In which Hanoi inspires euphoria fading to disillusionment; The black art of crossing the street; Water puppets and fixed cameras and smiles still make me happy; Halong Bay had better be worth all this

Of all the trains to be on time, I wouldn’t have chosen the International Express sleeper from Nanning in China’s Guangxi province to Hanoi in northern Vietnam. I would, in fact, have appreciated if it had run quite late and let me sleep longer. But true to the principle of universal irony as expressed by rail transport, we arrived exactly on schedule at a quarter to five in the morning (or as I like to call that time of day, Stupid o’Clock). The train pulled into Hanoi’s Gia Lam Station, far out in the suburbs, and we disembarked into a cool, pearly predawn light. I wish I were a morning person, I really do. The quality of light at that time of day makes anything it touches beautiful. You might think (possibly not being aware of my natural ground state of radiant cheerfulness) that, being a non-morning person awake at Stupid o’Clock I might be slight cranky. Not so. I was in the most beatific of moods, like the Buddha on Prozac. I was in love with Vietnam on the simple basis that it wasn’t China. I was happier than I’d been in weeks. My bliss was compounded when we exited onto the street and the screeching horde of rabid touts I’d subconsciously expected completely failed to materialize. And there were only three or four taxi drivers waiting too.

We didn’t have any local currency to get to the city centre, and Elizabeth, the Englishwoman on the train who’d bailed us out by covering the surprise “medical examination fee” sprung on us at the border, seemed convinced that we wouldn’t find an international ATM anywhere near Gia Lam. It seemed odd to me, but she lives in Hanoi and I took her word for it. Besides, she offered us a ride in her taxi and took us right to the door of our hotel. A very nice lady, as I think I mentioned before. I try not to depend much upon the kindness of strangers (it’s a scarce and non-renewable resource) but it’s awfully nice when it comes my way. Thanks again, Elizabeth.

It was still early. Like most small hotels in this part of the world, this was a family-run affair. Like India, the staff here sleep in the lobby at night. We sat dozing ourselves, waited for them to get up and open the place officially, and watched the street waking up outside. It had been empty and quiet, but as the dawn wore on the street filled with women in round pointy hats wandering the neighbourhood with two baskets on a yoke over their shoulder, selling fruit, bread or eggs.

The hotel was on Ma May in the middle of Hanoi’s tourist ghetto north of Hoan Kiem Lake. And what a ghetto it is - quite as bad as Thamel in Kathmandu. All the vendor women want to pose for photographs and you can’t go ten steps without being pestered by cycle-rickshaw and motorbike-taxi drivers. I couldn’t have cared less. I was so happy to be out of China that Vietnam looked very good in comparison. The air was breathable and no one was spitting or smoking. And everyone was smiling! Vietnamese people smile all the time. It was such a contrast to China’s sea of scowls and dour inscrutability that it made me smile too, just to see it. It’s such a simple, small thing, but I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed it. Smiles are good things. I was later to become gradually aware of two things: first, that Southeast Asians have a smile for every emotion, especially the negative ones, so smiles are social masks rather than genuine indicators of mood; and second, that everyone in Hanoi and along most of Vietnam’s tourist trail is a grinning crook or a con-artist. But I’m jumping ahead of my narrative. I didn’t know these things at that moment and was just amazed and grateful to see so many smiling, happy people.

Sheryl had taken an inadvisably large dose of her sleeping pills so that she’d sleep on the train (one whole tablet instead of her usual quarter) and trailed around after me most of the day in an uncomprehending daze. Afterwards she couldn’t remember anything we did that afternoon, but I found Hanoi an interesting place. The murky green waters of the lake give a turgid ripple once in a while to mark the passage of an especially big catfish, but are otherwise still. The lake itself is surrounded by a thin strip of park with paved footpaths. Ringing that is a big loop of very busy roads, and outside that a sprawling warren of crooked little streets and mouldering row-houses. The sidewalks have been colonized by entrepreneurs and converted into linear motorcycle parking lots, complete with informal parking attendants to sort out the tangle of handlebars and direct pedestrians back out into the road where they belong. Every night the streets fill with plastic tables from the streetside restaurants and noodle shops and the air fills with food-smoke and good smells. The food’s cheap and good (though not necessarily clean or healthy). It’s a peculiarity of Hanoi that you can get a cold drink from restaurants but never from any shop. Either electricity is too expensive, the shops are too small for refrigerators, or the Vietnamese believe cold drinks are unhealthy - possibly all of the above.

