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Nắng Nóng

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Escaping the mid-day heat in a nearby park

Nắng nóng… sunny and hot. To my readers in Australia who are shivering in the rainy Victorian weather, doesn’t that sounds lovely right now? Well you’re wrong. Last week was day after day of nắng nóng. A phrase Hanoians say in a tone reminiscent of “cold and rainy”… for once, hot and sunny weather is not something to look forward to. Growing up in Bright, 40 degree days are not uncommon but 40 degree days with air so thick I feel as if I’ll drown under Hanoi’s smoggy skies are another kettle of fish… or bowl of snakes is, perhaps more appropriate.

Around the corner is a small pop-up market. Every morning women arrive with long poles sporting baskets of goods and conical hats lowered against the heat and scooter fumes. If I go early on the right days (which I am yet to pin down) I may be lucky enough to see bowls of small snakes, withering in the sun next to half plucked dead chickens laid out next to their live brethren. Beside the watery bowls of circling fish, waiting to be unceremoniously slaughtered on the road; I buy bananas, pineapples, mangoes and something I thought was a lychee but is apparently a type of chom chom… a word I only know from Vietnamese class.

ImageWalking home in the humidity, half human half puddle, a strong wind picked up and blew bright green leaves across my path. As I thankfully turned my damp face to the breeze, I caught a sweet tangy wiff of the freshly cut passionfruit displayed at the small street stall where I occasionally drink café sữa đá (iced coffee). Given the rapidly descending light, I decided against stopping. As I reached home, the blackened sky opened up and the world was awash with water. In the darkness, shop lights flicked on and the street fell quiet, a rare sight for mid-afternoon. Fifteen minutes later it cleared and life resumed. The heat had gone… for now.

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Cuộc sống buổi sáng trên đường phố

Below our apartment

Below our apartment

Another morning and I wake around 6:30am. I walk to the front of our apartment where I slide open the glass doors and let the morning noise, heat and smell flow into the room. As Zack heads out the front door I brew a fresh pot of tea and sit on our small balcony to observe the early morning rush of life on Tran Phu street below. Earlier last month, when we were still suffering jet lag, I would stare out our window at 5:30am, watching the hundreds of early risers beginning their day. Even now, I am amazed when the street is busy at 7am on a Sunday. At a time when the majority of Washingtonians or Melburnians would still be sounds asleep, Hanoians seem ready and raring (literally in the case of the scooters) to go. I recently came across an old blog entitled The City That Never Sleeps In, a title which seems only fitting for the city the author was writing about.

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Perhaps it is because we have only been here a month and have not yet tired of the incessant honking, yelling and air pollution, but I enjoy our balcony and the sights and sounds it affords me. Every morning I see an old man, crippled with old age, slowly making his way. To where? I have no idea. He is accompanied by a young women, perhaps his granddaughter, who walks patiently beside him, a cloth mask protecting her mouth a nose from the car fumes. People ride past carrying an array of different materials; baskets of flowers on the backs of push bikes, some so large they threaten to conceal the rider;  loads of pineapples that look so heavy I don’t know how the old women manage; even the occasional piece of miscellaneous building material stretching five times the length of the bike.

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This morning I read a great blog post from a fellow Tran Phu admirer (the street rather than the person) that shares a bit of history and many more great photos. After spending the first part of my morning observing, I descend down to street level and become a participator rather than a spectator… although not a scooter… chưa (not yet!).

on the open shaded road... the quieter end of the street

on the open shaded road… the quieter end of the street

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Bệnh Viện

7pm Wednesday was the time Zack decided to have a shot at playing rugby. 9pm Wednesday was the time that Zack decided perhaps rugby wasn’t for him.

ImageMore in attempt to meet new people, than actually play the game, Zack bounded out the door with the idea that it would be a casual game between a few over-fed expats such as ourselves. I, on the other hand, decided a movie and Thai take-away sounded more appealing than aimlessly flailing around a field, as I seem only capable of in the presence of a ball. After my Ultimate Frisbee experience in Gambia I’m not one for team sport. A few hours later the previously chipper Zack returned home looking a little dejected. He was hot, soaked with sweat and had had little time to meet his fellow players… oh and he was also nursing a hand that appeared to be growing a small golf ball. After a sleepless night, the golf ball had become a tennis ball and we thought an x-ray may be wise.

With a predetermined idea of what a Hanoi hospital could be like, visiting one within our first month wasn’t really on the itinerary. When the cab pulled up outside a gleaming, nine story building, those preconceived ideas were shattered. The brand new Vinmec International Hospital, is Hanoi’s first “5 star hospital hotel”. Needless to say we did not have the experience of the majority of Hanoians when they visit their local hospitals.

