Emboldened by the triumph of my sunrise cycling tour around the temples of Siem Reap, Cambodia, I booked another for Hanoi.
My guide zoomed up mounted on a moped – the death traps I had sworn to avoid, no matter how temptingly my ride booking app dangled fare discounts. Beaming and buoyant, he flourished a spare helmet and waved me aboard. I gulped down my protests and bowed to courtesy before scruples.
I had insisted on a tour of the “countryside”, wishing for rice paddies without the two hour bus ride to accompany them. He obligingly escorted me through the thick of the Old Quarter traffic to the unfamiliar lands that lay just beyond.
Plunging into traffic as a pedestrian could not compare to biking in it. I hugged my guide’s back tire and vowed not to be washed away in the flow of vehicles.
After a few frantic minutes, we emerged into farmland: bananas, yams. As tenants, not owners, the farmers pitch tents here rather than bother to build on the land. They’re probably off napping now, he predicted, waiting for harvest time.
The sumptious hotel buffet had fortified me for the day with mango pancakes and glass noodles for breakfast, but I gratefully agreed to a pit stop for sugar cane juice. The thickly sweet golden drink refreshed us both after the dash to the highway.
This is the real Hanoi, my guide assured me, not the madness of the tourist district. On the way back, he seated me at a pho cafe – that classic Vietnamese dish that I had yet to sample, as my adventurous food tour hadn’t spared a stop for it.
Before lunch, we toured the citadel: a relic of ancient history, when the Vietnamese warred with the Chinese on their border. Betrayal, political intrigue, starstruck lovers, a lost princess — this site had seen it all. The fountain memorialized the inventor of Vietnam’s crossbow, a military innovation that ended the fighting (for a time).
Inside, we lingered over shrines crowned with bird of paradise flowers (strelitzia). Pyramids of plastic water bottles qualify as reverent offerings here, a modern twist worth meditating on. In the courtyard, my guide reminisced about late nights with friends under the fruit trees. He had grown up not far from here.
That evening I stocked up on souvenirs and prepared to meet one more country on my long circuit home. My phone’s autocomplete summed up the past weeks in Asia best: