The Finger Post Travel (September 7, 2017)
(Hanoi, Vietnam, August 29-30, 2017)
Hanoi has a way of sneaking up on you.
Having flown into the Vietnamese capital at 7:40 PM after a full day of traveling, I was quietly dreading the obligatory sensory overload that tends to hit you when you first step out of the airport terminal in an unfamiliar third world country. I had woken up that morning in Kumamoto, Japan and then took a bullet train into Fukuoka. From there it was a comically overpriced cab ride from the train station to the airport where I caught a flight to Tokyo’s Haneda Airport. Then the flight to Hanoi, a city I would spend less then one day in. I initially had Hanoi as a layover on my way to Yangon in Myanmar, but I decided to tweak my reservation a bit so I could spend a little bit of time in Vietnam. I realized I didn’t have enough time to say I really saw the country, or even the city, but spending a morning in Vietnam seemed better then sleeping in the airport.
But by the time I had stepped off the plane in Hanoi I was tired…and to be honest, I had grown a little soft. Rwanda, London, and Japan had all spoiled me when it came to traveling. I normally enjoy “winging it” in a slightly off the beaten path place like Vietnam, but right now all I wanted was a “no drama” ride to the hotel and a full night of sleep. I just wanted the guy holding a sign with my name on it at the airport.
My first warning sign was the website where I obtained my Vietnamese eVisa. It looked like an old GeoCities website from the 1990s and was full of grammatical errors. I had read that China had started cracking down on “Chinglish” signs in the country, but it seemed that Vietnam was behind the 8-ball on that.
After my “confirmation of reading carefully of instructions” I submitted my $25 e-payment and received my eVisa shortly thereafter. But I still had my…concerns. This seemed somewhat haphazard and I was worried that upon my arrival I would find the immigration officer who didn’t know or didn’t care about the eVisa.
But as soon as I stepped off the plane I started to feel a lot better. The airport was modern, spotless, and had free wifi (sure it was not very reliable wifi, but it was still better then what I had available in a lot of airports back in the States).
I zipped through immigration, exchanged $100 USD into Dong, and was standing outside the airport when I finally got my first taste of the sensory overload that always hits you when you walk out of the airport in an unfamiliar country.
I was immediately hounded by a cab driver, who offered to take me to my hotel for $20 USD. I had been advised by the hotel’s webpage that the cab fare shouldn’t cost more than 250,000 Vietnamese Dong, which was about $11. I figured $15 was a fair amount, although I really didn’t care. I just wanted to get to the hotel and call it a night. Nonetheless I waved off the woman who promised to take me there for $20 and she dropped the price to $19. I still wasn’t interested, which caused he to really make an offer I couldn’t refuse: $17. Yeah, I was now stuck in some sort of negotiation over $3. I asked for a price in Dong and she typed her response on my phone: 350,000 Vietnamese Dong, or about $15. I agreed and then found out that this lady wasn’t a cab driver at all. She was just some lady whose English was good enough to deflect people from the taxi stand. We started walking towards the parking lot when I started to regret my decision. I was sure the cab driver would have agreed to $15, and even if he didn’t, it wouldn’t have involved a walk to the parking lot.
Then she showed me the (first) driver. He was driving what appeared to be a golf cart and it was clear this guy’s job was to shuttle people from one terminal to another.
“I’m not riding into Hanoi on a golf cart,” I said firmly to the lady who clearly heard the phrase before but either didn’t know what it meant or purposely chose to pretend she didn’t.
“Come, come.” The driver said as he waved me in.
Long story short, I got in. I was tired and I didn’t want to walk back to the terminal. We left the parking lot and then took the overpass onto the highway, where I really started to regret my life choices at that moment.
Eventually we made a turn into a residential district near the airport where I suddenly took comfort in the fact that I was in a golf cart. I wasn’t sure, but to the best of my knowledge there were no active criminal gangs preying on unsuspecting tourist by kidnapping them with golf carts. I was taken to a side street where a taxi was parked and I was introduced to my second driver, who would take me back into town. As we left I realized I had no idea how far the Noi Bai Airport was from Hanoi. After what felt like an hour in the car and no sign of a city near by I was starting to miss the security of the golf cart, but I then saw the Nhat Tan Bridge into Hanoi. It was a modern bridge, well illuminated with red lights. I would soon discover that the Nhat Tan Bridge, opened in 2015, was another example of the at times bizarre clash between modern and historic that you found across the city of Hanoi.
By the time I reached the Helios Legend Hotel in Hanoi the cab driver was attempting to renegotiate the deal. He claimed the cost was 460,000 Dong: or $20 USD. I had attempted to explain to him that I had agreed to 350,000 and that he could take it up with the dude in the golf cart if he had a problem with it. I always regret it afterwards, but I sometimes end up trippin’ about pocket change when traveling. It’s just my American aversion to being obviously ripped off. I mean, I know getting hustled is part of traveling, but a deal is a deal.
I eventually settled on 400,000 Dong, which was what I was going to pay him anyways (that would have included the tip), and made my way to the hotel. I started to regret arguing with the guy over what amounted to less than $3. I realized the lady probably screwed him over as well. She told me one price, got her commission, and never told him what was up. Even if it wasn’t the case, it seemed petty arguing over a few dollars afterwards.
By the time I got into my room at the Helios Legend Hotel I was ready to crash. But I still had time to appreciate the hotel itself. I booked it for $30 on Hotels.com and went in with fairly low expectations. But to my surprise the room was large, the bed was comfortable, and the continental breakfast was actually really good. I had to admit, that was probably the best $30 hotel room I ever booked.
