I wake up for the first time on my trip, confused about where I am. I suppose I was dreaming of home, because when I wake up I have to remind myself that I’m in Vietnam. What a nice surprise!
Tamara and I check out of our mediocre guesthouse, walk to the travel agency where we bought our bus tickets, and leave our backpacks. It’s so nice that we don’t have to carry them around with us all day. Now we can do some sightseeing!
There is a prison here in Hanoi that was built hundreds of years ago by the French colonies, and then used by the Vietnamese to house American pilots and other prisoners during the war. Not all of it is still in tact but what’s left of it has been turned into a museum in the middle of town. By Apple Map’s estimate, the prison is only a 15 minute walk away from the Old Quarter, so I map the directions when we have wifi at breakfast, screen shot them, and use them to find the prison later. Unfortunately, they aren’t the kind of directions I’m used to following. I get weird instructions like “walk west on Bàt Dân Street, turn left at the Vietnam Bank, pass by công ty cō phãn on left” which isn’t really helpful. We try reading all the street signs and shop names but we never find công ty cō phãn. We decide it might be best to just get a motor taxi. This is not a hard thing to do in Vietnam because EVERY ONE drives a motorcycle, and there are always people slowing down or beckoning you over to be driven somewhere. We find two motorbike drivers and ask how much it will cost to go to the prison. They say 100,000 dong ($5) each. Having no idea what a good price is, but making the assumption that they’ve way over quoted us, I laugh and tell them no. They quickly drop their price to 50,000 dong each. I push a little further and say 40,000. They accept. We are given helmets and each get on the back of a motorbike. I’m not really a huge fan of motorbikes after my incident in Koh Lanta, Thailand last year…but I trust that these guys know what they’re doing. At least I’M not driving in this crazy Hanoi traffic. I’d die.
After 5 minutes of weaving between motorbikes, cars, and buses, (with what feels like a few close calls) we’ve arrived at the entrance to the prison. We pay 20,000 dong ($1) for an entrance ticket.
The prison is interesting; full of historical information, authentic artifacts, a few prison cells still in tact, and even some old torture equipment. I’m not a big history buff at all so I still don’t totally follow the chain of events that lead to French Colonization or the war with the USA, but nonetheless it’s cool to your around. One of the coolest things I see is a small cement tunnel that has been excavated out of the ground for display once the prison was shut down. It shows the small space through which 16 prisoners escaped by crawling through a sewer and past a set of iron bars. The space is TINY and it just proves how malnourished the prisoners were and their desperation to escape.
We walk back from the prison to the Old Quarter, now that we know the direction and don’t need to follow any weird Apple Map instructions.
I’m walking ahead of Tamara when I hear her laughing behind me. I turn around to see a fruit vendor has come up to Tamara and placed her fruit basket balancing stick-tote thing on Tamara’s shoulder so she can test the weight and balance. The woman also removes her traditional sun hat and puts it on Tamara’s head. I manage to snap a few hilarious photos before she comes and transfers everything on to me.
The next thing you know, slices of pineapple have been bagged up and handed over to us with a demanded price of 150,000 dong ($7). I almost puke. 150,000?! EACH?! For some measley pieces of pineapple and a silly photo? Hella no. Take your bagged fruit back back! While I’m trying to tell pineapple lady (as politely as possible) that she’s crazy, another vendor comes out of the blue, selling little doughnut-like pastries. She tells Tamara they’re free to try so she tries one, but big surprise, she bags up a bunch of them in .001 seconds and forces them into Tamara’s hands. I overhear her demanding a stupid amount of money for a handful of little doughnuts, I think I hear 200,000 dong. Tamara is trying to bargain without being rude. I quickly finish haggling with the pineapple lady, by giving her 50,000 dong in the name of keeping our funny photos and being able to now get rid of the doughnut lady.
I see Tamara handing the doughnut lady 100,000 dong, and being asking for 80,000 more. Doughnut lady wants almost $10 for 10 shitty little doughnuts. No! We tell the doughnut lady that she’s already charged us WAY too much and we walk off.
My first time being scammed in Vietnam.
I guess it’s not really so much a scam as it is some little snack vendor ladies ganging up on poor innocent backpackers. We’re too nice! It all happened so fast. We were bombarded and just couldn’t think quickly enough to get away from the puppy-dog-eyed “sweet” little vendors. Looking back, I wish we had just dropped the stupid pineapple, said no and peaced out. So what if I took a photo? I know that I know better than to let this stuff happen to me! Damn that clever pineapple lady and her tricks.
I’ll never trust you again.
After (spitefully) enjoying our little snacks and checking the time, we decide we’ve got enough time to visit the West Lake where there is a popular pagoda. We try to find another motorcycle. The weirdest and most annoying thing has happened to us frequently over the last two days. When we walk around aimlessly, we see a billion travel agencies, cafés, restaurants, hostels etc., but when we are looking for a hostel? There isn’t a one to be found for blocks. It’s ridiculous. It’s happening right now with motorcycles. I feel like I haven’t walked 10 feet without someone offering to drive me somewhere…until this very moment when I actually want to be driven somewhere. Classic.
