The Vietnam Diaries 2011: July 18th – Hanoi

I am woken up at midnight by Katka shuffling blankets and bed sheets around. Apparently there were some invisible monsters crawling in the bed and she’s on a brave quest to locate and exterminate them. I cannot tell whether this behaviour is the result of some unknown jetlag side-effect or whether there in fact have been some insects in our bed.

Following the unsuccessful search for bed bugs Katka goes back to sleep. I try to do the same, but with less luck. You see, my brain often does this thing where it goes into thinking mode and won’t switch off. If I applied all that brain power for good I would have secured world peace about ten years ago. Unfortunately, the things my brain usually focuses on at such moments are of the “did I remember to pack a toothbrush” and “what’s our ‘to do’ list for tomorrow” variety.

After attempting ineffectual remedies like reading and trying to fix the banned Facebook, I finally fall asleep around five in the morning. I sleep until one in the afternoon. It is too late for the breakfast served downstairs, so we have a quick snack in our room with the complimentary fruit and 3-in-1 coffee provided by the hotel. Then we head downstairs to arrange trips for the next day and do some extended sightseeing.

Upon seeing the receptionist I say “Good morning!”, since my brain has been awake for less than half an hour and it is indeed morning back in Denmark. The receptionist answers with “Good afternoon!” and gives me a wide smile. Schooled in the art of English by the “water poo pet” lady – touché! We arrange with her for one of the pre-packaged trips to the Perfume Pagoda the next day and then head out to explore. Before we step out we’re given an umbrella, which is supposed to protect us from the sun (in Denmark this function is served by layers of rain clouds that don’t go away).

Two-thirds of the Danish population are unable to correctly identify the object in this picture

We have a quick “breakfast” (it’s around two in the afternoon by now) at a cafe full of westerners. Prices are high compared to the rest of Hanoi, but still well below anything we’re used to in Denmark. Here we do some planning for the upcoming days and settle on a three-day trip to Sapa, which is yet another one of the tours organised by Rising Dragon III hotel. We find out that the umbrella is more a burden than anything else, so for the rest of the trip I carry it lodged between the backpack and my back, like a (very ineffective) Samurai sword.

We still don’t know much about Hanoi and the must-see places. Fortunately, Lonely Planet has a ready-made one day tour meant specifically for tourists who spend less time researching their destinations than Kesha spends inventing song lyrics. We decide to follow this tour, which starts at the same Hoan Kiem Lake that we’ve visited the night before. We discover that our traffic navigation skills have already improved dramatically and we make it to the lake faster and with far fewer near-death experiences than yesterday.

In the middle of the lake on a tiny island lies the Ngoc Son Temple, which is built in honour of Tran Hung Dao. According to the first link this guy “defeated a force of 300,000” Mongolians. I assume he had an army to help him achieve this feat. Else he’s the 13th century equivalent of Rambo, only armed with nuclear weapons (and otherwise well equipped, if his “subtle” middle name is anything to go by). The small wooden bridge leading to the island is filled with groups of people pouring in and out of the temple. We take a few pictures of the island from the bridge and decide to skip the temple visit itself for now. Instead we follow our receptionist’s recommendation and head on over to the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. Here we get tickets for the next evening, after our planned return from the Perfume Pagoda.

As we leave the ticket booth we are ambushed by a female street seller carrying various fruit on a stick to which two baskets are attached. Before we can say “what the fuck is going on” her hat is on Katka’s head and the stick is thrown over Katka’s shoulder. The woman points towards our camera, while constantly nodding and smiling. I snap a picture of Katka. Then the hat and carrying stick migrate to my head and shoulder. Katka snaps a picture of me. The woman throws some random fruits into a plastic bag, hands it to us and asks for 100,000 dong. I know this is way too much from my extensive online research during the sleepless night before. We end up leaving her with 50,000 dong, bringing the price level from “daylight robbery” to “steeply overcharged”.

Those kiwi fruits better have gold flakes in them! Wait, on second thought, I really hope they don’t!

Katka is on a hunt for some Vietnam-appropriate pants that are comfortable to wear with all the humidity, so we swing by a clothes store. We agree that I’ll be the official price negotiator for this trip, even though haggling isn’t exactly my forte. Katka settles on a pair of Ali Baba Pants and calls me over to negotiate. I apply all of the advanced bargaining techniques I’ve learned from reading stuff. They include going to below half of asking price, pretending to leave, stating that I’ve seen the pants sold cheaper elsewhere and threatening the shop owners with a gun. OK, I didn’t try that last one, but I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it work in a movie (or ten). To my surprise I manage to bring the price down from the starting 320,000 dong to 150,000 (although I have no clue whether even that price is reasonable). (CONTINUE TO PAGE 2)

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