As the glass doors slid open, we stood staring down blindingly white, paint scented hallways that seemed to stretch for eternity. Waiting in a glass walled room with chairs that still had price tags and a television that only played white static, the place seemed eerily quiet. Although I can’t fault it for being spotlessly clean. Among the few other patients in the entire building were a couple of very pregnant Vietnamese women and an elderly lady with a large tumor that concealed half her face.The older woman, who stared unblinkingly into space, was accompanied by a cameraman and a gaggle of young women in slim fitting office clothes and 6 inch heels that echoed down the corridors.

The hospital staff were very friendly, unfailingly polite and insisted on escorting us between the various floors and offices. Three hours later we emerged into the warm humid, ever smoggy air, slightly bewildered by the whole experience. Zack sporting a cast that he will wear for the next six weeks. Did I mention it was a game of touch rugby?

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Travels around Mai Chau and Ninh Binh

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trek down to the Muong home-stay on the shore

After the third time Zack pulled me out of the mud and I attempted to scape off the 5 pound load of clay I was involuntarily carrying on my sneakers, I began to wish we’d been more persistent about doing something else.

We were on day two of a four day hiking, biking, boating trip around Mai Châu and Ninh Bình, 3 hours south-west of Hà Nội. The past two days had been full of pretty scenery, friendly people, good food and a fair amount of confusion. This began the moment our driver – who we thought would be with us for the four days – pulled over and announced that we were to take our bags (veges for that night’s dinner included) and walk for the next three hours to our home-stay. He then turned the car around and promptly drove back to Hà Nội.  So there we were; Zack, myself, two backpacks, four plastic bags of groceries and our guide, Em Cư… a young woman who was simultaneously very lovely and very vague.

The next two nights were spent with families in their homes; stilt houses built from local timber and bamboo. This is what we had signed up for and using our very limited Vietnamese we passed two enjoyable and slightly awkward evenings in broken conversation over wonderful food and homemade rice wine before hunkering down on straw mats next to the rest of the family

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Biking through the valley

Night one we were hosted by a Muong family on the banks of the Black river (actually a beautiful shade of blue) which has been dammed for hydro electricity. The evening light on limestone hills rising steeply out of the water was beautiful and well worth the trek down the hill. The second day found us kayaking on the river and biking through rice paddies in the morning then covered in sticky clay by the evening. Lunch was complimented by the rumbles of thunder and a sudden downpour. Upon a long discussion with the guide about the possible options for avoiding a 10km hike in the rain we finally settled on a 10km hike in the rain. After about 30 minutes of talking we realized that the option was… no option; Despite what the travel agency had promised, it turned out that the options for activities were already set in stone, or bogged down in mud so to say. The walk was very pretty and the trail wound through rainforest and over a pass into the neighboring valley. Although the hike turned out to be only about 6km, Em Cư kindly forgot to mention the 3km mudslide into the next village. Upon slipping and sliding into the home of a White Thai family, Zack and I were introduced ourselves in bad Vietnamese, dripping (from rain and sweat) and covered in mud. Em Cư, by the way, looked cool, calm and collected. The weather was hot, sticky and (when it wasn’t rainy) sunny, I thought I’d developed a tan on my legs until I stood under the tap and watched the colour run into the drain.

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The White Thai home-stay

We commenced days three and four in what we now considered the general state of ambiguity. After a 3 hour hike from the White Thai family, a car appeared to take us to Ninh Binh – an unexpected 5 hour drive along a narrow road in a general state of disrepair. Ninh Binh is a dusty, industrial town surrounded by limestone hills and concrete mines. We stayed in a small guesthouse in what I suppose could be called the “suburbs”. Although it was in the middle of the rice paddies. We were there to experience (unbeknown to us) Tam Cốc, a series of three caves only accessible by a small stream, we were under the false impression that we were headed to the nearby Cuc Phuong National Park. Nowhere, thus far, has felt touristy and we saw very few people other than the locals. Tam Cốc, however, which hosts thousands of Vietnamese and Chinese tour groups, was a completely different (although still enjoyable) experience.

In the caves

In the caves

We organized this private tour with a recommended company called Ethnic Travel and all in all we had a really great time.  Em Cư was very nice and tried to be as helpful as possible, we stayed in small farming villages and we enjoyed the activities (mud exempted). Although we would have liked more details and flexibility perhaps this is just part of life in Việt Nam? Go with the flow!