Archive for the 'Vietnam' Category

Apr 11 2008

Hanoi: When we weren’t drinking bia hoi…

Published by under Hanoi,Vietnam

It’s not every day that you get to see a former world leader and Communist revolutionary that altered the balance of global politics. Or even just your regular old Communist revolutionary. So our final day in Hanoi was a red-letter one.

That’s right, we saw Ho Chi Minh. No, not one of the many statues or gigantic Ho billboards that litter Vietnamese cities, but the man himself.

Upon his death in 1969, Uncle Ho, as his adoring Vietnamese fans endearingly know him, wished to be cremated and his ashes sprinkled atop the hills of a reunited Vietnam – a modest request befitting a proper communist. Naturally, then, the Vietnamese decided to allocate a huge chunk of land in the middle of Hanoi to the Ho Chi Minh Complex, complete with biographical museum and gigantic, granite mausoleum to house Ho’s corpse, which they embalmed and display in a glass case for all to see.

The mausoleum maintains very limited hours of operation – just a few days a week, in the early morning – which meant that Ben and I had to be up, ready, and out the door much earlier than we typically manage to be. The situation was exacerbated because I’d stayed up working until 4 in the morning (working American hours while 11 hours ahead is seriously difficult).

But if anything is going to get my butt out of bed, it’s an embalmed Ho Chi Minh. Clearly.

To get to the HCM complex, we required the services of a moto driver, and upon exiting our guesthouse, we expected to be attacked by the legion of moto-hawkers that follow us around constantly. But we actually had to walk around for a few minutes to find one! At a nearby intersection, we saw a guy lying on a motorcycle, his feet propped up on the handlebars, possibly sleeping. We approached him and stood there, hoping that he was actually a driver and we weren’t acting like crazy people. Sensing our presence, he started.

“Moto? moto?” he said, sluggishly.

“Yes! Moto!” we replied. Even the driver looked surprised.

Thus began the painful process of price negotiation – a required part of every single transaction we make in Asia. As an American, bargaining does not come naturally to me. It’s particularly hard here, where the merchants have a lifetime of haggling experience. ‘Cause let me tell you: the art of bargaining – with its subtle power plays and clever manipulations – requires a lot of practice. Even after seven months of market shopping, haggling still feels uncomfortable for me and I have to psych myself up for the inevitable challenge before I attempt to purchase anything.

But, I will say, we are more savvy and hardened than we were seven months ago.

“30,000 dong, 30,000 dong,” the driver said, pointing first to me than to Ben.

“You mean 60,000 dong [US$4] for two people?” I said. We scoffed at the price.

“No way,” Ben flatly refused, rolling his eyes.

Step 1: Always let them quote a price first. Laugh at the mere suggestion of it.

“10,000 dong, 10,000 dong.” I said, pointing to Ben and then to myself. “No more.”

Step 2: Counter with a price that you know is lower than the one you’ll get. One-third of the original is a realistic starting point.

Now it was the driver’s turn to laugh.

“No, no, no. 60,000, good price for you.” he said.

“Fine,” we said, and turned to walk away.

Step 3: If they are not willing to come down to a price that’s acceptable for you, make sure that you’re willing to walk. If they let you go, you know you’ve passed on a fair price. If they stop you, let the games continue.

“Ok, ok, how much you pay?” the driver called after us.

“I told you. 10,000, 10,000,” I said, pointing again.

“Discount for you. I do 25, 25. Cheap, cheap!”

Here’s where we got lucky. Other moto drivers in the intersection were starting to wake up and smell fresh meat. They pounced. The first driver scrambled to keep our business.

“Okay, 20,000, 20,000. Very good. Finished.” he said, desperately.

“Look the most we’ll pay is 15, 15. One dollar each,” Ben said. The driver refused again, even though, thanks to the advice of the guesthouse receptionist, we knew it was a generous price for us to offer. Thankfully, other approaching moto drivers had heard our conversation and were more than willing to take us for that price. The first driver watched wistfully as we hopped on the bikes of two competitors and sped away.

It was a fine price, and I was more than willing to pay $1 to avoid the kilometers-long walk to the mausoleum. Is it what the locals would pay? Of course not. But…

Step 4: Keep in mind that you’re not looking to get the lowest price EVER. You’re looking to get to a price that’s good for them AND good for you.