There’s a definite skill to crossing the street in Hanoi. There’s a torrent of traffic, but nearly all of it is on two wheels. There aren’t any lights or signals except at the most major intersections, and there don’t really seem to be any traffic laws either. So people can and do turn right or left from either lane and any direction at any time with no warning. Faced with this unceasingly rushing, solid wall of speeding metal and noise it seems that it would be impossible to cross the street. But the secret technique is this: you, the pedestrian, must take a deep breath, summon your faith and simply step off the curb and into the flow of traffic. The river of motorcycles will part magically in front of you and close up behind you as you cross. If you walk slowly, calmly and steadily across then your little bubble of semi-safety will move with you until you get to the far side. But if you speed up or slow down, try to second-guess the drivers or do anything else at all unpredictable, you’ll be flattened.

My most urgent priority, naturally, was to have my camera fixed. I had a few recommendations to go to a street south of the lake called Vọng Ðúc. It was a small street lined with camera supply and repair shops. I asked around, took a deep breath and ducked into the consensus recommendation. The man there had no English but I demonstrated the problem and he knew what was wrong instantly. He produced a flat amber-coloured ribbon cable and pantomimed zooming the lens and folding the cable over and over until it broke. I noticed that he’d pulled it out of a jar of identical cables labelled “Canon 17-85 IS” and that made me feel confident that I was in good hands (though a little angry at Canon for what’s clearly a design flaw). He quoted me Ð300,000 (about C$18) and pointed to the next day on the calendar. What a huge relief. I’ll have a camera again tomorrow! I agreed to the quote with no hesitation at all. No doubt it was inflated, but it’s a personal rule of mine to keep repair people happy - especially camera-repair people. I might be a penny-pinching bastard but I’m not about to nickel and dime over something so important to me.

That night we saw one of Hanoi’s professed “must-see” attractions - a water-puppet show. Once a traditional folk art entertainment performed in rice paddies, now cheesy self-conscious exhibition for tour-bus groups. Sheryl was desperate to go and I was intrigued enough by the mysterious concept of water-puppets to go along. They’re just what the name suggests. The puppeteers stood behind a curtain, waist-deep in water on a flooded stage, working their simple brightly-coloured puppets by long sticks. There were something like twenty short skits telling wordless little stories about daily village life or Viet legends. My favourites were the unicorn-like water-dragons playing ball and the Spastic Fish Dance. It was all good light-hearted splashy entertainment and the puppeteers were surprisingly dexterous with their creatures. There wasn’t much in the way of marionette-style articulation involved - the resistance of the water served to swirl tails, swing arms and the like. It was accompanied by a dozen traditional instruments - odd assemblies of strings and gourds that kept up a whining, buzzing drone more than a little like a dentist’s drill.

In the end, though we saw a lot of Hanoi, we didn’t see many of its usual tourist attractions. There was too much to do and too little time to do it in. Our Japanese friend Sayaka had decided to travel with us for awhile and we were due to meet her in Nha Trang halfway across the country in five days, so there was no time to linger in Hanoi. The one thing I really wanted to do was to go and see the mummified body of Ho Chi Minh, but that was a washout: in an astonishingly coincidental stroke of bad luck, Uncle Ho was in Russia for his yearly cleaning just as Chairman Mao had been in Beijing.

We had two missions that took up all our remaining time in Hanoi. The first was to arrange train tickets out of town. Stupidly, we’d ignored the lessons that China had so painfully taught us and we hadn’t booked tickets as soon as we’d arrived. Bus is always an alternative - in fact the so-called “open-tour” buses are the main means of backpacker transport in Vietnam. But I wanted to avoid them for exactly that reason, and besides I’d heard uniformly horrible things about them. But luck was on our side and we got berths on the train in hard-sleeper class to Hue with no trouble, though it was a it more expensive than I had hoped it would be at Ð360,000 (C$21).

Arranging a Halong Bay cruise was much more trouble - an epic, exhausting endeavour in fact. In China, there’s not much in the way of two-tier pricing - no one had really cared enough about us to bother overcharging us just because we were foreigners. It’s one of the nice things about the place. Not so in Vietnam. I’d been in Hanoi long enough for the initial infatuation to wear off. It was now clear to me that anyone we were likely to encounter would, with cheerful malice, mercilessly screw us over for every last penny in our pockets. With the sole exception of the train ticket office we had to work hard everywhere, even the humblest noodle shops, to get a price that was only three times too high (in this way, Hanoi was to be a good introduction to travel in Southeast Asia).

