Hitting the Road with Hermes

Ever since I saw the horrifying after effects of  my uncle’s motorcycle crash, and after my own literal run-ins with disaster on my dirt bike as a kid, I had always scoffed at motorbike riders as “future organ donors.” Little did I know that riding a motorbike, especially in Vietnam, is a lot like getting a tattoo: once you get one, you just can’t stop. (Ok, it’s not the best, one-to-one analogy, but the point is: I can’t get enough wind in my hair or ink under my skin). 

I’m totally addicted to riding my beat-up Honda Win, which I dubbed Hermes; he’s my little winged companion, what the Ancient Greeks called a psychopomp or “a leader of souls” of the underworld. It sort of encapsulates the reverence I have for the trusty hunk of metal and the very real possibility that he could lead me straight into the jaws of Hades. Just listen to the baritone howl of the AH14 drowned away by Hermes’ ferocious growling: 

After my fantastic breakfast at the Hanoi 3B Homestay, I soon re-familiarized myself with the AH14, my old and well-trodden path I used to take between Hai Phong and Hanoi. Mercifully, Hải Dương is only about 34 km (or around 21 miles) from Hanoi, but I didn’t get nearly enough sleep the night before, so my drive took an extra half hour as I took a few quick naps on the side of the highway.

Travelling by motorbike in Vietnam may seem like a free-for-all, a Mad-Max style of chaotic weaving and wandering from lane to lane, but if you start to pay attention, you’ll notice some rules that should be followed. Most importantly, though, are some tips I’ve gathered to keep you from becoming a pancake on Vietnam’s motorways:

Driving

  1. ALWAYS test your brakes, whether renting or buying a bike. Just. Do. It.
  2. Make sure your tires are TIP-TOP. I’m talking rubber so fresh you can smell Hevea brasiliensis (These two will help you avoid my fate, which left me sprawled in the middle of a rainy highway between Hanoi and Hai Phong.)
  3. Always assume people can’t see you coming, especially if they’re driving right at you on the wrong side of the highway at 22:00 in utter darkness.
  4. DIrect 80-90% of your attention to what’s going on right in front of you. Hell, you’d be ok wearing horse blinders. Anything behind you doesn’t exist unless it honks or screams (in which case, be a good human and help, for god’s sake)
  5. Don’t give in to peer pressure and jump the 3-second red light remainder (yeah, traffic lights have counters here. It’s awesome). There will be someone screaming down the perpendicular street and turn you into Tay puree.
  6. Flow around pedestrians like a river to their rock. Both of your lives depend on it.
  7. Contrary to popular belief, there ARE road rules, and the first to take notice will be the tan-clad cops, who will, in turn, take as much dong as they can for an infraction.
  8. Don’t get stuck behind a bus or a truck unless you want all the cons of smoking a carton of Marlboro Reds in the span of 15 seconds. Also, they’re big and will pretty much turn you into hamburger if you challenge them.

Walking

  1. Be the steady rock in a raging river when crossing- cars and bikes will tend to move around you if you walk confidently and steadily.
  2. HOWEVER….no matter what anyone says, look before you take that leap. I didn’t- once. Once. I’ve never done a flailing cartwheel that fast since I first learned how to dance like Isadora Duncan.
  3. Use the waving, palm-down “cool your jets, I’m walkin’ here” hand gesture that’s popular with many Vietnamese people here if you really want some extra safety. I mean, just typing that last bit made me guffaw, but seriously, people respond to it. Just don’t be jumpy. See #2 above for what happens if you’re jumpy, as well.
  4. Motorbikers and cellphones go hand in hand like juggling nitroglycerine on a rollercoaster. Assume their call is infinitely more interesting than your attempt to cross the road. (And this isn’t just Vietnam- just don’t use your goddamn mobile while driving)
  5. Sidewalks are totally optional (I prefer the road, myself- it’s usually not as crowded with parked motorbikes) and sometimes (ok, pretty often) serve as another lane for motorbikes in a real hurry. Remember that honking? Just keep your wits about you.
  6. Finally, try to take the long way around any building guarded by soldiers- I’ve been chased to the other side of a 6 lane motorway for walking remotely close to the wrong (see: apparently restricted government) places.