I am far from a savvy negotiator, but I’ve learned a trick or two. Even still, it’s not uncommon for me to walk away from an exchange and realize that I was totally taken for a ride. It’s particularly hard in SE Asia where you know you’re getting ripped off, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. You’re never, ever going to get the local price. It’s made easier because, really, you’re usually talking about a matter of cents. And a measly extra dollar will go a lot farther for that person than it will for me back home.

The driver I’d hired was a cheerful guy, asking me questions about where I was from and telling me about his family. I mostly grunted responses as I stared in horror at the three buses and countless motorcycles approaching us head on. I did say, “Oh my God, we’re gonna die.” a couple times. This made the driver laugh and say “many, many moto in Hanoi, yes?” It’s still amazing to me how, despite the lack of traffic lights – traffic laws, actually – no one wrecks. They simply weave around each other at terrifying speeds, honking like crazy.

He soon stopped to drop me off at a gray office-looking building. “No, Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, please,” I reiterated.

”Yes, go here first,” he replied. I looked and he was right: a small sign with an arrow pointing inside said “mausoleum entrance.”

The building turned out to be the security checkpoint all visitors have to go through before being allowed entrance to the mausoleum. It was a complicated process. We had to check all bags in a storeroom. We had to empty the contents of our pockets for examination. We had to walk through metal detectors. We had to be frisked by security guards (Ben winced as he spotted the guard’s nightstick).

“Dude, the guy is dead!” I whispered to Ben as we stood in line, waiting to be frisked. “What do they think I’m going to do? Kill him? Steal his body to try and sell on the black corpse market?”

Ben glared at me because I have the unfortunate habit of unwittingly making comments at inappropriate times that typically get us into trouble, cause confusion, and/or embarrass him. Teehee.

Outside the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi, Vietnam
Ben outside the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum

Far more interesting than seeing Ho Chi Minh himself, who just looked white, waxy, and…well, dead, was witnessing the pomp and circumstance surrounding the mausoleum and the throngs of people that come to get a glimpse of their beloved leader.

After the rigorous security checks, we were instructed to form a straight line outside of the building and wait. Why we had to wait, I have no idea. Once the guards deemed us patient enough, we were marched, single file, through the grounds to the mausoleum itself, with guards at the front and rear of our line. We were ushered through a series of traffic gates, past the groups of photo-snapping Asian tourists outside of the mausoleum, and permitted to cross the severe white line drawn on the road demarcating the divide between commoners and guards/dead Ho Chi Minhs. I was chastised for wearing sunglasses.

Once inside the mausoleum, which is large and made entirely of thick granite, we were led up several flights of stairs and into a quiet, dark room. We walked in a U-shaped path surrounding an elevated glass case (encircled by yet another four guards), respectfully observing the embalmed Uncle Ho inside, who lay there sadly, with his hands crossed over his chest.

Obviously the appropriate response was to sing “Uncle Ho…HO!” to the tune of Ludacris’ “Yous a Ho” once we were back outside. Though no one else seemed to think so.

After a quick lunch at a restaurant we’d read about that trains and employs Hanoi’s street kids (we feel bad about constantly refusing the beggar children, so we wanted to support them somehow), we stopped by the Hoa Lo Prison, once used by the French to imprison Vietnamese revolutionaries fighting against their colonizers. You may know it as the infamous “Hanoi Hilton,” the name lovingly bestowed upon the prison when it was later used by the North Vietnamese to hold American prisoners of war (John McCain among them). Although the majority of the building has been bulldozed to make room for an actual hotel, a small corner of the Hanoi Hilton remains as a museum and memorial.

In response to growing civil unrest in colonized Vietnam, the French decided to build massive prisons across the country and lock up any dissenters. In the end, their efforts were in vain: the Vietnamese (led by Ho) eventually overthrew the French. ‘Cause if you know anything about the Vietnamese – particularly the North Vietnamese – you understand that they will be free or they will DIE. This skinny little country on the coast of SE Asia has defeated some of the world’s great superpowers. These are the people that scalped Kublai Khan, defeated the Chinese when they attempted to invade, overthrew their European colonizers, ousted the Khmer Rouge, and defeated the Americans. You don’t mess with the Vietnamese, that’s for sure.

