The Vietnam Diaries 2011: July 20th – Hanoi

We’re up at 9:30 and go down to catch breakfast before 10:00. Before we’re able to make it to the restaurant we’re ambushed by the receptionist who starts telling us the plan for our evening departure to Sapa. She doesn’t get far before she is interrupted by Mr. Son (hotel manager). There’s some visible tension between them and the woman walks off muttering something in Vietnamese (if we listened closely enough I’m sure we could have learned a few useful swear words). I guess she’s not happy about Mr. Son “stealing” us, now that we’ve reached our VIP status. Mr. Son tells us that everything’s been arranged for our trip. We should be back by 19:00 to be driven to the train station where we’ll take a night train to Lao Cai as part of our journey.

We set out to look for a place to stock up for our homestay with the tribes in Sapa. We’ve done some research on staying with e.g. Hmong and the recommended gear is:

  • Toilet paper (a rare item in most homes of Hmong and other tribes)
  • Token presents for kids (pens, pencils, notepads, candy)
  • A gift for the host family

This kind of diverse shopping list is best served by a supermarket. One problem: there aren’t any supermarkets. It does not seem to be a very common store format around here. There are a couple of specialised stores selling toiletries and similar household items, but that’s not enough to cover the full list. Lonely Planet mentions a proper supermarket called Fivimart. What it doesn’t mention is that Fivimart will only make itself visible during the full moon in uneven months to those whose minds have reached a higher plane of consciousness. It’s entirely impossible to locate and the map provided by Lonely Planet points to a wrong location.

“So, can you see the final destination coordinates, marked with a giant “X”? Well that’s not it!”

After unsuccessful attempts at finding the elusive Fivimart we settle on a smaller hypermarket that has most of what we need (except pens, pencils and notebooks we thought of giving to the Hmong). We get a big and fancy looking box of candy for the host family and a few small packs of candy to hand out to kids. We go back to the hotel to pack and check out. We leave our bags at the reception and go out to catch a few more Hanoi “must sees”.

First stop is Lenin Park. Or, more Vietnamically (that’s totally a word, I swear) – Lê-Nín Park. Vietnamese have a compulsion about splitting multi-syllable words into smaller words or at least hyphenating every syllable, something I’ve already explored in my earlier posts. Lenin Park is clean and rather small. It’s full of people exercising and men playing that same mysterious game with long narrow cards that we’ve seen on our first day.

Right across the street from the park is the Flag Tower of Hanoi. It…towers…over 40 metres above the city. We turn onto a road to the right of the tower and make our way to the Presidential Palace complex. The streets here are much wider than in the Old Quarter and with far fewer people walking them. In fact, the only people around are stone-faced guards standing by giant gates to the Ministry of Defence. Katka wisely decides not to take any pictures here, because our travel plans don’t include a trip to prison on espionage charges.

To really teach you a lesson they use your own camera to take your mugshot

The whole area is filled with imposing government buildings and embassies. There are guards on every corner and guides by every building. What I’m saying is: there are quite a few guards here. Most houses have cars parked by them. Owning a car here is a sign of wealth and bad spacial awareness, since the majority of roads in the Old Quarter can probably accommodate around half a car at best.

We make it to the Presidential Palace, but finding a way inside proves tricky. There are many different gates, but only one of them is the “official” entrance, so it takes us quite some time to walk around and find it. Inside the “park” we find that we’re limited to exploring only a small area of the premises. We can look at the Presidential Palace but not come too close to it.

Essentially, we can only see the areas where Ho Chi Minh used to live. The dude loved the whole “keeping it simple” thing so much that he refused to live in the Palace itself. Instead he built himself a wacky Stilt House and surrounded it with bearded bush-dragons disguised as Santa Clauses:


We explore the area and check out the Stilt House, mango road, an older house where Ho Chi Minh lived earlier, a lake full of carp and a small museum with some Soviet cars Ho owned. “Pimp My Ride” wasn’t that big of a thing back then, so the cars range in colour from grey all the way to black.

Outside of the Presidential Palace enclosure is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Here Ho himself lies in an embalmed state, waiting to spook faint-hearted visitors. We only admired the building from the outside. Not because we’re faint-hearted, but because we’re scared senseless of Ho’s ghost haunting us in the night.

Nearby is the One Pillar Pagoda, which is a small wooden temple built on a single stone pillar. It’s supposed to resemble a lotus blossom, but instead my brain conjures up an image of Baba Yaga’s Hut on chicken legs. I’m crazy like that. Right next to it is the Ho Chi Minh Museum. Again we only explore the building from the outside, since by now our brains are thoroughly ho-chi-minhified (also, totally a word). (CONTINUE TO PAGE 2)

The Vietnam Diaries 2011: July 17th – Hanoi

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.

There you have it, America – not all your bills are created equal

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.

“Sir, you got another bag delivered. Shall I put it by the window with the rest of them?”

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)