Monday, August 15, 2011

Ups and Downs in Hanoi

Posted by Fiz

Traveling presents us with the best and worst of people and places. It challenges us as well as caresses us with different experiences. Hanoi is no exception and in one day I went from nearly getting in a fight, to receiving applause. Here are two stories that show the ups and downs of my time in Hanoi.

Down: Taxi Touts

After visiting the One Pillar Pagoda, which was a royal hassle to find, we decided it would be a good idea to get a ride from a scooter taxi. It probably would have been but we made a crucial error. We simply told the driver where we wanted to go, and hopped on. We realized this moments too late, and when I asked how much, I was conveniently ignored.

After we had been on the scooter less than 5 minutes and successfully, although narrowly, run 3 of the 4 red lights we arrived at our destination, the temple of Literature, we asked once again how much.

Our driver said 500 (at this point I was thinking 500 dong (yes the Vietnamese currency is called dong) which would have been totally reasonable, considering everything else is in the tens of thousands), but no he meant 500k which is about $25.

Kathleen and I both cried “What?” in unison. And he immediately dropped his price to 200k. We looked at each other in shock and awe because a 15 minute metered taxi ride from the hotel to the One Pillar Pagoda was 40k.

After arguing for significantly longer than the ride itself took, and a very intense and intimidating stare down on both our parts, we had managed to drop the price to 50k. I was ready to give the guy 40k just to prove a point, but when I went to give him the money, I accidentally flashed him all the money in my wallet, which for the reasons stated below was outright stupid. Our second mistake.
Keeping small notes in your wallet is a bad idea because:
a) People are much harder to haggle with if they can see how loaded you are, and
b) There is a nasty demographic in SE Asia that likes to run off with wallets when seen on the street specifically in Cambodia.

A couple of minutes later I acquiesced to his request and counted out 50k in smaller notes. And here is where I, specifically, made the third mistake. I accidentally handed him a 100k note instead of a 10k note. ‘How on earth could one mistake these two notes for one another?’ You might ask. Well for starters they are the same shade of green and look exactly the same except for three very minor differences:

a) Ho Chi Minh’s face on the 10k is pink, and on the 100k is the same shade of green.
b) The 100k note has an extra 0 (obviously), and
c) The back of the bill is different as well, but still the same color.

So instead of giving the guy 50k, I handed him a whopping 140k. And once again, I realize my error a moment too late. He had his hands on the bills, and didn’t let go when I tried to pull back. This went on for long enough for me to consider hitting/shoving/outright starting a fight with him, and decide that it would be a bad idea due to the helmet on his head that would knock me out cold if he decided to hit me with it. Fortunately when I gave up and let go he threw the smaller bills at me and walked away.

Noting that we had already gained ourselves an audience I decided to let it slide and not push him for the change he by rights owed me. That and he gave me a look that said I would knife you if it were 11pm. Looking back on it that would have been the perfect time to pursue the matter, because everybody watching was a foreigner under 40.

The lessons to be learned:

A. Settle on a price before getting in any form of transportation, or at least check that it is metered, you will get ripped off beyond words if you don’t.
B. Don’t allow yourself to get talked into going anywhere other than the decided destination. It is uncomfortable, and can be shady, especially if you have never heard of the place before.
C. Spend a good chunk of time in the privacy of your room getting to know the local currency, and organizing where you will keep your small change, the bulk of your daily spending money, and your backup stash. Do this as soon as you can and frequently until you’re comfortable with it, it will minimize the chance of you getting taken advantage of due to ignorance.
D. When haggling, the best method of lowering prices is to refuse to pay and just walk away, you will almost always hear a significantly lower number shouted at your back.
E. And finally, IF you feel unsafe for any reason, pay up, its not worth getting in a tussle for a few bucks, literally, in our case it was a matter of $2.50.

Up: Concert for Ms. Moon

 My Sitar survived the flight! Although it was clear she didn’t appreciate it one bit. Unfortunately the only other option for an instrument of her size is to purchase a plane ticket for it plop her in the seat next to you and buckle ‘er in.

At any rate as soon as we walked into Hanoi Guesthouse she got tons of attention, I was getting asked nonstop question about her, mostly what she was, what she looked like, and what she sounded like. Ms. Hang, an attractive young woman who worked the afternoon and evening shift behind the front desk whose name means moon, was by far the most interested and openly inquisitive. The room we were in was on the smaller side so I offered to play for her and the staff, and man did everyone on duty perk up, it was really quite sweet.

So Friday night after dinner I grabbed her down from our room and went about tuning her up.

It was about then that a string snapped before it was even up to tension and I realized just how unhappy my sitar was about getting flown across the world, and the climate change. (Note to self, give your baby some time to get used to the new environment.) Fortunately for me, the string that broke was the third string, a drone string, that isn’t unnecessary but isn’t crucial to playing.

Once my sitar was tuned up and, well, up to temperature I played for them for about an hour, which was well received, we even got a small applause. I had to turn down a request to buy me a beer more than once, which was followed by a request to make me a coffee or Lipton tea. Although it was passed 10:00 I accepted the Tea, because to refuse such an offer is just not done. So Lipton tea it was for me, with globs of condensed milk added to ‘cut the caffeine’. The young man who worked the graveyard shift, Mr. Hai, was so full of questions it was more than a little challenging to keep up.

To wrap up the night I must have walked around the block a dozen and a half times, ‘cus when I returned to the guesthouse feeling not quite tired yet a solid hour and half had passed.


  1. so glad the sitar has survived the trip so far. post some videos of you playing in exotic hotel lobbies for gawking asian folk, please. xoxo.

  2. it literally took me 30 minutes to post that one.

    P.S. Most of the gawkers are westerners actually