There’s something you should come to accept as a tourist before you venture out of the airport in Hanoi: you’re going to get ripped off and there’s nothing you can do about it. All the street hawkers will engage in a short discussion amongst themselves before charging you double of what the locals pay, and taxi drivers will quote you ridiculous prices like VND200,000 (USD10) for a 3 minute ride (just don’t settle for the first available option even if you’ve managed to haggle it down to a fraction of the initial offer).
Another thing about the Vietnamese is that they’re much like the Chinese — the smile vanishes instantly once you reject their offer. We met some really friendly and helpful ones, but generally, I get the sense that they’re only interested in what’s in the tourists’ pockets.
Our week-long North Vietnam trip began in Hanoi, and the plan was to book the Ha Long Bay cruise and train to Sapa once we were there. We checked into New Vision Hotel in the old quarter, which we paid SGD11 each for a comfortable and clean family suite. The hotel’s great, except for the hotel staff’s hard selling of the Ha Long Bay packages. WARNING: Do not get any tour packages from hotels. We wandered out and found a branch of Sinh Cafe, which Rachel read was reputable, and got quotes for the boat cruises from Tony Sang, the hotel manager cum Sinh Cafe booking agent (he’s located at 116 Hang Bac Street). We were taken aback by how much more the hotel staff offered us. More than twice the amount if I can remember.
So we settled our Ha Long Bay cruise and night train to Sapa with Tony because we liked that he wasn’t too pushy, and continued exploring the meandering streets of the old quarter. It’s my first time in Vietnam, and Hanoi struck me as a quainter cousin of Bangkok and Jakarta.
I was especially surprised at how charming the old quarter was. (I recommend that you just stick to this area if you’re in Hanoi because we stayed at the French quarter on the last day of our trip, and besides the handful of surprisingly European architecture, it was completely underwhelming.) Much of the old quarter’s landscape was pretty much like other South East Asian cities — messy two- and three-storey shophouses packed together on either side of the narrow streets, with big, tangled bunches of power lines inches from the facades. But this area’s charm lay in the foreign influences sprinkled around, from European-style cafes with alfresco areas where chairs face out towards the streets rather than around the table, to hints of Roman, Chinese, and other chapalang architecture everywhere.
For lunched we popped into New Day restaurant for some local food, and the meal sparked off my trip-long love affair with deep fried spring rolls and freshly-dripped Vietnamese coffee.
Full and contented, we continued to walk the streets. The constant beeping and horning was nerve wrecking at first, but it soon faded into the background like some erratic elevator music after a while.
Besides the Eastern architectural influences, they also had pubs and restaurants that matched my formed-by-documentaries impression of South America. We stumbled upon this charismatic little place which had bar seats packed into its narrow balcony, and its’ here that we took a short break, enjoying the free wifi, sipping our drinks, and looking out into the chaos of the streets.
And it’s dinner time! We all love a bit of street food, so we picked one randomly and we were very happy to do the “eat like the locals” thing, hovering over small tables on small stools inches from the main street and at the same level as the vehicles’ exhaust pipes. But you simply can’t visit a South East Asian country and not eat their street food. Our meal added up to VND160,000 (USD8) in all, which was all right for Singaporean standards, but too pricey for a street hawker. We soon learnt that special tourist rates for street food was the norm. We figured it out when we saw the locals forking out lesser dongs for the same dishes.
Hanoi was charming, but I felt like there was nothing much more to discover after a day in it. It’s great that it’s not very touristy, but that also makes communication difficult, which often leads to a feeling of untrustworthiness towards some shifty locals. It’s not a terrible place, but I wouldn’t recommend a long stay in Hanoi. Just spend an afternoon exploring the old quarter and its streets lined with unattractive apparel shops, titbit stores, and coffee bean retailers, and pack up and head out of the city’s bustle.
We were bound for Ha Long Bay the next day, and here’s a preview of our half-scenic and painfully slow bus ride there.