Friday, August 14, 2009

Hello Hanoi

We arrived in Hanoi around 8.30am after setting our alarms at 4am to leave for the airport at 4.30 (actually there was plenty happening on the streets of Bangkok at that hour. The city does not sleep). We were warned at Hanoi airport about scam taxi operations who offer their services within the airport. They often work in partnership with dodgy hotels set up in the city. Their market is the unsuspecting traveller so beware. We were approached by a respectable looking gentleman, dressed well with a professional business card. I suspect this was such the scam we were warned about. We took a taxi from the rank outside which has the price clearly displayed. You should expect to pay a maximum of $15 US to take you into the city. Our friend living in Hanoi told us the story of his cousin arriving in Hanoi who ended up paying $100 US. He was picked up by the scammers, made to pay excessive amounts for the toll and on arrival said he didn’t have enough money. He had to withdrawal and didn’t realise how much he was paid until later. One US dollar equates to approx 18,000 Vietnamese Dong so takes some getting used to, especially for the mathematically challenged like myself.

On arrival I made a note:

10,000 Dong = 75 Australian cents
50,000 Dong = $4 AUD
$1 USD = 18,000 Dong

Thinking in these denominations will help you get a grasp on most purchases and you can start to understand if the price is reasonable.

We were staying in the Old Street Hotel in Ma May Street in the Old Quarter. Once dropped off we had to cross a road that spanned a few metres. It was a challenge with scooters flying past in both directions. We booked into a simple little room which had a double bed, TV, air conditioning (very important) and a bathroom.

We took to the streets of the old quarter for the first time and it was a bit of a culture shock. There were people everywhere, scooters everywhere and a mass of activity that far exceeded that of Bangkok. Negotiating the small streets of the old quarter was an experience. There seemed little margin for error and as a pedestrian it is your responsibility to avoid the traffic, or at least that was my first impression. We made our way down to the Hoan Kiem Lake to the south of the old quarter. We hit the main road just before the lake and wondered how we were going to cross the road. There didn’t seem to be any lights to cross. There was however hundreds of scooters or motos passing in each direction... Throw in a bunch of cars and some buses and you have Saturday traffic in central Hanoi. Watching a few locals we realised what we had to do: walk and hope it seemed… they walked straight into the traffic moving through the mass. We followed, and once in, there is no real turning back. It was not as daunting as first thought and the process is a mixture of them avoiding you and you avoiding them. Mission accomplished and feeling a little smug after our first little victory we converged on a local Pho street stall for our first taste of the famous soup of Vietnam. Generally you can choose between chicken and beef soup or Pho Ga or Pho Bo. You sit on the side of street on a chair no higher than 30 centimetres. They serve Pho and sometimes a few other dishes but generally the menu is limited. The food is cooked on the side of the street in very big saucepans. On the table are bits of lime, vinegar and a kind of chilli paste. The food is delivered within a minute as it is already cooked which is great for the impatient. Grab a few chopsticks and throw on some condiments and I have to say you have an amazing dish. The first of many did not disappoint and the cost is around 20,000-30,000 Dong (see above for cost conversion).
We hopped in a cyclo to take us home – another first timer for 20,000 Dong. A cyclo is pretty much a dude on a bike with a seat on the front for people to sit. It is by no means quick travel (walking is possibly faster). It was a tight fit and we have from a respected account (local Hanoian) that they are seen as the travel for the lazy tourist. Not wanting to be classified in such a group we have declined ever since.
That night we took a taxi to Ngoc Ha Street which is behind the Ho Chi Minh Museum to meet up with an internet buddy of Celine. He has been in Hanoi for over a year and Celine found his blog online. After reading the blog she got in touch with its writer, a few months back, and so we went to meet Ben and his girlfriend Huyen. It was great to catch up and meet someone who has been doing what we plan to do. They gave us a number of suggestions and advice which has already put us in good steed. Taxi drivers especially in the old quarter might have metres that jump in price. A 5 minute trip will end up costing 100,000 Dong + when they should be no more than 40,000 Dong. According to Ben, companies to trust are Hanoi Taxi, ABC Taxi and MayLink. And right on the money, the only time we have been in a taxi other than the above three the metre jumped from 10,000 Dong to 30,000 Dong in a matter of seconds. A good lesson learnt.

Thought of the day: Trust the traffic. Drivers have more chance of avoiding you than you of them. Go with the flow and you may get to the other side. Note: Not the case unfortunately for a friend of Celine’s sister. She ended up with screws in her leg after being hit by a moto in Hanoi.

No comments:

Post a Comment