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A backpacker day when nothing goes to plan

It was the start of a new week, yet Lady Luck had given me the slip. I didn’t ask for much; I desired little more than to be granted entrance into a clutch of Hanoi museums. Frustratingly, each museum I approached bore similar signs stating that they were shut on a Monday. Having just traipsed a few kilometres to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (closed), I hoped that the Women’s Museum might have its front doors flung wide open. But no. That was closed, too. Undeterred, I sought Hoa Lo Prison Museum, aiming to step inside the type of horror-tainted building which would best reflect my progressively darkening mood. Dubbed the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ by American POWs during the controversial conflict that tore Vietnam apart during the sixties and early seventies, the intact interior of the building focuses on the country’s struggle for independence from France. Not that I got to witness any of the exhibitions: like the gates of the establishments I’d tried and failed to violate earlier in the day, the prison gates were shut, thereby preventing me from seeing one of the French guillotines inside the former prison which had at one time been employed to behead Vietnamese revolutionaries.

Bearing such bloodshed in mind, I resigned myself to yet another afternoon of aimless wandering, my mental image of blood provoking me to strike out for ‘Song Hong’: The Red River. Not to be confused with The Red River in North America, southeast Asia’s namesake is northern Vietnam’s principal waterway, yet its headwaters spring up in southwestern China. Interested to see how red the river really was, I eventually spied an overpass which looked as though it might soar high above the distant river. On closer inspection, it didn’t, so I kept on walking until Long Bien Bridge inspired a second wind of confidence to course through my air pollution-clogged veins. Scanning what I could of the horizon to try and locate the point at which the beastly structure made contact with ground-level traffic, I soon realised that the bridge wasn’t really geared up to accommodate sightseeing pedestrians. Traffic, as always, took the priority on the bridge. There and then, I knew that any attempt I made to reach the river on foot might be the death of me, hence why I decided to cast my curiosity aside. I would just have to catch up with the river at some other point in the not-too-distant future.

I’d heard truth-riddled rumours that the levels of traffic afflicting Saigon in the south of Vietnam were even worse than those which had to be confronted in Hanoi. If all went to plan, I would reach Saigon by Thursday, in spite of the huge distance separating the two largest cities in the country.

In the meantime, I had historic Hanoi at my feet. If only I’d known in which direction to turn. As I considered how long it might take to walk over to The Temple of Literature, a couple of kilometres west of Hoan Kiem Lake, a car mounted the pavement beside me. I didn’t recognise its driver, but he seemed to know me. ‘Where you go?’ he yelped through the partially lowered window. ‘To see a man about some books,’ I replied, stalling his speech.

Thankfully, when I started walking away, he decided that it would be pointless for him to pursue me in a bid to try and persuade me to hop inside his unmarked taxi. Striding west, I skirted the bulk of the Old Quarter’s market hall, outside of which a crack team of motorbike-straddling guys literally ignited their engines and surged forth in stunningly choreographed unison. ‘You want motorbike?’ came the call. ‘No? OK. You want marijuana?’ A swift double-headshake was in order. ‘Some opium instead?’ Striding on, I wondered where the guys outside the market got off. Having heard innumerable tales dispensed by fellow travellers about the crass extent to which they had been constantly hassled to the point of insanity, I now knew what it felt like. On the face of things, the men weren’t doing any harm by asking if I needed a ride or if I deigned to get high. Otherwise unemployed, they needed to somehow scrape a living together like everybody else. However, when you’re on the blunt receiving end of literally thousands upon thousands of good-natured offers of ‘service,’ it does inevitably become tiresome.

I kept walking, beyond the market, striking the eastern extremity of Hanoi Citadel, an expansive tract of land in the middle of the city set aside for military purposes. Its seemingly impenetrable perimeter purposefully made the most intimidating statement, making cause for me to avert my prying eyes. Had I been foolish enough to wield a camera in view of any of the security personnel, I might have been hauled before a Vietnamese court of law before I had chance to even think of an excuse in my defence, let alone voice one. I could have potentially found myself wallowing in a similar situation if I’d had the audacity to whip out my reporter’s notebook in order to write, even if my notes would have focused on the citadel’s architectural merit. The people or practises taking place within its confines didn’t interest me, yet my motivation to write within sight of the citadel would surely be deemed suspicious by default. Declining to tempt fate, I stalked the eastern wall in a southerly direction, thinking back to the time I’d accidentally aroused the suspicions of US Immigration as I attempted to nonchalantly walk into the state of Texas from Mexico. I might have been weighed down by a backpack ripping at the seams with drugs at the time, but I hasten to add that all such drugs had been prescribed by my doctor in the UK. Consisting of nothing more than sachet upon sachet of painkillers, my so-called ‘drug stash’ was legally above-board. My backache-appeasing wealth of ‘Co-Codamol’ tablets aside, the female border guard who’d been instructed to interrogate me took even more of an interest in a stack of notebooks festering in a coincidentally-concealed side pocket of my backpack. I told her I was writing a book, but she didn’t believe a word of it. If only she’d read my synopsis. Paranoid that I’d been penning political manifestos that could have far-reaching consequences for the integrity of the nation’s security, she hauled me out of the main atrium and into a tiny room flanking a corridor. She told me to sit. I obeyed. She asked me how long I’d been in Mexico, my reason for visiting, and if I had ever participated in political demonstrations of any nature. Shaking in fear, sweating in the dry heat, and fearing that I was about to be thrown into a nasty jail in no man’s land, I confessed, believing it to be the right thing to do.

