After returning from Sapa I have no more planned for my last few days. I feel I have 'done' most of Hanoi but I spend another day exploring some of the beautiful craft shops, go to the travel agency to pick up my plan ticket and sit to enjoy an ice cream by the lake. At the travel agency the two people that work there, a young man and woman, lift their heads as I walk in through the open front. The girl has a small cute face and wears jeans so minuscule I may just get one leg in through the waistband. She is probably about 4ft tall. However she has a big personality. Berating me for not having come in sooner I get the feeling they relish the company of tourists. Each time I have come in here I end up chatting for along while. I really feel that they can be trusted in here as well, giving me accurate information whenever I have asked. Research on the internet and other agencies tells me that. This time Eddie, although its clear thats not his real name, is eating a bowl of rice with the leftover fish bones sitting delicately on the side and some overcooked and cold greens strewn across the middle. The bowl is blue and white patterned, I should imagine perfect for an English dinner party 30 years ago. Showing some interest in the food the girl takes my hand and leads me down an alley to the right and right again out of the shop. The alley is narrow, an old crinkled lady serves tea in the first outlet on the right and a little further down, edged to the side of the alley is a small trolley displaying a few Vietnamese dishes and then some small tables and blue stools. About five people sit eating their lunch and grin and nod as we approach. I don't think they get many blond western ladies eating here and some of the diners, and passers by, look at me like I'm attempting a record breaking high jump. Full of hope, expectation and encouragement for me, almost shaking my hand for trying it. One of the things I love most about Asia is that the people are genuinely enthralled when you enter into their culture. There's a certain amount of brownie points to be earned by being open to their food, traditions and language. Here the girls sat behind the serving, and money taking table, look shy and almost giggly when I pay for my food. I have a bowl of rice with a piece of oily fish in tomato sauce, some tofu, green beans and some pork ribs in a sticky sauce. This all comes to 20,000 dong - 75p. My Vietnamese tea is brought to me steaming in a glass cup that is too hot to hold. This amounts to 2,000 dong which equates to about 5p. Its a good meal and well worth the money! In the evening I head over to the Tamarind Cafe which was recommended to me by the Dutch woman from Sapa. She is a vegetarian so it makes sense that this cafe serves only veggie food. The salad and dessert are great, but particularly good is the range of smoothies. I opt for the China sea Breeze with pineapple, mint and soda. I seem to be on a bit of a mint phase at the moment getting as much of the fresh scenty herb as possible. The Tamarind is decorated with giant posters of Chinese characters and underneath them is the translation. I sit and wonder how many people have them tattooed onto their bodies somewhere. Also in the cafe I meet Roger and Mary-Ellen from NYC! They have the unmistakable accent and are really really warm and friendly people. They are travelling for about a year, they have many months to go and take on any advice that I ramble on about in their direction. I cant work out whether they are travelling together as friends or as a couple but it goes past the stage of asking after a while and I don't like to pry. They offer to buy me a beer and despite being tired its nice to sit with them for a bit longer. For the first time I am using my strawberry umbrella that I bought back in the Cameron Highlands. Its cute but silly with its small frilly fringe and strawberry shaped handle at the bottom. Nevertheless its extremely handy when the heavens open and the sky literally falls down onto the streets of Hanoi. Sitting in Le Pub, cleverly named indeed, where they serve specialty beers we watch the rain fall outside. The bar employs the homeless and under privileged but you wouldn't be able to tell by their smart appearance and excellent manner. They all seem quite young, about 18, and wear bright red t.shirts. The rain is so heavy some people are asking the staff to ring them a taxi to take them only streets away. The thunder claps down booming across the top of the buildings and the roads turn to rivers. Using my faithful brollie I turn the corner to the Elizabeth.
