Last July was particularly hectic for me.
At work, I had been given responsibility for leading a new major account. Domestically, I had some chores to attend to. Tension was building up.
When my sister suggested that we take a trip together to Hanoi, I readily agreed.
The decision was easily made also because I was eligible for a Personal Development Fund (PDF) from Maverick. With PDF, I am entitled to use up to a month’s salary to travel to places I’ve never been or to take up courses unrelated to work.
In my mind’s eye Hanoi was a sleepy, idyllic historic city, much like Penang or Malacca in Malaysia. We could stroll its quiet streets and soak up the ambiance of its colonial past, the flow of history over timeless streets.
So, imagine my dismay when we got to Vietnam and checked into our AirBnB in Hanoi’s bustling tourist district, the Old Quarter. It was anything but placid. Its streets were packed with people, motorists and motorcyclists. Horns blared, tires hissed and the heat felt oppressive.
“Oh My God!” I thought, “This is even worse than Jakarta!”
I was disappointed, but since I was already there, I decided to make the most out of it. Accompanied by my sister, I visited Hanoi’s iconic tourist sights. We began with the Hoan Kiem Lake. It was all very pretty but the heat and the the number of visitors got to us, so we retreated to the night market nearby where we hunted down scrumptious Vietnamese street food.
The second day we woke up late and after breakfast made our way to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, where the embalmed body of Uncle Ho was kept. We didn’t go to visit Uncle though because my sister wasn’t a fan of visiting dead people. Being Millennial, however, we managed to bag our collection of Instagrammable content though. Yeai!
We did the other sights, such as the the old citadel, Hỏa Lò prison and St. Joseph’s Cathedral.
Interspersed with our sightseeing was also our search for good Vietnamese coffee and this led us to The Railway Hanoi, which is also known as the Choo Choo Café. Situated right next to a railway track, the café was so tiny that it didn’t have seats on the ground floor. You entered the shop and had to climb to the second or third floor where you can sit by the window.
We were served by Heng who spoke very good English and made train sounds whenever he brought our drinks or food. Heng also told us his sister, who’s nurtured a fascination with locomotives since university days, and started the café because she wanted to improve the living conditions in the slum area.
Like in Jakarta, the very poor squat next to the railway lines and live in poverty. By opening the cafe, the first of its kind in that area, they helped pave the way for other shops to operate in the slum area, transforming it into a vibrant and colorful neighborhood.
The transformation was too successful, however, as it attracted many tourists. In October 2019, the Hanoi municipal government shut down the area due to overtourism and safety concerns because the shops were jostling cheek by jowl with the railway line.
The Choo Choo Café was also shut down but some months after that they and other shops were allowed to operate in a nearby area that was less congested.
We went to other touristy spots in the city but by Day 5 we decided to strike out further afoot. I searched the internet for day trips from Hanoi and found one that looked interesting because it promised a change of scene from urban Hanoi.
The trip was to the Tam Coc river, near a town called Hoa Lu, about 2 hours bus ride from Hanoi. There we would see caves and limestone formations that marked the karst landscape, but, warned reviewers at the web site I landed at, we should also be careful.
Half-way through the nearly 1-hour river journey we would be accosted by merchants selling cool drinks at marked up prices. They would insist that we buy some drinks for our boatman as a way of making money. We shouldn’t fall for his ruse as we would be tipping the boatman.
The next morning, a bus took us to Hoa Lu and deposited us on a jetty along the Tam Coc that was lined by bamboo rafts waiting to take us to see the sights. Our tour guide told us that there were over a hundred rafts and a boatman might have to wait for a week or two to get their turn at picking up passengers.
Like typical tourists once we got off the bus, we made a bee line for the rafts and we got one that belonged to Ken, a dark, middle-aged and friendly boatman. Like the other boatmen, for most of the time Ken maneuvered his raft not by rowing with his hands but with his feet. It was kind of neat.
Ken spoke very little English tried his best to communicate to us throughout the trip. He would point at objects and telling us their Vietnamese names. All the time we were wilting in the weather that was hotter than Dutch Love.
As we neared the half-way point where we had to turn back, we spotted a flotilla of boats. These were the mercenary drinks vendors the travel web site had warned us about. Ken shot through them to take us to another cave.
When we reached the half-way point, he suddenly maneuvered his raft into a secluded spot. We got worried. What was he trying to to? Ken then spoke to us, haltingly in his limited English and softly so he would not be overheard. He told us not to buy drinks from the vendors for him. He’d rather that we give him the money we would have to spend on the drinks as part of his tip instead.
He was nice about it and I felt for him. I recalled how our tour guide had said that someone like Ken would have to wait a couple of weeks before he could get any passengers. Yet instead of milking us for a cold drink on top of getting a tip, he humbly asked us not to waste money on something that he did not need. I agreed to give him a larger tip and refuse the vendors’ entreaties to buy him a cool drink.
True enough, when we passed the vendors on our way back, we were accosted to buy drinks for ourselves and our boatman. We turned them down even though it was hard work and finally we were again floating down the river back to the pier free of them.
When we arrived, I kept my word and gave him a larger tip than he expected. Life is hard and this boatman was struggling to make a living. Yet in spite of his struggle he was conducting himself with integrity and good cheer throughout the trip.
Ken’s attitude throughout our boat trip taught me a great deal. He reminded me to be grateful of what life had to offer and to make the best out of every day, no matter what the circumstances. He made me feel good about life, even when I was on the plane back where the pressures from work and life were waiting in Jakarta.
Written by Ambarwati Dwilo, Associate