So the first half of the museum is dedicated to the atrocities committed against the Vietnamese incarcerated here by the French, the heinous conditions of the jail at the time, and memorializing the prisoners’ nearly daily escape attempts. One room had a display of life-sized statues crowded into a long room, chained by the leg to benches, just as the prisoners were held so many years ago. In another former cell, they had a set of leg shackles that you could try out for yourself. So Ben promptly sat on the bench and shackled himself in.

ben the prisonerHe’d been sitting there for a few minutes (I think he was comfortable?), when a group of tourists walked up to view the cell. They were surprised to see Ben chained up inside, particularly when he waved and said hello. A few minutes later, when Ben decided he was ready to be a free man again, he lifted up the leg irons and crawled out. The group of tourists gasped. “I thought he was locked in!” one man exclaimed. Did they think Ben was actually a prisoner? That they keep one inmate around as a tourist attraction? I don’t get it.

The second half of the museum is dedicated to its time holding American POWs. This half of the museum is much more upbeat. Because you know what? The prisoners had so much fun here. We saw a gallery of pictures of the American pilots: in them, they were decorating Christmas trees, sitting down to enjoy a lovely Christmas Eve feast, playing basketball together, receiving packages from home, and even getting going-away souvenir gifts from the guards upon their release. It was like a family scrapbook full of warm memories. The captions made sure to point out how well the American pilots were treated, despite “oppressing” their “southern brothers.” In fact, the spin put on the Vietnamese-American War occasionally bordered on absurd (not that American history books aren’t biased) – you’ll hear more about that when we visit the 17th parallel. But it wasn’t lost on us that this room was marked on an old blueprint to be the “interrogation room.”

John McCain's pilot suit during the Vietnam War at the "Hanoi Hilton" where he was a POW
John McCain’s flight suit display

In a neighboring room was a picture of Senator John McCain on a recent visit to the museum. Sen. McCain was held here after being captured by the Viet Cong during the war, when he served as a pilot. Also on display was a black and white image of McCain being dragged out of the water after his plane was shot down, and a huge glass case containing McCain’s actual flight suit and paraphernalia he’d been wearing upon capture (along with the recently added note that he is a candidate in the 2008 U.S. presidential election). We both noted how old McCain already looked in these forty-year-old photographs.

That was enough sightseeing for us for one day (we’re not so ambitious, folks). Because we’ve had it up to HERE with harassing moto drivers, we pointedly ignored all those crowding the exit of the museum and decided to walk home, despite the distance.

Everyone who knows Ben knows that he is prone to hyperbole, and may have thought that his initial description of Hanoi’s street life was exaggerated. But, in this case, there is simply no over-exaggeration. Walking on these streets is nearly impossible. Given the throngs of motorbikes zipping through the streets day and night, you’d hope to find walking solace on the sidewalks, right?

Wrong. The sidewalks aren’t actually sidewalks as much as they are parking lots for motorcycles. And when they’re not being used for parking, they’re used for anything and everything else. Most store merchants live and work in one tiny room or building on Hanoi’s busy streets. So, say, a family owns a restaurant in Hanoi. They set up a small, wooden bed in the back of the room for the entire family to sleep on. Towards the front of the room they put small, plastic tables and stools for their patrons. Out on the sidewalk, they set up a portable charcoal grill with a wok and a huge tub of water for washing dishes. This is their kitchen, right there on the sidewalk. Or if the merchant sells glass, for instance, he or she will be on the sidewalk, their “workshop,” blowing glass. So walking down the sidewalk is less like walking and more like dodging the countless people who are eating, cooking, welding, fixing cars, ironing, building things out of bamboo, painting, sewing …

Between the sidewalks and the streets, Hanoi is one giant obstacle course.

We did eventually make it home, where we showered and napped before heading out for some good old bia hoi and fried fish, served sizzling hot to us right in the pan.

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Apr 08 2008

A Conversation at The Green Mango

Published by under Hanoi,Vietnam

On the second night of our Halong Bay tour, Brittany and I were sitting with two Canadian girls at a waterfront bar called The Green Mango as closing time approached. I didn’t notice a quiet waitress slowly walk up to our table, with her hands behind her back, until she inched up directly behind me and murmured…

“Escoo me.”

“Yes?”