Since I am no longer taking the train from Hanoi across the border near Lang son and into China I decide to visit Lang Son in a day. The guy from the hotel gets me a ticket on a bus in the morning. Its fairly cheap so I expect a commuter bus but a mini bus arrives the next morning and I'm the first on. We go on to pick up locals until the bus is full. One girl gets on and sits in the front now that their are no seats left. Her mobile rings and she starts a loud conversation with a western man. I can tell because she is speaking in her best attempt at English, it is basic and broken but I think he should be getting the message that she is sorry she slept through all his calls but she is now awake and on her way to see her parents. No, he shouldn't be angry because she is very sorry, and he should call her later. Hopefully he will be calmer and less disappointed later. Later in the journey she turns and sees me squashed against the window in the first row of seats back from the driver. She smiles. Her face is quite pale and she has a thick nose but she is still a pretty girl. The older woman beside me looks and me and giggles. Once the girl has the confidence to speak to me she turns and asks me where I'm going and for how long. The older woman must then ask her what she asked me and everyone is filled in on the loop. As we leave Hanoi and drive north east the scenery changes and the 3 hour bus journey goes so fast as i'm distracted by the stunning landscapes. There are magnificent limestone cliffs covered in lush green. The hills are like waves rising up and then flowing back down dramatically. Nestled in the hills are villages of 10 or so houses. Some are basic wooden shacks and occasionally there is a grand town house, thinner than a terraced house in England, grandly painted and complete with balconies decorated with intricate patterns to the outside. I am enjoying the journey, driving past bicycles carrying as many baskets as you can physically fit onto the back, spiralled round so that the width is at least a metre. The rice workers stand up in their paddies with only their waist up visible and on top their hat. The crop looks almost reed like and so soft blowing back and forth with the wind. Suddenly in my euphoric contemplatative state I simitaneously hear gasps and a scream at the same time as a large bump clunk sound from under the bus, and a bit of a jolt. We continue and I look at the faces of the two women beside me who are cringing a little bit. Apparently I dont want to know what we hit. I concentrate on not being sick for the rest of the journey, because no one initially tells me what we hit my imagination runs riot creating images of a hit and run from an injured child. As we stop at a cafe five minutes later all the passengers are going about their usual business, eating, chatting, smiling. Therefore I ascertain it was a dog seeing as they walk randomly into the road at various points during our journey. At the risk of sounding cold hearted i'm quite relieved to find it is a dog. To rationalise it to myself I think of my attitude to hitting a rabbit in the UK and the fact that it is far worse to swerve putting your passengers at risk. Besides, they eat dogs here! Its exactly the same principle. With that distraction over in my mind I get back to thinking of the task in hand...getting photos and souvenirs for the Thoong family who lived here for years in the past.
I am dropped off in Lang son. I'm dropped off an a road next to a large green sports stadium that looks very much closed. On the other side of the road is an arched entry to the market across a car park. The road is very wide and there are a few bikes and cars but not many. There is nothing that I can see with any English signage at all. Feeling fairly vulnerable and lacking any confidence whatsoever I decide to keep my head high, walk and look like I know what i'm doing. I wander down a street lined with fruit stalls, small outdoor food servers, some women on the corner are selling flowers. They squat in the usual sitting position arranging the colourful blooms. Everyone is staring, but as I look again its not maliciously. They are absolutely fascinated. A lot of them smile and as I start to smile everyone smiles broadly at me and turns to their friends, some people actually shouting to their friends to come and look. As I take more paths remembering my steps I see a highly ornate temple and lareg bridge through the buildings. Keeping that in sight I enjoy looking at the twon around me. They are too quiet and respectful to be seeing a celebrity...I am greeted like the a member of the royal family walking through a marked route through a crowd. All the locals stand at the side of the road just looking in disbelief. Some of the braver people say hello and soon most people are saying hello so that I will respond. They react like this is the highest compliment. This has to be the friendliest place I have been so far in Vietnam. After reaching the bridge and what looks like the set up for a large celebration at the temple I saw in the distance I retrace my steps. I take pictures all along the way to document the town as it is today. The decorations are bright fun colours with giant pink flowers, acid yellow and pillarbox red banners, flags hanging across the road and over the staging. I walk through town a little bit more and reach a small shrine for Hoh Chi Minh. Then it clicks...its the celebration of his birthday today. There are now red banners everywhere across the road in this part of town with gold writing on each. I turn the corner again feeling hungry and start to conemplate attempting to order some food somewhere. I pass a few small stands selling fizzy orange and coca cola but in the distance I see a sign for Com and Pho, rice and noodle soup. As if the universe has picked up on this as I approach a nice young guy comes out grinning and pointing into his restaurant. So, I accept!
