Fear and Loathing in Hanoi
Trip Start May 02, 2007
71Trip End Ongoing
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Some of the highlights of Hanoi included the Halong Bay tour (which in itself was a roller-coaster of a ride - see the next blog entry), the water puppet show, the Museum of Ethnology (which was very interesting for us as it provided more insight into the ethnic minorities of the surrounding hill tribes we'd just seen in and around Sapa), the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum (like Lenin in St. Petersburg, he may as well have been a wax figure for all we know) and the Vietnamese coffee. This stuff has some serious kick! It is basically a thick, strong shot of espresso with condensed milk. They serve the condensed milk in a cup with a slow coffee dripper over top, which drips the coffee into the milk. Wait five minutes, stir and enjoy! It is a must if you want to be alert and on your toes for the madness that is Hanoi. We got crazy one day and rented bikes and rode in the traffic. It was actually not as dangerous as it first seemed to be. As long as you stay in a straight line and go with the flow you are perfectly safe. We even took on a Vietnamese round-about and lived to tell the tale! Seriously, forget adventure or extreme sports; if you want to feel alive, just cross the street in Hanoi a few times - it is a natural rush!
We have been learning some valuable lessons early on in our Vietnam travels; they are almost always coming at a cost to us though. First of all, it is very difficult to travel the country independently, which was tough for us to take since we like to do things when we want and how we want; in other words, on our own terms. The tourism industry here has made it very difficult (and expensive) to do this though, and most people travel through organized tours and use agents to buy train, bus or plane tickets.
Secondly, the Vietnamese can get down right mean and nasty when something doesn't go their way. We've found them to be like delicate flowers and dealing with them is kind of like walking on eggshells. This lesson was learned in our first hotel in Hanoi. To make a long (very long) story short, we booked for three nights at an agreed price of $10 per night and when it became clear to them that we were not going to book any tours or any bus or train tickets through them, they decided that they would increase the price after two nights to $15. Of course we refused because we already agreed on $10 per night, so in essence they forced us out of their hotel. This was not before they played games with us in trying to get us out by other means - telling us an electrician needed to come in to our room to fix something. Their reasoning, as they so bluntly told me, was "why should we let you stay here for $10 when you don't book any tours with us? We give you breakfast (which was a bun and some butter) and hot showers". We were also ensured by them that "this is how it works in all of Vietnam so we'd better learn". They even went so far as to say, after I'd told them we traveled in China for six weeks and this has never happened to us, that "China is rich country, Vietnam poor - we need your money". Now when we book into any hotel, we make sure to tell them up front before we agree on anything that we will not be buying any tours or tickets through them
At every turn, every transaction big or small, they are trying their damnest to rip you off, to squeeze a few extra thousand dong from you. It never fails. If I order one thing from a menu for 25,000 dong ($1.50), I will get a bill for 30,000. At one sidewalk noodle shop we asked how much for pho (Vietnamese noodle soup) and were told 10,000 dong per bowl. When we went to pay, the man who gave us that price was no longer there and the remaining girls huddled together to decide how much they should charge us. When I handed them our 50,000 dong note they gave back 20,000 dong in change. Luckily for us the guy had written out 10,000 dong beforehand so we showed them and they gave us the 10,000 they owed us. These are just small examples, but it is amazing how predictable it has become. For most tourists here, which a high percentage appear to be families and vacationers (as opposed to long term budget travelers), they are unaware this is happening and are paying much more than they should. In the long run, it looks like peanuts since most of the time they are overcharging by the equivalent of $0.50 or less, but it stops becoming about money and about being treated like a decent human being. It is very tiring and we are really surprised at how bad this is happening in Vietnam. We met a German who had been traveling all over Southeast Asia for nine months now and he said that Vietnam is by far the worst in these terms.
But we will try to keep our heads up as we move on in our travels. We are heading south to warmer climate, sunshine and some much needed beach time for Christmas. Hopefully these bad experiences will become a distant memory.