Published On: Sun, Sep 30th, 2018

The Great Train Journey – part 6

Saturday night street entertainment in Hanoi - HH 20180909

By Hilbert Haar

We stay in the old center of Hanoi at the City Backpackers Hostel on Bat Su Street. To say that the city is a bit overwhelming is an understatement. With 7.5 million inhabitants, 5 million scooters and 500,000 cars the buzz in this place never stops.

About those scooters: everybody wears a helmet here – often combined with a facemask that would make bank robbers in St. Maarten envious – and nobody makes wheelies. Crossing a road is a combination of art and science. You have to throw yourself into the flow, being aware that nobody will ever stop for you – but then you shouldn’t stop for anyone either. The traffic somehow flows around you and (usually) nobody gets hurt.

Scooters anyone - HH 20180911

Things are about to change though. The city has approved plans to ban scooters from several parts of town by 2030. How this will affect the millions of Vietnamese who depend on their scooter for cheap transport – not to mention the motor cycle industry – is a big question at the moment. The number of scooters in Hanoi will reach 6 million by 2020 according to a recent estimate and the situation is becoming untenable – both from a logistics and an environmental point of view.

Out trip has so far brought us from Western Europe to countries like Poland, Russia, Mongolia, South Korea and now Vietnam. We have seen statues and monuments of Lenin, Karl Marx, cosmonaut Yury Gagarin, Chinggis Khan and Ho Chi Minh – a true trip through history.

Same dog - different hat - Hilbert Haar - 20180912 MJGH

Will Johnson recently posted something about St. Maarten’s history, in particular about the man who gave St. Maarten’s capital its name: John Philips. That story hammered home how little our island does to do justice to its own historical figures.

Sure, St. Maarten has the Freedom Fighters roundabout, the statue of One Tete Lohkay (though I believe that one was destroyed during last year’s hurricane) and a couple of other roundabouts that highlight locals like Tate the Bus Driver. There is also a statue of Claude Wathey; but the grave of John Philips in the Cul-de-Sac cemetery is all but forgotten and in a truly deplorable state. It just makes me wonder why the island is so apparently bent on ignoring part of its own history. Colonialism, anyone?

Hoi An old center by night - HH 20120915

In Hanoi we visited the impressive Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the park behind it with the presidential palace, the house where Ho Chi Minh lived and the offices where his politburo met. There is also a garage with three cars on display; all were presents from Russia to Ho Chi Minh back in 1954. But 64+ years later, these cars are kept in mint condition.

We took a train from Hanoi to Da Nang on a Wednesday – a trip of 17 hours that takes us overnight south from Hanoi. Only after we arrive, we discover that we have left Hanoi just in time, because super typhoon Mangkhut is barreling down the ocean. Just what we needed one year after Irma.

Railway in Hanoi - HH 20180911

But Da Nang appears to be far enough south to be out of the path of this monster storm; and while we consider ourselves fortunate, we also realize that going back up north in a couple of days is probably not an option. In the meantime, we are happy to learn that the hurricanes traveling across the Atlantic pose no threat to St. Maarten.

Friends but not forever - HH 20180912

From Da Nang we travel by taxi to Hoi An, a quaint little city with just around 120,000 inhabitants and nearby beaches. We love the old town – a Unesco world Heritage Site since 1999. After dark, the old center is even more charming; hundreds of stores are open, the streets are lit up with colorful lampoons and your senses are under constant attack with the flavors that drift down from numerous restaurants while the air is scented by burning joy sticks.

Where will we go from here? That mainly depends on a typhoon called Mangkhut and its impact on northern Vietnam. If the damages are serious, we’ll simply have to adapt and travel south towards Nha Trang.

Finally a beach after three months - HH 20180914

Photo caption: Almost three months after leaving St. Maarten we’re for the first time at a beach again and we are able to put our feet in the warm water of the South China Sea in Hoi An. What pleasure! – Photo Hilbert Haar.

Top photo caption: Saturday night street entertainment in front of a small temple in Hanoi. Photo Hilbert Haar.

Photo caption: The five million scooters in Hanoi have become a huge problem. Here’s just a few of them. Photo Hilbert Haar.

Photo caption: The Vietnamese railway runs straight through the old center of Hanoi, very close to houses and some little cafes. Photo Hilbert Haar.

Photo caption: These typical Vietnamese hats are very light and have a surprisingly cooling effect. Photo Myriam Haar.

Photo caption: Friends but not forever; we say goodbye to travelers from Guinea (left) and Scotland at our hostel in Hanoi. Photo staff City Backpackers Hostel.

Photo caption: The colorful lights in the streets of the old city center in Hoi An. Photo Hilbert Haar.