A River and Limestone Mountains in Northern Vietnam

A (Bizarre) Birthday Trip to Kim Boi

Hanoi is a concentrated city, it’s centre in the Old Quarter is a tightly wound sprawl of snaking lanes and shop-lined streets, pavements over-flowing with parked motorbikes, goods spilling out from open-fronted stores and people sat in clusters on tiny stalls drinking coffee and eating from steaming bowls. Zoom out from that area and you’ll find the streets get wider but they’re no less congested; there are bigger, glass-fronted shops, shiny malls and a few lakes and small green spaces to dilute all the steel, glass, stone and smog but you can’t see any mountains or fields off in the distance, the view gives the impression of a never-ending city.

Fruit stand in Hanoi's Old Quarter

The Old Quarter in Hanoi

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Recently I’d begun to feel hemmed in by the city, claustrophobic, like we were in a strange sci-fi flick where there turns out to be nothing beyond Hanoi but a cliff with a sheer drop off to nothingness. After three months of being in the city without once venturing outside I’d forgotten what it’s like to see different shades of green and to be able to breathe in clean air. Although I love cities I’d realised that I also like to have access to rural areas; in London we often drove out of town for the weekend and we spent a lot of time in the parks. During our travels we were constantly out and about, journeying through cities and countryside, over mountains to seashores.

Rush hour in Hanoi, Vietnam

Rush hour in Hanoi, Vietnam

Living in this constant city bubble had me longing for a temporary escape but at the same time, I’d become mildly agoraphobic about leaving the comfort of our lovely little apartment, our favourite cafes, and the streets that I’d now come to (vaguely) know.  It was easier to stay at home at the weekends lesson planning and enjoying our home comforts than it was to leave our familiar cocoon. Last weekend, however, we had a good reason to force ourselves out of the city for the weekend: it was my birthday.

A Weekend Escape to Kim Boi

The morning of my birthday we stopped for breakfast at Hanoi Social Club, an amazing restaurant we’ve just recently discovered, before picking up some bagels from our favourite bakery and finally heading out of the city towards the hot springs of Kim Boi. It seemed to take forever to weave through the traffic and pass through the city but finally the buildings started to thin out and triumphantly, we burst out of Hanoi into the countryside. “Look, a field!” I shouted over the roar of the engine as Andrew accelerated on the first piece of open road we’d seen in months.

Breakfast at Hanoi Social Club

Breakfast at Hanoi Social Club

Although the day was grey and overcast and the temperature cool enough to freeze Andrew’s hands to the handlebars and warrant three layers of clothing, the sensation of moving out of the city on an unknown road to a brand new destination was intoxifying. The fields became dotted with huge limestone peaks, their tops misty, reminding me of the scenery in nearby Northern Laos. We soared by tall, skinny houses and smaller towns before reaching a fork in the road which led us down a bumpier track.

Fields in Northern Vietnam

Now we felt a million miles from Hanoi, the noise and bustle replaced by bare-foot farmers quietly working away in the paddies, straw cone hats on their heads, their toddlers sat nearby amusing themselves. Occasionally we’d pass kids riding their bicycles and I spotted a group of teenagers sat in a circle by the roadside, playing cards. Instead of towns we now journeyed through villages consisting of small houses, a few shops and a single school. Dogs, chickens and ducks roamed freely and the cold air stung with its freshness.

Us on Our Motorbike Trip to Kim Boi, Vietnam

The road became windier and we passed through a small wood-cutting village at the bottom of a valley, criss-crossed with plots of crops, the watery surface of the rice paddies reflecting limestone mounds. The road spiralled upwards and I felt my mind quieten – there’s nothing like a journey, a few hours of solid travel to clear out my head and let my thoughts unfurl. This uninhibited thinking time is one of the things I love about travel, throughout the many long (often torturous) bus journeys we’ve taken in Asia, I have relished having time to plug in my headphones, stare out the window and reflect, letting my mind wander and digest.

Village in Northern Vietnam

A Slightly Strange Night in Kim Boi

Numb from the cold and hardness of our motorbike seat we finally arrived in Kim Boi. “Is this it?” We both questioned, taking in the short street of guesthouses and restaurants. From what a Vietnamese teacher had told me I’d been expecting a small mountain village surrounded by forests, waterfalls and steaming natural hot-water pools. I hadn’t expected the small street and dome-covered swimming pool and there were no treks to take or waterfalls to photograph.

Bicycle and Rice Paddies in Vietnam

Nevertheless we decided to make the most of things, we found a small guesthouse and after shivering under blankets for half an hour to warm our chilled bodies we set off to the hot-spring pool, hoping the water would warm our bones. Strangely, the place was all but deserted, with just two other people in the water; we were the only Tays (Westerners) to be seen and the whole place looked run-down and had a spooky air to it. The strangeness was compounded when a member of staff shattered the silence by blaring dance-music into the pool area.

