The Finish Line is Not the End

Day 47: Tinh Gia to Hanoi!

We awake after a dabbled sleep, doing the middle-fingered salute to the karaoke goers who continued their drunken warbling on our floor at three in the morning. We salute through the wall, ’cause we’re passive aggressive like that. It’s time to go.
My bike sits wearily in a puddle of its own oil (the two-wheeled version of wetting the bed), so we drop it at the mechanic (again) and eat breakfast in a Korean restaurant playing music less inviting than our 6am alarm clock.
Back at the bike shop, my engine sounds like a baby rattle in the hands of an over-caffeinated maniac. It won’t start. The mechanic approaches my bike brandishing a wrench, trailing cigarette smoke, and makes some adjustments. The Honda starts, but there’s still a sketchy rattling undertone.
Whatever, let’s just go. 196km to Hanoi, the final destination, baby! With every layer we own piled on and our plastic poncho hoods tucked crisply beneath our helmets, we look about as cool as a couple clown fish in a shark tank. But we feel shark-like.
The pavement melts beneath our whirring wheels and my eyes burn from the dusty road. That fact that we cover nearly twice as much distance on the highway as we do on the Ho Chi Minh Trail is credit to its monotonous, flat course and lack of beautiful distractions. The highway is not pretty, but it’s pretty fun. As motorists, we have free reign to dodge between cars and little spaces, to zip past slow moving vehicles and cut through red lights, all because of our compact size.
By 1230pm we’ve already reached Ninh Binh. 93km to go! Lunch is on a balcony overlooking the first real town we’ve seen in days–phone stores, shoe shops, white people. Our servers act like they left their sense of humour at the local watering hole in 1993 and were too ashamed to ever call the lost and found. This brings about a very serious plate of fried noodles. But no frown, no dorky poncho, no frigid temperature can cool off our spirits today. We run laps around the parking lot and do pushups against each others outstretched hands. Blood rushes to our toes. Then, back to the asphalt.
At the 50km mark, the road becomes a dense jungle of traffic–the outskirts of the capital city. We’re back in our real-life video game, racing through the streets accordingly, pretending the cops are on our tail. We swerve around cows and sneak through car jams ten vehicles across. You gotta drive like ’em to survive. Mounds of buses and trucks are halted in the voluminous traffic, and we slip through every crack along with the mass of motorbikes snaking through the congestion. Bikes overloaded with chicken-stuffed cages and teetering produce shipments are no match for our three week Asian motorbike crash course skills. We fly by locals staring over their facemasks; the streets narrow to alleys stuffed with market vendors and tourists clutching fannypacks to their chests. We nose our bikes through, Flo holding his GPS in one hand and steering with the other. I follow closely until, in the midst of the mob, we find it. The hostel.

We squeeze our bikes between the row of parked motorcycles and book a room for the night, toss our bags in the corner and hit town in search of a place that will extend Flo’s visa (it expired yesterday–woops) without taking him for all he’s got. After multiple places quoting wildly varying prices, we find a travel agent who will do it for a reasonable sum.
Our energy slips dangerously low, but beer and hot wonton soup put a little glow back in our dirt caked faces. Or is that just the bright lights of Hanoi? It is impossible yet to decipher if it is nuttier than its southern counterpart; Ho Chi Minh City. It takes many crowded circles for our tired brains and worn down feet to get us back to our hostel. A left at the castle wall, past the garbage piles, and across the way from where the cute puppy lives–home, for now.
We zonk into our phones for a while, smarting at the phone bills, the bank accounts, the plane tickets to book. Ugh. Real life mixes with the road in a sour cocktail. We toss the straw in the garbage and dump it in the sink. Tonight, we stick to beer.

Day 48: Hanoi

After breakfast, we look for flights online. Neither of us have booked our tickets–me to India and Flo to Indonesia. It looks like we’ll be parting ways in less than a week–just after Christmas, but it’s risky for Flo to book a flight until he gets his passport back from the travel agent. We brush that task aside once again.
We move to one of those big party hostels that Lonely Planet raves about because there is free breakfast and cheap accommodation, but the dorm rooms sleep eighteen people. Here, I realize our ‘scoring a whole dorm to ourselves’ luck has run its course. An eighteen bed dorm means there is always someone sleeping (snoring), always someone using the bathroom (smelling), and always someone partying (loud and annoying). Hanoi Rocks offers a bumpin’ social scene…
Flo hits the gym and I go for a walk around the block which turns into far more blocks than I care for. I find my way back to the hostel forty-five minutes later, frazzled by the confusing streets. Flo gets back just in time to miss my bouts of explosive cursing and simultaneously take advantage of the ‘free beer’ hour. We take a brew to go and stroll to the magic alleyway dedicated to Vietnamese BBQ. Tiny plastic tables and chairs line the lane. We discovered this last night and promised ourselves we’d return. This is one of our finest culinary decisions.
A serving of some raw root vegetable with chilli salt is brought out, then a plate piled with raw beef and bacon, stacked with green vegetables and eggplant. Our server sets up a small fire BBQ on our table and we melt butter on the aluminum lined hot plate, toss the raw meat in and cook it with oil. In minutes the bacon is bubbling and the red beef browning. The vegetables soak up the salty butter. The basket of fried sweet bread tastes like doughnuts. Our beers are left neglected; sweating at the outskirts of the table.

Chewing our last bite, we notice a bird trapped in a cage across the alley. There are caged birds everywhere around here. Why all the confinement? Flo attempts to buy it from the server (if we could just save one), but he shakes his head. Perhaps it has religious significance? That seems to be a reason to legitimize many insane things. Surely birds are not just a trending pet at the moment.
That bird may be the catalyst for our meaning-of-life talks that take us back to the night market-filled streets, until we are distracted by the appalling goods before us.
“Just look at this crap!” Flo’s sincerity is catching. “Come on, we buy something. Something completely useless. I have an idea–we buy each other the biggest piece of crap we can find, the most useless, and we have to carry with us for the rest of our travels. At the end of our trips, we burn it.”
We agree on a budget of twenty thousand dong each; less than a dollar.
This game gives a whole new meaning to the night market, and suddenly the trash before us is a treasure trove of possibility. We meander all the way to one end before I spot it: a pink plastic dinosaur-shaped personal fan with a water spout. The turn handle is missing and the lady won’t sell it to me because it’s broken.
“Perfect! Can I get a discount?”
After a quick haggle she agrees to my budgeted allowance, and Flo is gifted with the most useless piece of crap I can get my hands on. Flo’s luck, however, plays hard to get. The night market grows smaller with every step and the crap seems to be outrageously expensive for our game. Aha! A stupid doll. How much? Too much.
“Do you have a broken one?”
I dribble of pee runs down my leg. The vendor lady doesn’t find as much humour in it. Finally, we spot a table covered in complete shit. A creepy doll in a red dress lays crookedly in the center, like an emotionally tattered Barbie propped in a garbage heap, hours before her walk of shame. He grabs it.
“How much?”
The lady pulls out a twenty thousand note. Mission: complete. With our new treasures, we stumble back to the hostel to play pool, then move to the attached club (you are really nailin’ it, Hanoi Rocks) reverberating with electronic beats. Beer is the price of liquid gold so we sip slowly and watch groups of drunk Vietnamese youngsters suck on nitrous oxide-filled balloons and fall over on the dance floor. The music turns to those closing time tracks created solely to evacuate a room, so we follow suit and go to our bunk beds to play English grammar games. Hanoi Rocks? Try Hanoi Writes. Rebelling in the name of English. Rock on.

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