Lost in: Hanoi, Vietnam

Asia, Health & Safety, Lost Girls RTW Adventure, Vietnam — By on March 28, 2007 at 4:50 am

When Holly first visited Saigon, Vietnam in 1999 (during a post-collegiate voyage with Semester at Sea), she didn’t have the funds to take an extra excursion north to the country’s capital and the nearby regions of Sapa and Ha Long Bay. Fellow students who made the journey, however, came back raving about the stunning countryside and gracious people.

“It’s one of my favorite destinations,” they declared, sentiments that Jen and I also heard reflected by friends and colleagues who’d ventured to Vietnam during its early tourism heyday. My addiction to glossy travel magazines had only added to the country’s mystique-some of the most beautiful landscape photography I’d ever viewed was snapped in Vietnam. Thanks to those images (and the fantastic word-of-mouth press), I spent the weeks leading up to our arrival dreaming of verdant tea fields, swirling candy-ribbon hillsides and limestone formations towering like dragons over crescent moon bays.

It wasn’t until the girls and I started chatting with traveler friends who’d just returned from the country that we received the very first less-than-glowing reports.

“It’s just so commercial,” said Harrison, a 22-year-old Canadian we’d met at yoga school. “You can’t take a walk without fifty people coming up to you, harassing you, trying to get you to eat at their restaurant, sign up for their tour, book a night at their hotel, buy their guidebook, CDs, batteries, bracelets, hats, whatever. It’s almost impossible to avoid the sales pitch…”

This news didn’t particularly phase faze us. After getting acquainted with aggressive peddlers and street vendors all throughout India, Brazil, Peru and Kenya, the girls and I had developed entire systems for dealing with touts who seemed to view “no” and “not interested” as strong words of encouragement. Our friend Sarah had more to add.

“It’s weird, because Vietnam is still supposed to be this socialist country, but I’ve never seen a place where, at the individual level, people are so capitalist,” she said. “Just be careful, or you’ll end up paying twice as much as you should for everything.”

Well-accustomed to taking these doomsday warnings with an extra-large grain of salt, we thanked our friends but decided to enter the country with our eyes and minds open. The travel gods decided to test our resolve by throwing us a curveball almost the second we arrived in Saigon…

***
The bus we’d taken from Cambodia weaved through a heavy cloud of exhaust and carbon monoxide (caused, no doubt, by the tens of thousands of motorbikes jamming every possible inch of asphalt) to drop us off near a cluster of taxicabs. We pushed past the men snatching at our bags and found a far more subdued driver dozing off behind the wheel of his cab. After we pointed out our destination on a city map, he grinned, nodded vigorously and agreed to use the meter.

Twenty minutes later, we’d dodged our way through a hornet’s nest of cyclos (motor-taxis), snaked around the circumference of a large city park and turned to a corner to our final coordinates-almost the exact spot where the driver had picked us up in the first place. Pointing up at a Vietnamese street sign, the cabbie demanded his metered fare. He’d literally taken us for a ride-right around the block. ]

We gritted our teeth, and paid the man. After all, we’d been green enough to request a taxi when we were practically sitting in the shadow of our hotel. Who could blame the guy for trying to make a quick buck off the dumb American tourists?

Things didn’t improve dramatically once we’d shuttled several hundred miles north to Hanoi. It was well after midnight when the front desk clerk at our next hotel explained that he’d given away the triple room we’d reserved several days in advance.

“We have two double rooms available,” he said slyly. “But of course, you’ll have to pay the difference in the price.”

With little possibility of finding alternative lodging long after dark, we suffered the night in our overpriced hotel before finding a cheaper and more specious place right next door. The following day, we outfitted ourselves for Hanoi’s chilly winter weather, we stepped out into the street, determined to find the alluring side of Vietnam so many people before us had raved about.

As it turned out, there was a lot to love about the city. We instantly found the charm in the Old Quarter and Latin Quarter-the tangled lanes surrounding the lake, the dimly lit wine bars and the scent of cardamom wafting from sidewalk cafes serving beef noodle soup.

For the first time since we’d started traveling, Jen, Holly and I made room in our backpack for gorgeous souvenirs, including made-to-fit silk dresses, hand-carved stone chopstick boxes and color-saturated lacquer bowls. Always big fans of Vietnamese cuisine, we found far more amazing places to stuff ourselves with spring rolls, banana flower salad and stir-fried chicken than we had nights to visit them all.

The dining, shopping and culture were standouts in Southeast Asia. Local friendliness: not so much.

In stark contrast to the cities we’d visited on the trip so far, the girls and I found that we often received a chilly reception in Hanoi. At first, we wrote off the individual incidences, figuring that the language barrier and sheer number of tourists crowding the neighborhood might explain why we felt an overall lack of warmth and friendliness. But as the days passed, and the confusing, disappointing and outright upsetting interactions added up, we started to wonder if we were doing something to inspire such hostility.

