Our room’s porch viewed the town and the mountains around, and roosters called each morning.
There weren’t many restaurants around, and the hotel’s restaurant was the biggest, so it attracted many people. It was not bad, too.
It was Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year. I guess many Israelis used the opportunity to go on a vacation since we saw many Israeli families in those days, the tired parents dragging whining kids behind them.
It was Sunday, and Bắc Hà had a big market that gathered people from the neighboring villages. The market is also an attraction for tourists that went there by buses for day trips, and we saw them swarming from our view on 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, vehicle 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.
Afterward, 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, as a small dog napped beneath it. Then we had some coffee. A strange old lady sat with us and tried to chat, but gave up when we couldn’t understand her. She then 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 who asked the waitress to take their photo, an Israeli woman that 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 besides the dozy streets.
By the afternoon booths began to shut, and people lead their stock on buffaloes and small horses they led with leashes.
We had coffee at a suspiciously nice woman, that later on took a way-too-hight price. We’ve seen that a lot – sometimes we were charged with a 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.
Back at the hotel, the 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 to him that it was a holiday for us.
There was something a bit odd 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. All the tables were taken, so we sat together with a French couple that looked like they got straight out of a Hallmark’s movie.
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 did once in a while during the trip.
The next morning we had breakfast again at the hotel.
A man with blonde-orange hair who looked European came inside and spoke fluent Vietnamese with the locals as he ordered coffee. 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. Indeed, he took out a tripod out of his backpack at a certain point.
We left Bắc Hà that morning.
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. Then he said goodbye and drove back.
We had half an hour to spend there until the ride back to the center, 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. He was a freelance photographer and also had a photography class to travelers. Now he took a vacation to travel.
A little kitten played under the table as we ate. 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, but it’s very hard to learn this language without speaking it with people.
Especially Vietnamese, because the way you pronounce the words changes their meaning.
Back at the station, a man with a mustache asked me how old I am. Etienne said it was casual to ask strangers for their ag,e since in Vietnamese there are different ways to approach 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 them, 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 to take the train to the next destination.
Speakers on the ceiling sounded strident Vietnamese music, and two TV sets in the center of the bus, one for each floor, showed video clips of the beauty of the country. On one of the screens, a small perfumed tree was hanged, with the pattern of the American flag.
At the beginning of the ride, there were many bumps and sharp curves as the bus crossed the rice fields. I
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 a teddy bear. 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. 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.
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 low 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. He put together the motorcycle that waited for him in the bus’ storage.
He asked for directions from a local man and then showed us where we can catch a bus to the city center, said goodbye and drove away.
We began walking with our backpacks until we reached at a bus station, where a man told us to catch bus number 14. The young ticket seller 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 lasted for 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 to Hoàn Kiếm 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.