“Engla goo?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Engla goo?”

“I don’t understand. What was that?”

“Engla goo?”

“England? No, we’re from the United States.”

“Engla goo?”

“Umm, I’m sorry, but I don’t understand.”

“Engla goo?”

“Do you girls know what she is asking?”

“Engla goo?”

“No.”

“Engla goo?”

“Yes?”

“Yes. Ok please.”

With this, she reveals a notebook from behind her back, and opens it to show me its contents. It quickly becomes clear that she has been working to write out the Vietnamese restaurant menu in English. She shows me a page of ingredients with names like “par me sa chee” and “bas sil” and hands me a pen. I now understand: she wants help re-writing these names into proper English. “Engla goo?” = “Is your English good?”

I indicate my agreement to try and help, and the waitress pulls up a seat next to me. For the next thirty minutes, she repeats my every word, as I write and pronounce the name of each ingredient and menu item. One page of translations somehow turns into eight, but it’s all worth it when I get my reward: “tank you ve mu.”

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Apr 07 2008

Shrouded in Mystery: Halong Bay

Published by under Hanoi,Vietnam

Halong Bay, VietnamFor a country that’s so skinny, Vietnam has an awful lot of UNESCO-listed World Heritage sites. Foremost among these may be the jewel of the north: ancient, foggy, beautiful Halong Bay. The Bay is a short 3-hour drive east from Hanoi, but feels like a different planet. In one morning, you can leave the cramped, noisy, motorcycle-packed city streets behind, and discover a world where jagged limestone formations rise up through the water and mist, and secret caves and grottoes wait to be explored. After seven months of travel, I don’t think that anything we’ve seen can top the natural beauty of Halong Bay. If you’re searching for ghosts, sunken pirate ships, or sunken pirate ship ghosts, THIS is where you need to look first. And if the Scots still haven’t found Nessie (we’ve been away for a while), then it’s surely because she’s moved here.

It’s only natural, then, in a place like this, that mysteries should abound during a 3-day boating adventure. And now it’s time to get out your detective notebook and goofy-looking Sherlock Holmes hat, and help us solve…

THE MYSTERY OF HALONG BAY

Day 1

8:00am: Picked up at our guesthouse in a van full of other tourists, plus our English-speaking tour guide, Tain (pronounced “Tine”).

8:01am: Tain introduces herself.
Tain: “How are you today?”
Group: “Fine.”
Tain: “Can you say louder! Fine!”
Group: “Fine!”

8:30am: Our van becomes stuck in traffic on a bridge out of Hanoi due to a traffic accident. Some members of our group climb out of the van to wander around the bridge. Tain distressed.

12:00pm: After four hours of Tain’s somewhat intelligible tales of obscure Vietnamese geographical statistics, we arrive at the docks of Halong Bay only one hour late.

12:30pm: Our three-level wooden tour boat departs for adventure, and we stake out chairs on the top deck to watch our slow progression into the thick bay fog.

1:30pm: Lunch is served on the boat. Communal bowls of rice, salad, strange meats, and a fish for all of us to pick at distract us from limestone formation spotting.

3:30pm: The boat docks at an island. Tain leads us ashore and up a short climb to the mouth of a cave. The small entrance belies an enormous interior. Tain leads us through several massive rooms, all eerily ambient with colored spotlights. We marvel at curiously shaped rock formations with names like “Buddha” and “dragon,” as well as a very distinct penis that Tain insists is “finger.” Those so inclined can decide for themselves by checking out our Flickr photos.

4:30pm: Tain leads us back to the boat, and tells us our next destination is a small fishing village.

4:35pm: Instead, the boat pulls out into the middle of the bay and puts down anchor for the night. Curious indeed.

6:00pm: Dinner is served on the boat. Strangely reminiscent of lunch. While we eat, another boat pulls up beside ours, and the staff tie the two boats together for the night. For added stability, we assume.

7:00pm: Most of our boatmates retire to bed. 7:00 is too early for me to go to sleep, so we move to the top deck to have a beer with the only two other people awake: an Irish couple named Julian and… OK, I forget her name.

8:00pm: Lamenting the jacked-up price of beer on our boat ($2!), I begin eyeing our neighboring boat. I wonder what THEIR beer costs?

