Thursday, March 28th, 2013 – back to reality.
In the morning of the last day of our holiday, at least the part in Vietnam, it was raining hard. We decided not to do anything heroic and returned to bed after breakfast. By nine o’clock, it had stopped raining and it was already beautiful, with blue sky, sunshine and fresh air.
We walked north. Apart from a typical kind of communist statue, we did not see anything really worth recording.
We now accepted, as a matter of course, the crowds of motorcycles and cars (yes, there are many cars in the north). The streets were full of seated Vietnamese eating their morning pho and sipping tea, of children and hens running about between the spilled sewage, of piles of garbage and of people trying to sell anything and everything that your imagination could possibly conjure up. It was strange how quickly crazy, often unhygienic, this mayhem had come to seem quite normal. That said, I did get a bit annoyed when a man started to wash his car right where we were sitting and the mud splashed all over David’s sandals. Even then, I thought that if we were to stay in Vietnam for a bit longer, I probably would stop noticing even that.
We walked around and came to the West Lake of Hanoi, called Hồ Tây. This was much larger than any other lake we saw and in fact, compared with it, all the other lakes in the city are like puddles. Here we looked around yet another pagoda and then went to look for a cafe recommended by the Lonely Planet. To cut a long story short, it took us about forty minutes not to find it. We found the street, but it only had even numbers – on both sides – and we needed the number 43.
Another place we could not find, at least at first, was Lan Ong Alley. This was where spices were supposedly sold. We went right past it twice but, eventually, guided more by the pervading aromas than by the map, we found it. Of course, there were no little packets of spices, they were all sold in bags weighing about a kilogram. The contents were described, of course, in Vietnamese, not that a translation would have helped us in any way and we could only guess what was in them. As David wisely remarked, “they did not try to sell us anything, either,” which was enough.
In an unlikely comparison with a medieval European city, in the shopping district, each item or craft had its own street or alley. We had seen and liked, the Vietnamese habit of reclining in a low hammock, so when we were shopping, we looked for a “hammock street”. This time, we found it quite easily although needless to say, on the way there we walked straight down the “spice street” that had previously proved so elusive. We bought a hammock to pack into our hand luggage. (Author’s note: We have yet to use it).
Finally, we walked along “bracelet street” and “pottery street” to a coffee shop. We had spent such a lot of time walking around the area that David guided us there without hesitation !
I was now satisfied with the purchases we had made, I would not be the one carrying them after all ! But, David still wanted to buy another “Good Morning Vietnam” T-shirt. He had become fixed on this and ignored all the other inscriptions that were offered. He now wanted one with an embroidered motif because he was afraid that the two with the print would wash out. Personally, I thought he was so keen on them because everyone on the street shouted at him “Good morning Vietnam“.
That was, of course, unless they touched his stomach and rejoiced over him with the words “Happy Buddha“. Seriously, our guide in Halong Bay asked David if he would mind if he touched his belly! And some did not even ask, they just did it ! It seemed that in south-east Asia, a big belly is a sign of prosperity, happiness and good luck ….
Back at the hotel, after a rest, the unenthusiastic packing began. It also included the usual disagreement that, when I pack, David should not talk to me. We were travelling a bit like Astrakhans (a Czech way of saying with a backpack and another ugly bag). David said our luggage was heavier than when we had arrived and he was carrying it ! However, when we saw some Vietnamese, at the airport, with what they had packed for the flight, we felt we hardly had anything at all.
Our flight was quite late in the evening, so we left our luggage at the hotel reception and went to dinner before we went to the airport. I wished to eat, for the last time, with chopsticks in some better Vietnamese “dining room“, because it was just a local classic. We found a really great one and the whole delicious dinner only cost us a hundred Czech Crowns. My tea was free, which we had last experienced somewhere south of Da Lat. We left a tip in the hotel and the receptionist called us a taxi for a “fixed” price. Thirty-five kilometres to the airport for three hundred Czech Crowns ! We finally realised how much the taxi drivers had been overcharging us when we had hailed one on the street ! The farewell at the reception was almost touching, they even checked that we had remembered our passports.
And then it was the waiting in the airports. We had endless, better not to count them, hours of travelling in front of us. First from Hanoi to Seoul and then from Seoul to Prague.
David, or possibly his Buddha belly, was a big attraction in the Hanoi departure hall. Although he is not particularly tall for a European, he was a giant by Vietnamese standards and people kept asking to be photographed with him. I was outside smoking and I saw him inside, posing for a picture with guys from a family of about fifteen Vietnamese. Then the boys came outside and enthusiastically showed, to the whole family, the pictures on their iPhones. When I went back inside, all the other family members came with me and David posed with each one again, then in groups of two or three and finally about three times with groups of the children. In the end, even I succumbed to the infectious enthusiasm and wanted to take a picture of David too. But I had to wait until at least five more family members had posed with him. Finally, I was allowed the honour of standing next to David while they snapped us both. Then they called our flight and we had to leave. We all hugged and shook hands about three times. As he left, David shouted “Happy Buddha” and slapped his belly. The Vietnamese were practically delirious by then and I was afraid we would be featured on the evening news.
So that was it. “Good night, Vietnam“.
For information, we left at about midnight and flew to Seoul in South Korea.
We had rather a long layover, which David did not really notice because he can sleep anywhere – so he did.
We then were able to fly directly to Prague.
The long flight took us first over Shanghai, one of the most densely populated places on the planet and then over Mongolia and Kazakhstan, two of the most sparsely populated. Flying in the dark, it was very strange, given the lack of clouds, not to be able to see a single light, anywhere, even from 50,000 feet (over 15 kilometres) up.