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Hanoi, where the wild mopeds roam

VIETNAM | Friday, 5 June 2009 | Views [1422]

The first impressions of Hanoi in the taxi were that of a French city. It was after all the colonial capital of French Indochina so it shouldn't have been too surprising to be passing through wide tree lined boulevards past pretty lakes surrounded by buildings built in that distinctive 5 storey Parisian style. Once we got to the hotel in the old quarter that all ended and Hanoi became Vietnamese again – narrow one way streets filled with mopeds zooming in both directions, pavements filled with people selling everything from noodle soup to snake wine to snakeskin wallets.

The guesthouse only had 3 rooms and we were in the one above reception with the blaring music. It didn't matter we were shattered and got about 80 winks before heading out for brunch. Hanoi, especially the old quarter seems to not have enough resources of any kind to meet the demand. The shops are tiny so they spill out onto the path. There's no parking anywhere so the mopeds park on the path too. Pedestrians can't walk on the path because of all the mopeds and shops so they walk on the road. The people cooking food on the street have no room on the path for the reasons above, so they move out onto the road, pushing the pedestrians further out on the streets, which are busy anyway, more so because no-one pays any attention to the one way system. So it's carnage. You have to look four ways before you cross every street. But you trust in the “system” and you get across. Most of the time.

There were 3 objectives for the day – one was to meet up with Joanne, a friend of mine from college who had been living in Hanoi for some time, the others to book a tour to Halong Bay and meet up with Nick of casino heist fame – he was thinking of joining us on the tour.

After arranging for Joanne to come over to the hotel in the evening Claire and I were free to look into the tour side of things. We had asked a few people who had been before for recommendations and their message was simple – get the cheapest tour you can because you will go on the same tour no matter how much you pay. The receptionist took out a shiny brochure and offered 3 days 2 nights for $45. It seemed fair enough but we wanted to play the market a bit.

We met up with Nick at his backpacker hostel and found out what he'd been up to. He had decided to make a go of it in Hanoi as a teacher but was sorely tempted to take up an offer to help open up a members-only club in HCMC. Good old Nick – a great man for the crazy offers. He wasn't going to come with us to Halong Bay but as we were chatting a local approached us offering a “special accommodation opportunity”. A competitor to Nick's Aussie style backpackers was opening nearby and they wanted to poach their clientele by offering one free night, opening night in exchange for feedback. I swear the scams just follow this guy around. He didn't seem to want to talk to us, only to Nick – they shook on meeting up later and left it at that.

Nick's hotel were offering a Halong Bay 3d/2n trip for $90. It seemed to have good reviews but at twice the price would it be twice as good? The Rough Guide (which had quite a big warning about broken promises on the trips) suggested a place called the Kangaroo Cafe as one of the few places which kept their promises. We went and asked if someone could talk to us about the tours. We were given a massive folder to flick through. $100 this one, Seemed fine too. Keen to compare apples with apples we went to one of the little tour agencies that are everywhere in Hanoi. We chose one near the hotel, Sinh Cafe which took out exactly the same brochure (AZ Queen Cafe) as the guesthouse receptionist had and quoted $40 for the same tour.

We deliberated about what to do – which tour to choose – there are literally thousands of offices – are they all selling the same tour? I went down to reception and lied that we had found a tour around the corner for $38 – would he match it? As is the custom in Vietnam made a call to a faceless superior to check. Yes he could do it. We booked for the next morning – it was a risk and we knew it but it would have been a bigger risk to pay twice as much for the same tour. Only one way to find out.

Joanne and Mike called over in the evening. They took us to a nearby Bia Hoi - a Vietnamese street drinking emporium with cheap beer. We caught up and downed a few beers. They had been working for the UN and other NGOs as consultants and gave us the lowdown on Hanoi life. Great to catch up properly after so long. We carried on to a restaurant which was reached by climbing a long set of stairs. We sat down on the floor at the low table, Japanese style and let the guys do the ordering. It was such a pleasure – we didn't need to navigate either the streets or the menu – all we had to do was concentrate on the good company and the excellent catfish springrolls.

Vietnamese is not an easy language – there are 7 tones so one word can have seven different ways of saying it and even more meanings based on context. Joanne was going great guns ordering all sorts of stuff. At one point the waitress came over with a lemon juice – we all looked blankly as no-one had ordered one. But the squid was missing. The words for squid and lemon are identical to the outsider. We all knew where it was going when Mike ordered a bottle of plum rice wine to accompany the beers. A mulberry wine joined the plum and we moved on to a bar. The manager was keen to practice his English in exchange for free drinks and we were happy to oblige. He explained the significance of all our Chinese zodiac signs – Claire's a snake and I'm a horse but we can't for the life of us remember the significance. Too many free shots – great night all round.

When we got back to the guesthouse it was shut up like it had never existed and Joanne's moped had disappeared. Lacking an alternative I banged at the shutter hoping for a solution to all our problems. We were not disappointed – the shutter was rolled up by a sleepy but smiliing receptionist (many Vietnamese seem to sleep where they work). He had rolled the moped in to the hotel when he locked up, fearing its theft. What a thoughtful guy. We promised to meet up with the guys on our return from Halong and stumbled upstairs to pack for the trip.

Tags: city, moped


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