My original plan was to get up at 7 AM and start my day early. I had an afternoon flight to Yangon at 4:45 and I was already thrown a curveball by the fact that the airport was an hour away. I would need to leave at 1:30 at the latest (I was as of yet unsure how quick it would be to get through customs, but if Ghana taught me anything it was that two hours is not a magic number to guarantee you’ll make your flight).
But after a long night in Kumamoto and a full day of traveling, I was beat. I slept late, until almost 8 AM, and didn’t get out the door until 9 AM. I decided to hit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. I had less than half a day in town so I had to pick one thing to see. And seeing Ho Chi Minh’s body seemed as good a way to spend the morning as any. For an American tourist, nothing says “communist nation” more than when they have a deceased former leader on display for all to see. And I had to admit, there was a part of me that wanted to experience the whole communist effect. You could easily forget you were in a communist country in Vietnam. Like China and to a lesser extent Cuba, Vietnam seemed to have a bizarre love/hate relationship with capitalism. Across the country were communist banners, sickles and hammers, and other reminders that Vietnam is totally down with Karl Marx. But they also seemed to grudgingly accept that even an anti-imperialist communist country needs a Popeyes Chicken.
As I arrived at the mausoleum I noticed a large crowd of Western tourist. This was a more popular destination then I expected. After we passed through a gift shop and checked in our cameras we then made our way into the mausoleum in single file. After walking up a flight of stairs we entered the central hall where we saw him: Ho Chi Minh himself. He was on display in a large glass sarcophagus, and I immediately couldn’t help but notice that his body didn’t look to be in the best of shape. I can’t say how he compared to Lenin or Kim Il Sung, but “Uncle Ho” looked waxy and his fingernails were slightly off color. There is a conspiracy theory floating around that the poor job of embalming done when Ho Chi Minh initially died meant that they were unable to continue to display his body. The government had to replace his body with a model and try and pass it off as the real thing. I guess we’ll never know, at least until the zombie apocalypse happens and we see if Ho Chi Minh is clawing at the glass.
After leaving the mausoleum I decided to check out the Ho Chi Minh Vestige in the Presidential Palace Area. The Vestige was where he lived and worked from 1954-1969, and although in hindsight it wasn’t anything extraordinary, it is still worth a stop. The ticket was 40,000 Dong (about $2) and the area was interesting, although nothing that really blew me away. I saw Ho Chi Minh’s old cars, a table in the Politburo Meeting Room where he did some communism, and a pond surrounded by finger shaped Cyprus trees. The Presidential Palace was off limits, but I was able to see the “Stilt House”, which in hindsight wasn’t much of a consolation.
From there I made my way to the Ho Chi Minh Museum, a quiet walk off the beaten path where I came across a statue of Ho Chi Minh’s former criminal defense attorney: Francis Henry Loseby.
In 1931 Minh was arrested in Hong Kong after he was convicted in abstentia to death by the French government in Vietnam. Loseby unsuccessfully defended Ho by arguing he was not Vietnamese but rather a Chinese national named Sung Man Cho. Interestingly the argument didn’t work, possibly due to the fact that this was Hong Kong and it probably wasn’t that hard for the Crown to find someone who could say (based on their training and experience) that Ho Chi Minh was not Chinese. But what led to Loseby being so honored with a statue at the site of the Ho Chi Minh museum was what transpired after Ho lost his appeal. In 1933 Loseby again tried the “trust me, he’s Chinese” approach and had Minh dress up as a wealthy Chinese merchant before putting him on a boat out of Hong Kong. The ruse worked and Minh made his way to the Soviet Union and the rest, as they say, is history.
As I made my way to the Ho Chi Minh Museum I decided to stop at the gift shop and pick up some souvenirs. Like everywhere I saw in Hanoi, there was no shortage of Ho Chi Minh memorabilia: from posters to busts to trinkets with his face on it. But the seduction of capitalism was strong, even in the Ho Chi Minh Museum. On a table of Ho Chi Minh trinkets was a book of Fight Club movie posters. I was going to ask why they were selling Fight Club memorabilia at the Ho Chi Minh museum, but I realized they weren’t going to tell me anything. You know the first rule of Fight Club…
I toured the first floor, with a forgettable display on the friendship between Vietnam and Laos, and a more powerful one on military veterans and their struggles. But the main part of the museum was found upstairs and unbeknownst to me, the museum was closing at noon. As I made it upstairs I had little more than 20-minute before I was told that the museum was closing. I was unable to see the Guernica 1937 display, which I was intrigued with, or get an explanation why there was a giant table with oversized fruit in the middle of the museum.
As I made my way out I saw another stand selling souvenirs, as well as books about Steve Jobs and Barak Obama.
By the time I made it outside I realized it was probably for the best that they kicked me out. I did need to head back to the airport. But I still didn’t get any souvenirs, other than a postcard of Vietnamese propaganda that actually said it was propaganda.
But right outside the museum was a small stand where sandals were being made from old tires. It seemed like the perfect gift from Vietnam and although the sandals were a little pricy (about $10) it was a very unique gift.
I headed out and grabbed a cab to the Statue of Lenin in Lenin Park across from the Vietnam Military History Museum.
The cab driver ripped me off with a fast meter, charging me 120,000 Dong for the trip that shouldn’t have cost more than 30,000. It was enough to sour me on cabs in Hanoi from that point on and after taking a few pictures of the Statute, which after recent events in Ukraine makes it one of the last ones you can find in the world outside of Seattle, I made my way back to the hotel on the back of a scooter. The hotel arranged for my ride back to the airport and my time in Vietnam had run. Someday I would have to go back and try my luck backpacking in Vietnam, but that was an adventure for another trip. I still had Myanmar waiting for me tonight.
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