8:05pm: I board the other boat. Descending the stairs to our boat’s lowest level, I am able to sneak past our boat staff, hop across to the other deck, and climb the stairs to this boat’s lounge area.

8:06pm: I startle this boat’s passengers by appearing in the lounge doorway and announcing my mission. Unfortunately, price controls are in full effect: beer is $2 here as well. Fortunately, these passengers remain awake past 7:00. I hurry back to our boat with this news.

8:10pm: I return to the other boat with Brittany, Julian, and what’s-her-name. We introduce ourselves to these night owls, and all drink over-priced beer together. Everyone agrees that Irish accents are funny.

10:00pm: We say our goodbyes, hop back to our deck, and hit the sack.

Day 2

8:00am: Breakfast is served on the boat, and consists of untoasted “toast” with jam, and one omelette that the chef has managed to split between our group of twelve by making it long and skinny, and cutting it into slices.

8:30am: A new boat pulls up beside ours, and Tain rushes Brittany and me onto it. Turns out we’re the only two of our twelve who booked the 3-day tour: our boatmates are only signed on for 2 days, and must return to Hanoi today. So we shout hurried goodbyes in mid-leap between boat decks, throwing our bags ahead of us as we jump. Why, exactly, weren’t we placed in a group of 3-dayers all along? The plot thickens.

Halong Bay, Vietnam9:00am: After a half hour of trying to bond with our new boatmates, we arrive at Cat Ba Island. We now have a new guide to replace Tain, but I never do end up understanding his name. Let’s call him Jasper. Jasper leads us to pick up some rented bicycles, and then on a ride across the island to a small village. Here we meet up with a local guide, who leads us on a walk through the forest and to a small cave.

10:45am: I buy a can of lychee juice from a roadside island market. It tastes really good, no matter what Brittany says.

1:00pm: Back to the boat, which now takes us to an isolated beach nearby. The boat staff sets up a long table with chairs on the sand, and prepares to serve us a multi-course meal.

1:15pm: One of our new boat friends (a young Thai guy) finds a sea cucumber in the water. I hold him (the cucumber) and find him to be very slimy. Which explains why I accidentally drop him on his head/ass/it’s really hard to tell with a sea cucumber.

1:30pm: Lunch is served, distracting us from further beach exploration. Sea cucumbers rejoice.

2:30pm: The boat departs from Fried Chicken Leg/Sea Cucumber Beach. Oh yeah, we had fried chicken legs for lunch.

Kayaking on Halong Bay, Vietnam3:00pm: Our boat anchors at a floating kayak rental depot. Two at a time, we grab oars and climb into kayaks. Now, the tour brochure promised that a kayak guide would take us to Monkey Island to observe monkeys in their natural habitat. Monkey Island isn’t a term you want to throw around loosely with me, so when it seems like we weren’t getting a guide there at all, but are simply being left to paddle around the kayak depot on our own, I ask Jasper about it. Jasper points vaguely into the distance and says, “Monkey Island that way. You go there and say, ‘Ooh! Ooh! Ooh!’ and all the monkeys come out!” This was met with riotous laughter from his comrades. Hint: this may be a clue to the unfolding mystery.

4:30pm: We return our kayaks to the depot, after rowing rather aimlessly around the bay for the last hour and a half.

5:00pm: Our boat docks on a different side of Cat Ba Island. We all pile into a van to be driven to our hotel for the night.

5:10pm: We arrive at the 3-star hotel promised in the brochure. We all exit the van and begin to walk up the sidewalk. Until Jasper stops Brittany and me, and tells us to return to the van, because we will be staying elsewhere. Annoyed, I ask why we’re being separated from our second group in two days. His reponse: “hotel full.” Suspicious…

5:20pm: The van drives Brittany and me to our designated guesthouse down the street. It’s nicer than most places we’ve stayed on this trip, and would normally make us both very happy. But there’s the unresolved issue of the tour brochure touting a 3-star hotel, yet Jasper not allowing us inside. And it’s quite clear that the 3-star hotel isn’t full.

5:21pm: We refuse the key to the room in this guesthouse, and tell Jasper that we were promised a 3-star hotel when we paid for this tour. He doesn’t believe us, and suggests we take up any problem with our guesthouse (where we booked this tour) back in Hanoi. This, of course, solves nothing, and we tell Jasper so. His next suggestion is for us to call our guesthouse now to talk about it. Here’s a novel idea, Jasper: why don’t YOU call our guesthouse. Jasper reluctantly agrees.