‘OK,’ I stuttered. ‘I took part in the Anti-War rally in London on the eve of President Bush deploying troops in Iraq.’

‘Don’t get wise with me,’ she barked in response.

However, she must have appreciated my honesty, because I was free to leave and to tread once more upon sacred US soil within a matter of minutes. I’d obviously been deemed to be no threat, which I’m proud to report was the case, and no more was said. I was simply left to repack my violated backpack while a never-ending line of men and women silently breached the border behind me.

Well, I was a long way from America now. I was also a long way from Hanoi’s Temple of Literature. Having taken a wrong turn on the southside of the citadel, I’d wound up trekking towards Lenin Park, passing a huge train station as I went. After coughing up a pittance of an entrance fee, I aimed to circle the lake at the park’s heart before heading back to the Old Quarter. Finally, I’d found a tranquil sanctuary in Hanoi, a safe haven in which I could relax and let what remained of my closely-shorn hair down. As an ancient train noisily made tracks over the road, I became distracted, waving at the twenty-odd carriages as children with their faces scrunched against the grimy windows waved and screamed at me. I wondered where they were going, coming to the conclusion that the train would probably be heading north, to the border with China, and beyond to Beijing.

I was snapped out my reverie by the approach of a man selling ice creams. In his wake, he dragged a fully-stocked cart which emitted a tune so catchy that it couldn’t be described as anything other than annoying. Sauntering around the leafy park, I saw just three other westerners. The park was evidently too far away from the Old Quarter for the majority of backpackers to pay it a visit, but such a fact made the grounds all the more seductive, a miniature railway snaking cutely around its edge. At select points in the park, three married couples were posing for wedding photographs, beside the water’s edge and in the shadows of some particularly photogenic statues.

Exiting the park at gone three in the afternoon, I stepped up my walking speed on my way back to the Old Quarter, barely pausing for breath as I breezed past the distinctive bulk of St Joseph’s Cathedral, its square towers and imposing facade reminding me of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. Having first opened its doors way back in 1886, mass continues to be held religiously within the horizon-dominating place of worship two times every day.

On the home-straight of my journey between the cathedral and Hoan Kiem Lake, tourists and travellers were weaving in and out of the crowds as though they owned the place, eyeing-up souvenirs in windows before deciding that to buy them would rip proverbial holes in their far-from-bottomless pockets.

The only item of note that speared my eye was in the window of a shop selling musical instruments. I regularly go gaga over bespoke guitars, but it was a sixteen-string box ‘zither’ which seized my attention. A traditional Vietnamese instrument, its elegant design sold it to me in theory if not in practise. Blessed with movable wooden bridges, it could be played as a solo instrument, or in an ensemble.

Some of the tourists appeared to be so committed to abiding by what their guidebooks dictated that they were seemingly unwilling to utilise their own intuition. The daring act of darting down random side streets held no thrill for them.

Rounding Hoan Kiem Lake with my gloriously wrecked feet in tow, I made a last-ditch attempt to savour one more sight in Hanoi before trading the city in for Hue. Iconically cast adrift in the middle of the lake, a visit to Ngoc Son Temple provided a fitting climax to a physically exhausting day.

Less than two hours after leaving the temple, I was stood beside a bus bound for Hue. Brandishing my ‘Open Ticket,’ I clambered aboard, as excited as a kid on Christmas Eve. Shame I was ordered off the bus within seconds of boarding. The driver had taken one glance at my sandal-strapped feet and decided that they were too dirty for me to slide into one of the on-board beds. It wasn’t my fault that the streets of Hanoi were so filthy, yet there I was, a humiliated victim of unfair persecution. I initially thought I was doomed to sleep on the streets, but the female driver told me to return to the travel agency where I’d purchased my ticket. It was just a good thing it was over the road. Darkness was falling, and I needed to be on the bus which was about to bolt. I had three days at my disposal before I was due to catch up with three friends, who were all travelling separately, in Saigon. I pleaded with the driver to wait for me whilst I went to wash my feet. Her nod should have reassured me, but it was such a subtle nod that I trusted it not.

Facing little choice in the matter, I sprinted over the road, pinching myself at the far side to make sure I was still alive and that I hadn’t been catapulted into the afterlife by a speeding truck. The proprietor of the travel agency chuckled at my predicament, directing me to a tiny cubicle behind his desk where I could hose my feet back to life.

Needless to say, by the time I’d dashed back over to the bus, my poor feet were in precisely the same unrecognisable state as before. If looks could kill, I would have keeled over as soon as the driver clocked them for the second time. With a hooked arm, she intimated that I was to get on the bus immediately. As I shuffled past her, she was kind enough to award me a scowl of the most chilling variety.

Sucking in a breath of stale air before emitting a monstrous sigh of relief, I was safe. Safe and sound and sold, on a bus heading south.

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