Hanoi to Beijing by Jeff Burns
Original location: http://www.peregrineadventures.co.uk/sth_east_asia/voices.asp?rid=11&id=24&page=1

“Acute neurological syndrome”

I’ve always thought you should never start a story with, ‘I got off the plane…’ But in Viet Nam getting off the plane is where you turn your back on the first world. Ha Noi’s airport is big enough to take modern airliners but the place has the feel of a country airfield, with long grass and a single row of runway lights. I arrived in the early evening just after sunset and looked across to a sleepy terminal building lit by yellow sodium lights. The moon was up and a recent shower had taken the edge off the humidity. Surrounding the airliner were two modern airport buses and a couple of utility trucks. We were shepherded aboard the buses where we waited patiently for 10 minutes before being driven the 50 metres to the terminal.

The Vietnamese immigration card asked if I had health symptoms including something called ‘acute neurological syndrome’. As if to say, ‘you’re coming to Viet Nam, are you crazy?’ The fine print also prohibited me from bringing in, ‘children’s toys having negative effects on personality development, social order, and security.’ Waiting to pass through customs I again confirmed ‘Jeff’s law’ of customs queues: the queue I’m in contains suspicious characters and those with incomplete documentation. On the wall behind the custom’s counter was a red sign with the following curious instructions:
Present passport and visa;
Declared immigration card;
Other documents or cash are not placed in the passport.

Having satisfied customs of my sanity, lack of cash, and children’s toys I walked through the small crowd and hooked up with the Peregrine driver to go into town. The car park was almost deserted and it was clear we were quite a long way from the capital.

Indo China 500

The road from the airport to Ha Noi is a straight and dusty two-lane tollway through flat fields. Besides the road groups of children stood in the dim streetlights watching the passing parade; a convoy of bicycles, motorcycles, trucks, buses, and cars fighting for the lead in some kind of Indo China 500. My cabbie drove like a switchboard operator. I watched in amazement as he flicked, switched, and twitched his way around every control and switch in the car – accelerator, horn, hazard lights, headlamps, and indicator lights – in short everything except the brake which he seemed to be saving for a special occasion.

The Old Quarter

My hotel was situated neatly on the southeast corner of Ha Noi’s Old Quarter. The Old Quarter is a precinct of 36 streets – established (and to some extent maintained) along guild lines. For example in ‘Tin Street’ you’ll find a row of tinsmith shops and in ‘Headstone Street’ a row of masons. A more recent addition to the Old Quarter seems to be Internet Street.

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My Man In Ha Noi

I’d arrived two days early for my tour, so after breakfast the next morning I set off south towards Hoan Kiem Lake in central Ha Noi. It was just after 9 am and already hot. Hoan Kiem Lake is a pretty place whose shores are a couple of degrees cooler than the city streets. Its shady trees conceal many locals during the hottest parts of the day. Along the lakeshore, I met Bien, a kid from Hung Yen, a small village southeast of Ha Noi. He lived in Ha Noi and paid his school fees by selling scenic postcards and books on his days off. He had ‘quality reproductions’ of Graeme Green’s The Quiet American and Lonely Planet’s Vietnamese phrasebook. After I said ‘kung (no), dude’ to him a couple of dozen times I realised he’d walked about a kilometre with me along the east bank of the lake. Reflecting that his name meant ‘good’ in a couple of languages I decided to hire him as my man in Ha Noi for the bargain per diem of $10.

Uncle Ho

Bien was a good guy who proved invaluable in negotiating the Old Quarter, finding places of interest, and making the right connections for purchases, food, and transport in Ha Noi. The first place we went was the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, a giant museum complex that screams, ‘Soviet Bureau of Design’. Ho is the grandfather of modern Viet Nam and is still venerated. His post-life preference was apparently for cremation but the Vietnamese had a Lenin-esque urge to put him in a cold room and shuffle past him in an orderly manner. Upon entry to the complex visitors must check their bags and cameras. Groups are then lead along in two files under a covered walkway to the mausoleum. Along the way, a guide (read schoolmistress) makes sure you take off your hat, keep your hands out of your pockets and stay in line.

Oet Mo And The Real 843

Bien and I went for a look at the Army Museum, appropriately located on Dien Bien Phu Street in downtown Ha Noi. It’s a ramshackle collection of interesting exhibits housed in two old buildings that looked to me like old, French military classrooms. The museum is located on an operational army base and certain areas bear the warning, ‘No entry without mission’ [sic]. Also on the grounds is the stately Ha Noi Flag Tower – a stone tower built in 1812 that looks like a giant chess rook.

Inside the museum is a room with a large-scale model of the battlefield at Dien Bien Phu where elements of the French Foreign Legion were famously overrun in 1954. The museum also houses ‘Tank No. 843’, the first tank to break through the gates of the Presidential Palace in Saigon in April 1975 – a moment celebrated as Liberation Day and symbolic of complete victory in the American War. I’m told this is the ‘real Tank No. 843’, and that the one on display at the Presidential Palace in Saigon just has ‘843’ painted on the side. Also in the museum are portraits of the four men who served as US Commanders in Chief (the exhibit basically says, ‘four of your big tall guys versus one Uncle Ho’). Their names are phonetically translated into Vietnamese. General Westmoreland comes out as ‘Oet Mo Len.’

