Pun credit: Charlotte and James. Thanks guys. :)
As we travel, Jake and I have an ever growing list of things to do for when we visit a place again someday, things we didn't have time to do or just didn’t know about. We commonly say, "oh on our text trip to [insert place here], we'll have to do that!" In Vietnam, however, we haven't said that once. And I think it's because we don't see ourselves coming back here, like many other travelers we've read about and know who have come through here. Vietnam is a fascinating place, it's definitely the most challenging location we've been in so far, and, as of right now, I don't need to have this experience again.
Our visit started off well - the Hanoi airport is really pretty and the customs lady who check our passports was nice (we even got a smile from her when we tried to say hello in Vietnamese!). We got into the official taxi queue and waited our turn for a metered cab. We were extra careful about using an official, metered cab rather than taking up the offers we received from many men standing around to drive us into the city. Taxi scams were common and we were determined to not fall victim! We asked a man, who we thought was in charge of managing the line, if this line was for metered taxis. He told us yes and we got in line. Minutes later, "Here is your cab," he said, and gestured to our right. Obediently, we walked up to the cab, threw our stuff in the back, and climbed in. The driver started driving before saying anything to us, before even asking where we were going, which I thought was strange. Then Jake noticed another oddity - there was no meter. "This is a metered cab, yes?" Jake asked. "No, no meter. Fixed price. Where are you going?" the driver said. "No, the side of your car says meter, and the guy told us this was metered. Where is the meter?" Jake prodded. We could see it happening - we were becoming his next passenger to pay more than necessary, his next scam victim. "No meter. Fixed price. Where do you go?" the driver said again. Well, if it's a fixed price it shouldn't matter where we're going, so Jake responded, "How much is the fixed price?" "Twenty dollars," he replied, and handed us a packet of flyers in a plastic sleeve advertising the $20 price. "I don't have US dollars," Jake told him, "how much in dong (the Vietnamese currency)?". "Seve….um…six hundred," he stuttered. We gave him the address of our hotel, not the name (as we'd read about another scam where you tell them the name of the place and they take you to another hotel of the same name that's in another part of town, and then charge you again to drop you off at the correct hotel), and off we went. After a harrowing ride, I seriously thought we were going to get into an accident every 50 meters, we arrived two blocks from our hotel. Here's where the scam comes in - He asked Jake for 600,000 dong, as he mentioned earlier. But, according to our currency converter app, 600,000 dong equals $26.90, not $20. When Jake told him no way, that we weren't going to pay more than 450,000 (or $0.09), the driver told us "I told you the rate was thirty dollars." "No, no you did not say that. You said it was $20. It's on your flyer. Show me the flyer." But when the driver produced the packet of flyers, the one we had seen had been replaced with one that said $30. We tried to call him on it and he, of course, denied it. To resolve the whole thing and just get away from our first scam artist, Jake gave him 500,000 dong, the equivalent of $22.33, and we walked away. As he took the money, he gave Jake the biggest pouty face I've ever seen - not even a toddler could produce such a face!
Welcome to Vietnam!
So, what did we learn from scam #1? Don't get into the taxi without checking for the meter first. Confirm the price before you drive anywhere. Don't put your bags in the car until you've already done both of those things.
As we stood on the street corner talking about the ridiculousness of our driver after he left, we realized the utter chaos that was happening around us - 7 million people live in Hanoi, and 4 million of them have motorbikes, and they all seem to like to drive in the Old City, the center of town. Traffic is constant, the sound of horns seems to never end, the buzz of motors and plumes of exhaust attack your ears and lungs. There is little, if any, regard for one way signs or street lights - vehicles just go when they can. Motorbikes were packed three, sometimes 4 people deep, infants held in one arm of their mothers while they use the other to hold on, toddlers sitting up front near the handle bars. And somehow, it all worked - we didn't see a single accident the whole time we were in Hanoi. And people? Well they have to walk in the streets because the sidewalks are used for motorbike parking, small open fires for cooking, selling goods, and collecting trash. It takes a brave soul to walk the streets of Hanoi, but that's probably the safest way to get around! Since we had to walk two blocks to our hotel, we had to jump right in to the art that is crossing the street in this crazy place.
What did we learn from crossing? Keep a constant pace (for the love of God don't stop!), and have faith that the wheeled death machines will move around you. As long as you move at a relaxed pace and don't step directly in front of cars, the drivers will anticipate your motion and you will be A-ok! It might even be better just to cover your eyes and go!
