Vietnam Day 1 – Hanoi

Travelogue, Vietnam — By on July 24, 2007 7:06 am

At last the time had come for a month-long break.  A chance to get out of Singapore and backpack my way around Vietnam, a country I was yet to visit.  Lindsay was coming too, which was fantastic, as she is a great travelling companion.

Flew Tiger Airways from Changi.  During the flight, we had the pleasant company of a Vietnamese chap from Hanoi, who, patriotic chap that he was, took great pleasure in showing us photographs of Hanoi on his laptop.  We arrived at night after the 3.5hour flight, with no hotel booking.  The airport was nice enough, and immigration was pretty speedy.  We got on a minibus which cost $3 to get to a destination of our choice.  After flicking through the Lonely Planet (good only for maps, as I soon found out), I opted for the Hotel Camilia, which seemed nice enough judging by the description.  As we got into Hanoi, the bus mysteriously stopped and picked up a local man, who got on and promptly asked where we wanted to go.  “But there are many Camelia hotels” he said when I explained where I wanted to go.  So we arrived in the Old Quarter.  Traffic was horrendous.  Motorbikes with whole familes on them were vying for space with buses, trucks and the odd taxi, but it was the motorbikes that caused the majority of noise, chaos and, to the bewildered foreigner at least, confusion.

We reached the beautiful Hoan Kiem lake, but it barely had time to register in our conscience, as our minibus careered down a side street and past a throng of shops and street-side eateries, with people squatting on small blue stools and tucking into local fare cooked in a big black copper pot.  I had that familiar feeling when first entering a foreign city…a mixture of excitement, apprehension, and the feeling that I had no idea where anything was, and that surely I’d never be able to navigate this place.  We stopped outside a hotel.  By now, only myself, Lindsay, and a German couple, Tom and Mera, were left.  This didn’t look like how the Camelia Hotel was described.  It was dark and small, and run by a couple of real chancers, obviously drunk.   “Camelia Hotel” announced the shifty chap the minibus had picked up confidently.  “Welcome to Camelia”, slurred the homeless-looking guy at the front.  We looked up and saw no sign or other indication that this place was a hotel.  Seasoned from years in Asia, I realised this was a hotel scam, and I wasn’t prepared to fall for it.  The German couple joined me in demanding we be taken to the real Camelia.  After 5 minutes the driver relented, and we set off.  Over the next month, I would speak to many people who were fooled by the scam, and ended up staying at the hotels and paying more money for a worse location.  The minibus dropped the shifty guy off on the street, and he scurried away sour-faced into the night, ready to plot another scam.  I felt victorious.  I was ready for it.  I was sure I’d be facing a lot of scams on the trip, and that I’d probably fall for a few, but at least the first one didn’t get me.  And I was with my Indonesian girlfriend, who knows every scam in the book anyway, so I imagined I’d be pretty safe.

We got dropped off at Camelia Hotel and walked in.  It looked grand enough, with marble floor and pillars.  Well-lit too, and packed with older foreigners.  The staff were surly ( a redeeming feature of almost everyone connected with the service or tourism industry in Hanoi), and reluctant to give us a room.  They said only one room was available, so Lindsay and I went to take a look.  The room was cavernous but characterless, and overpriced at $25.  By now it was around 9:30pm, so we were tired.  We sat in the lobby and tried to figure out our next move.  Lindsay and Mera went off to look for a place, and I chatted with Tom.  He was a nice fellow, for a German, and had lived in Saigon for a month. Silly pony-tail though.  The girls came back and they’d found a place.  We followed them eagerly down some dark streets, and into Central Star Hotel.  It wasn’t the best-looking place, but cheap at $10.  We checked in.  Lindsay had chosen a twin bedroom, that had a tiny balcony where you could look onto the street below.  It was pretty basic, but at least it had a fridge and cable TV.

We freshened up and went out into the night together.  We were due to meet Tom and Mera at a bar we had seen on the way, amusingly called ‘Halfman, Halfnoodle’, but we thought it was shut as we walked past it, and so continued alone.  The streets were getting quieter as by now it was 11:30pm, and Hanoi pretty much shuts down at midnight.  We found a cyclo (a form of the Indonesian becak, a bicycle witha small carriage at the front for up to 2 people) and negotiated a fee of 10,000 Dong to find us a restaurant that was open.  The driver cycled around for a while and then down a dark street where he took us to a restaurant/bar.  2 expats sat downstairs, and the rest of the place was empty.  We went upstairs and sat on the balcony overlooking the quiet street.  The staff seemed pissed-off that we were ordering food at that late hour.  I ordered mixed fried rice that came with some good seafood, and a Beer Hanoi that tasted OK.

During the meal we suddenly saw all the lights outside snap out.  An announcent on a loundspeaker echoed hauntingly, and we saw a police van cruising down the street slowly, searchlight slashing across buildings to both sides.  So this was the ‘fun police’.  At midnight everynight, they drive around ordering restaurants and bars to shut.  Rules have been tightened up for some reason, and I was reminded that we were in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, and certain restrictions were imposed.  Amazingly, 5 minutes after the incident, the lights came back on, the stools came out, and people emerged again from hiding. the danger had passed.

We finished our meal and went for a walk around the lake, which was beautifully lit.  The Ngoc Son Temple at the Northern end was lit red, and at the Southern end, Thap Rua (Tortoise Tower) glowed an eerie white.  We walked all around the lake, past some notable colonial buildings, past the Martyrs Monument, and then strolled back to the hotel, somehow finding our way in the dark, and had a long sleep.


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