5:25pm: Jasper gets someone from our guesthouse on the phone, who insists that the brochure in the lobby says nothing about a 3-star hotel. We know he is lying, but what can we do? We swallow the bitter pill and wait to fight again another day. Tomorrow, specifically.

7:00pm: A tasteless dinner in our guesthouse lobby, because we are barred from joining the rest of our group from dinner in their hotel. We’re chest-deep in intrigue now.

Halong Bay, Vietnam9:00pm: We meet up with our group once again at a waterfront bar, The Green Mango. But everyone is tired from a long day, and we all end up returning to our beds earlier than expected.

11:00pm: Sleep.

Day 3

7:30am: Breakfast in our guesthouse (included in the tour cost) consists of one baguette each. I finish mine and ask for another, but the guesthouse staff refuses.

8:00am: We load into the van, and pick up the other members of our group at the 3-star hotel. The van drives us back to the boat docks.

8:30am: Our boat departs from Cat Ba Island, and a beautiful day follows, but it’s one that is really not worth detailing on an itinerary. It takes most of the day to return to the mainland, and we spend our time on the top deck of the boat, spotting shapes among the foggy limestone formations. We arrive back in Hanoi around 5:00pm. Today’s swimming trip (as promised in the brochure, surprisingly) never materializes. What happened?

Once safely back in Hanoi, we make a bee-line for the guesthouse where we booked our tour. We find the brochure that we were shown when booking, and sure enough, it promises a 3-star hotel, as well as a host of other activities that were never delivered. With this evidence secured, we ask our guesthouse to call a meeting with the tour company, APT Travel.

APT Travel sends Jasper as a representative, and we sit down to discuss the evidence at hand. It’s very clear that a number of things were SOLD to us, but never delivered. Here’s a look at our dossier…

  • 3-star hotel: NOT DELIVERED
  • Guided kayaking to Monkey Island: NOT DELIVERED
  • 3-hour trek through Cat Ba National Park: NOT DELIVERED
  • Visit to a floating fishing village: NOT DELIVERED
  • Swimming on Day 3: NOT DELIVERED
  • Visits to Dragon Island, Dog Island, Fighting Cock Island: NOT DELIVERED

Evidence: bulletproof. APT Travel: unconvinced. After laying out this list to Jasper, he does not deny that we did not get to do half of the activities promised in the brochure, and that we paid for up front. But when we ask for a partial refund of our money, the conversation proceeds as follows…

Jasper: “Yes, but don’t you think you got a good deal? Don’t you think you saw many things for the small amount of money you paid?”

Ben: “No, Jasper, I don’t think it’s a good deal to pay for one thing, and be delivered something clearly inferior. That is not a good deal at all.”

Jasper: “Yes, but my company does not make much money on the tour. We make very little money, it’s such a good price for you.”

Ben: “Jasper, that is not relevant.”

Jasper: “Yes, but others on the tour paid much more than you. You got the tour very cheap.”

Ben: “Jasper, that is not relevant.”

Jasper: “Yes, but do you think it is really fair to get money back when you saw many things, and others pay more for the same tour, and my company makes so little money?”

Ben: “Yes. Yes, I think it is very fair to be reimbursed for things your company tricked us into paying for.”

Jasper: “Can not do.”

In the end, Jasper and APT Travel offer us a complimentary dinner in one of their restaurants in Hanoi. We have to catch an overnight bus out of town, so we do not have time to eat at their restaurant. Nor do we really want to eat whatever vile bodily substances they will surely put into our food. But will Jasper even offer us the cash equivalent of said meal? Of course not. We leave Jasper with the belief that he has received the last laugh. What Jasper does not know is that we have a website…

Solution: APT Travel is a fraudulent tour company, and you should NEVER EVER do business with them. CASE CLOSED!

