Day 213: Battling through 18-hour drive to Hanoi
Unexpected moments of pure happiness broke dreary push through the rain. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
I thought I reached Bao Luc last night. However, the map this morning places me on the right path, but not there yet.
It's raining outside. A light, steady drizzle comes from the unpresumptuous gray clouds that have made themselves at home in the mountainous, green landscape.
There are two things beautiful about morning rain: 1) You don't have to get up for sunrise, as there will be no sunrise. 2) You can commit to wearing rain gear before getting sopping wet..
These are the sort of things I appreciate. Deeply appreciate.
Instead of getting up before the butt cheeks of the night have been split to reveal even the crack of dawn, I stay under a thin sheet and listen to the pattering rain outside, as I drift in and out of dreams.
The extra sleep does little to cure the lingering cold that's been tempering my energy. I roll out of bed with a nose full of snot and the submerged tiredness of person whose resources are being diverted from being excited about life to defending one's body to stay alive.
With the bill settled, Donkey loaded up and neon yellow-green rain gear wrapped around my body, we're back on the road.
It would have been wise to double-check Maps.me to ensure that I am going the right way, as I arrived late in the night and Donkey's dim lights revealed nothing of the landscape.
Instead, I trust my intuition.
The drizzle continues as Donkey and I head up river, follow a stream-side road as it snakes through the lush countryside. My black gloves are soaked before a niggling feeling I can't shake finally gets me to stop the bike.
Yanking of the gloves – next trip, I'm buying waterproof gloves – I use my body to shield my phone from the drizzle as I check my location.
“For fuck sake,” I mutter.
There must have been a lag with my GPS location. I started this morning in Bao Luc and have successfully backtracked through the rain for the last 20 to 30 minutes.
Head down, Donkey and I speed back past Khach San Song Neo Hotel, which I still can't help but think of as a converted mental institute. Past the hotel, I find myself in the town proper. It is more than a one-hotel town. I could have found a bowl of soup when I got in last night had I driven for another five minutes.
It's taken nearly an hour of driving in the light rain for me to return to roughly where I started.
It's a bad idea to go to the waterfall. With so few days left before my flight to Kenya, I can't trundle along at my usual, haphazard pace.
I tug off my gloves and duck into a small open-faced cafe for a hot Vietnamese coffee and moment to sort myself out. The strong black coffee turns a light brown as I stir up the sweetened condensed milk sitting at the bottom of the glass like the silty sediment at the mouth of a river.
Though the coffee is perfect, I'm worse off than I anticipated. Not only did I get a late start, go the wrong way and soak up some of this Vietnamese drizzle, the Ban Gioc Waterfalls is not where I thought it was located. An hour drive from here, a river crosses from China into Vietnam. I assumed that was the waterfall. However, it turns out that Ban Gioc Waterfalls is about 200 kilometers away from this little cafe.
“Oh wow, that's not even close to me! I completely misunderstood. I think just heading back to Hanoi, otherwise I won't make it,” I write to Leh, my Vietnamese friend in the capital.
“Same province, but not close to you at all... 183km to go.”
“It' s raining, I'm sick and tired... Think I'm coming back to Hanoi”
“Maybe you should stay there one more day coz you are sick or take the sleeping bus to Hanoi.”
“Don't have time or money.”
“Not in the mood dearest.”
Money is the other problem. I knew money would be an issue at some point during this trip. However, this particular issue was with cash flow. I have money, but it's in the wrong currency – it's all in USD and Euros. Out here, I need Dong. At least a few Dong. As it looks, I have enough to pay for fuel to Hanoi, this coffee and not a whole lot more.
The die rolls around in my hand as I ponder the options. If it's an even number, I'll go to the waterfall and push my luck with the travel timeline. If it's an odd number, I'll skip the waterfall and begin the more than 300 kilometer journey to Hanoi.
The die bounces around on the wooden table before finally settling with one face kissing the table and one staring straight up into God's eyes.
It's a three.
With wet gloves back on, I climb onto Donkey. Surely, wet gloves do little to resolve a festering cold.
