Mar 25 2008

Good Morning, Hanoi!

Published by at 12:16 pm 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…

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…


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…


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.

NEXT: The High Road »



3 responses so far

3 Responses to “Good Morning, Hanoi!”

  1. Ben's Momon 25 Mar 2008 at 1:03 pm

    I’m sorry you got a purple nurple, CR.

  2. Adamon 25 Mar 2008 at 3:32 pm

    The best part of this blog is the thought that maybe, just maybe, Penn & Teller are stuck at the Hanoi airport because you stole their driver.

  3. craigon 25 Mar 2008 at 8:35 pm

    Good luck in Hanoi/Vietnam… you’re gonna need it…

    BTW: I got my nipple tweaked too… very queer.

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