P.S. Sorry for the long delay since the last real update. Blame Cambodia! (we’ll explain later)

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Apr 03 2008

Still Kickin…

Published by under Vietnam

Thank you to everyone who sent e-mails over the last few days inquiring about our continued existence. I’m happy to report that we both survived five days on the back of a motorcycle! Reliable internet access has taken a geographical turn for the worse, but updates to resume ASAP, picking up where we last left off…

6 responses so far

Mar 27 2008

The High Road

Published by under Vietnam

Just a quick update to let you know that we may be incommunicado for the next few days. We’ve managed to hire a couple of motorcycle drivers here in the small town of Hoi An (yes, different than Ha Noi) to drive us through Vietnam’s Central Highlands. There is nary an ATM where we’re going, so we’re not optimistic about finding the “internets.” We really don’t know what to expect on this escape from the beaten path, but we’re looking forward to seeing it all from a white-knuckled, clinging position.

See you in Dalat!

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Mar 25 2008

Good Morning, Hanoi!

Published by under Hanoi,Vietnam

Lao Airlines = sketchyWe’d heard about the most prevalent scam in Hanoi before ever boarding the plane from Laos. But before I describe it in all its fleecing glory, let me say a little word about the flight. We flew Lao Air, against the advice of everyone who bothers reading the same travel forums we do. This was, of course, because Lao Air’s fare was five dollars cheaper than the competitor. Lao Air has a terrible reputation for some reason or another that we didn’t bother probing, but after taking the flight, I can’t understand why. I mean, our plane didn’t crash once! I will give you that it was nothing more than a puddle-jumper, which means we had to board the plane via ladder, and that the flight was particularly sensitive to turbulence. But what do you expect for $120? Certainly not individual pudding cups of spring water, complete with jagged straw to pierce the plastic lid. And guess what? You GET that. Lao Air is fine by us.

But back to the famous Hanoi scam, which goes like this: you arrive in the Hanoi airport, and you need a taxi into the city. Because you think ahead, you already have a guesthouse booked, so you hire a driver and tell him to take you there. But he doesn’t take you there. Instead, he takes you to a different guesthouse – one that he is in cahoots with – knowing that you couldn’t possibly recognize the correct route to the one you actually booked. Of course, it will be perfectly obvious to you when you arrive that you aren’t at the right guesthouse. Right? Well, that WOULD be the case, except for the fact that the guesthouse he brings you to doesn’t seem to have a name posted over the door, or on any visible signs. And when you pull up, a greeter comes walking out of the guesthouse, all smiles, saying “Welcome to [insert name of the guesthouse you booked]. Because while you were riding in the taxi, did you notice the driver talking on his cell phone? Yeah, he was calling his buddies here to tip them off to the name of the guesthouse you are expecting to find. We’ve seen a lot of scams, but this ranks among the sneakiest and most clever. And from what he hear, it’s ubiquitous.

To get around this trap, we booked airport pickup service through our Hanoi guesthouse ahead of time. It’s a luxury we would normally never pay for, but it became well worth the price the moment we touched down in Hanoi, walked straight through all the over-eager taxi hawkers, and right up to the man holding the sign with my name on it. Even if he did spell it “Pen.”

It becomes clear very quickly that Hanoi isn’t like other cities. It’s only been fully open to foreign tourists for ten years or so, and it shows. Simply put, the tourism infrastructure is still experiencing growing pains. Despite succesfully scheduling our airport pickup, our guesthouse managed to lose our room reservation. How is it even possible to know we are arriving at the airport, but not have a room reserved for us? So, after only one night, we had to pack it up and move to a different guesthouse. The manager on duty didn’t see any problem with this, and was legitimately surprised that we were unhappy with the situation. Looking back, this was our first lesson in the culture clash that exists between Hanoi and Western visitors when it comes to the concept of customer service. But that story will require a separate entry to follow. For now, let me simply ask for someone out there to do Hanoi a favor, and translate “the customer is always right” into Vietnamese. Their English just isn’t up to par with their Latin: they seem fluent in “caveat emptor.”

With no room at the inn, we ventured out to find a new guesthouse, rolling suitcases in tow. Now, any expedition into the streets of Hanoi is something you have to brace yourself for. Even if you’ve been traveling for seven months around the world, nothing can prepare you for the Hanoi pedestrian experience. There are several reasons for this…

1. TRAFFIC
The one I can’t possibly exaggerate. There are seemingly no traffic lights, stop signs, or painted lines on the streets of Hanoi. What there are, though, are motorcycles. Endless swarms of them. You’ll never forget the first time you try to cross the street in Hanoi. Your instinct is to look both ways, and wait for a break in traffic before stepping into the road. But after ten minutes of standing on the sidewalk waiting, you begin to think that there may never BE a break in traffic. And you’d be right. The motorcycles fly five-wide on both sides of the road, and three-wide over the imaginary center line. With no traffic lights or signs to impede their progress, they weave in and out among each other, always an inch away from horrific mutilating crashes, and often closer.