We settled into our room at the Hanoi Riverside Hotel. This place great reviews on Agoda.com, and the pictures looked good enough, and for $16 a night we weren't expecting much. But I was expecting a bit more than we got - the room just needed a face lift. Paint was peeling off the dirty walls, there was hair that didn’t belong to us on the floor, dried gum was stuck to the head board of the bed. It did not look as nice as the pictures online (but I guess they never do). And what's more, this room was an upgrade from the one we booked. Hmm.
We were too hungry to really give the room a second thought, so we girded ourselves and set out to find some grub. Within moments we found ourselves ordering incredible Pho Ga at a local street spot down the block. No one spoke English, and only one thing was served there - chicken noodle soup - and it was delicious! Ok, Vietnam, you have one thing going for you - the food is fantastic!
We wandered around for a couple more hours that night down the streets of the weekend night market. Even though they are designated pedestrian zones, the occasional rogue motorbike driver goes tearing through, so we had to keep our guard up. We'd also read about the frequency of pick pocketing and other petty theft, so we were on alert the whole time. Every few minutes we were approached by women carrying baskets of donuts that actually looked pretty good. We'd waved about a dozen of the vendors off over the course of the evening and finally asked one woman, "How much?". She ignored our question and, instead, just starting bagging up 10 small donuts. "No no no, how much are they?" we asked again. "They are very good, here, you buy." "Yes maybe we will buy, we only want four. How much?" Before we could even get out the last question she all but threw the small bag of donuts into my hand. Great, what am I supposed to do with this now? "100,000 dong," she told us. HA! 100,000? Even us newbie suckers knew that was a ridiculous price, and we didn’t want all these to begin with. But here I am holding the stupid bag and she won't take it back from me. "We're not giving you 100,000. I'll pay 40,000." She didn't like that and countered with 80K. We ended up giving her 60,000, which is about $2.68, still too much to pay for these things and she knew it. She walked away smiling, and we stood there with our bag of too many donuts (about the size of donut holes) and dug in. After all that, the real sting was that they were AWFUL. Stale. Rather tasteless, except for the flavor of the oil they were cooked in and the faint hint of some kind of glaze. Some of them had the unexpected surprise of peanut filling. Bummer.
Ok, what did we learn from our experience with the donut ladies? Do not buy the donuts! Those baskets are filled with nothing but disappointment! Also, do not take anything from anyone until you have agreed that you actually want it, how many you want, and how much you will pay. There could have been an easy solution to the whole thing: I should have just put the bag on the ground when she put more than we wanted in it and overcharged us. Next time, I will let whatever it is people fling my direction fall to the ground unless we have paid for it.
We took a break from the constant harassment ("You buy my things. You eat at my restaurant.") to have a beer and do some people watching. It was 9:30 at night and still 90* out, so a cold beer while sitting on a tiny stool at a tiny table on the sidewalk seemed like a nice way to relax and not interact with hustlers for a while. But, we quickly found that, if you are outside, you are prone to be preyed upon. No less than four shoe repair guys approached Jake, asking him if he wanted them to fix his shoes. They would walk up, one by one, holding a basket of leather bits, shoe polish, laces, and thread, bend down, and flick the bit of leather that is coming up from the rest of the shoe around his toes. "No thank you. No thank you. I said NO thank you!". Later in the week we saw a shoe guy approach a blonde girl who seemed to be new to the area. She was wearing leather flip flops. As the man kneeled around her feet, she looked down, unsure what he was doing. He pointed at her foot and she lifted it just slightly to see what he could be point at. In an instant he took off her flip flop and turned it upside down, starting to go to work on it. She stood there on one foot, flabbergasted, not daring to put her foot down on the filthy street, "Give me back my shoe! No!" These guys, they're persistent!
What did we learn from our interaction with the shoe guys? Always keep two feet on the ground (good life advice, I suppose), and don't let them grab hold of your shoe!
We walked back to our room to unwind from the crazy introduction we had to Hanoi, to Vietnam, the country we were planning on staying in for three weeks. As I sat on my bed (our room had two twin beds instead of one big one) I felt one of those tiny ants that seem to follow me everywhere crawl up my arm, and I lost it. "I hate it here. I hate Hanoi. When do we leave Vietnam?"
