoming aware of a nearby railroad worker speaking an incongruent blend of terse Vietnamese with bits of English asserting that the train number did not match the information on our documents. This train employee charitably helped us unload our luggage and assisted in locating the correct train line and carriage.
Safely in our diminutive, though comfortable and familiar, train cabin, I could finally exhale and look forward to all the creaks and grinds of our upcoming train ride, while basking in the singular awareness of this exotic trip. Exiting Lai Cao station at 8:50 PM, our train ride to Hanoi was nearly as fanciful as our inceptive ride two days prior. While Bishara slept rather well based on the depth of his snoring, I fell into the same erratic sleep as during our earlier train trip, vacillating between fatigue and wonder.
Close to 6:00 AM, as rain lightly pelted our cabin window, Vietnamese music permeated our compartment, and a brusque emphatic message in monosyllabic Vietnamese carried over the loudspeaker. We assumed this signaled a couple hour’s wait before we arrived in Hanoi, as this was the sequence of events that transpired as we approached Lao Cai (from Hanoi) a couple of days earlier. A short time later, however, a train employee rapped on our door and announced we were in Hanoi. I scurried to the restroom, and Bishara, still not believing we would disembark anytime soon, ordered milk coffee from the genial young train woman who, hours ago, cheerfully revealed she could make us noodles, coffee, and tea at any time during our overnight journey if we wished. Shortly after returning from the washroom, to our collective surprise and relief, the porter from the Hanoi Elegance Ruby Hotel scrambled into our train cabin with blue plastic ponchos stuffed under his arms. In short order, the young man politely welcomed us back to Hanoi, affirmed it was raining outside, and nimbly and attentively placed a poncho over my head, and a few fluid moments later, arranged the second poncho over Bishara’s head. Lurching for our luggage, the benevolent porter let out a wide lucent smile when Bishara asked if he could assist, declaring, “No, it’s fine. I’m Superman!” – a moniker bound to our congenial porter for the rest of our stay in Hanoi. Within short order, we were all in a waiting taxi, on our way to the Elegance Ruby Hotel, our “home away from home,” once again.
Hanoi was an eerie urban desert in the early morning, with nary a scooter or car in sight. As we crossed through the metropolis, the cityscape made way for the narrow, tree-lined streets of the Old Quarter. Arriving at the side street perpendicular to the mottled alleyway of the Elegance Ruby Hotel, our young porter vaulted from the taxi, seized our luggage from the trunk, and bounded down the alley for the boutique hotel. Staff lavishly welcomed us with broad grins, inquiries about our time in Sapa, and an offer of an upgrade at their proximate “sister hotel,” the Hanoi Elegance Diamond Hotel, adjacent to Hoàn Kiếm Lake. While waiting to be transported from the Elegance Ruby Hotel to the Elegance Diamond Hotel we were afforded fresh plump towels and shower facilities to freshen up after our overnight train ride. We ultimately decided, however, given the choice between a luxury room at the plush Elegance Diamond Hotel and an adequate sized room at the Elegance Ruby Hotel, we preferred the personalized consideration of the smaller boutique hotel. The Elegance Ruby Hotel staff was clearly appreciative.
After our protracted and fitful train ride we were primed for our traditional Elegance Ruby Hotel breakfast feast of two omelets with ham, mushroom, onion, and cheese; two pancakes with pineapple, banana, honey, and lemon; French toast with syrup; and beef noodle soup. And our meal was not complete without our Vietnamese milk coffee and fresh carrot juice.
Satiated and energized, we ventured onto the frantic and appealing streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Sauntering through the historic city we maneuvered past shops and markets brimming with people, souvenirs, crafts, clothing, shoes, herbs, fruit and vegetable stands, raw meat, an improbable fusion of smells, and tiny cafes with plastic chairs arranged haphazardly on the adjoining pavement. While dodging motor scooters filling the streets and sidewalks, as well as pedestrians, pole vendors, bicyclists, and shopkeepers, crisp memories flooded back of our first two recent sojourns to Hanoi; the first our inaugural visit at the outset of our trip to the capital city, and the second sandwiched in between our excursions to Halong Bay and Sapa.
Our initial visit to Hanoi, only days before, had Bishara clenching my hand and plucking me from the path of scooters and mini-trucks careening alongside us on the slender bustling roads. By our second and third Hanoi trips, however, Bishara seemed to gradually discern Vietnamese drivers’ impeccable sense of timing and clearance with his grip on my hand diminishing. The newfound confidence gained by our middle trip to Hanoi found us seeking out a hair salon where we both had our hair done and accepting Hanoi beer and flavorful oversized sweet potatoes from our hair stylist who had her assistant run out and purchase the goodies from a street vendor. We also had the fortuity of encountering other affable globetrotters with whom we shared travel stories, as well as a meal in the fanciful French Quarter.
Exploration of Hanoi’s Old Quarter widened the following day with visits to the Temple of the Jade Mountain (Ngoc Temple) containing multiple arrays of edible and vibrant floral Buddhist offerings, and trips to the History Museum, Hanoi prison (Maison Centrale), and Women’s Museum all via the colorful and unorthodox, yet popular, three-wheeled cyclo powered by a wrinkled Vietnamese man providing commentary on significant sights. Travel by cyclo, part bicycle and part extended sideways seat for passengers, an experience in and of itself, afforded us an up close and personal view of traffic pandemonium and the constant near misses of vehicles, scooters, bicycles, and pedestrians, as well as an expanded view of life in the Old Quarter. When leaving the Women’s Musuem in the late afternoon, we spied our cyclo driver with a middle-aged Vietnamese man puffing on a bamboo water pipe, and, moments later, handing the pipe over to our driver who stuffed the apparatus in a side pocket of the cyclo. Evidently, the smoking of water pipes is a rather significant element of Hanoi social life for some, as our cyclo ride allowed us several sightings of men enjoying the effects of water-based tobacco outside of shops and residences. One in fact, with pipe uplifted, attempted to wave us over to his sidewalk vantage point, presumably to join him in the pleasurable pursuit of water pipe smoking. Although having indulged in “hubbly bubbly” countless times while living in the Arab Gulf, we erred on the side of caution and declined.
By our final full day in Hanoi, we felt like seasoned guests of this enigmatic city, and comfortably criss-crossed the Old Quarter on foot, taking in massages at a traditional Vietnamese spa; Bishara enjoyed an aromatherapy massage and I opted for a warm stone massage. Relaxing beyond expectations, we both went limp with any vestiges of tension and strains drifting away. We left the spa floating, and incognizant of the bustling crowds around us, as we wandered through the humming markets and roadside shops where vendors approached us and we succumbed several times buying t-shirts for Bishara and embroidered paintings depicting Vietnamese life for me. Our last night in Hanoi was filled with traditional music and singing; an enchanting evening.
In the hours before making our way to the Hanoi airport on our last day in Vietnam, the Elegance Ruby Hotel staff encouraged us to make the time to visit the Ethnology Museum, as it was apparent we had treasured the time spent among the Hmong people of the Sapa region. Although we had to rush our packing and showers, and arrange for a fast-moving cab ride, we were pleased we took the time to see the Museum, as it was fascinating and enlightening to view artifacts, crafts, and scenes focusing on the lifestyle and traditions of the various Vietnamese ethnic groups.
Before we knew it, we were bidding farewell to the exceptional staff of the Elegance Ruby Hotel and in a taxi for the airport. Our first night home in Doha, I had a continuous and vivid dream that I was in Vietnam living in a hut on the side of the road! . . . Vietnam certainly seemed to touch our souls; we look forward to returning to this irresistible land.