It was 7AM and I was hovering over the states of sleep and consciousness. I think I may have slept for only three hours. Maybe even less. I can’t remember how I managed to get myself to shower or to breakfast but I made it to the top floor of May de Ville’s Backpacker Hostel, where I had checked in after arriving in the wee hours of the morning earlier that day. There I was sitting in a table with a plateful of an assortment of breads and meat and fruits in front of me, studying the map I had asked from the guy manning the front desk.

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The plan was to walk around the Old Quarter and checkout whatever I can see on foot before I leave for Cat Ba on the last bus from the Loung Yen Bus Terminal around 1PM. That was what I concocted, anyway. Now that I was actually in Hanoi, studying the map, I wasn’t sure if wanted to proceed with that plan. Before I researched the Cat Ba idea, I also looked at other options…easier options involving a one or two-day cruise to Ha Long Bay. These were the types of cruises that were easily booked in Hanoi via any of the reputable tour companies that was found in the Old Quarter. The question for me now was whether I wanted to take the easy route or the…errr… less easy one—the Cat Ba route turned out to be not hard at all! Less convenient maybe.

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In my head, heading out to Cat Ba was still winning, but by a very slim margin; the Cat Ba option offering a hint of uncertainty, upping its adventure points over the easy-breezy cruise options. I was still mulling over my options when I realized I was pressed for time. I was supposed to meet a friend later at the hostel lobby at around 9AM, which was in less than two hours, so I wolfed down the sandwiches I built with the ham and veggies and ate some fruit, and walked out of the hostel, ready for Hanoi.

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Hanoi is a lively city. At seven in the morning, it was bustling with people. Locals and tourists alike filled the streets at what I would think was an early hour. I walked around the Old Quarter, observing the locals on the sidewalks, in makeshift restaurants. We have something like that here in the Philippines, too, only in Vietnam, they kind of take it to a different level. People sat on short stools in the sidewalk, covering the entirety of the sidewalk with people, sitting around drinking tea or eating food. I remember instinctively raising my camera a few times, but something always held me back. They were having breakfast; it felt disrespectful going up close to the locals and trying to take a picture with nary a conversation. Instead, I looked at my map and tried to figure out my bearings. I have decided that with my next hour and a half, I would find a bank, withdraw some Dong and find Hoan Kiem lake, which looked close by, if I took the correct combination of left and right turns.

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I ended up finding the lake after going the absolute opposite direction from it for a good ten minutes. I went for a walk around the lake, taking some candid photos of people going about their day: kids playing, families walking around, people exercising or meditating or just generally sitting around the benches around it, looking into space. I sat on one of the empty benches and followed suit. There is something inherently peaceful about this place in the middle of the busy, touristy city that was the capital of the country.

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I wasn’t sure how long I stayed here. Thirty minutes? Maybe more? I remember it had started to rain, so, I made my way back to the hostel. I got back to the hostel with a few minutes to spare. I went up to my room to put the money in my backpack and went back down to the lobby at exactly 9AM to find my friend sitting in one of the few chairs near the desktops that people used to check their emails or social networking accounts.

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It had stopped raining, so we decided to walk around the Old Quarter some more and get a bite to eat. That friend was Ham, the one I met on a layover in Banaue, if you are keeping track. We found a small food stall selling sandwiches and sat on the tiny stools they had that faced the street and caught up on the goings on of each others lives since we separated almost a month ago. He had arrived the previous afternoon after a week-long journey from Laos to Hanoi, with various stops and stories along the different towns on the way. I had more mundane stories to tell, I had not really been up to much since we first met weeks before.

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I told him about going to Cat Ba and he asked if it was ok for him to join me. I obliged. It would be better to have a companion traveling the unfamiliar land on my birthday trip and if I was completely honest, I felt relieved that I didn’t have to be alone the whole time. He told me how much he looked forward to be somewhere near water again after being inland for so long. I was looking forward to the water, too. I was hoping for a nice quiet beach to spend a day lazing around. He walked me back to the hostel at around a half past ten and we both agreed that he’ll be back by noon, so we can make our way to the bus station where we would get a ride to Cat Ba.

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I was hanging out at the hostel lobby after I had checked out, when he walked back in just a few minutes before twelve, absolutely drenched in rain. It had started to rain heavily on his walk from his hostel to mine. The rain did not seem to be letting up anytime soon, so we decided to go for it. Rain-soaked, we made our way in a cab from the Old Quarter to Loung Yen Bus Terminal, where we will board the bus to Cat Ba, about four hours away from Hanoi. It was around a quarter to one in the afternoon when we got to the station.

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Twelve hours. I realized I had only been in Hanoi for a little over twelve hours and that was all the time I would ever spend there on this trip. If anything, Hanoi felt more like a layover to the actual trip. Cat Ba had now become the destination. I had planned to go back to the old quarter after Cat Ba, but that would end up not happening. The plans were continuously changing. Actually, there were no more plans at this point. Just a date and time of when I had to leave for Manila, the in-betweens were fuzzy and up in the air. Anything could happen.

***

This post is part of a series I wrote about a recent trip to Vietnam. Check out the other posts by clicking on the links below:

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