The whole next day I was in a funk. I was miserable. Looking back, I think I finally experienced culture shock - everything was so different, so loud, so dirty; I couldn't handle it. Interaction with most people was not genuine nor pleasant. It seemed like everyone was out to scam us, to take advantage of us, or to be rude to us in some way. No one can truly be trusted. It's exhausting. It's not fun. And I hated it.
That was probably not the best day to visit the Hoa Lo Prison, aka "The Hanoi Hilton", where American POW's including John McCain were kept during the Vietnam War. You know what doesn't sit well with an American who is really not comfortable in a place and strongly dislikes it? A bit of revisionist history! Allow me to explain. The Hoa Lo Prison was built by the French back when Vietnam was under French rule as part of French Indochina. Vietnamese political activists were arrested and thrown in this jail where they were imprisoned under terrible conditions - they were fed rotting food, they were shackled almost 24 hours a day, they were beaten and tortured, many were beheaded and their heads were displayed around the prison. This is where many future leaders of the Communist party started to acquire their political following, when they were imprisoned. When the Vietnamese gained their independence, they continued to use the prison to house political offenders of the Communist party. And, as the Vietnamese captured American soldiers during the war, they often brought them here. John McCain's flight suit is on display here, and the time that he and his fellow soldiers spent at Hoa Lo is documented in pictures, pamphlets, and videos in the small war exhibition. The material shows the soldiers smiling, playing basketball and volleyball, cooking Christmas dinner, playing the guitar, decorating their "room" with Christmas decorations, having a jolly old time. The video tells visitors that the soldiers "were so lucky to be unwanted guests of the Vietnamese government. They were treated very well, thanks to the Geneva Convention, and enjoyed many happy times." They "learned about the Communist lifestyle" and felt that "the people they came to murder were right." What the exhibit doesn't talk about is the actual awful conditions the soldiers were kept in, the fact that the only reading material they were given was Communist material that was intended to brainwash them. They completely left out the fact that John McCain's horrible wounds were barely treated and he was kept in isolation for two years. But you know, it's cool to leave out the harsh realities so long as they paint a pretty picture for tourists. Revision history - I'm not a fan. A friend we made later pointed out another interesting fact about the prison - all of the rooms about the French tormenting and torturing the Vietnamese prisoners were dark and not air conditioned, so they were hot and muggy. But the rooms about the Vietnamese being so wonderful to American POW's? Those were well lit and nice and cool - could this be a psychological tactic to get viewers to believe that conditions were nicer for the Americans? It's definitely possible.
Sure - the US does some bad things. I'm not entirely sure what goes on at Guantanamo Bay, or who we might pay to do some dirty work for us in the Middle East. I don't know enough about these things to speak about them in an educated manner. But what I do know is that we don't go around making exhibitions about Gitmo saying how awesome we are and how nice we are to the prisoners there. We don't try to completely rewrite history. At least, I hope we don't. Because that was some BS that we read in the exhibition and it was infuriating.
The real icing on the cake that was my "I hate this place" day was the fact that we got kicked out of a street side eatery that night. Yup. Kicked out. Jake and I were out looking for a local place to grab dinner and not quite sure where to go or what to eat. I had yet to do much research on food, so I didn't have any idea what to look for. So we wandered aimlessly around for almost an hour. Tired of walking and getting very hungry (code red hungry), we decided to take a seat on some tiny stools at a tiny table on the sidewalk at a place that was crowded with locals. The food on the surrounding tables looked delicious - grilled meats and onions and noodles and rice…sounds good to me! We sat there for about five minutes, but no one approached us to take our order. I looked around for a menu but couldn't find one. So instead, I popped up to look at the other tables to see what dishes looked good so I could point to something to order. We must have looked confused, because soon we heard, "Do you guys need help?" I turned around and there was a white guy sitting with three Vietnamese friends. "Oh yes please! We have no idea what we're doing!" I said to him. "Do you know what you're looking at, what this food is?" he asked. Oh no, that can't be a good sign. "It's the insides of animals. This is colon, this is intestine, this is stomach…I have lived here for two years and it was hard to eat at first, but it's quite good!" Oh dear…I don't want to eat that. "Oh. Really? That's not what I was expecting!" I told him. "If you want to order it, we can translate for you." he told us. Jake and I looked at each other, not really wanting to eat what Anthony Bourdain (our hero) would call "the nasty bits", but also not wanting to embarrass ourselves and retreat in fear. Our helpers asked the proprietor how much it would cost for us, "He says 170,000," our translator told us. "That seems like a lot," Jake said, and he asked our helpers, "Is that the same price you would pay, or is that tourist price?" The white guy shrugged his shoulders as if to say, "I can't answer truthfully" and said out loud, "I don't know." His friend said it was the same price she would pay. After the experiences we'd had already, we didn't want to get screwed on the cost of dinner, too! Jake and I looked at each other for about 15 seconds, trying to decide what to do, when suddenly another man approached us. He made hand motions to mime the act of eating and then pointed to the place next door. We thought he was just asking us to move to a different table. Then the proprietor came up behind him, made an exasperated sound, and waved both arms to shoo us away! I guess we took too long to decide, so he kicked out! So we grabbed our stuff and looked at our helpers, who looked just as shocked as we felt, said thanks anyway, and wandered down the street.