First, there was the woman in Hanoi’s discount clothing district who absolutely refused to let me try on pants, indicating with unmistakable clarity that I was too fat to fit into them. When I held up a size XXL workout pants, the woman at the stall snatched them away, holding up her hands wide in front of my waist to indicate my obvious obesity.

Then there was the street vendor who screamed “fuck you!” at Jen when she declined to buy an illegally photocopied edition of Lonely Planet Vietnam.

When our jackets were “accidentally” snatched from our table at a local pub called Funky Monkey, the cocktail waitress icily claimed that it was not her business and refused to ask the staff if they’d been taken somewhere by mistake. When the clothes did mysteriously turn up in a back room, no apology or explanation was offered-our questions were met with tight lips and stony stares.

And perhaps most sadly, Holly had her purse slashed one afternoon while she was shopping. The would-be thief ran out of the store before Holly could process exactly what was happening. Fortunately, the woman wasn’t quick-or brave-enough to grab anything valuable before she took off.

Even after all this, the girls and I tried to chalk up these interactions in Hanoi to bad luck. Theft happens everywhere, especially in highly trafficked tourist areas. The scenario at the bar could have been a misunderstanding. Even copyright infringing street touts can have a bad day (but I still refused to write off the “you’re-so-fat” gesture as mere misunderstanding).

We wanted so badly to discover the best parts of Hanoi, but we were all started to feel edgy and snappish. Each day, we’d prepare ourselves for the constant yelling and selling and honking and hawking, determined to stay upbeat and positive, but by days end, our resolve and patience had melted.

What happened next didn’t help…

****
Returning to the capital from a three-day side trip to the Sapa region (see Jen’s upcoming entry), we arrived at the train station at the lonely hour of 4:00am and needed a cab back to our hotel. When a driver approached us and agreed to use his regulated meter, we hired him, prepared to spend the 35,000 dong that our tour company had indicated the trip should cost. I threw my purse and overnight bag in the trunk and we were on our way.

Almost immediately, the girls and I noticed that our driver’s meter was spinning wildly out of control, clicking upwards like a stopwatch almost every second we were in the car. We’d been warned time and again about unscrupulous cabbies who tried cheat unsuspecting passengers, but never had we encountered a driver whose meter was so obviously rigged.

“Um, sir, we can all see that your meter is incorrect and we’re not going to pay you more than 40,000 dong,” said Jen, in a loud, clear voice. “So, you can stop your cab right now and let us out, or you can just take us to our hotel for the fair price of 40,000 dong.

We knew he heard and understood Jen’s English, because the driver jammed his foot against the gas peddle. He seemed desperate to get us to our destination so he could make his money and pretended not to hear Jen repeating the statement over and over again. When he finally responded and stopped his car along the relatively well-lit lake front, he demanded the 100,000 Dong fare the meter displayed.

My first big mistake in the wee pre-dawn hours had been putting my bags, including my passport and cash, in the trunk. The second? Handing the driver only 40 dong. The second the cash hit his palm, he went ballistic, screaming in our faces, demanding that we pay him the full fare.

“You give me my money. GIVE ME MY MONEY!!”

We knew that in the grand scheme of things, those 60,000 extra dong wasn’t going to bankrupt us, but we were hardly about to reward a guy for taking advantage of three women (especially at such an unsafe hour). Still, getting up on my high horse wasn’t solving the problem of the locked-up luggage.

Ignoring my pleas to release my stuff, he refused to open the trunk and the girls and I were effectively held hostage by a guy who was rapidly transforming into a madman. Holly grew very quiet, completely in shock at his irrational behavior, and Jen and I suggested to the drive that we should find a police officer to help resolve the situation.

The suggestion seemed to send him into a panic, final confirmation that he was, in fact, trying desperately to cheat us out of the extra cash. He slammed the car into drive, speeding away from the relative safety of the lakeside and into the darkness of the surrounding neighborhood.

We were momentarily stunned into silence until a terrified Holly whispered, “Guys, we have to get out! He could be taking us anywhere; we’re definitely not safe in this car.”

Her panic infected all of us and I wondered if she was right. The guy, still screaming about his money in the front seat, was carting us off down a very dark side-street. Holly opened the door of the speeding cab to jump out.

“I can’t leave my stuff!” I cried, torn between fleeing for safety and relinquishing my passport, overseas visas, cash and other valuables. Believe me, I know when you’re being mugged, nothing is as important as your life. But I wasn’t entirely convinced this guy was dragging us off into the night to hurt us. Holly, however, didn’t want to take any chances. While her flight instinct took over, Jen’s urge to stay and fight won out.

“Holly, we can’t just leave Amanda or her bags,” she said, turning back to the driver. “Where are you taking us?!”

“We go back to the train station! You pay me money or I take you back now!”

