I got into a taxi. Driving along the highway, I was told to pay a toll of S$30. I stupidly handed the money over. The dumbest way to start an adventure.
This New Year’s Eve, instead of counting down to another day in Singapore, I booked a flight to Hanoi, Vietnam.
Upon touching down at Hanoi, I was greeted by the nice cold breeze. Clearing the immigrations, a man approached us and asked if we needed a taxi.
I know, it is stupid to trust the first man you see in a foreign land but I really wanted to not be cynical and wary of everything. I followed him to a taxi and hopped on, giving him the address of the boutique hotel.
We hit the highway and I stupidly paid the exorbitant toll. We realised that he did not pass any money to the booth. I immediately contacted the hotel. At least, they could comprehend simple English.
As we entered the Old Quarters, the taxi ambled along the narrow, busy streets. The taxi driver, in retrospect probably intentionally, drove past the alley of our hotel and jammed the brakes. He moved a card to reveal a hidden taxi meter and asked us to pay the sum shown.
I was not prepared to pay any more money. We were going to protect every single cent. I told the girlfriend to run into the alley and grab the hotel staff, hoping that he could help recover our money. I sat in the taxi, shouting simple and short sentences to argue my case. When the man threatened to throw our luggage on the streets, I grabbed the bags and sat stubbornly in the backseat.
The cars behind started to honk, the taxi driver wanted to drive on. (I later learnt to ignore them.) I told his accomplice to get out of the vehicle. I kept the man there waiting for the girlfriend to return with the hotel staff. Alas, the hotel staff arrived but he could not do much besides giving this conman a look of disgust. Eventually, this guy knew he could not get any more money out of us, he said the “toll money” would cover the cab fare.
I paid an additional S$10. That was an expensive lesson.
Our hotel was simple and decent, situated right in the heart of Old Quarters, a district that used to be the main area for the French Colonial rulers.
The streets of Hanoi were oozing with culture. The coffee, propaganda art, and the food gave the streets a very unique character. Set against the backdrop of French colonial buildings, sprinkled with the new influences from the capitalists, the streets were buzzing with activities.
We visited quite a few museums. The Vietnam National Fine Arts Museum, the Vietnamese Women’s Museum, and the Hoa Lo Prison. A brief understanding of Vietnam’s heritage really made the trip much more enriching as I tried to draw the connections to their lives today.
The locals spend a lot of time sipping on their drinks. Sitting on little stools on the streets, they keep warm wrapped up in their jackets and enjoyed the afternoon coffee or beer.
The traffic was and is crazy. I imagine the honking of the cars still going on now.
The car horns are not impolite. Rather, the traffic is so bad, they use it to warn each other of their own presence. The result is an orchestra of the various sounding horns.
The streets were alive with activities. In this case, asleep. They lived on streets. People gathered, cooked, played, and even napped on the streets.
This was the most solemn place. At around 4.30pm, the police started chasing people off the square. I crept as close as I could to take this shot.
The scenery was nice, if only the sun was much brighter. It was very sad to see the young kids from the fishing village, trying their best to get us to buy a fruit or two.
Halong Bay was quite a poor experience, due to the bad weather and our poor planning. It takes a 4hr bus ride from Hanoi to Halong Bay. We left the hotel at 8am, reached the jetty at noon and had to leave the bay at 4.30pm to return to Hanoi by 9pm.
It was the New Year’s eve. The traffic was congested beyond belief. The honking seemed to be amplified. The girlfriend and I decided to alight from the tour bus earlier, to find a restaurant for dinner and walk through the crowd back to the hotel.
The weather was extremely cold and we were unprepared. It felt like we were in Australia, approximately sub-10 deg celsius. The locals were clothed in thick jackets with gloves and earmuffs; we were trembling in the cold with just one jacket each.
We had to wait extra long for our food. The restaurants were all full house and swamped. On the walk back to the hotel, the streets were flooded with people; the locals were partying on the streets. The girlfriend suffered a bruise from a rude scooter.
It was an adventure. I enjoyed the experience. We learnt as much as possible through the internet and the travel guides but nothing came close to the physical experience of being there and getting lost in the mazy streets.
More photos can be seen at Flickr.