Follow these few simple rules, and you’ll be sure to enjoy watching trepedatious tourists trying to tiptoe across a crosswalk. I was that guy a few months ago, but just remember when to be the rock, and when to be the river. Plus, if you make a stop over in Hải Dương, you’ll have a nicer, far more peaceful and scenic ride like this:

More to come soon, dear readers- I certainly didn’t set the best examples in this post, but I kind of like the raw footage I’m getting from my old, beat-up, but still tickin’ LG Aristo 4G Lte Metropcs Unlocked,T-mobile, At&t , Usa & International 16GB, and a bit of raw driving certainly compliments that, huh?

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Hanoi vs. Hải Dương Part II: Coffee, Charm, and Peace around the Hoang Gia Hotel

 

Xin chào dear readers!

I had forgotten, in my comfortable little apartment near Westlake, what a privilege it is not to have to drive the AH14 (the highway you’ll most likely take if you do any biking from Hanoi to Hai Phong/Cat Ba) for more than an hour at a time. By the time I reached Hải Dương, a mere 1.5 hour drive from Hanoi, my weary little legs were screaming only a little louder than my back from the strain. And to think I was driving 6 hours, round trip, from Hai Phong to Hanoi and back in a single day every Friday in December…

My plan was to be a bit adventurous and haggle for a nice price at a Nhà nghỉ (which roughly translates to “guesthouse” or “hostel” or even “love-motel,” if you’re in the right [or wrong] part of town), but I went for the familiar- or relatively familiar- the Hoang Gia Hotel on Hồ Bạch Đằng, a beautiful little lake around central Hải Dương. For 350,000 VND (or around 15 USD), I got a double room with a massive king-sized bed and a cute little balcony (without a lake view, sadly, but a balcony nonetheless).

Arrival: The receptionist, whose name I didn’t catch, didn’t know much English, but was very helpful when I asked for coffee and breakfast recommendations, since there was no breakfast included at the hotel. One might have thought her curt, but chances are, not many English-speaking tourists come by this little town, so our communication was pretty limited. They hold on to your passport, which always makes me a little queasy, but on the other hand, they have a garage for your bike, so that was super convenient.

General Appearance and room: For 15 USD, the room was fantastic- flatscreen TV, aforementioned balcony, a big (yet charactaristically firm) bed- I was happy after my long drive. The door locks were less than comforting- just a push-button lock and a slide bolt on the inside- but I’m picking a few nits. Overall, it was very comfortable. The rest of the hotel was much like the Hanoi 3B Homestay- a very lavish lobby with spartan halls and decor around the rest of the hotel. Unlike the Hanoi 3B Homestay, the minibar stock wasn’t free, but there are so many little snack shops around the hotel that this is hardly a problem. I was stuffing my face with local pastries by the end of the night. Always find the local pastries in the convenience stores- they’re pretty much always delicious, and for less than a few cents a pop, you can only feel guilty about eating WAY too many.

 

 

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Local Attractions:  The aforementioned Hồ Bạch Đằng is a jewel in the heart of Hải Dương. On a nice day, you can take a swan boat out for a little jaunt, meander around its well-manicured banks, and just enjoy the peace that Hoàn Kiếm Lake simply can’t offer. I also count the truly amazing Angelic Coffee as an attraction, because of its unbeatable view of the city; sip your Cà phê sữa đá (iced coffee with condensed milk) and enjoy the privacy of your little booth.

While actually taken at Ay Cafe and not at Angelic Coffee, this is your standard Cà phê and complimentary trà (tea, kinda pronounced “cha”). It’s worth the wait to let it drip…drip…drip down.

Maybe I’ve just never come at peak hours, but I hardly ever see more than one or two couples in the entire cafe. However, I did ask about some canvas and paint set up, and in broken English, I was able to make out that they host some sort of regular art class- so this has definitely got to bring me back.

 

 

If there’s one thing that should draw you here, it’s the charm of Ay Cafe.

I had built a great rapport with the last two waiters who worked there, and sadly, they were not there when I arrived. However, I was met with the most enthusiastic guy who wanted me to pose all over the bar, looking intellectual while pretending to read Vietnamese books and pretending to play guitar on their little stage (where they host live music on Saturdays- don’t miss that, it’s a hoot and a half).

 

 

Another huge perk of venturing off the beaten path is that you can find some of the most well-stocked and authentic markets in all of Vietnam. One of my favorites was a stone’s throw from my old abode, and with a little haggling and a lot of smiling, you can get some damn good deals and a whole lot of fun out of it all. Hải Dương also boasts one of the best used clothes markets I’ve ever seen in Vietnam (and one of the only ones, actually), which, as far as I know, is only open on Saturdays. However, if that NorthFake jacket caught your eye in Hanoi, Hải Dương is really the place to get the jacket and a better overall experience than just picking it out of a little storefront, packed with other travelers and expats.