A River and Limestone Mountains in Northern Vietnam

Evening was drawing in, so after our swim we explored the village and snooped around one of the resorts, which was fully booked with Vietnamese tourists who’d come for the weekend to bathe and play tennis. We found a small café and practised our very limited Vietnamese skills ordering some tea and biscuits; it felt like we’d been thrown back to our backpacking days when we’d regularly found ourselves in strange new towns, in unfamiliar guesthouses with rock-hard beds.

Buffalo on the Road in Vietnam

After a night of extremely cold, broken sleep on a stone-like mattress we hot-footed it back to the city first thing in the morning. Even though I grew sorer and sorer on the back of the bike and Andrew had to put socks on his hands to keep his frozen fingers from seizing up I still felt that thrill of happiness to be moving again, to have had a taste of adventure once more with its unexpected ups, downs and bizarre moments. The views of the countryside had soothed my mind but when we finally arrived back in the Old Quarter and settled down for a luxurious brunch at a pub I heaved a sigh of relief to be back in the city.

Brunch at the Moose and Roo in Hanoi

Brunch back in Hanoi, exhausted after our adventure!

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13 Comments
  • Steph (@ 20 Years Hence)
    Posted at 16:37h, 13 December Reply

    It’s amazing how quickly we slip into a routine (and sometimes even a rut), isn’t it? During our three-month stint in Saigon, we had all these grand plans for weekend trips away, but we wound up never leaving the city! But I do think it’s so important to take little breaks from the routine of every day life every so often, and as much as I love cities, you’re right that it’s very exhilarating to experience a change of scenery. Even just a short break away can do wonders for seeing a familiar place with fresh eyes.

    Kim Boi sounds… interesting. When we spent a month touring northern Vietnam, we spent a lot of time in those dodgy little towns (towns that hardly seemed like towns at all!). The scenery in that part of the country is spectacular, but the cities (and accommodation) leave a lot to be desired. Still, I hope you had a very happy (& memorable!) birthday!

    • Amy
      Posted at 11:24h, 14 December Reply

      Thanks Steph, I did have a good birthday and getting out of the city was really good for me even though I came back exhausted and frozen to the bone. You’re right, the scenery in Northern Vietnam is spectacular. We will definitely make time for more trips to Cat Ba Island and Sapa over the next couple of months.

  • Charlie
    Posted at 09:04h, 14 December Reply

    Love the story here, really get a great sense of the place from this post. It’s a shame Kim Boi wasn’t quite what you were expecting but glad you made the most of and enjoyed your trip. I always like getting out in the countryside for a while, it’s a great way to see more of local life wherever you are and escape the tourist route a while. Happy birthday by the way!

    • Amy
      Posted at 11:23h, 14 December Reply

      Thanks Charlie 🙂 Although Kim Boi wasn’t what I was expecting I found out that the main point of the trip was just to get out of the city and refresh my mind – it also ended up making me appreciate the comforts we have here in Hanoi!

  • Gilda Baxter
    Posted at 11:34h, 14 December Reply

    Happy Birthday Amy! Nice little adventure and a change from the everyday routines. It is great that it has made you appreciate even more your home comforts. I can relate with getting sorer and sorer on the back of a bike, since we often go on road trips by bike, but I love the sense of adventure and freedom it gives. Loved the picture of you both on the bike, very badass!

    • Amy
      Posted at 12:06h, 14 December Reply

      Thanks Gilda 🙂 Motorbike trips are quite new to us and I agree that the freedom and sense of adventure is great – an hour or so in I start to go numb from the seat though!

  • Patti
    Posted at 00:39h, 15 December Reply

    “…there’s nothing like a journey, a few hours of solid travel to clear out my head and let my thoughts unfurl.”

    I love this, Amy, and I couldn’t agree more.

    • Amy
      Posted at 03:36h, 15 December Reply

      Thanks Patti; I miss that kind of travel thinking time now that we’re working 🙂

  • Catherine
    Posted at 22:18h, 15 December Reply

    HAPPY BIRTHDAY!

    It can be so good to get out into the countryside every now and then – even if you are relived to get back to the city in the end! If nothing else it makes you appreciate what you’ve already got when things do not turn out exactly as planned 🙂

    • Amy
      Posted at 12:23h, 16 December Reply

      True Catherine, we really appreciated the comforts of Hanoi after our weekend away!

  • Helen
    Posted at 00:54h, 18 December Reply

    Happy Birthday! Sounds like an interesting adventure, even if it wasn’t what you were expecting. That is part of the fun of exploring though, never quite knowing what you will find. Hope you both warmed up quickly when you got back to Hanoi.

    • Amy
      Posted at 15:49h, 18 December Reply

      Thanks Helen 🙂 It’s actually gotten pretty nippy here in Hanoi too, we had to go and buy jumpers last weekend!

  • Pingback:What's the cost of living in Vietnam?
    Posted at 15:22h, 22 December Reply

    […] also spent money on occasional trips away to Kim Boi and Cat Ba Island, we’re also planning to go to Sapa for TET.  Although our language centre […]

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