Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Hanoi: A Much Needed Pit Stop

One of the many small streets in Hanoi,....this one isn't so crowded.

I rolled into Hanoi not knowing to expect.  I’m not a big city person, I would rather stick to the small towns, but Hanoi was in a strategically located “pit stop” for me along my route.  I had been on the road for about 2 weeks since I left Hong Kong, and hadn’t had a rest day.  I had a warm shower host waiting for me and a bike store run by Catalans to visit, as well as a couple of school visits.  I also needed to a break to plan my SE Asia route in more detail. 

Since I departed Hong Kong, it hadn’t dawned on me, but 2 weeks had passed since I’d had a real conversation with anyone.  As you know, I’m a social person….I enjoy good conversation.  I’m curious. I ask people a million questions.  I love to share experiences, especially with other cyclists or international teachers.  For two weeks straight, the extent of my conversations was basically a word or two, with some hand or body gestures, accompanied by a drawing, or a simple sentences in English.  Passing through the southern China coast and into Vietnam, I hadn’t come across a lot of English speakers. As a result, I talked to myself,….frequently.  As if I don’t already get enough stares from people, when I talk to myself, I’m sure my lips are moving a mile a minute with a few good chuckles every now and again, making for an even more ridiculous sight to see! 

I do Skype my family and friends occasionally, communicate by emails and Whats app messaging, but that doesn’t quite replace a good old conversation face-to-face, over a beer, coffee, or warm meal.  I rolled up to The Hanoi BicycleCollective in the Tay Ho neighborhood on West Lake, thrilled to meet Guim, the Catalan owner of the collective, George, his mechanic, and Julio, a Spanish ex-pat who frequents the locale.  I knew I was going to like Guim, ever since he had motivated me a few days back when I first contacted him, letting me know “un bocata amb pá tomaquet” (a typical Catalan tomato bread sandwich) was awaiting me in Hanoi. 

Guim and Melissa at THBC, Hanoi
Like always, he was blown away by the American girl with impeccable Catalan and I was delighted to be in good company!  What a joy to talk with another tour cyclist and a Catalan no less, who had ended up settling in Hanoi a few years back.  We shared our stories; I was fascinated by his.  Guim had been working and living in Beijing for 3 years when he decided to travel around the world on an electric bike.  He left Beijing and made his was west, towards Barcelona.  He rolled up to Hanoi and planned to stay for 2 days, but ended up visiting for about 3 weeks.  What kept him so long?  Well, besides falling in love with the city, he met a Vietnamese woman, Thuy Anh, a journalist who had interviewed him about his project, and they hit it off.  He continued on his journey after an extended visit, but had her in the back of his mind as he pedaled.  He ended up going back to visit her a year later, and well, instead of continuing to travel solo, he was now accompanied.  On their journey to Barcelona on bike, a new member of their family came along and they decided to go back to make Hanoi their home. 

Mirko and Katya.  They've been traveling the world for 12 years.

With Lola, the new baby, Guim and Thuy Anh, opened up The Hanoi Bike Collective (THBC).  THBC is more than a bike shop, it is a communal space for people who share one simple passion: to bike.  Yes, they have a workshop and store, but their space also has a small tapas bar with all the best tapas including tortilla, queso curado, jamon, you name it!  After being on the road for 2 weeks straight, it was the perfect place to take refuge.  People are constantly trickling in, for a beer, to chat, drop off a bike, or get travel advice.  Not to mention, Guim opens his arm to tour cyclists, who all seem to find THBC one way or the other. I just happened to luck out that my Warm Showers host lived next door!  Guim, a Vietnam cycle expert gave me some route advice, George the mechanic took good care of my bike, and I met a few other tour cyclists riding through Hanoi on their SE Asia trip. 

No podeís imaginar la alegría que sentí al ver un menu con tapas Españolas, ole!!!

When I wasn’t at THBC, I was out exploring Hanoi.  From the outside, it looks like total chaos and riding a bike might seem like suicide.  The motos travel in clusters, like flocks of sheep except for the occasional scooter that decides to go head-on into traffic. Interspersed are large American size cars, and a few cyclist appear every now and again piled high with goods to sell.  Thankfully the motor scooter drivers in the city are much better than the drivers in the rural areas.  I’m impressed with my riding skills-I’ve pretty much got the hang of the roads and the flow of traffic here.  There is no need to look to your right, only left.  Your eyes move back and forth between the 2 meters in front of you and the obstacles on your left,…..oh, and never stop, keep moving no matter what!  It feels like an intense video game, although you only have one life to live so the game can’t be over!
Tall skinny apartment buildings are typical here, and very colorful!

Rush hour has yet to come!

I did two full days of sight seeing and street wandering.  Between the main drags there is a maze of alleyways with a million fingerlike side streets branching out, each filled with markets, stores, food stands, and residences.  Unlike in the smaller towns, here the restaurants and shops are bustling all day long.  Hanoi is a cosmopolitan city, for the first hour, I gawked at all the ex-pats, after all, it had been two weeks since I had seen other westerners.  You can find any sort of cuisine you like along with the local restaurants and Vietnamese specialties.  Supermarkets are stocked with all sorts of western products and adverts are frequently in English.

Temple of Literature hidden within the city

Noise, pollution, and people are everywhere, which does get tiresome (hence making THBC the perfect respite) and the novelty of the city has started to wear off.  Most of the tour cyclists I met were here for about a week. I’ve gotten in the habit of being on the move and I’m itching to start pedaling after a few days rest.  What seems like work, heading up north to Vietnam’s mountains, seems like a break for me!  Ironic, because two days ago, coming to the city was just the break I needed from the road.  Tomorrow as I make my way out of Hanoi, hopefully the honks, concentrated masses, and constant stimulation will dissipate.  I’ve got some pretty difficult terrain ahead of me- but I’m ready for it, along with mountains and climbs comes spectacular scenery and solitude- I’m craving it after the big city.  It could be another 2 weeks before I have a real conversation again, but that just means I’ll appreciate it even more!

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