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Day 82 – The Drunken Streets of Hanoi

May 24, 2010

Dateline: Hanoi, Vietnam – Monday, May 24, 2010

Hanoi seems built to confuse and overwhelm. The traffic and motorbikes seem thicker than Saigon’s. The streets are just as French and confusing but are also narrower and more closely spaced, which gives the city’s center a more claustrophobic feel. Houses in the Old Quarter are narrow owing to a quirk in local tax law, so there seems to be a different street side shop every 6 inches. It gives you the odd sensation that you’ve walked half a mile even though you’ve only gone 30 feet.

The streets behave like career criminals, never able to go straight for every long. At one point tonight, a Malaysian guy approached Michelle, Reuben and I and pleaded, “Please, where are we? Do you know how to get to the church? I can’t find my hotel.” That’s when we realized he was with five other friends. Even for the directionally gifted, negotiating this city is like trying to follow one noodle in a plate of spaghetti in white sauce. And I thought Saigon was bad.

Hanoi’s dizzying atmosphere matches its reputation amongst backpackers. Guidebooks warn of deceitful hotel proprietors who copy the names of reputable hotels and try to pass off their inferior product to unsuspecting travelers. The same goes for travel agencies, where the once trusted name of the Sinh Brothers travel agency is pasted on nearly every other tour and travel provider shop—and in Hanoi, that’s a lot of shops.

If you want to experience true confusion, just try doing what Rueben, Michelle, and I tried to do today: book a tour of Halong Bay. We wanted a 3-day, 2-night tour with decent food and accommodations and a good guide. We visited agency after agency and got prices ranging from $39 to $450 with an array of promises. Everyone claimed to have good food and good value.

Backpacker forums online told a different story. Proprietor’s promising 13 people on a boat and actually stuffing 30 people on board claiming, “These 17 people don’t count since they’re on a 2-day tour and you’re on a 3-day.” The promise of guides that speak English but can barely hold a conversation. Pictures in brochures that look nothing like what’s actually been booked on a Cat Ba island. Some proprietors will basically lie to you. Like a Hanoi street, they’ll lead you to believe you’ve made a good choice, just to curve left, double back on you, and leave you feeling double crossed, frustrated, and confused.

In the end, we collected what information we had, Googled the hell out of the companies to try and find reviews, and decided to wait a day to book our tour. We’d arrived in Hanoi at 7 a.m. dazed and tired after a bumpy ride on the night bus from Hue, and determined that making a decision in our addled state probably wouldn’t be best.

Instead, we opted to walk around Hoan Kiem Lake and explore the Old French Quarter. We stumbled into a pagoda that I mistook for a more famous landmark. We saw the iconic Tortoise Tower in the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake. We came across the Hanoi opera house. We even found a giant statue of some guy who seemed kind of famous.

To sort out our confusion, we decided to spend the evening hopping between local Bia Ha Noi shops. These local joints serve only local brew and offer a real taste of Hanoi. The places we hit had no other Westerners. We were probably being overcharged, but at the rock bottom price of 6,000 dong (35 cents) a glass, we decided not to raise a fuss.

After visiting shop after shop, we hit the streets to look for a late dinner. This was no small task. Hanoi seems to close early, so finding cheap eats is a challenge, especially when the streets are like a maze. We stumbled across a kebab stand serving tasty meats on bread for 15,000 (80 cents) a pop. Other Westerners looking for food grabbed a late night bite. This is the Hanoi equivalent of Los Angeles’s hot dog stands.

We retired for the night, resolved to untangle Hanoi tomorrow. And to do one of the more harrowing things I’ve done this trip: book a trip to Halong Bay.

GALLERY: Click today’s gallery to view pictures of old men playing Chinese chess, a statute of some famous dude, and even more pictures of Turtle Tower.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 31, 2010 9:04 am

    MD — skip Halong Bay. It is pretty, but the tours are a nightmare.

    • May 31, 2010 8:07 pm

      Preview: I didn’t skip it. And my tour was not a nightmare. Happily.

      More preview: Halong Bay was very very pretty.

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