The restaurant just looks like the lower floor of a house, as so many buildings do over here. The upper floors are the home and the ground floor is an open area. In this case the kitchen is right at the back. There are a few tables and chairs at the front and inbetween is a tv and sofa. A girl of about 10 appears, as does a woman and baby another guy. All of them try and talk to me and smile, as usual! They give me a menu which I look at. It has many options none of which I can read and then a few pictures in the middle of a fish, a cow and a crab, much like a childrens story book. I point to the chicken and then the writing trying to ascertain which relates to which section. That doesnt work. They signal for me to hold on and one guys gets his phone. I assume he is caling the only guy in the town that can speak English. In the meantime they chatter to me like I can understand and I goofily give them all the Vietnamese I know which sends sheer delight into their eyes and they carry on talking to me. I think perhaps if I let it all sink at some point i'll automatically understand them. A few minutes later a guy arrives on a bike and I am presented with a menu with scrawled English next to each. Rather than an English speaking person we have a menu that must be shared between the town. I order a few things including some roast duck. This will be the first roast duck i've had out here and as i'm as close to China as i'll get this trip I might as well try it here. After some great food the family from the restaurant start taking pictures of me so I feel I can do the same. Then they give me their baby to hold and take pictures of that everyone laughing and enjoying the novelty. Thge beauty of this experience was that they were as in awe of me as I was of the whole situation. A wierd and wonderful day.
By now the over amorous guy at the hotel had turned into the bear hugging, arm punching and down right cheeky guy. For some reason I didnt find out or dont remember his name but after having stayed at the hotel on and off for about 6 nights I felt i shouldnt ask again. To other guests amusement when I was in the large communal area in reception using the internet or hanging out he would come and grab me and beat me up. Occasionally it was funny, sometimes it got far too much and I had to shout at him like a little kid. The positive from the situation is that I was invited to eat with the 'family' during the last few days. The Elizabeth hotel had become my Hanoi home. I was called the wife by all the male staff and to my comfort all the girls started coming and just hanging out with me when i was on the internet or reading just sitting with me and attempting to read some or talking to me. They are all so tactile, the girls will just come and hold your hand or just rest their hands on your shoulders whilst you face the computer screen. After not having visited a beach or been in a sunny area for almost a week or more I've already completely lost my tan, have a sore throat and nothing to entertain me for the next two days. As vain as it is its really quite disheartening. Honestly and truthfully despite everything you experience and the care free attitude that you can adopt most travellers still want to go home with a wicked tan. On my last evening I book a ticket for the water puppet show. This is a traditional style of theatre originally created by the farmers in rural areas where the flood watre would rise during rainy season. It is a tiem old tradition. The stage looks like our aged amateur dramatic stages with the curtains and lighting around the bottom. The diiference is the pool of water surrounded by the plain burgundy set. On the two edges of the water are flags in the same colour of those celebratory flags in Lang son. After an introduction in English, French and Vietnamese and some traditional music the show starts. There is one instrument that interests me greatly. It has a unique sound and apparently in days gone by the young girls were not allowed to listen to it for fear they would fall in love with the musician. They would always have been men in those days but tonight a woman plays it. There is a film called Kung Fu Hustle, which happens to be one of my favourite films, and there is a magical scene where two musicians use an instrument to kill some kung fu masters. The sound is almost haunting but at the same time sensational. It could send you into a trance. There are 20 scenes within the production. Each scene simply called something like 'Fishing'. The puppets dance, move and glide within the water to the music. Its fun and light hearted.
On my final day in Hanoi, in Vietnam and on my trip I just simply want to pass the time to go home. I watch tv and read until I have to check out at 12midday. Then I take a walk over to the lake. The sun cant decide whether its our or in so it moves graciously through the clouds occasionally heating my back as I sit on a bench looking out over the lake past the red blossom trees and the temple to the left. I have 100 pages left of 'A Man named Dave' and I want to finish it as I have no room to carry it! So I sit there until I have. Laden with a bag of mini fruit jellies, some seaweed crackers, some water and some iced jasmine tea I pass a couple of hours. At 3pm I go over to the post office, give my finished book to a guy selling them on the street and in the PO make a call to my Dad. I tell him I will see him at 15.10 the following day...30 hours from now including time difference. It seems like a long but manageable task. On the way back to the hotel I stroll past two men, one sat on a small stool with a white cloth over him and a mirror hung on the post in front. The other man, the barber holds his razor carefully taking up the back. Further on there are three women sat on low stools at the front of the pavement. On the table in front of them are wonderful glossy cuts of meat. The table is full of what looks like a whole animal, fleshy joints, dark rich offal and clear healthy bones. The roar of bikes flying past me and the shouts and noises of the Vietnamese language are amplified. I'm starting to realise what i'm leaving behind, a bustling unique country with a big heart and the best of what mother nature has to offer. Somewhere else in my mind echoes my conversation with my Dad and the excitement of home comes to the forefront. In 23 hours I'll be touching down in the old blighty, English soil, recognisable number plates, cats eyes in the roads, full green oak trees, rolling hills dotted with black and white cows, fresh drinking water from a tap and a cold nip in the air.