Carving through the mountains – this time going the correct direction – the beauty of the world around me is overwhelming. The mountain road dips down low into a valley, running up the crack, not far from a turquoise river. Rice paddies eat into the edges of the lush green mountains on either side of the river as the road begins to climb.
Donkey comes to stop. It's too beautiful to push on any further without taking a break.
The rain has also taken a break.
The world is wet. The soil smells rich. And somewhere below, the river has found enough rocks to talk with that its voice reaches me up here on the road.
The vivid landscape deserved a skilled painter, but there was only me and my drone. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Dorsey II, my drone, takes to the air. After the better part of twenty minutes, she comes buzzing back. Children from a school somewhere down in the valley come racing up the road after her.
The vivid landscape deserved a skilled painter, but there was only me and my drone. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Nearly twenty faces with smiles bright enough to cut through the gray clouds of the day come laughing up to me. The children are wearing a hodgepodge of western clothing. The boys are in jeans and long-sleeve shirts. Many of the girls are wearing pink, with their silky black hair pulled back into neat ponytails.
Enthralled by the flying machine, the kids crowd around me as I kneel down so they can see the view of the home from above. One of the young boys, plucks a white headphone from my ear to listen to the calming, informative voice of Roman Mars from the podcast of 99% Invisible. The boys little hands gently brush my arm so that all the hairs are orderly and facing the same direction. Another kid is petting my other arm, while the rest of the kids are piling in around me.
Then the little boy leans in and gives me a kiss on the cheek before bashfully falling back into the crowd. I pop the Dice Travels helmet with its furry ears onto one of the kids before tossing him onto the bike to let him pretend to drive it for a moment.
Even now, in the midst of all the commotion, I know this is why I love Vietnam. This moment is what I was looking for in Sapa, Ha Giang, Hanoi and every long stretch of road between them. It's the spontaneous, pure happiness of a chance encounter with something amazing.
These kids were full of tinder joy. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli / Music: David G Cohen
Back on the road, after waving goodbye to the kids as Donkey takes me toward Hanoi, I'm buzzing.
Podcast after podcast plays as the hours slip by beneath the flat gray sky.
Dehydration and hunger catch up with me by mid-afternoon. A muddy parking lot spreads out in front of a small wooden shack with windows filled with chicken wire. A sturdy wooden table wet from blood sits out front. Several large chunks of beef with thick, white layers of tough fat sit on next to a scale on the table.
Inside, behind the counter, a rack of freshly stuffed sausages hang over a fire, as if still taking part in the smoking process. I order a few of the sausages and a Coke.
These are the type of sausages you dream of being perfect – some deeply local mixture of flavor and fresh meats.
That's the dream.
The reality is much harder to swallow, but I manage.
Just because it's super local does not mean it's delicious. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
A man pulls up in a lorry and calls out to one of the young men working at the shack to pressure wash the truck as another worker chops off large chunks of meat and puts them on a scale before bagging them up for the driver. Behind the back wall of the restaurant area comes the sharp cracking sound of a rack of pool balls being busted up.
I knew that my last comment to Leh pissed her off, though I was being honest. Sick, wet and aware that I had a massive day of driving in less-than-ideal conditions hadn't put me in the best mood.
“Am very grateful you're letting me crash at your place,” I write.
“I will be at Nina place this evening, not sure when I'm home.”
“No worries, I assume I'll be getting in very late. Though if you prefer I stay at a hostel tonight, I can.”
Originally, I'd hoped to make Hanoi by dinner time. One of the few reasons Leh admits that she likes to have me around is to support and drive conversation when she's hanging out with foreigners. Nina is a fellow American, who I've gotten along with swimmingly in the past.
“So loks like I def won't make dinner... Going to push hard to get in tonight. Still 250km away. I think I'll get there a bit after 1am. So much driving.”
So much for not driving after dark.
The cold sets in with nightfall. The windchill cuts deep through my wet gloves. A numbness spreads through my head as the bright lights of fellow road users come rushing past me.
If removed from Donkey, I'm unsure if my body would change position. It's very likely that I would remain in the same hunched position, my hands reaching out as if prepared to give hand jobs at an orgy.