We walk for a while, keeping our eyes out for any taxi motorbikes, until Tamara finds an old man who waves us over from his bike. Score. I do the haggling, because I want to see how low I can push the price this time. We barter back and forth until we agree on a price of 40,000 dong ($2) each to drive three times the distance of what we drove to the prison. I’m starting to think that my haggling this morning still resulted in us getting ripped off. Whoops. This time, there’s only one man and one bike. Tamara and I both have to squeeze onto the back of ONE motorcycle! Ah! I sit on the very back and hold onto the seat for dear life. It’s far more comfortable than I expect, but there’s no where for me to put my feet, so my leg muscles get a bit of a workout while keeping my feet from dragging on the ground.
The pagoda is only kinda cool. I’m not a pagoda snob or expert or anything, but I don’t understand why it’s listed as one of the top sites in Hanoi. I’m not überly impressed by it.
It’s kinda tall I guess. We don’t hire a guide, so it’s very possible that there’s a whole story behind it’s existence that I’m missing to make it significant. There is a lot of good people watching along the lake side, which I find more interesting.
We slowly start to walk back in the direction of the Old Quarter, where we need to go to catch our overnight bus to Sapa. It’s a half hour walk, but we’re not low on time and walking will allow us to explore more of the city anyway.
The road we follow is lined with lots of bizarre bridal shops. I see more than one 80s themed mannequin bride on display. Big teased hair and everything. We walk for at least 15 minutes down the same, weird street before an elderly man on a motorbike beckons us over. We had planned to walk, but we entertain the idea of quick transportation anyway. I ask him how much it will cost to the lake. He speaks no English, but we are able to show him a picture on Tamara’s phone. He quotes us 80 but we bargain him down to 50,000 dong. 25 ($1) each. That’s the lowest I’ve done yet! He turns his bike in the direction we’ve just come from. We’ve been walking the wrong way the whole time! Both of us are confused but we laugh and hop on the bike, feeling thankful that we found this guy when we did! I sit in the middle seat this time, which is more comfortable for my legs but gives me awkward arms that I don’t know what to do with, so I just hug my backpack against my chest.
Back in the Old Quarter we end up with another hour to kill before the bus leaves. We sit down for two-for-one happy hour and have a beer. We order two sandwiches for take away as our dinner for later. Who knows where the bus will stop for dinner? Or if it will even stop at all.
We arrive at the travel agency for 6pm as requested. We sit and chat with our travel agent lady for half an hour before the bus actually arrives. While sitting there and waiting I see a sign for something called an “open bus ticket”. I enquire. Apparently, you can pay $55 and get a one month ticket that allows you unlimited hop on hop off access to busses stopping at all the major locations between Hanoi and Ho Chi Mihn City. What is this magic? $55 to not worry about transportation for the rest of my time in Vietnam? Don’t mind if I do. I’m willing to bet that we can get a cheaper price if we stay loyal to this agency, too. I keep that idea in my back pocket to discuss more with Tamara later.
A van finally arrives to pick us up and take us to the sleeper bus. The drive is a lot longer than I expect, but it works out fine because our ticket indicates that we won’t actually be departing on the sleeper bus for another hour.
When we get to the bus terminal we sit and wait in a room with nothing but some black chairs, all facing a television playing some really awful really old American film (1940s/50s?) with a Vietnamese voice over. Some guy and some lady crash their helicopter in Africa and happen upon an African tribe. It’s sexist, a little racist, and the special effects are so bad. It’s genuinely the worst film I think I’ve ever seen in my entire life, but I haven’t watched a lot of old movies so maybe they’re all like that. It’s awful in a kind of funny way, I suppose.
I step away from the riveting film to use the washroom. The electricity seems to be out, and it’s 7:30pm. I get to pee in the dark.
We board the sleeper bus around 8:15pm. It’s the size of any regular coach bus, but with two tiers of “beds” which look like extremely reclined bus seats. Some intense Vietnamese techno beats pump through the speaker system. We climb into a pair of top bunks with super wonderful cheetah print blankets and get comfy. We’re given a bottle of water aboard the bus. Free gifts!
An old couple sitting across from us complain to the driver that there is no toilet on the bus as advertised. They’re like, “but we were told there would be a toilet!” and I just chuckle to myself and think, nothing in Asia is ever what you are told it will be. They’re in for a surprise. We probably (definitely) won’t arrive when we were told we would either. I wonder how they’ll feel about that. The toilet thing kinda sucks I guess, but I pride myself on my ability to hold my pee so I think I’ll survive the next 9 hours just fine.
I fall asleep to the melodic sounds of car horns, the bus engine, my fellow bus mates text message alerts, (why don’t people use silent mode?) and the Vietnamese techno relentlessly being played over the speakers. No doubt the most appropriate musical choice for a bus full of people trying to sleep.
I wish there were a font for sarcasm.