Tour De Force Round 2
Hanoi, lovely Hanoi.
Left it late, but managed to get back to Bangkok and rushed into the hotel to get my passport and plane ticket. Ticket OK, passport OK, visa…Shit! Yep, they did it as I feared they would, a single entry visa instead of a multiple. Now the excuses start flowing, not enough time for multiple entry visa…costs more…etc etc. So there I stood, looking at this stunning woman with her now deadpan face, wondering what to do.
"No problem" she said, "Can change to many entry in Hanoi".
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, yes no problem" she said trying desperately to convince even herself.
I wasn't totally convinced, but had to take their word as I had a plane to catch and a friend waiting at Noi Bai airport. Made it to Don Muang with enough time to spare to check in comfortably. Some travel guides had warned against flying Vietnam Airlines due to their dubious record, so I was a bit nervous. However on boarding, I saw that the plane was in immaculate condition, probably recently purchased. Service was superb and the food very good. Flying over the rugged mountainous Laos I wondered what the Vietnam landscape would look like, my only experience being war movies that were probably shot in another country anyway. Coming in to land at Hanoi, the first thing that struck me was how flat and spaced out everything was. The other thing that struck me immediately was the Viet flag, which I would get to see everywhere. When I say everywhere, I mean everywhere, from mammoth sized flags fluttering over government buildings to small tattered flags flying over the most humble shacks perched on coastal cliffs. The yellow star on the red background gave me gooseflesh, and the severe looking customs and police officials sporting the same insignia on their collars made me wonder if I would be taken to a back room, body searched and subjected to Rambo style torture on a metal bed frame until I confessed to be a secret operative from some hostile country. Customs was actually a breeze and the only cause of consternation was when the official called over his superior to look at my passport. Oh Shit what now! Seems like my South African passport was a bit of a rarity and I found that it caused a lot of discussion wherever I went. Brett's New Zealand passport hardly ever got a second look. Another thing that caused a lot of confusion wherever I went in SE Asia was that people on hearing I was from South Africa normally looked at me quizzically and said "You not Negro??" I got time tired of trying to explain the cultural diversity of my land and normally just replied "I wash hard before I come here". This invariably led to their faces lighting up in understanding, nodding and saying "Ok, Ok!".
It wasn't difficult spotting Brett in the arrivals hall, as his 1.98m frame towered over all the Viets returning home. His first words to me were "Is that all your luggage?", after seeing my one piece of hand luggage. During my travels I've become a master of buying light, easy to wash and dry, wrinkle free clothing. This helps when there are no laundry services available, many of which return your laundry with a slight wood smoke smell and invariably still damp. Looking at his 2 large cases which I later learned contained his wedding suit, ties and numerous shoes (35kg in all!), I had the first inkling that things could get a bit "heavy" during our trip. Knocked back a few cold Tiger beers and caught up on old times and the travels so far. The airport is about 30 odd kms north of Hanoi and rather than take the cheaper $2 minibus which leaves you at the mercy of comrade hotel tout, we split the $ 10 taxi fare which took us directly to the hotel I had selected from my travel guide. This guide is my travel bible and has very seldom let me down. I always like staying close to the action and the Anh Dao Hotel in Ma May avenue was a little gem. There are hundreds of similar cookie cutter hotels available that cater for all tastes and budgets. From dorms with fans at $ 4 per day we chose the "deluxe" room at the Anh Dao at a negotiated price of $ 15 per day. A little bit more about the hotel will show what really good value it was. The price includes breakfast, free laundry, 30 minutes of free internet access, lovely wooden floored rooms with aircon, fridge, and balcony, but most importantly great staff. Huyen the receptionist was not only a good looker, but spoke English well and had a wicked sense of humour. More about the Vietnamese women, their thoughts and the seedy side later, more about Hanoi itself…
Hanoi is a marvellous city!! She knocks the socks off Bangkok and Phnom Penh with her laid back attitude, stunning old French colonial buildings mixed with Chinese architecture, beautiful lakes surrounded by willows, and broad tree lined avenues. There is a sense of organised chaos as with most Asian cities and the usual cacophony of incessant hooters and buzzing motorbikes. My first impression when we got to the old quarter was of piles of rubbish dumped in the streets and I thought it was such a pity to deface these beautiful streets. Only later after checking in and standing on the balcony did we see how the system worked. Looking down we saw that suddenly the streets were spotless! The sound of a bell being rung which we assumed was an ice cream vendor was actually the street cleaner approaching and all the sidewalk vendors would hurry and throw their garbage in piles so that he / she could collect it and wheel it away in his barrow. I was very impressed with the Vietnamese attitude to work, as Brett so aptly put it, they were always "Beavering away!" Stunning young girls doing construction work was not uncommon and motos piled high with bricks and cement were scurrying around everywhere. When the subject of the Vietnam war did occasionally arise, the common reply was "We not looking back, we looking forward!" Great attitude..Viva Vietnam!!!
