The travel blogging is back!
Note: This is the first part of a final three part article that completes our time in Vietnam. The next part will be auto posted in 4 days and the third part 4 days after that.
This was the last stop on our tour of Vietnam and almost the last stop in the whole of South East Asia. It had been a long winding road up this thin and sunny country. A long winding road inside us too; as the further we travelled around SEA the more we felt changed by our time here. We wanted it to be an ending to remember. Luckily, the Vietnamese were only too willing to provide one hell of a party to see us off.
This was because in a few days it was Tet. To the Vietnamese this is Xmas, New Year’s Eve and everyone’s birthday all on the same day.
We arrived in Hanoi by, the now commonality, of a “Crush Bus” and were dumped unceremoniously on the outskirts of the city by the corner of a set of turnpikes. Traffic ran seemingly in all directions around us as we negotiated our bags off the bus.
Sitting on the sidewalk for a few moments, we almost fell prey to the taxi drivers who descended on the arriving tourists like fisherman who have just spotted a large shoal of fish. Cesca and I watched as the newer tourists were netted, gutted for cash, placed in small packed tins and driven off into the city. Clearly the bus company had dropped us here as a way of supporting outrageous taxi fees, probably for some sort of kick back. I looked around; the Hotel was probably only 30 meters away as the crow flies, but from here, well most would pay anything to get away from all this traffic. Cesca waved away all prowling taxi drivers and we sat on our bags and waited. After a while, we were the only tourists left and indeed the bus moved on as well. Only a few unlucky taxi drivers remained.
Good. We were ready.
We approached one and offered a price, a fair price.
He demanded a ridiculous price.
We all laughed and the game begun.
I remember thinking that seen from a distance through the eyes of, say, an observer from another planet, what was happening here would look like some sort of strange and ancient ritual dance. The Taxi driver and we moved around each other twisting and swaying, we were all pointing at maps and towards distant objects. We were haggling with big arm gestures and subtle head nods or shakes. At moments, we would turn away with a wave of a hand dismissively, and then strangely come back almost as if we had forgotten something whereupon it would all begin anew. The taxi driver would throw up his arms and cry out deploringly, and then hold his hands apart in an unmistakable gesture of reasonableness. There was lots of counting on fingers.
The observer from another planet might say to himself that, “Surely all this cannot just be for a taxi ride?” and when his fellows asked him later, he would probably theorise that we were conjuring up some sort of God.
Eventually all the moves were made and the strange waltz ended with my saying, “Look mate, do you see anyone else here except us? Don’t you want to get paid?”
The taxi driver sighed and considered the truth in this fact. “Ok,” he said. He conspired to look wounded.
It was at that point that I realised that we had in fact lost this exchange; as although a $30 taxi had cost us $10, it was actually only worth $5. No matter, he had been a worthy opponent and I respected that.
The bus company we used to move around Vietnam is called Sinh Cafe. As mentioned in previous posts all Vietnamese cafes are in fact tourist offices. The Sinh Cafe office was the location we now departed in the taxi. However, I was surprised to spy another office with the Sinh Cafe logo on the drive in, “Look baby,” I said pointing out the window, “another Sinh Cafe, it’s probably a little closer for when we leave.”
“And there,” she said point in a different direction.
“Oh and another there,” I said. “Hang on…”
“They’re all over the place!”
Indeed, on the journey into the heart of the city, we came across no less than 18 Sinh Cafe’s, all with the correct logo, all with the correct adverts, but all fake.
Some were laughably so; containing nothing more than a single bedraggled looking person sitting on what looked to me like an upside-down bucket. Others had taken the deception so seriously that they looked more professional than the real thing; investing in moulded plastic counter tops and sporting large hi resolution posters. We counted them off as the Taxi pulled into the narrow streets that make up the old quarter. The traffic, mostly an endless train of mopeds, was everywhere. A few more turns and the streets narrowed again. Now the shops took on a strange and more “touristic” look. I started to see western style bars, street food vendors, and endless travel agents amongst which were dotted infinite fake Sinh Cafes. We were in the tourist quarter now; a place as much removed from the city’s true life as it was possible to get.
The Taxi dropped us off, spat out our bags and was instantly gone into the throng of bikes. We walked down a narrow alley to our hotel. There is no shortage of hotels in Hanoi, of course, but trying to find one with good reviews, had space and was open over this period was difficult. The staff was unusually brusque considering I had cash in my hand, and I came to the initial conclusion that we had annoyed their sensibilities merely by being born. At the time, this manner seemed strange, but now I can see that this was a New-year for them and they would rather be with their families.
In fact, this attitude was to be found almost everywhere on that day. They say not to travel at Tet, and yet we had no choice, I remember wondering how well this was going to work out.
We went out for a walk around the city and tried to get out of the tourist bubble. As these things go, there is lots to see here. There is the park area around the lake, which functions as a sort of meeting point and place of celebration,
…the street market with its fresh fish and a million smells,
…and the church area with high-end coffee shops and moneyed wealth. Then there is the amazing way that the city planners have laid out the shops; all are collected together according to type. So, one street has only spice shops full of strange things in jars that smell incredible,
…while another has fake money sellers who sell stacks of fake $ notes used in funerals.
One street we walked down was full of nothing but people noisily hammering out tin buckets.
Cesca and I really enjoyed our walk that day. When we arrived back we looked into a 3 day trip to the legendary Halong Bay, and be back for Tet proper.
Something you have to come to terms with when picking a trip to Halong Bay is that you cannot make a correct choice. That is one that doesn’t, somehow, try very hard to rip you off. It is a kind of like a shell game, in that the entire edifices of the travel agents, brochures, glossy posters, special money-off deals and so-called impartial advice is setup to convince you that what you are sold is somehow relevant or bares any relation whatsoever to what waits for you when you get there.
It does not.
So, in order to assist readers considering the options, remember that there are really only three price brackets:
Under $50: For which you are probably kidnapped and buried alive at midnight. At least that is the impression that the woman in the hotel conspired to give us when we enquired about the “cheaper deal.” It is impossible to buy this deal or more likely it probably does not exists at all.
$80 – $140: If you do not look rich, then you are pushed firmly towards this bracket. While the price range here appears large, do not let that fool you into thinking that one boat is actually going to be better than another. Whatever your hotel or travel agent tells you, WHATEVER, the boats are effectively randomised. This is the range in which to bargain hard.
$140+: You can pay up to $1000 without trying in this bracket. The boats promise to be truly splendid for this much, but remember that they are all going to the same places and taking the same trips off the boat. However, I am sure that if you pay enough, you will get an amazing experience.
Cesca and I were offered two options in the second bracket and she pointed to the one she liked. The women pointed to the other.
“What about this one?” the very short, female hotel manager asked.
“No that one please,” said Cesca smiling and pointing again at the brochure on the left.
“Ok then,” she replied with a nod to the one on the right, “I book you this one.”
“No, I said that one,” Cesca said pointing, “I like the look of this boat more than that one.”
The women picked up the brochure and considered the picture of the boat carefully. “You go better on other one.”
Cesca was getting annoyed but her voice remained very calm (only I – as her husband – could pick up the anger), “I… want… that… one.”
The women looked at Cesca as though questioning the innocence of someone choosing a tour based on the picture on the brochure, which clearly, she knew, was nothing to do with anything. Cesca was looking very determined and I could see the lady weighing up her options. She broke first, and waved a hand smiling, “Ok ok ok. This one.”
Of course, the next day, we got on the bus and found that we were on the other boat tour…