Ha Noi Hilton

Hoa Lo Prison is better known to us by its American nickname the Ha Noi Hilton. Built by the French in 1896 to house Vietnamese dissidents, in its time Hoa Lo has also housed Vietnamese State prisoners and American pilots (shot down while ‘bombing, bombarding and causing crimes to North Vietnam people.’) There are a variety of cell configurations. In the small punishment cells, the platform is equipped with iron leg stocks, and the platform slopes slightly away from the feet, making it extremely painful to remain in the stocks. The iron stocks were introduced after prisoners set fire to the wooden ones – preferring the pain of burns. Only a third of the prison still stands, with the rest of the original site given over in 1993 to build the Hanoi Towers, a multi-story apartment complex for expatriates.

Beaucoup Motorcycles

Little motorcycles are the predominant mode of transport in Ha Noi. And the terrific variety of cargo makes the traffic very watchable. I could sit for hours under the awning of a teahouse and watch the world go by on the back of a motorbike. It looks completely hairy as everyone rides like the wind in a cardiovascular flow through the narrow streets. Among the many things I saw on Ha Noi motorcycles were: five people (although I’m told this is not the record); trays of eggs stacked 10-high (unsecured); 4 foot long blocks of ice; kegs of beer (2 to a bike); television sets; crates of live chickens; house doors and a coffin (although it did look to be empty).


In Ha Noi the beer of the masses is called Bia Hoi. It is a mid-strength draught beer sold by anyone with a stretch of footpath and a couple of little plastic stools. At 32oC and extreme humidity, Bia Hoi slides down pretty well any time of the day, proving beer is more than just a breakfast drink. It is also attractively priced at 1500 dong (about 22 cents) a schooner. As the sun goes down a hundred places in the Old Quarter break out the plastic stools and turn the footpaths, gutters, and roads into instant beer gardens.

Night Train to Lao Cai

Ha Noi railway station is a dusty gladiator pit on the outskirts of the city. Our driver struggled as far as he could until the crush of market stalls and people halted our progress. We grabbed our gear and waded into the mayhem. It was 32oC at 9.30 at night and the walk to the platform left me dripping with sweat. On the way to the railway station, our guide Khanh was telling us that Viet Nam Railways was quite excited by a recent purchase – a second-hand Canadian passenger train. When we walked into the station yard I saw this train with its trim red and white carriages, air conditioning units, and tinted windows. It was the kind of train you would expect to see at a quaint station-house in British Columbia with passengers breathing fog and wearing mittens. Unfortunately, it was not the night train to Lao Cai. Our train looked like it was from an earlier second-hand deal with the makers of Thomas the Tank Engine.

The next morning the train was rocking its way gently through the foothills of the Tonkinese Alps. It was 10 degrees cooler and very green. Farmers were already up encouraging water buffaloes to drag ploughs through the knee-deep orange mud of terraced rice paddies. Misty clouds clung to the mountainsides. Lao Cai turned out to be a charmless frontier town on the Red River in northern Viet Nam. On the northern bank is the Chinese town of Hekou. We arrived at about 7 am and the night train from Ha Noi was clearly the biggest gig in town that day.


By contrast, the old French hill station of Sapa is a quaint village about 30 kilometres up the mountain from Lao Cai overlooking the Tonkinese Alps. The town is spread along 5 kilometres of winding road and has the ambiance of a ski village. An old stone Catholic church overlooks a disused dirt soccer field in the centre of town. Sapa is also close to some minority hill tribe villages. The Black H’mong and Red Dzao girls come into town to sell their jewellery and handicrafts and hang around the market.

We stayed at a new hotel on the outskirts of town, managed by a friendly Vietnamese university student named Quyen. In the hotel lobby, the TV was showing a dubbed version of the old British television show The Professionals. Gordon Jackson was reprimanding Lewis Collins in Vietnamese, ‘kung, Bodie, kung.’

Ma, Mo, Mou And Me

One of the most memorable Sapa locals was a little Black H’mong girl named Ma. She was a seven-year-old from a village about 10 kilometres from Sapa and like all her friends she walked into town each day to sell jewellery and handicrafts to tourists. Her father made silvery metal bracelets and her mother made dark blue hemp shirts, pillowcases, and hats. The Black H’mong children wear noisy ‘silver’ necklaces and bracelets to scare away evil spirits. I bought a little mouth harp from Ma, which she called a ‘musee’. For me, the sales negotiations were less about the price and more about the opportunity to sit and chat with these kids and find out about their lives. Ma’s English vocabulary was mostly limited to commercial conversation. She had a similar range in German, French, and Japanese. There were eight children in her family and she’d never been outside Sapa. She introduced me to her friends Mo and Mou and gave me a little round fruit like a lychee. I couldn’t resist some Three Stooges impersonations that amused nobody else but me.

Offroad Vietnam Motorbike Adventures - Hanoi to Beijing, Motorbike Tour Report. Russian Minsk.


