Hanoi feels like combination of several different cities all rolled into one: The Old Quarter and the Hoan Kiem Lake, the business district with its new high-rises, the beautifully scenic and residential West Lake area as well as several major avenues and circles with major landmarks, for example, Hanoiâ€™s opera house or the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.
Many tourists who visit Hanoi donâ€™t realize how drastically everything changes as soon as one ventures just outside of Hanoi. Our friend, Aryeh, took me out on an informal bike tour (motorbike) during my brief visit to Hanoi last year. I enjoyed it so much that I really wanted to do it again but this time with Tamar. Aryeh was kind enough to hook us up with his friend Marc, who lives in Hanoi. Marc is an avid mountain biker whoâ€™s been living in Hanoi for 4 years and is very familiar with all of the trails surrounding the city. He also thought it would be fun to take a trip, with a motorbike for a change, to see a site or two that heâ€™d wanted to check out for some time.
After a brief coffee and breakfast the three of us set out for our dayâ€™s adventure which began by crossing a bridge over the Song Hong (Red River) east of Hanoi. Traffic wasnâ€™t that bad at about noon but driving in Vietnam is always a challenge. As soon as we arrived at the other side of the bridge the magic started. We began by riding on an elevated dyke road along another river, the Duong River, which flows from the Song Hong. This was one of many similar roads we took, all of which are fairly narrow, almost â€œsingle laneâ€ by US highway standards. These roads bend with the rivers and pass through miles of farmland, villages and grazing cows. Visibility didnâ€™t extend very far that day but we saw plenty of things to keep us entertained.
One of the most interesting sights was a huge brick factory which stretched out along the river. The buildings look small and primitive in the distance but were really huge once we approached a bit closer. Smoke poured out of the rooftops of some of these structures. Everything appeared both industrial and rural at the same time. The road at that point was unpaved and we drove through the red dust and around various obstacles in our way.
We also stopped at three separate sites along the way. The first was a small, almost deserted looking, pagoda called Phu Dong just off the side of the road. There was beautiful stone well and just a few kids playing at the site after school let out. The second site, the Phat Tich Pagoda, was through a small village and built into the side of a mountain of the same name. There were large stone statues of animals at the entrance that were hundreds of years old. The site is actually being expanded now and will eventually feature a 27 meter tall Buddha which will one day attract tourists. That day, however, we were the only visitors aside from some kids and the cows they were herding. The third site was a beautiful temple, But Thap, largely made of wood and stone. We enjoyed the small footbridge over a miniature fountain of water and floating vegetation. A few tourists found their way to this site that day but the place was very calm and quiet and still big enough for visitors to still lose themselves temporarily.
Although the sites were wonderful, I think that the journey will stick with us as being the most memorable. Along the way we passed buffalo, kids in school uniforms, kids wearing next to nothing, farmers, men and women working construction and hundreds of chickens. A lot of the roads were unpaved or were in the process of being paved and so we had to either drive through these conditions or take many detours often in the mud or on the grass. We even crossed the Duong River by driving the motorbikes onto a small ferry boat which carried us across for a few thousand VND.
The way back was taken between sunset and darkness during Hanoiâ€™s rush hour traffic. Our motorbikes competed with cars and trucks which passed us in both directions and it was sometimes difficult to see through the dust and oncoming headlights and to keep up with Marc who took the lead. The final leg of the trip brought us over the old train bridge back into Hanoi where we drove in a narrow lane with train cars passing us by. Returning to Hanoi was a relief but was also where we met with the most congested traffic of the day. We returned the rental bikes in the Old Quarter and celebrated our journey by sitting down next door at â€œFour Cornersâ€, an intersection of 4 small streets where tourists and expats sit on red plastic stools sipping glasses of cheap beer.