In many ways, Hanoi was it. Last stop on the Megatrip. End of the line not only for my train into town, but for me as well. Though I will continue to be “on the road” by virtue of the fact that I’m not “home” (wherever the hell that is), I’m no longer going to be doing what I’ve done over the last five months. No more running all over a town to see its brightest lights in two or three days. No more changing hotels more often than I change my shirt. No more nights spent on trains, boats, buses, or planes. It’s been a hell of a ride and one of the best experiences of my life, but all good things must end, but I guess my lazy use of cliches will continue. This blog will likely be drawing to a close soon as well, although I have several wrap-up pieces and other gimmicks in the hopper to post before that happens.
Hanoi did make for a fine last stop. Despite my temptation to just run out the clock on the trip and spend four days at the bar, I feel I did what I do and saw what needed to be seen in Hanoi, taking it one play at a time… wait, now I’m on to NFL cliches.
After I got off the train into town, I walked to the Old Quarter and tried to find a restaurant with wifi, as I hadn’t actually researched Hanoi hotels yet. Strangely, I visited no less than 6 restaurants before I found one with wifi. Keep in mind, I wasn’t checking at hole in the wall noodle shops, I was going to traveler-type cafes, the likes of which always have wifi, even in backwoods towns. After finally finding an expensive joint with a great view of Hoan Kiem Lake, I spent an hour online researching places before ultimately going to the Thuy Nga Hotel, a place that I had already passed on the street and read about in my hard copy of Lonely Planet Vietnam. I could have saved an hour and a half just checking into Thuy Nga when I first saw it, but then things wouldn’t have been difficult enough for my tastes.
The Thuy Nga was a fine joint when its wifi worked, which wasn’t all the time. I had air conditioning, a balcony, a fridge, and a lockbox in the room all for $12 a night, plus I was located a literal stone’s throw from Bia Hoi Corner, the center of Hanoi nightlife.
My first stop after checking in was the Hoa Lu Prison Museum, better known as the Hanoi Hilton. Only a small fraction of the original prison complex still stands, most was demolished to make way for a high rise development. As with all museums in Vietnam, the point of view was quite different than the conventional wisdom back home. Most of the museum was dedicated to the terrible conditions that Vietnamese prisoners endured during the French occupation. While this was interesting, as an American I came to learn about the prison’s use during the Vietnam War, rather than how the French used it 100 years ago. I’ll elaborate more on this museum in the picture section, but the main theme in the small portion of the museum dedicated to its “Hanoi Hilton” period mainly focused on how well American pilots were treated, and how all POWs were returned after the U.S. withdrew from the war.
Following the prison visit, I followed the Lonely Planet walking tour around the Old Quarter of Hanoi. Say what you will about Lonely Planet, every walking tour of theirs that I’ve ever done have been spot on, and this was no exception. I walked through metal working streets and blacksmith street, where actual blacksmiths still ply their trade. Further down the line, I also visited Temple 102, a place I would have never discovered on my own. This is an elaborate Chinese temple that is tucked onto the upper floor of a residential building, and I had it all to myself. I ended the tour at Hoan Kiem Lake itself, visiting the temple on the small island in the lake.
I hit the tourists sights again the next day, which I’ll cover a bit more in the pictures. It was pretty easy to wake up early to get to the sights, because Hanoi doesn’t stay open very late. I spent the evening hanging out with some other travelers who had recently become Hanoi expats. I had considered staying in Hanoi longer term to teach English as well, but I think it’s a bit too isolated for my tastes. Hanoi is a very nice city, but it takes forever to get anywhere else in Southeast Asia overland. For such a large capital city, the airport is too substandard to be a home base as well. Saigon holds the main air hub for the nation.
After my second night in Hanoi, I headed to Halong Bay on a tour, then returned to town the following evening. Sadly, my hotel was sold out upon my return, so I moved to a place down the street. It was far less charming, although they did let me get a super-late check out at 8 p.m. for a couple extra dollars, so it worked. I played some bar trivia and met some more expats, but my team lost to some 23 year old English kids. Of course, I blame the fact that the quizmaster was also English, so a lot of the questions were things no American would know. For example, which actors that played James Bond were English? Y’know, verses Scottish or Welsh or whatever else the limeys consider to be separate nationalities.
My final day in Hanoi was a fairly low key affair. I had seen most everything that I wanted to see, so I headed to the History Museum and the Revolution Museum, the last two spots that I really wanted to check out. After touring these worthwhile institutions, it was time to sit around at bars and cafes until my late night flight.
I arranged an airport taxi through my hotel. As a literal tip, I gave the cabbie my trusty switchblade that I’d had since Trang, as I clearly couldn’t bring it on the plane.
Hanoi was a lovely city that I enjoyed a great deal, but in typical Vietnam fashion, it was tainted by slimy shysters working at legitimate jobs on my way out.
I had a one way ticket to the Philippines. I knew that Manila customs would theoretically want proof of onward travel, but the same could be said for Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam – all of which I’ve entered without onward travel booked. I’ve also flown into the Philippines many times before, and though I always had onward travel plans when I arrived in the past, I never had to show my onward flight documents to immigration.
This being Vietnam, the gate agents refused to issue me a boarding pass unless I bought another ticket. They strongly encouraged me to go to the Vietnam Air desk to buy a refundable ticket, but I was sure this was just another scheme. I was flying Cebu Pacific, but the gate agents for my flight were all Vietnam Air representatives. I bought a random flight out of Manila on the cheapest airline I could find. For a while, this still wasn’t enough. They said I’d need a visa, they said I’d need a hard copy of my itinerary, both of which are total lies. Once I got my boarding pass, I just walked away mid-argument and headed straight for airside.
I guess Vietnam loves tourists so much, they don’t want them to leave.
Four hours later in Manila, things proceeded exactly as I told the Hanoi gate agents they would:
Immigration Officer: Good morning sir. Welcome to the Philippines.
Me: Good morning. (hands officer my passport)
Officer: (looks through my passport for 14 seconds, stamps it, hands it back) Here you are.
Me: Thank you.
There is a lot to love about Vietnam. The cities are exciting, the food won me over, the beaches and mountains are beautiful, and every local that I talked to in a non-commerce setting was very nice. However, the degrees that ordinary work-a-day people like bus drivers, airline officials, and barbers go to rip off tourists is unconscionable. Plenty of countries have multi-level pricing, shady taxi drivers, and scams galore, but Vietnam is a whole other animal. I will not be looking for work there. I’d much prefer dealing with Korea’s terrible weather, high cost of living, and comical jingoism. The Hanoi Airport incident was the last straw for me.
This is not to say that Hanoi isn’t a beautiful and fascinating city, as you will see here. On to the pics!
Here’s a display at the prison museum that annoyed me. Around 80% of the museum is concerned with how horrible the French were. However, in the American War section, the first thing I saw was a big collage of French protests against the war. It was as if whoever designed this section had never visited the rest of the museum.
Plenty of wrap-up stuff coming up!