13 Dec A (Bizarre) Birthday Trip to Kim Boi
Hanoi is a concentrated city, it’s centre in the Old Quarter is a tightly wound sprawl of snaking lanes and shop-lined streets, pavements over-flowing with parked motorbikes, goods spilling out from open-fronted stores and people sat in clusters on tiny stalls drinking coffee and eating from steaming bowls. Zoom out from that area and you’ll find the streets get wider but they’re no less congested; there are bigger, glass-fronted shops, shiny malls and a few lakes and small green spaces to dilute all the steel, glass, stone and smog but you can’t see any mountains or fields off in the distance, the view gives the impression of a never-ending city.
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Recently I’d begun to feel hemmed in by the city, claustrophobic, like we were in a strange sci-fi flick where there turns out to be nothing beyond Hanoi but a cliff with a sheer drop off to nothingness. After three months of being in the city without once venturing outside I’d forgotten what it’s like to see different shades of green and to be able to breathe in clean air. Although I love cities I’d realised that I also like to have access to rural areas; in London we often drove out of town for the weekend and we spent a lot of time in the parks. During our travels we were constantly out and about, journeying through cities and countryside, over mountains to seashores.
Living in this constant city bubble had me longing for a temporary escape but at the same time, I’d become mildly agoraphobic about leaving the comfort of our lovely little apartment, our favourite cafes, and the streets that I’d now come to (vaguely) know. It was easier to stay at home at the weekends lesson planning and enjoying our home comforts than it was to leave our familiar cocoon. Last weekend, however, we had a good reason to force ourselves out of the city for the weekend: it was my birthday.
A Weekend Escape to Kim Boi
The morning of my birthday we stopped for breakfast at Hanoi Social Club, an amazing restaurant we’ve just recently discovered, before picking up some bagels from our favourite bakery and finally heading out of the city towards the hot springs of Kim Boi. It seemed to take forever to weave through the traffic and pass through the city but finally the buildings started to thin out and triumphantly, we burst out of Hanoi into the countryside. “Look, a field!” I shouted over the roar of the engine as Andrew accelerated on the first piece of open road we’d seen in months.
Although the day was grey and overcast and the temperature cool enough to freeze Andrew’s hands to the handlebars and warrant three layers of clothing, the sensation of moving out of the city on an unknown road to a brand new destination was intoxifying. The fields became dotted with huge limestone peaks, their tops misty, reminding me of the scenery in nearby Northern Laos. We soared by tall, skinny houses and smaller towns before reaching a fork in the road which led us down a bumpier track.
Now we felt a million miles from Hanoi, the noise and bustle replaced by bare-foot farmers quietly working away in the paddies, straw cone hats on their heads, their toddlers sat nearby amusing themselves. Occasionally we’d pass kids riding their bicycles and I spotted a group of teenagers sat in a circle by the roadside, playing cards. Instead of towns we now journeyed through villages consisting of small houses, a few shops and a single school. Dogs, chickens and ducks roamed freely and the cold air stung with its freshness.
The road became windier and we passed through a small wood-cutting village at the bottom of a valley, criss-crossed with plots of crops, the watery surface of the rice paddies reflecting limestone mounds. The road spiralled upwards and I felt my mind quieten – there’s nothing like a journey, a few hours of solid travel to clear out my head and let my thoughts unfurl. This uninhibited thinking time is one of the things I love about travel, throughout the many long (often torturous) bus journeys we’ve taken in Asia, I have relished having time to plug in my headphones, stare out the window and reflect, letting my mind wander and digest.
A Slightly Strange Night in Kim Boi
Numb from the cold and hardness of our motorbike seat we finally arrived in Kim Boi. “Is this it?” We both questioned, taking in the short street of guesthouses and restaurants. From what a Vietnamese teacher had told me I’d been expecting a small mountain village surrounded by forests, waterfalls and steaming natural hot-water pools. I hadn’t expected the small street and dome-covered swimming pool and there were no treks to take or waterfalls to photograph.
Nevertheless we decided to make the most of things, we found a small guesthouse and after shivering under blankets for half an hour to warm our chilled bodies we set off to the hot-spring pool, hoping the water would warm our bones. Strangely, the place was all but deserted, with just two other people in the water; we were the only Tays (Westerners) to be seen and the whole place looked run-down and had a spooky air to it. The strangeness was compounded when a member of staff shattered the silence by blaring dance-music into the pool area.
Evening was drawing in, so after our swim we explored the village and snooped around one of the resorts, which was fully booked with Vietnamese tourists who’d come for the weekend to bathe and play tennis. We found a small café and practised our very limited Vietnamese skills ordering some tea and biscuits; it felt like we’d been thrown back to our backpacking days when we’d regularly found ourselves in strange new towns, in unfamiliar guesthouses with rock-hard beds.
After a night of extremely cold, broken sleep on a stone-like mattress we hot-footed it back to the city first thing in the morning. Even though I grew sorer and sorer on the back of the bike and Andrew had to put socks on his hands to keep his frozen fingers from seizing up I still felt that thrill of happiness to be moving again, to have had a taste of adventure once more with its unexpected ups, downs and bizarre moments. The views of the countryside had soothed my mind but when we finally arrived back in the Old Quarter and settled down for a luxurious brunch at a pub I heaved a sigh of relief to be back in the city.