What did we learn from getting kicked out of the restaurant? We need to make decisions faster, and we need to make sure we ask what food is before ordering it. I don't want to eat dog meat or horse meat on accident (yes, both are common on menus around here)!
The evening was saved, as was my general opinion of the locals up to this point, by the spot we finally did find for dinner - a small, family run noodle soup operation with happy, smiling, waving people out front who welcomed us in and taught us how to eat the little savory donuts (better ones than the ones that lady sold us) that they served with their delicious pho ga. They were all so nice - they chatted with us, let us ask their names in Vietnamese, and told us about some of the food they had prepared for their own family meal that they were eating as we left. We felt genuinely appreciated and respected there, and it was a really nice change.
That, I think, was the root of my culture shock, the underlying reason why I really disliked Hanoi for the first few days - we were not treated with respect, people tried to take advantage of us at every possible moment, no one seemed to appreciate that we were there. It was such a change from Europe, it was such a change from Chiang Mai, where people basically welcomed us with open arms, were excited to show us and teach us about their country and culture. Here, we were looked down upon, and it didn't feel good. A travel blogger we enjoy and use as a resource, Nomadic Matt, pretty much summed up Vietnam perfectly for me in his post. He might feel a bit stronger about his feelings towards this place than I do, but his message rings true for me. It's hard to really like and enjoy a place when the people seem to be constantly trying to screw you over.
My shock did subside after I got a really good night's sleep. For some reason, on day three the incessant honking didn't bother me as much as it had the two days prior, the traffic seemed easier to navigate, and we started to master the art of telling people "no thanks." I was finally feeling good, and thanks to some heavy research the night before, I had a plan for our meals for the day - no more getting kicked out of restaurants! We set out in the late morning to grab an early lunch of bun cha, a northern Vietnamese specialty of grilled pork in a tangy, fish sauce based broth, basil and lettuce on the side, and vermicelli rice noodles. When Anthony Bourdain filmed an episode of "No Reservations" in Hanoi, he VISITED*** Bun Cha, about a 15 minute walk from our place. As we were walking in the already scorching sun, we saw familiar faces walking towards us - James and Charlotte, our friends from Laos! They had just gotten back to Hanoi after a side trip to Sapa. Out of all the gin joints in all the world, I can't believe the four of us happened to all be walking on the same block in Hanoi at the same moment! So we scooped them up and brought them with us to lunch. And oh man, lunch was AMAZING. I have found my Vietnamese equivalent to Chiang Mai's khao soi - I could eat bun cha every day and be perfectly ok with it! The place we went only serves bun cha, so moments after taking our seats on tiny stools at tiny tables, the food arrived and silence fell as we sipped and slurped the deliciousness.
We went our separate ways after lunch so Charlotte and James could relax before we met them again for dinner, and so we could go find a travel agency, one we could trust, to book a side trip to Halong Bay. After reading about all of the scams in Vietnam, and falling victim to a few ourselves, we could only imagine the nightmare that dealing with a travel agency could be. "Why not just book something online and skip the agency?" I'm sure you're wondering. Well because doing that usually costs a lot more money. Call it a convenience fee, I suppose. But all of our research said booking with an agency would yield a better deal. And, since Halong Bay was one of the very few things we decided to do as part of an organized tour and not on our own, we wanted to make sure we were picking the right tour for us.
