We got up at seven AM and right away I went outside to the porch, that viewed the town and mountains around, and roosters calls could be heard from the distance. We went downstairs to eat at the hotel’s restaurant, that was one of the only restaurants in the area, and an Israeli family with tired parents and two little kids sat next to us – it was Rosh Hashana, the new year’s evening, and I guess that many families went on vacations since we saw many Israelis that day.
It was Sunday, and Bắc Hà had a big market that gathered people from neighboring villages. The market is also an attraction for tourists that went there by buses for day trips, and we saw them swarming there from the porch. It was still relatively empty in the morning and most of the activity took place in the more touristic area, where they sold souvenirs and clothes. The other parts of the market opened slowly – fruits and vegetables, kitchenware, strange objects, meat and seafood, live goose and chickens, vehicles parts. Women with colorful tribal clothing walked around – similar to the women from Sapa, but with slightly different colors on their clothes. There was a place for restaurants and we sat in one of them on a long bench and ate soft rice leaves rolled with many salty spices. Afterwards we went back to the market’s center and Roni bought a kitchen knife from a man who stood in front of dozens of different sized knives on a table, and a small dog napped beneath it. Then we had some coffee and a strange old lady sat with us and tried to chat, but gave up when we couldn’t understand her and went to order for herself some funky beans-drink from a little child that worked there. We looked at the people – an old man with a donkey, two Americans asked the waitress to take their photo, an Israeli woman sat on the stairs with a bag of popcorn and took photos of the tribal women.
We went outside the market and took a walk in the town, but outside the center there wasn’t much to see beside the dozy streets. By the afternoon we came back, when booths began to shut and people lead their stock on buffaloes and small horses they led with leashes. We had coffee at a woman who was suspiciously nice who later on took a way-too-hight price, something we’ve met a lot – sometimes we were charged with higher price since we were tourists and we usually went with it, because the difference was just a few Shekels for us. It seemed silly to waste time arguing on something so small, especially if it’s a big difference for the vendor. We went back to the hotel, and as we took the key at the reception the hotel’s manager blessed us with “Happy Roshoshana” with a fake American accent he used when he talked with tourists. He told us that he met many Israelis who explained him that it was a holiday for us. There was something a bit depressing in it that I can’t explain, like waking up from a dream. We didn’t have a festive feeling since we were on the other side of the world, and just didn’t think about it. When the evening came we went to look for something outside but everything was so desolate, so we gave up and went back to the hotel’s restaurant, that was the most lively thing around. Since all the tables were full we sat together with a French couple that looked like they got straight out of a Hallmark’s movie and ate spaghetti Bolognese, and after it emptied a little we moved outside because Roni wanted to smoke. We talked with a chubby man who worked at the hotel about smoking and he told us that his wife and son keep asking him to quit, but he can’t. Even though the cigarette boxes in Vietnam have horror pictures on them of the results of smoking, they are still very cheap and available. They are also relatively good – I don’t usually smoke, but I’ve found myself having one here and there during the trip.
The next day we woke early and went downstairs to have meat soup for breakfast. The French couple from the day before also sat there with tip-top sporty clothes and ate pancakes, and we joked among ourselves that they do everything perfectly. Roni said he didn’t recognized them without the pasta. A man with blond-orange hair who looked European came inside and spoked fluent Vietnamese with the locals as he ordered coffee, and after a few moments another man joined him and they spoke French. I tried to guess what’s up with him – we said that he probably lives and works in Vietnam as a photographer, maybe a journalist or a National Geographic photographer, and indeed he took out a tripod out of his backpack at a certain point.
After breakfast we strolled around in the quiet city, and towards 11 and a half we went back to pack our things and went downstairs. The hotel’s manager with his fake American accent took us one by one on his motorcycle to the bus station, first me, then Roni and eventually the French photographer, and afterwards said goodbye and drove away. We had half an hour to spend there until the ride back to the center left, so the Frenchman invited us to eat with him at a small place nearby. He told us that his name was Etienne and he’s been living for eight years in Vietnam’s center and working as a freelance photographer, and teaches tourists that want to learn photography in his spare time. Now he took a vacation to travel. A little kitten played under the table when we ate, and the way Etienne spoke so casually with the locals made us want to learn Vietnamese. I tried to learn it a little bit before the trip via some applications, but it’s very hard to learn this language without speaking it with people since the pronunciation of the words changes their meaning.
The bus was already there when we came back to the station. a man with a moustache asked me how old I am, and Etienne said that it’s casual to ask strangers for their age since in Vietnamese there are different ways to approach to different ages. We went on the bus, that appeared as a sleeping bus – three rows with two passageways between them, two floors of bunk beds. It is something common there for long rides. You need to take your shoes off and get a nylon bag from the driver for the shoes, and then hang it on a small hook on the side of the bed. The seat is adjustable and you can raise or lower it. There is a carpet on the floor, curtains on the windows and a pillow and a blanket for each passenger. It’s best to choose a bed on the top floor, so you won’t have to look at passing people’s bare lags throughout the whole ride. The real crazy thing is that the back seat is five beds combined, and Etienne said it’s better not to sit there because then you’ll have to share one big bed with strangers.
The bus began the journey towards Hanoi, where we had to go in order to take the train to the next destination. There were speakers on the ceiling that sounded strident Vietnamese music through two TV sets in the center of the bus, one for each floor, that showed video clips of the beauty of the country with the music in the background. There was a small perfumed tree hanging on the screen, with the pattern of the American flag. At the beginning of the ride there were many shakings and sharp curves as the bus crossed the rice fields. In the bed ahead of me slept a young military officer in a fetal position with his head on the folded blanket, hugging his pillow like you’d hug a teddy bear, and to my left sat a small man who listen to annoying music with his phone and only sometimes used his earphones. Once in a while we stopped to collect more passengers, and one time there was a longer stop when the driver wanted to have a smoke. There was a big box with colorful plastic flip-flops that you could walk outside with, since everybody’s shoes were hanging in bags on the beds. Many people got off the bus and some men stood outside and peed in an arranged row just a few meters from us, and I followed the women because I thought there might be toilets somewhere in the area. Apparently not – we were all just crouching together behind a big bush, and this was another situation that I’ve never thought I’ll find myself in. The long ride continued. I read, listened to music, napped. Roni was in a bed behind me so we couldn’t really talk. People came and went – a fat man with a red shirt fell asleep and snored in the bed next to me, an old military man argued about something with the driver and that sat on one of the lower beds and stared at the TV. They finally changed the channel and the TV now showed dubbed nature films. By the sunset we arrived at another stop, where we ate steamed dumplings with meat and quail eggs. It got darker and when we continued they turned off the TV but also the lights, and when it got too dark to read I tried to get some sleep.
We arrived at Hanoi at seven PM and got off the bus together with Etienne, who put together his motorcycle that waited for him in the bus’ storage. He asked for directions from a local man and then showed us which direction to go in order to catch a bus to the city center, said goodbye and drove away. We began walking with our backpacks in that direction until we reached at a bus station, where a man told us to catch bus number 14. We paid the young ticket seller when we went on the bus but he didn’t speak English and couldn’t help us much, so somebody else said he will tell us when we reach our station. The ride took about half an hour during which we began recognizing familiar places, the big lake in the West, the park with the sculptures, a highway and eventually the stone gate in the entrance of the Hoan Kiem district and our hotel’s street. We thanked the man who helped us and went down to the hot humid air of the city, tired and in need of a shower, and mostly happy to be there for one last time.