Utopia? Most definitely not. Hanoi suffers the maladies of all Asian capitols. Hawkers are everywhere, and many restaurants and coffee bars around the lakes normally have special security people to discourage hawkers from pestering the patrons. The sights are also tragic to behold with youngsters as young as 5 or 6 carrying their younger sibling strapped to his back while trying to make his sale of travel books, maps and Viet themed biographies. Yet even these hawkers are different and I was put in my place on two occasions. A young woman had targeted me at the lake to sell me a t-shirt and when I said not today maybe tomorrow, she smiled and walked away. Sure enough the next day she was there and reminded me of my "promise". I really did not need and did not have the space for another shirt but she persisted. Judging by the price of it, I reckoned that 10 000 Dong (about 70c US) would be her profit on the shirt and gave it to her so that I could be left alone. If I had spat at her she could not have been more insulted. "I do not want gift..I want to sell you something!" she said and threw the money back at me. I felt really embarrassed realising that the cost of all my beers and food would probably have been almost half a months salary to her. This was confirmed when Tuan the security chap at the restaurant, who I became friends with, who earned $ 50 a month and considered himself an average earner. Brett needed some t-shirts, but she did not have the colour he wanted so off she went and was back in 30 minutes with the correct size and colour having walked heavens knows how far to get them. I was very humbled, but on seeing her the following day she walked up to me and gave me a playful punch on the arm and smiled. A second lady also shot me down in flames when she approached me with her basket of goodies. I straight away said no thank you, but she said "Do you mind if I just sit by you and practice my English?". What an interesting woman she turned out to be, having been raised on the streets she decided to study English and much of her income is spent on her American tutor (evident by the drawl of her voice) who if she is to be believed charges $ 25 per hour!! I heard this figure mentioned a few times but cannot say if it is true. Seems awfully high? Before all you aspiring TEFL teachers start booking your tickets, please verify this as I am talking under correction here. Brett and I both had a nasty experience with 2 different Viet guys, mine happening one evening just as I had purchased a packet of smokes a young guy of about 15 came up to me and said "Give me your change!". Straight away I was pissed off, because although the change was nominal, I resented his attitude and could see he was flying on some substance. Gritting my teeth I said sorry but no and began walking away. He followed me and kept asking for the money, saying tourists had lots of money. I was by myself at this stage, Brett having moved off somewhere, when my temper finally snapped and I spun round and told him to F**k off. He went ballistic!! Screaming at the top of his voice and cursing everyone in my family. I fully expected a knife to be drawn because he rushed up to me and when I stood my ground he started circling me like a rabid dog all the while getting close to meltdown. Just then Brett walked up and I saw my would be attacker hesitate when he saw that he was now at a distinct disadvantage. Muttering and swearing he slunked back down the street. Brett's situation was similar with a young kid of about 7 or 8 also not taking no for an answer, Brett told him to go forth in short jerky movements. Where this kid learned all those profanities, nobody knows. Chatting to some Viet guys later, they told us we should have given them a good smack, but lessons of Thailand were in our minds and we did not know who the locals would side with. That was the bad side, but all the good things far outweighed the bad.
Finding what you want to buy in Hanoi is dead easy as all the streets are named after the goods they sell (in the old quarter). You have gold street, silver street, shoe street etc etc. A word of advice though, never buy anything during your first few days as you will get a feel for the prices and having so many hundreds of thousands Dong in your wallet one tends to overspend (approx 15-16 000 Dong per $1). Always carry a small map of the area as it is very easy to get lost, especially at night, when streets start to resemble each other and the effects of alcohol diminishes ones sense of direction. However never stop and look at the map in the street because you will be swarmed by cyclo and moto drivers. Step into a shop or sit down for a beer and get your directions. The lake areas are great to sit and relax and escape the heat while doing some prime people watching. Apparently in the Hoan Kiem Lake there are several large terrapins that the locals sit and watch out for, because legend has it that should one of these creatures be seen surfacing one of the countries leaders will die. My Viet friend Tuan was a great guy and had his own moto and he willingly took us around to various places in Hanoi without asking for a cent. I did however insist that we pay for his petrol and we also footed the bill for him and his friend when we stopped for meals and beers. It was great meeting his family and friends, drinking at his "local", trying the local whiskeys, and smoking from the long bamboo water pipe. I can always recommend going out of your way to befriend a local as you get a far better insight into the country and its people than a tour guide would be able to offer. One last word about Hanoi and it involves ATM machines. I found only one (ANZ Bank) in the whole of Hanoi!! If you are planning to travel, take most of your cash in TCs or $s. The second ATM was in Saigon!! A long way away should you have used up all your travellers checks! Hopefully the situation has changed since my visit.
Anyhow more about the interesting things and YEAH the women in my next submission.