Two facts have we learnt about Hanoi. The first is that everyday life happens on the sidewalks and the second is that every evening is a celebration.
The tree lined maze of narrow streets in the old quarter of Hanoi is an absolute feast. Toddler sized tables and stools of the roadside eateries spill into the sidewalks, crammed in between parked scooters and street vendor carts. It is easier to walk in the road than to try and weave your way through the barber chairs, plastic buckets, scooter workshops, food baskets, cooking utensils, cooking utensil manufacturers, daybeds and millions of parked scooters. Our hostel is right in the middle of the eclectic ensemble, down a narrow lane. The entrance is next to dozens of buckets of sea creatures and vegetables that are being made ready for the hungry customers of the eatery next door. The pineapples are sweet and we end up having one each, every day, from the friendly lady that sells them from the back of her scooter around the corner from our hostel. We have pho at a couple of places, mostly sitting on the toddler chairs while watching the scooters speed by carrying anything from tables to building materials.
Day gives way to night suddenly in these parts, flinging the doors wide open for everyone to take to the streets for some kind of celebration. Every little eatery has an extra row of tables and stools set out and the cooking fires burn everywhere. We discover that there is a children’s festival of some sort that night and walk mesmerised through crowded streets with lanterns dangling from the trees overhead. Toys and treats of every desire are on offer with a festive drum beat urging parents to forget all boundaries.
The next night we venture to the Hoan Kiem Lake, a landmark of the old city. There are people everywhere, taking photographs, eating ice cream, watching street performers, having coffee or just walking around the lake. The mere mass of people turns the three-lane road into a pedestrian way with vehicles barely inching through the crowd. On our return to Hanoi from trekking in Sapa a few days later (more of that below), we again run into festivities. This time dragon dancers in full costume and again a sea of people.
From Hanoi, we head to Sapa for a three day trek through the colourful mountainside rice fields of northern Vietnam. The overnight sleeper-bus is a new, surprisingly comfortable experience and we arrive early morning, ready for a couple of active days. We start the trek by waiting in a hotel lobby, drinking super sweet and super strong Vietnamese coffee for just over three hours. After that, our friendly guide and homestay host Chi, urges us and six other hikers into a mini-bus taxi and we head into the hills. The first day of hiking is an easy walk following a paved path through the hills interrupted by mad scrambles to pull our ponchos over our heads to shield us from unpredictable bouts of rain. To our disappointment, we have missed the rice harvest by about two weeks, and all the rice paddies that we hoped would be painted in different hues of yellow and gold, are only stubble filled muddy ponds. Life in the countryside is nevertheless interesting and we pass through numerous little homesteads with ducks, geese, pigs, chickens and water buffalo roaming freely. Arriving at Chi’s house, we are all assigned beds. Our family gets to sleep on floor mattresses in the loft, next to the mountain of bags containing our host’s rice harvest for the year.
The magic, however, starts an hour before dinner when Eulain asks Saum, our host’s ten year old daughter, if she can help with dinner preparations. Huge piles of morning glory get washed by the two girls, both sitting on their haunches in front of big buckets in the wet side of the kitchen. In the dry side of the dimly lit kitchen, the other five members of our family join in to help with the picking, peeling, chopping and slicing, passing vegetables to be washed to the two girls. An everyday chore becomes an intimate moment shared between the two families. After the modest feast, we all (kids included) are served a shot of home brewed rice wine. Not for the fainthearted!
The next day brings more rain, but mid-morning we and a friendly young couple from Israel, declare that a bit of water is not to be feared, and we set of for a hike to the waterfall. Both the hike and waterfall are disappointing, but the conversations are beautiful. After a leisurely lunch, Tom and Jenna leave for Hanoi and we return to Chi’s house where we have a languid afternoon. All six of us hope that the next day would be more active, but know that it is very unlikely that this tourist trap would hold any real excitement. At about eleven in the morning of the third day of the supposedly three days of scenic hiking, we get a taxi from the homestay back to the town of Sapa. It is hard to look past the disappointment of the unmet expectations. However, as we share our daily highlights with each other, we realise that finding the treasures in the people around us, even in seemingly insignificant moments, can be as beautiful as a hike in the mountains.
– Jarik –