Despite being 150km from the city, Halong Bay is Hanoi’s main attraction - arguably more so than Hanoi itself - and everybody knows it. The streets of the tourist ghetto are lined with hundreds of agencies selling nothing but these cruises. Some are swanky air-conditioned showrooms and some are stalls with planks for counters. There’s a bewildering number and no way to tell the real hustlers from the merely overpriced and shifty. We had a list of a few operators said to be reliable, but it was useless - in the constantly seething upheaval of the Hanoi tourism business all of them had changed names, addresses, ownership or all three. A further complication was the host of brazen copycat offices. Success here means that every day another operation will be openly using your name. Looking around one intersection I could see no fewer than five Sinh Café offices, none of which were real (not that Sinh Café is one of the reputable companies - if anything it’s one of the dodgier ones). It’s a vicious, cut-throat business that’s probably even nastier for the businessmen than it is for the customers (and it’s plenty nasty for the customers, believe me. Nearly everywhere we’ve been, the default conversation opener between travellers is “Where are you from?” or “How long have you been travelling for?” but in Hanoi it’s “How much did you get Halong Bay for?”). I’ve never seen such an overwhelming concentration of scamminess in one place before.

And the agents are all selling variations on the same few things. In fact, they’re all selling exactly the same thing. This is by no means clear or easy to realize at first. Every one of them will swear blind that they own the boat that appears in the inkjet-printed pictures in the dime-store page-protector, each boat with their name badly Photoshopped onto its sails. And even the good reports we’d heard all had the common feature of a last-minute “upgrade”. So gradually we realized that they’re all just agents for a few big consolidators operating behind the scenes. The agent sells you to one of them, which blocks out groups and then sells them to whatever even more mysterious company actually operates the boat. So the agent you’re talking to doesn’t know what boat you’re really going on until the minute you leave, when you’ll be presented with the unexpected and joyous news of your “upgrade” to a different boat.

All this became clearer as we went, but the hustling, misdirection, fast-talking and outright lying make it very hard to see the pattern when you’re just trying to figure out how much this goddamned excursion might cost you. You know bone-deep that you’re being hustled but there’s no way around the bait-and-switch. We’d had some advice to avoid the cheapest operators - reports of rats and filth and such. Not counting those ones, we wound up with a shortlist on which the best price was a horrifying US$72 per person - something like C$76, which was about twice what I’d been hoping for. Our Africa compatriots Paul and Rebecca told us they’d paid $120 each for theirs and had a wonderful time, but their budget was a lot higher than ours is (in truth we don’t have a budget, we just try to spend as little as possible all the time). What are we doing? I thought to myself, feeling sick. We don’t have the money for this. I was close to exercising the veto right that Sheryl and I both reserve, and calling the whole thing off. Between the scamming, the constant hassles from vendors and the unrelenting catcalls of “motosikal! motosikal!”, Hanoi had lost a lot of its initial charm for me and we made a tactical withdrawal to our room to think it over.

The staff at the hotel had been continually badgering us since we arrived about their offerings. I’d been putting them off by saying we were waiting for the weather to improve, but after dealing with the circus outside, Sheryl decided to see what they had. At least we’d met actual flesh-and-blood people who had booked with them and said they’d had a good experience, which put the hotel one up on anyone on our shortlist since we’d read both bad and good reports of each of those online (Vietnamese tour agents aren’t stupid people, they know how to use a web browser, and they’ve polluted all the online forums and review sites with fake glowing recommendations of themselves and equally fake negative reviews of their competitors). The hotel’s agent started out pitching their $300 deluxe cruise, until our disgusted and hostile expressions prompted him to ask “Oh, you want the backpacker cruise?” Our ragged wardrobes and, yes, backpacks might have suggested this to him at the beginning of our stay, I thought. In the end they wouldn’t go lower than $80. It was ten percent higher than our next choice but I was sick of the whole question. Reasoning that at least we’d have someone to complain at if things went sour, I gave in out of sheer exhaustion. I regretted it instantly, though.

Flourish

One Comment on this Dispatch:

December 1st, 2010

Dang!!! Hanoi realy was a yo-yo of a emotional trip. I still think fondly of the place though (excluding the cruise business), but when we we got lost in the backstreets of non tourist areas it was good.
And the Water-puppet show rocked!!!!

¬ Sheryl
Flourish
Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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