And yet, the road to Hanoi stretches out in front of me wedging hours of driving between me and a warm bed.
There's been a looming silence from Leh since my last message to her..
The night wears on. The cold gets deeper.
At this point, exhaustion is becoming a familiar friend.
The long bought of silence from Leh continues. The road has opened up to a highway lined with orange lights that are burning into the night.
On the side of the road, I yank off my gloves. There's finally a message from Leh.
“Is it okay that you stay at a the hostel tonight?”
Fuck. Seriously? It's past midnight. And I'm so close. And so broke. I don't even have enough money for a room. I'd have to talk whatever hostel I book at into letting me pay in the morning, in order to use an uncomfortable bed in a cluttered room for less than 6 hours. Then, in the morning, I'd have to load everything back up on the bike and putt over to Leh's place.
“I guess I can. I'll be tehre in 50min though. Everything okay. Promise not to be a boterh if you just leave the door unocked lthough,” I write, my fingers tapping out plenty of nonsense in their attempt to create words.
Google Maps get me across one of the bridges at the southeast corner of Hanoi, before my phone dies. With my phone dead, there's no hope of connecting with Leh.
A cold shiver takes a lap through my body.
It's past 1am by the time I make it to the Hanoi City Center. I head down a road I recognize, but it doesn't go where I thought it did.
The streets have emptied out, making room for the shadows of the city.
Donkey and I drive in circles. If I could find the little lake near the Old Quarters or even West Lake, then I could figure out how to get to a hostel. The minutes add up, turning into the better part of two hours. Two hours cruising the empty streets of Hanoi.
At the very least, I need to find a place to charge my phone. However, there isn't even a cafe or a late night Pho place open at this hour.
Suddenly, I find myself on the wide boulevard running around Ho Hoan Kiem Lake. I know how to get to the hostel from here. Not that there's much point in paying for a room, but enough of a point to try.
What else can I do?
The shutters to the hostel are pulled. It's a narrow alleyway popular with backpackers and those seeking cheap accommodation near Saint Joseph Cathedral. None of the other hotels look open either.
Fuck it. I have enough money for maybe a Banh Mih or something. I'll find a place to get a little food and charge my phone.
Near the lake, a convenience store is open; the florescent lights a welcome sign.
A few Vietnamese teenagers, boys and girls, sit on the lip of the sidewalk next to a man selling sandwiches from the back of his bicycle.
I scout the interior of the store in hopes of finding somewhere I can plug in my phone. I have enough money for a piece of chocolate, even a Snicker's Bar, but I pass the temptation.
“Are you crazy?” I say. “No, thanks.”
The sandwich guy wants twice the price for what Bahn Mih usually goes.
“Here, come, cheaper price,” he says.
Instead, of coming back for the sandwich, I storm off, mount Donkey and drive away.
Atfer aimlessly driving for about 15 minutes, I spot another sandwich place. This is shawarma, served in big, round pitas. It's a ratty looking stand placed out in front of a closed fruit market. One of three dirty stools setting on the sidewalk next to it is occupied.
The old man on the stool is wearing a black jacket over a white t-shirt. His head looks like a strange mix between an ancient, silver hedge hog and a tortoise. I ramp donkey onto the dark sidewalk on the opposite side of the street and then plop down on a stool.
y new drinking buddy. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
The shawarma is in my price range, leaving me less than a dollar's worth of Dong.
The old drunk man, whose name I didn't quiet catch, is delighted to have more company.
“Sit, sit, sit,” he says.
With a scrap piece of paper he writes out the year he was born: 1947. I write out the year I was born 1985.
He's all smiles, as he pours me the last drops out of a bottle of Vietnamese vodka so we can do shots. At this time of the night, there's nothing better for warding of the cold and cutting through the exhaustion from the day.
“We go boom, boom,” he says, trying to take me off to a whore house somewhere in the region.
“I don't have any money,” I say. Why is it that the old dudes that are still chasing sex seem to be so vigorous.
A middle-aged Vietnamese woman comes to buy some food, which causes the old man to crack a number of jokes about her wanting to have sex with me. The jokes are in Vietnamese, but it's not hard to understand.
