My sense of time seems to be utterly warped by all this hopping about the subcontinent (South East Asia is a subcontinent, right?). It seems that almost every day counts for three, what with all the exciting goings on around us and vivid new experiences. So it was with a slight sense of surprise that I noticed that it’s been days since I’ve updated this blog instead of months. This injustice to my only reader (although there might be two?) had to be rectified. In my defence, I should state that the internet connections here in Ha Long Bay and on Cat Ba island have been mildly atrocious, and our Hanoi hotel didn’t have a working WiFi at all.
But on with it. We made it to Hanoi fairly fine. Girly, having slept like a particularly exhausted log for most of the 20 hours we spent in Bangkok, was past the worst stage of food poisoning and was merely weak, no longer violently ill (although militantly cranky). The flight to Hanoi on a dirty AirAsia A320 was uneventful and boring, although the DM airport departure area turned out to be a pleasant place, all carpeted spacious halls and nice stores. They even had a Subway and McDonalds, although the McD didn’t serve (or even display) anything other than crappy breakfast stuff that early (6am) in the morning. I would have liked to see what locally themed monstrosity they thought up for Thailand. Subway seemed to be identical to the ones at home.
We left the country with as little hassle as when we entered it, just a quick stamp, and an adorable incident at the border control. As the border control lady looked at my passport she suddenly started giggling. I was a little surprised, my passport photo is pretty boring, and my grumpy and unshaved morning mug not particularly funny, but she went on quietly giggling while leafing through the passport and stamping it. Then, handing it back to me, she very quietly, almost whispering, asked: “Sir..? Have you seen…” and the she giggled into her palm again, looked around, leaned in towards the glass separating us, and continued, in a whisper, “…the real Santa Claus?”. When I lied to her that yes, in fact I did, she lit up and covered her face with her cupped palms. Incredible… Girly, coming up behind me, was briefly puzzled as to what occurred and why was the customs lady giggling at her as well.
Having arrived at Hanoi we passed the immigration with surprising ease, although we should have gone to the Visa on Arrival desk first, if I interpreted the eye rolling customs officer correctly. We just got a boring stamp in our passports valid for 15 days, and that was it for bureaucracy that day. Our next adventure was getting a cab to the hotel. Well, right after figuring out how many Dongs make a Euro (way too many, we were instant millionaires) and getting some from the nearest ATM. The tourist info lady that we asked about the cabs was all too willing to sell her own fixed rate transfer minibus for 30$, so we took our chances with a meter cab. It was ok, except that the bastard took a shot at delivering us to a fake hotel, where a sleazy scam artist tried to persuade us, before we even left the car, that our hotel “had an accident / was overbooked”, I never managed to find out which, and we had to transfer to another hotel nearby. I called him insane, told him that this was the wrong address, and that I wasn’t born yesterday. There was an awkward pause, then the taxi drove on. I told our driver “no more fake hotels please”, he gave one of those nervous asian laughs and drove us to our real hotel. The whole trip cost about 370,000 Dong, so about 18 dollars even with the fake hotel stop. Win!
The hotel was great, but Hanoi failed to deliver a pleasant first impression. It was smelly, polluted, noisy and incredibly congested. We went out for a walk and balked at the mass of scooters, scooters driving on the sidewalks, scooters parked on the sidewalks, scooters being repaired, scooters being washed, scooters driving on the wrong side of the road, and all of them constantly honking and emitting noxious fumes. Some of them must have been two-strokers, because the amount of smog was incredible. It wasn’t quite as bad as Delhi, but certainly approached Chinese levels. But scooters, man, those things ruin the city. There’s just too many of them. They crowd the pedestrians right out, especially in the old quarter, where the sidewalks are narrow and a parked pack of scooters can easily take all of that walking space up. Hanoi should institute a bike (or electric bike) only policy, backed up by an occasional shooting of offending individuals. I guess Hanoi is worth a visit, but apart from the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the Ho Chi Minh museum and the Military Museum there is precious little to do here, except stage trips to Sapa or Ha Long Bay. Oh and apparently there’s always the night life. If you’re into that.