It was an uncomfortable bus ride from Hue to Hanoi. Approximately 12 hours and the young girl sitting in the seat in front of me had been vomiting from dusk to dawn. I was feeling a bit shady myself, having spent the previous night locked up in a bar, all the window shutters closed, the person attending the bar attempting to avoid the police patrolling the streets while still making a profit.
And in the early morning we managed to escape. Now here I was on the bus approaching Hanoi, still approximately 100 kilometres south. I wearily opened my eyes and peered out my steamy window upon karst mountains, green paddy fields and a slowly winding river mimicking our trail. Leading to nowhere but serenity, somewhere, out there in the distance, I was temped to jump off. But the bus ploughed on, nearly crashing into a truck in the process and actually knocking a person off his bicycle.
But it mattered not, for soon we would be reaching Hanoi, where we were told, we would find a million more targets, one point for each motorbike and 10 points if it held over five pillion passengers; 50 points if the target was a foreigner.
And back to form, upon reaching Hanoi, within a matter of minutes of disembarking from the bus, I found myself standing in the middle of a street. Motorbikes speeding past, half a million if not more, to my left and to my right, the hairs on my bald head standing tall, putting all their energies into their last few seconds of life.
Eventually I made it back to whence I had come, into a crowd of smiling, jovial faces patting me on the back. It was a cultural thing. I had been told the Vietnamese love to laugh, and so early in the morning, I had offered a full day's entertainment.
My mojo was back.
Still standing with the bus terminal crowd, popular, I was offered a free taxi from the bus station to Hanoi’s Old Quarter by two attractive North Vietnamese female touts. They subsequently organised my accommodation within the Old Quarter at a cheap but relatively modern hotel.
The Old Quarter, a sanctuary from the chaos of traffic on its doorstep, an enclave, an oasis, the old commercial centre of the city, a shelter. On the edge of its bounds was the quaint and surprisingly placid Hoan Kiem Lake, depicting peaceful charm and the stories of a tortoise.
The tortoise was on the edge; the mad, crazed motorbike traffic in-between, around and around, dazed. The tortoise stumbled back to the hotel, finding peace and safety, talking to the attractive North Vietnamese receptionist.
The tortoise knew the way to her heart and started the discussion with an argument over money, building rapport and her respect.
“I am about to travel to China and need to organise a visa. How long does it take to walk to the Chinese Embassy from here?” the tortoise asked.
“For a small charge, we can organise your visa for you.” replied the attractive receptionist.
“How small is small?” queried the tortoise.
“That depends on the time of the day, the overhanging weather and the lake you wish to swim in.”
It was a cryptic response, meaning something, a smile forming at the edge of her mouth, setting the wheels of the tortoise’s mind spinning. And with that the tortoise took off, realising the Chinese Embassy would close within a couple of hours, at midday.
But it was too late. With a country of over a billion people, the Chinese had only one person serving the visa requests of stragglers who had walked to the Chinese Embassy in haste, sweating and agitated.
The visa would have to wait, literally; another day to wait for the Chinese Embassy to reopen and four days of Chinese processing time.
But there were always the positives.
Talking to the attractive North Vietnamese receptionist was one. Multiple iced coffees at a café within the Old Quarter, served to me before I managed to even order or sit-down was another; peering in the low-light at the quant, feminine, sleek, other-worldly waitresses. And then there was the third positive; another night at a Vietnamese bar, window shutters drawn, locked-in, unable to leave or escape, ‘til dawn.