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Unfortunately, it was quite rainy when I visited, and (not so unfortunately), I spent a good amount of time catching up with some old friends who still work there, so my coverage isn’t entirely as comprehensive as I would have liked. However, this shouldn’t dissuade you from taking a break here if you ever find yourself along the AH14, dying for a nice bed and a little oasis of tranquility between the bustling urban centers of Hanoi and Hai Phong. Ultimately, the real draw here is the peace and the coffee, but served with so much friendliness and charm that it’s hard to resist. I find myself missing it every day. So here are some

As a special note, if you’re interested in teaching English in Vietnam, consider Hải Dương as your destination. They have an incredible array of schools, a few of which are for truly gifted students (and whom I bumped into just walking down the street!), from 6th grade all the way to 11th grade. I hope to write more about my teaching experiences in Vietnam, but I’ll say that in Hải Dương, you’ll develop a fantastic bond with your students (and even your TAs) that will stick with you for a lifetime.

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Hanoi vs. Hải Dương Part I: Hanoi 3B Homestay Review

Xin chào dear readers!

I’m excited to post my first entry on my little piece of internet real estate, which will be a series reviewing hotels and attractions from Hanoi to Hải Dương- in other words, from the famous to truly off the beaten path.

Tonight, I’m staying at the Hanoi 3B Homestay, and I chose it because I was not only getting stir crazy in my apartment, but the 3B Homestay looked very nice for the $25 USD price. The name is a bit misleading- this is no home-stay. This is just a straight-up hotel, and a pretty nice one at that. Here are the facts:

Arrival: Bella, the receptionist cum concierge, was wonderfully helpful, not to mention the ever-present doorman Mr. Lap, who never fails to make me smile. Bella not only showed me where to park my motorbike, but she directed me (with a great little map) to some exquisite street food on Phố Hàng Khoai (Hang Khoai street). After a bit of exploring, I returned, and she was nice enough to spare a few minutes to ask how my dinner went (it was awesome, as Vietnamese street food tends to be) and what I was doing in Vietnam. I felt nothing but warmly-welcomed from the moment I set foot in the hotel.

General Appearance and room: The lobby is very nicely decorated, but the rest of the public areas are spartan and sparse at best. No frills here. However, the room was amazing for a budget traveler like myself: a rose-pedal covered bed, a towel folded into the shape of a bulldog, and the most high-tech shower I’ve ever seen in Vietnam almost made me just want to crash and forego some meandering around Hanoi.

And, just as a nice cherry on top, the snacks in the room were all complimentary. I ate every. Last. Snack.

Amenities: As I was checking in and getting my passport confirmed, Bella immediately offered me a drink of something- coffee, tea, OJ, lemon juice- and a banana to boot! Even though I wasn’t as weary a traveler as many who probably pass through there, I gladly accepted some OJ and chatted with Mr. Lam in the meantime.

Problems: As I mentioned, most of the decor is pretty bare, but the room and staff more than make up for some glaring white walls in the hallway. Also, there’s a little window at the top of the wall leading out into the hallway, which might give me the heebie jeebies were it not for the safe that comes with the Superior Single room I’m lounging in now, watching some HBO.

Parking: It can be a bit confusing in Hanoi, so let me walk you through how to park your bike, should you choose to get here this way: out of the hotel, take a right, then an immediate left onto Nguyễn Trung Trực, where you’ll see tons of bikes parked. Find a space, then find the ticket agent (ALWAYS GET A TICKET WHEN PARKING IN HANOI), located right next to KaΦeville and you’re set!

Local Attractions: 

Hanoi 1946 War Statue 

Le Château D’Eau de Hang Dau (built in 1894)

 

For breakfast the next morning, I was greeted with a most pleasant surprise: pastries, homemade yogurt, and a whole buffet free of charge (with as much coffee as I could possibly drink before my long trip with Hermes- my motorbike- to Hải Dương.

 

Before I left, though, I took a look at some of the thank-you notes left by previous guests. I always love these letters- I hope hotels keep them, if even in a storage box somewhere. The archaeologist in me thinks that they could speak volumes about how culture and human connection, what the ancient Greeks might have called ξενία (or “guest-friendship”) never really died- it just took on new forms.