She looks worn down and tired, but is mildly interested in me nonetheless. Inexplicably, she takes down my number.
The old man waves the Shawarma Man over. They're friends – I wouldn't be surprised if they share more than a few drinks together every night of the week.
The Shawarma Man takes the money he's given and wobbles across the street to get us all beers. I'd buy a round myself, but I don't have the money.
There's the lovely crack-fizzle when the beer cans are opened.
We peacefully slurp at the cans in the night, soaking up the warmth of the city despite the coolness of the night.
This is paradise. It's a strange paradise, but it's a real one. It's not some imaginary world where everything is perfect. It's a real moment where, against all odds, everything is perfect.
The man laughs and puts his arm around me trying to tell me a joke or convince me to go with him to find some prostitutes – which one, I couldn't say.
My phone is charging in a socket attached to the shawarma car.
It's past 4am now. No reason to do anything other than wait for sunrise. I worry that Leh won't be a fan of me showing up so early in the morning, but I'm going to risk it.
“Oh, wait. Hold on a second,” I say, before running back to Donkey to get out a deck of cards.
The Vietnamese are avid card players.
A card disappears and then reappears on top of the deck, it's a small magic trick. The old man is so unimpressed that it's hard to know if he even noticed what happened.
He takes the deck of cards and starts to deal out a hand. Two cards in, he gestures for me to pull out money. I pull out the last Dongs I have, worth maybe a quarter at most.
He wants more money, miming that I should go to an ATM and get cash.
I shake off the idea. He persists for a few moments, but then relents.
The cards are dealt. For a moment, it looks like I'm going to win. However, at the end, he finds just the right card to win the hand
He smiles and deals again, asking for more money to go on the table.
Despite me dismissing the idea, he deals the cards.
Again, he wins by a narrow margin.
He's got a mechanics grip on the cards, which is a red flag. Or at least would be a red flag if we were playing for money.
“Watch,” he says, dealing out the cards again, this time changing the angle of his body to reveal how he's dealing from the bottom of the deck.
For the next fifteen minutes, he teaches me how to cheat at cards on the dark streets of Hanoi.
That's one way to win at cards. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
The night wares on. The phone is adequately charged. I give my man a big hug, round up my cards and get back on Donkey.
“Hostel was closed. Kind of got lost looking for it. Can you give me a call when you get up this morning. Sorry to be a bother,” I write to Leh before setting off for her place.
It's a familiar drive from the shawarma stand to Leh's place. It's 5am when Donkey and I pull away from West Lake, down the narrow alley that runs behind her building.
“Had a very interesting evening, reat content for blog, but down to my last Dong ;) until I can exchange money. So just shilling out backtracked,” I write.
Leaning against the closed shutter of her back door, I kick my feet up on Donkey and prepare to take a little nap in the privacy of the alley. Wedged between the bike and the wall, no longer responsible for holding the weight of my own tipsy body, I settle down into the darkness like an avid reader into a good book.
Scanning people who are online, I'm surprised to see my ex-girlfriend from Phuket awake.
“Why are you awake? Also where is that picture of honey badger that I'm so excited to see?” I ask.
“Oh dear))),” she writes. It turns out she's in Phuket's party hub, Patong. “We were at the bar, had some drinks, laughed a lot and still talking.”
“Sounds like a lovely date, I'll let you get back to it.”
“Your turn hun,” she writes.
“Because I got into town too late to find a hotel. Waiting for a friend to wake up so I can crash at her place Was drinking with old man on the street. Very funny experience. So is your date cute too?”
“Yeah, I have female friends. 😛 But she's probably not going to wake up for hours. So, I'm just sitting outside. I don't have any money. I wish it was your place though. 😉”
Speaking of Leh, why hasn't her cat woken her up yet?
“Rise and shine! Isn't Bo supposed to wake you up?” I write Leh, just as the first rays of the sun full the sky with a dim gray light.
“Where are you?”
“Down stairs :P”
With sleep still in her eyes, Leh comes down to let me in.
A few minutes later, I've stripped down and passed out under a comforter in a big bed with her in my arms.