I had read amazing reviews about one agency, Lily's Travel Agency, on Trip Advisor. Everyone talked about how trusting the employees are, and how grateful they were for the honest information and fair prices. I double checked the locations of the reviewers to ensure that they were not all from Vietnam (another scam - business will often get people from Vietnam to leave reviews of their businesses that are fake, thus increasing its score, and trusting tourists will take them at face value and then be disappointed when they get taken advantage of later. So always make sure the reviews are coming from foreigners, not just locals.). These reviews seemed legit, so we took a chance. And I'm happy to say that we had an excellent experience working with Lily's! They told us about several different boat options for our Halong Bay tour, in all different price ranges, and didn't rush us to make a decision. They were nice and respectful, and even said "Thank you for coming to Vietnam", and genuinely meant it, when I told them we'll be spending our first anniversary here. We ended up booking a trip through them and would recommend their services to anyone. If you need a travel agency in Hanoi, go find Lily's!
We celebrated our great success with the travel agency with ice cream! It was about 100* outside, super humid (as usual in Hanoi), and I was dying to try the coconut ice cream in a sesame cone that I'd read about. We wandered into a pretty nice part of town, down a street with lots of high fashion shops like Dolce & Gabbana, to Kem Trang Tien ordered a scoop each, half vanilla, half chocolate. I know, you're thinking "just 1 scoop each?". We actually thought we'd each ordered a scoop of chocolate and a scoop of vanilla, but ended up with one half and half scoop each. It worked out perfectly, though, because the coconut ice cream melts as fast as gelato and there's no way two scoops would have survived two minutes in that heat! I gotta say, this ice cream was REALLY good! And the cone kind of tasted like a fortune cookie! Yum!!
For dinner, we met up with Charlotte and James for one more meal before we all departed in the morning - them to Halong Bay, us to Sapa. I had tracked down another Anthony Bourdain "No Reservations" spot for some beef pho, Pho Bat Dan. Tony really has this whole "find amazing food" thing down because this place was out of this world! We knew we were in the right place when we walked up because of the long line from the cart where the beef was being chopped up all the way out to the street. Like many of the best places, the only serve one thing - beef pho. As the place only serves beef pho, the only decision to make is how you want the beef - sliced and roasted, raw and cooked by the boiling broth when it's poured on top, or some of both. Charlotte and James went to save seats while Jake and I ordered. And, in the now-expected Vietnamese fashion, some guy who was not as pleased to see us there as others tried to cut us in line to order. Just another way we were shown that we are not respected. Thanks. But the woman in charge wasn't having it - she took my order, 4 bowls of the combo beef, before his. I waited patiently a few minutes later to receive the piping hot bowls of perfection from the man who was ladling the broth on top of the beef and noodles that the woman had prepared. My friend who tried to cut me in line was back again - he stepped around me to try to receive his bowl first. But, my knight in hot pink cotton came to my rescue again - I assume she told the man handing out the bowls to waiting customers to give me my order first, because the next thing I knew it was like the parting of the Red Sea - people stepped aside so I could retrieve all four bowls of soup. Thanks Lady! Now we feel welcome in this locals-only joint! And by the way, your soup is PERFECT.
The four of us finished of the night with a beer at a rooftop bar near the Hoan Kiem lake, where we watched the crazy traffic below and delighted in the semblance of a breeze that blew. As we were walking there, crossing the streets like pros, I turned to see a little boy, probably about 3 years old standing on the busy corner in his pajamas (not an uncommon thing to see - small children are everywhere, their parents usually close by selling things on the sidewalk or in stores). He was adorable and was staring at something in the gutter. Then he pulled his pants down a little and peed on the street. I burst into an uncontrollable fit of laughter - this whole scene was just brilliant and basically encapsulated the essence of Vietnam. No regard for anyone, no one to tell him not to do that right there, he just stood proudly and peed.
Like I said before, welcome to Vietnam.
Coming up, our trips to Sapa and Halong Bay...
HIGHLIGHTS: bun cha, seeing Charlotte and James again, Pho Bo, Lily's Travel Agecy
LOWLIGHTS: the constant feeling of being taken advantage of and unwelcome, the heat
BEST WAY TO CROSS THE CRAZY BUSY STREETS: close your eyes and just go
BOTTOM LINE: This is the fist time on our trip that we have had any negative feelings about a place. The city itself is electric - always busy and constantly moving - but our interactions with most locals leave something to be desired. We would only recommend this place to the adventurous traveler who doesn't mind the constant scamming, or the traveler who will pay loads extra to not have to deal with it.