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XXXV: Fly Boys

Week five, country five!

sunny 35 °C
View RTW 2013 on WorldWideWill's travel map.

I managed to lure Felix down to the free breakfast that he'd been ignoring with the promise of syrup pancakes and we planned our day. The flight didn't leave for Hanoi until 16:45 and check out was at noon - they wanted an extra $10 to extend it until 2pm! Felix booked a taxi to the airport for 14:00 for $9 (standard rate) and we made the most of the air con and HBO in the room until 12:01 just to spite the receptionist, who had called us at 11:45 to remind us about the time.

With just two hours to kill there was nothing else for it but to head back to Happy Herb Pizza! I know, our imagination for lunch venues has been somewhat lacking but didn't someone once say you can't have too much of a good thing? After lunch we took the cameras for a second walk through the market. I'm sure that smell capture technology will never really exist, but if it did I'd insert a little preview here and have no further need for typing or trying to describe the level of filth that can be found (and inhaled) in Phnom Penh. At the entrance to the market a woman was shoveling food waste off the street into a giant, already overflowing skip and next to her a man was urinating beside the food stalls. The smell was horrendous, and implied that this skip had been sat there festering away for weeks - the bottom was already leaking with decomposed food juice. We pushed through the smell barrier, mastering the art of mouth-only breathing as we passed raw meat hanging in the sun, large metal pots being brought to the boil with dozens of large fish still swimming about in panic and vegetable stalls with chickens roaming about pecking at the greens. It was a remarkable sight and the maze of stalls was vast; moving towards the centre the hygiene improved and the fruit stalls merged into clothing shops and beauty salons. The immune systems here must be super-strength, we certainly weren't going to risk a cheeky snack.

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Back on our street we noticed a strange man sat turning a metal cylinder back and forth over burning coals, steam all around him. Naturally we went to investigate and found that he was roasting coffee beans, which were then decanted onto wicker trays on the street to cool before being used to make fresh coffee at the cafe next door. Nostrils well and truly cleansed, we had a sudden craving for caffeine and with 10 minutes to spare until the taxi Felix found us a table and ordered two iced coffees. They were... indescribably good. I'm sure the novelty boosted the taste somewhat but it was like nothing we'd tasted and we were distraught at leaving our new discovery after just one serving.

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Our 'taxi' was a beaten up old Ford but the journey to the airport was quick and comfortable - our only scary moment was seeing one of the crazy women from the Siem Reap minibus on the back of a motorcycle, and our attempts to hide failed miserably! Our timing was nigh-on perfect and we checked in straight away with no queues. I remembered too late to ask for a seat with more leg room, so I was amazed when the man casually ripped up the boarding card he'd printed for me and rebooked me and Felix into the emergency exit row! Passport control was equally entertaining: while I was trying to look all serious for my photo and having my fingerprints scanned, the passport official smiled at my boarding pass and said "Hanoi huh? Vietnam girls, very nice". I thanked him for his tourism advice and then got distracted by the very cute drug dog lying on the floor by the xray machines.

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Duty Free was unusual, because everything was more expensive than the high street! A large Toblerone (the standard benchmark for these price comparison exercises) cost $25! The rest of the airport can be covered in a three-minute lap, and I took the opportunity to buy some last-minute postcards and use the free computers. Boarding was surprisingly late, especially as Felix had pointed out that we were on a giant Boeing jet but again there were no queues and we were shown to our outrageously spacious exit seats. The doors closed and the stewardess informed us that there were 30 passengers on board this 120+ seater aircraft, what a waste of travel space! We were very impressed though, the plane was brand new, as was the crew's enthusiasm and the 90 minute flight passed in no time.

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On arrival at Hanoi, Felix had to take his letter and queue up at the visa issuing desk, while I smugly went straight through passport control and collected our bags. An ATM visit was next, and after doing some crazy maths to work out the exchange rates ($1 is 21,000 dong, GBP1 is 31,000) we popped in our PINs and simultaneously became millionaires! The maximum withdrawal was 2 million dong (VND), just 65 quid. This first withdrawal lasted a long time. Our research told us to ignore the taxis and aim for the minibus stop, where we were charged 40,000 (just over a pound) each for the 35 minute transfer to the Old Quarter in the city. Memories of luxury leg room on the plane soon faded as we were piled in and were forced to play the knee-licking game! Driving into the city, Vietnam felt like another world from Cambodia. The roads were still busy, true, but they were organised, well built and the buildings lining the street were all in a good state of repair. I was struck by the number of motorbikes here though - at every junction the view was blocked by a sea of helmets from at least two people sat on several hundred bikes. This brought about another fascination for me: from the demand for bike helmets had grown a whole new fashion industry, and I was amazed at the different designs on show. Solid baseball cap shapes, Burberry stripes and (my favourite) small cut-outs at the back of the girls' hats to allow them to be worn with a ponytail! Clever sods.

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As usual we were mobbed by the taxi driver crowd when we stopped, and as usual we opted to walk the extra 2km to the hotel to get a feel for the city. We fell in love with Hanoi immediately, walking through the Old Quarter was like walking through a French village and it was wonderful to be completely ignored by the locals. The streets of this part of the city are lined and often covered by trees, and every building is fronted by a shop or small cafe selling Vietnamese coffee and home-brew beer. We arrived at the Blue Sky Hotel late evening, and after climbing four flights of Parisian townhouse stairs we were presented with our booked room: a cosy double. There had been a mix-up but we were told not to worry and went out in search of food.

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The streets in the Old Quarter are organised by what they sell and are named accordingly (in Vietnamese). Unfortunately for us, we were nowhere near the food streets and walked aimlessly for half an hour before stumbling across a lovely little restaurant on Ma May where we sat on the very French terrace and enjoyed a few beers alongside Vietnamese spring rolls and a traditional clay pot stew with rice. On the walk back we explored the side streets and found the backpackers' hive, a series of lively bars playing live music and small corner shops all selling "bia hoi", locally brewed beer sold at just 5,000 dong per glass. We ordered two glasses and were sat on small plastic chairs on the street, lapping up the atmosphere and quietly contemplating moving here. The beer was good, very similar in taste to a British pale ale, and at 15p a pint no-one was complaining!

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Returning to the hotel we found the furniture had been rearranged to fit a single mattress on the floor next to the bed (they had no rooms left). I gave Felix the double and happily fell asleep on the floor.

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Posted by WorldWideWill 16:52 Archived in Cambodia

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