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Hen Gap Lai Ha Noi!

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Hanoians are famous for nostalgia. Being the great storytellers that they are, there are myriad poems, paintings, folk tales and other art forms depicting the sentimental beauty attached to this city. Despite – or sometimes because of – the drastic modernisation witnessed over the past few decades, there remains a pride in the certainty that Hanoi is, and always has been, a city of unsurpassed charm and romance.

From the moment I arrived in April 2013 I, too, found this charm impossible to resist. Don’t get me wrong: there are plenty of aspects of life in this city that irritate me. Truth be told, there are moments when I have wondered what it is with the sprawling suburbs, crowded streets, temperamental weather and questionable driving techniques that allows this city to still be considered charming. In the end, however, Hanoi is a good seductress: she woos with imagery and flirts with imagination, captures hearts and stimulates minds, persuading one to overlook her flaws.

IMG_0558Upon a recent rereading of my early blog posts, I discovered that I still get a kick out of many things I originally loved about Hanoi.  From babies in bicycle baskets to unidentified squealing animals toted around on the handlebars of a scooter to toads in a bowl on the footpath – a new take on toad-in-a-hole – there are some Hanoi quirks that never cease to enchant me.

As my day of departure nears, I find myself in limbo. I have not yet left – although by the time this is published I will have – but I’m not quite here anymore. Unable to fathom a life back in the US, where my days won’t begin with dog walks through parks of dancing couples, nor end with beer drunk on tiny plastic stools, I don’t want to start packing up my home. Yet I already feel that my too brief participation in this city is over. I will lead my final walking history tour for Friends of Vietnam Heritage, submit the last of the magazine articles, hand over my projects and finish my final column.

IMG_0103Summer is commencing as I book my flights and fret about moving details, such as how much we will have to pay for the furniture our dog, Marmalade, has chewed. Winter drizzle is turning to heavy rain showers, the damp street drying quickly in the hot sun. Perhaps it is these changes that give the city her charm. Seasons change in cities around the world but in no other have I felt and smelled and seen the changes as intimately as I do here. I cannot think of a more succinct way – nor a more nostalgic one – to sum up my time here than to highlight my favorite parts of the seasons. Hen gap lai, Ha Noi!

Summer
Feel – Damp, always. Bare legs sticking to taxi seats, sweat running down my back as I ride the scooter.
See – Lakes of lotuses flowing in the morning sunshine.

Autumn
Feel – The rare combination of sun and low humidity as I walk Marmalade in the park. Hanoi actually looks like the postcards.
Hear – The sound of “Ai ca phe nao!” echoing through empty streets at midnight.

Winter
Feel – Fog — and pollution — and endless drizzle turning the city into a watercolour painting as the liquid sky hangs heavy overhead.
Smell – Cold dampness penetrating through cracks in the windows, seeping into furniture and making everything smell of mothballs.

Spring
Feel – The happiness of spotting bicycles laden with mounds of floral colour, the yellow roses smiling at the still sleeping lilies.
See – Trees laden with orange fruit and spindly branches full of pink blossoms weaving their way through traffic.

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This article first appeared on the AsiaLife website on May 22nd 2015, click here to see the original.

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Conquering Mt. Fansipan

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Labor Day long weekend represents the end of Summer in America, but here is Hanoi temperatures are still warm and the humidity is unrelenting – although endless rain is dampening any summery feel. Zack and I were happy to take advantage of the holiday and retreat to the more temperate weather of Vietnam’s north-eastern mountains. Just a “quick” eight hour night train later and we were our of Hanoi’s noise and pollution and into the clean mountain air, relaxing in silence on a mountain top; 45 minutes from the small town of Sapa.

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Tourists flock to Sapa to take in the breathtaking views, hike amongst rice paddies, and interact with the many minority tribes that live in the region.

ImageBut as enjoyable as these activities were, we were on a mission…  to conquer Mt. Fansipan.  Towering over the surrounding hills at over 3000 meters, the mountain is the highest in Indochina and a challenge we couldn’t pass up.

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What I could pass up, however, was a night in a camp surrounded by mud, trash, and rats. So, in defiance of local advice, we attempted, and only just succeeded, in climbing the mountain in one day. A feat, according to our guide, only attempted by Australians and a few Europeans… Never by Vietnamese. We were warned that it would be an eleven hour slog up a seemingly endless slippery slope, decorated with mossy boulders, creeks, and tricky tree roots. The constant mud was just part of the fun. Feeling pretty confident in our hiking abilities we really didn’t give this much thought, perhaps we should have. After eleven and a half hours we limped out of the forest, muddy, bloody and bruised, from a trek that could have been spectacular if it wasn’t for the impenetrable cloud.

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ImageDespite the turmoil of the hike we did in enjoy the challenge… in retrospect. We slept well that night, in a our beautiful eco-lodge, happy in the knowledge that we had made it. The next day we barely moved.

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Sunset at the lodge

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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.