This much is for certain: sometime during your ten-minute wait on the sidewalk, you’ll be shown how to cross the road. While you continue to wait patiently, a little Vietnamese girl will do something that looks, to you, like certain suicide. As you watch with slackened jaw, she will step unflinchingly into the stream of motorcycles. But instead of instant death, she finds safe passage. A tiny Moses, she walks straight into the river, and despite the fact that the motorcycles never slow down, they miraculously part smoothly around her as she proceeds to the other side.

But whatever fear you felt on her behalf is nothing compared to the horror that awaits you. Because this is the way that you, too, must cross the road. It will take you another ten minutes to accept it, but trust me: there IS no other way. I can only give you two pieces of advice here: maintain a steady pace so the motorcycles can predict your movements, and whatever you do, DON’T look into oncoming traffic. The sheer terror may turn you into a pillar of salt. In fact, maybe you should do the whole thing with your eyes closed. The motorcycles will still never hit you, and there’s less risk of a paralyzing panic attack when you hit the center of the street, and realize that you are blocked from sidewalk safety on both sides by five rows of speeding motorcycles.

2. Moto and Cyclo Drivers

Riding a cyclo in Hanoi, Vietnam
Brittany rides a cyclo!

The two most prevalent forms of hired transport in Hanoi are the moto and the cyclo. “Moto” means a guy with a motorcycle who wants to sell you the sitting space right behind him on his bike. “Cyclo” is a contraption involving a two-passenger seat mounted to the front of a bicycle. The tireless driver shuttles you around on pedal power. Motos and cyclos do their part in filling up the teeming streets, right alongside the normal racing motorcycles. But more importantly, they fill up the sidewalks. Supply apparently far exceeds demand in this industry, which means it’s impossible to walk down a sidewalk in the Old Town without being accosted by the always persistent, sometimes aggressive, drivers. As we walked with our suitcases, one feisty moto driver spotted us, and didn’t want to take “no” for an answer. Our conversation went something like this…

“Moto?”
“No.”
“Moto?”
“No.”
“Moto?”
“No.”
“Moto?”
“No.”

By the seventh or eighth “no,” he had managed to walk up and try to block our path on the sidewalk. What he said next may shock you…

“Moto?”
“No!”

For reasons that remain lost in translation, he finally accepted this as an invitation to pat my cheek, grab my arm, and squeeze my nipple. In that order. Laughing all the while as if he was telling a joke that we were both in on. I made a note on our map to avoid that street in the future.

3. Nonsensical Street Names
Not nonsensical in that they’re in Vietnamese, because that is perfectly sensical, just not to me. No, the street names are nonsensical in that they CHANGE every couple of blocks. I understand that the street names are a reflection of historical Hanoi, when each street was named after its prevalent form of trade. That is, you knew exactly what you’d find on cloth street, toy street, and MSG street. But it’s time to make way for progress when I become officially lost again every two blocks, and even my ultra zoomed-in city map can’t keep up with half of the street names. Add to this the fact that staring bewilderedly at a map makes you a prime target for the moto and cyclo drivers, and that your only escape from their nipple squeezes is to blindly cross over a dozen “lanes” of weaving, speeding motorcycles, and I think you can agree that having constant street names is NOT TOO MUCH TO ASK FOR.

In spite of all challenges, we finally did find a guesthouse with room for us, and with time to spare for a tiny dinner at a tiny table on a tiny stool. Welcome to Hanoi!

Tiny dining in Hanoi, Vietnam

P.S. The glasses on our dinner table are filled with bia hoi, which literally means “draft beer” in Vietnamese. The difference between draft beer at home and draft beer in Vietnam is that at home it doesn’t cost 30-50 cents. We’re going to have to host a showdown between Laos’ Beerlao and Vietnam’s concept of bia hoi to officially determine where I’m going to retire.

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