The most popular mode of transport around Sapa is the two-stroke, single-cylinder Minsk. This Belorussian farm bike is basically a 125cc mechanised mule. Apparently, the owner’s manual says, ‘These motorcycles are especially suitable for service in the countryside with bad or no roads.’ There are hundreds of them in town. We had planned to visit the hill tribe villages near Sapa by motorcycle. Our guide Khanh said that we could ride our own rented motorbikes if we felt confident enough. My travelling companions Matt and Anthony were both games.

Matt is a country boy so once he had the controls explained to him he was off and riding. I was sitting on the steps of the hotel watching Anthony astride his Minsk getting instruction from two locals as well as Khan. I started to worry when he kept asking where the brake was and got conflicting answers in two languages. The heavy Minsk was revving away and one of his instructors put the bike in gear and tried to get him to gently let out the clutch. Anthony took his hand off what he thought was the brake (which was actually the clutch) and the Minsk rocketed across the road and climbed up a large pile of builder’s rubble. Anthony landed with his backside square on a half brick as the Minsk returned to earth with a thud 10 metres away. The locals all rushed over to see if the Minsk was OK. The brake and instrument gauges were broken but the bike was serviceable. Anthony settled out of court for $40.

Hill Tribes

We rode down the mountain to the hill-tribe villages of Lao Chai and Tavan. There are a number of villages along a 10 km walking circuit starting at Lao Chai and going down into the valley and along the river. The predominant agricultural feature in the valley is terraced wet-rice paddies. There are also little patches of corn and occasionally a little voice from the corn calls out, ‘hello, bonbon.’ The French word for candy is still used by these kids and suggests the walking circuit has been a well-worn path since French colonial days.

The mountains were shrouded in low clouds and it rained lightly as we walked along the track. The valley was well irrigated and the paddies were full of water from elaborate trench and bamboo irrigation works – each paddy drained into the one below. Most of the villages used hydraulic power of some kind. One fascinating mechanism I saw was a mechanical corn mill. Irrigation water filled a bucket at one end of a seesaw mechanism that slowly lifted a log pestle and then thumped it down with great force into a mortar full of corn. Later, as I walked past a rice paddy I could hear a little mechanical whirring noise. A series of long bamboo pipes were rigged up to channel water past a tiny electric generator wrapped in a plastic bag. I followed the wires from this little hydroelectricity plant along a series of poles and into a thatched hut with a TV antenna. Exactly what that thatched-roof family made of The Professionals I couldn’t say.


On my third day in Sapa, I was feeling a little gastrointestinally sorry for myself so I snookered away under the awning of the Fansifang Café, sipped a hot lemon tea, and wrote in my diary. I watched a truck creep up the road carrying an excavator. As they went a guy standing on the truck cabin lifted the overhead telephone lines out of the way. The café is named after the 3,142-m Fansifang Mountain (sometimes spelled Fansipan) across the valley from Sapa. While sitting under the café awning it seemed like the whole town walked past. Some of them pulled up a chair.

Ma and her mates Mo and Mou stopped in and said hi and I offered to buy them a soft drink. I felt a bit sad when they all chose Coca-Cola. After the little Black H’mong girls left I was joined by Chuc, the niece of the café owner. She plonked herself down at my table and started practising her English. She was a mathematics teacher who couldn’t find teaching work. I heard a number of versions of this story during my stay in Viet Nam. We were then joined by Trung a journalist on holiday in Sapa. He was the international news editor for the Viet Nam Express newspaper. Before long the last seat in my English tutorial was filled by the young hotel manager Quyen. Chuc was busy telling Quyen that she could tell people’s character from their faces. And it turns out I’m a nice guy.

Bac Ha Market

About 80 km from Sapa is the mountain village of Bac Ha. The journey from Sapa takes 3 hours over some pretty rough mountain roads. Apparently, it is customary for the locals to travel to the Sunday market with the family horse. Apparently, it’s also customary for the husbands to slink off to the wine tent on arrival while their wives buy the groceries. Heading home the wife drapes her drunken husband over the horse and leads them both home.

I pottered through the Bac Ha market in the rain. In the centre of the market is a large undercover ‘meat section’ which displayed the kind of butchery that is usually kept behind closed doors in the West. And yes there were dogs for sale. Unfortunately, the dogs and the pigs are smart enough to know where they’re being taken so I saw a few distressed animals getting dragged to market.

Off To China

Early the next morning we took the bus down the mountain from Sapa to Lao Cai. On the way, Khan stopped and picked up a breakfast of French bread, boiled eggs, and cream cheese. You can say what you like about the French colonials but they introduced the Vietnamese to the baguette. It was raining steadily when we arrived at the Lao Cai border crossing. Part of the border is delineated by the Hong River, which flows all the way south to Ha Noi. We said goodbye to Khanh and walked across the bridge into China. Both countries each have large symbolic gates at either end of the bridge. The Vietnamese gate is not as elaborate as the Chinese one.

Bon Bon

There’s been enough serious stuff written about Viet Nam in the last thirty years by more learned people than me. So I just want to report that happily we foreigners can visit this pretty country armed only with a pocket of bonbons. Oh, and you should take ones without wrappers because the kids just leave the paper on the ground.

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