We land in Hanoi around half past two in the afternoon, after flying above some breathtaking sights of the country. Many of us are foreigners, so we all pile up next to the “Visa On Arrival” booth. Katka and I are carrying fifty US dollars in crisp 10-dollar bills. These are needed for the “stamping fee” to get our pre-approved visas.
The “Visa On Arrival” booth is operated by several men and women in brown-green uniforms with red stars and other patriotic symbols on them. We deliver the documents in one window and are asked to go around to the second window to get the actual visas. I dunno, maybe it’s more impressive that way?
Another young couple is waiting in front of us. At some stage they run into trouble with their payment and turn to us with a 20-dollar note. Figuring that they just need to break the twenty, we give them two of our 10-dollar bills in exchange. When our turn comes to pay we give the visa-woman our cash, including the twenty dollar bill we got from the couple. The woman feeds each note to some sort of machine at her desk. After the 20-dollar bill goes through the machine the woman turns to us and says: “Not enough!”.
Following a short back-and-forth we find out that what she means is that the 20-dollar bill is unacceptable. The reason? The machine says so. Why does the machine say so? Nobody knows, but since it’s the 21st century arguing with robots is futile. The only conclusion I can draw is that this advanced gizmo estimates the extent of wear-and-rear on the bill. According to Lonely Planet Vietnamese will refuse to accept US dollar bills if they are too wrinkled. I guess building an apparatus to evaluate these wrinkles was the natural next step.
In the end we’re rescued by a third young couple behind us, who take our bills and pay for all four of us with a single 100-dollar note (I think the machine actually said “Chaaaa-ching!” in human voice when the visa-woman fed the bill to it).
We head to “Information”, where we’re told we should pay around 300,000 dong (15 dollars) for a cab ride to the city centre. Katka takes out some local currency and we’re set to go. As we near the exit we’re intercepted by a guy who flashes a business card with a picture of a car on it and tells us he’s from the official taxi company and can take us where we need to go. Because nothing signals “official taxi company” like a guy sneaking around the interior of the terminal with a home-printed business card, while looking around his shoulder every few moments.
Before we can respond to the man he’s approached by another guy and after a short but heated verbal exchange the “official” man and his “official” business card leave the building. The second guy now waves for us to follow him. He leads us outside to a neat row of cabs parked by the curb. Together with his colleagues he throws our bags into the trunk and then gets into the driver’s seat. Looks like we’ve gotten ourselves a ride into town. We agree on a price of 350,000 dong for being driven all the way to our hotel.
After passing a toll booth our driver makes gestures with his hands and speaks some numbers. Assuming that he’s asking for more money to cover the toll booth costs I shake my head and tell him we’ve agreed on the price already. He drives silently for another five minutes and then suddenly turns off the road and stops the car by a sidewalk. Katka is sure that he’s going to throw us out for arguing (or maybe even sell us as slaves to some underground gang). Instead, he takes out a bunch of notes and starts counting them. Then he hands them to me. Just as I get excited at the prospect of getting free money I realise that he’s showing me what he expects us to pay at the end (damn you, logical thinking!). Since it adds up to 350,000 dong I nod my approval and our journey resumes. No free cash this time, but one can always hope.
As we get closer to our hotel the streets get narrower and livelier. We’re now driving through Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Tiny sidewalks are filled with people, most of whom are eating outside of cafes, playing a mysterious game with long narrow cards, or selling various merchandise. Our driver asks for directions from a nearby local and finally turns onto our street – Nguyen Van To. Narrow and tall “tube houses” huddle next to each other on both sides of the street and goods from street merchants spill out almost onto the road. There are fruits and vegetables, all sorts of plastic household goods, toiletries, souvenirs and many other random articles being sold. Our driver squeezes the car past all of these and carefully nudges forward, until we finally reach the hotel. (CONTINUE TO PAGE 2)