“Sir! We want you to stop this car, right now! You are scaring us. You need to let us out of this car…NOW.”

He ignored Jen yet again, slamming his foot into the accelerator. Torn between proving my point and just getting all three of us the hell out of the car, I thought about throwing some cash over the front seat, hoping to end this rapidly escalating ordeal. But would this guy-acting like a lunatic desperately in need of his next heroine fix-actually surrender my stuff if I gave him what he wanted? Was leading my loyal friends into a potentially violent situation?

“If you do not stop this car, I am going to open up the door and scream and as loudly as I can for help” warned Jen.

The driver hesitated but didn’t deviate from his original path. Maybe he thought Jen was bluffing but we all soon learned that she wasn’t.

“HEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEELLLLP! HEEEEEEELP!” Jen leaned over Holly and used every ounce of her lung power to alert everyone in a 20 mile radius to our predicament. The driver slammed on his brakes, snapped around in his seat and raised a fist to backhand Jen. That only made her scream louder.

He tumbled out of the front seat, yanked open Holly’s door. Jen held her ground and tried to make a deal. “If you open the trunk right now and let us get our stuff, we’ll give you the rest of your money.”

Talk of cash seemed to break through the guy’s insanity and he moved around to the trunk, finally springing the lock and releasing our gear. I grabbed my bags and started to walk off, with Jen trailing right behind. Terrified that he might not get his cash, the driver accosted Holly, taking a running start and move in to kick her in the stomach.

Jen and I saw this and flipped out, now determined to defend our friend. As we approached, the driver shrank away, probably debating whether or not he wanted to take on three very pissed-off Lost Girls. In his last ditch effort to share how much he despised us, he reared back and hocked a huge spitball in Jen’s direction, then flinched and backed up as if he was worried she might sock him with the huge bag of books she had gripped like a weapon in her hand. He kept spitting in our direction, cowardly creeping backwards towards the driver-side door.

With our stuff in hand and safety almost assured, we grabbed Holly and hauled ass through the misty darkness towards our street.

***

When we ducked into our hotel it was going on 5:00am. Apologizing profusely, the owner informed us that our room wouldn’t be ready for a few hours. Too bewildered to respond, we all just slid into chairs in the lobby dining room, trying to make sense of what had just happened in the cab. How had things spiraled out of control so fast? Could we have avoided the entire situation?

And most importantly, why did we keep having such bad luck in Northern Vietnam?!

Exhausted, shaken and depressed, I knew the girls and I had hit a pretty low point in our trip. Demonic cab drivers aside, we’d now been traveling for seven solid months, spending every minute of our time glued to each other’s side, trying to figure which end of the map was up. Just when we’d get a sense of our surroundings and learn a few phrases in the local language, we’d be off again, bound for another place where we couldn’t help but stick out like sore thumbs. If traveling for a year can be compared with running a marathon, we’d hit the proverbial brick wall. Our reserves of energy were just about depleted and I hoped that we’d have it in us to get past what had just happened.

As if sensing just how much we need a boost, the owner’s wife Thom walked over to our table and presented us with a complimentary platter of eggs, toast, jam, bananas and tea. We broke into smiles for the first time that morning and got busy serving ourselves (hey, you know the Lost Girls love our food).

It might have been a small gesture to apologize for making us wait for the room, but we all felt a little less shell-shocked thanks to Thom’s random act of kindness. Polishing off the last of the meal, we grabbed the room key from the front desk clerk and crawled upstairs to bed.

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    23 Comments

  • dave925 says:

    Wow, that was a harrowing post made all the better by your great storytelling skills.

    This is certainly a cautinary tale, given 100 Dong equals 1 US cent. While I understand the principles behind your decision to argue the fare, your story leaves little doubt the right decision was to pay the dishonest man and let karma get him later!

  • Anonymous says:

    The only thing I kept thinking while reading this is “I feel so bad for your parents if they read this!” Your mothers must be worried sick about you girls. Via Watch me turn 30 I see that you made it safely to New Zealand. Enjoy the last few months of your adventure!

  • Lorra says:

    Wow, I’m glad you’re okay – riveting writing for this post. Scary.

  • Timen says:

    Great post. It sounds like you guys just had some bad luck that was compounded because it just kept on coming. A little bad luck is part of the deal… but if it keeps on coming, it just feels crappy.

    I had a pretty good time in North Vietnam.

    One thing that I’m thinking is that there was some sort of miscommunication. Like Dave said, 100 Dong is about 1 US cent (more accurately, 100 Vietnamese Dong = 0.006413 US Dollar). Not even in Vietnam is this a fair price. Maybe he thought YOU were ripping him off?

  • ourman says:

    I am frankly amazed by this post. I lived in Hanoi for two and a half years and while I understand you have to keep an eye on the whole buying and selling process I encountered nothing like this.

    Sorry if this sounds bads but, to be honest it sounds like you were doing something horribly wrong in order to be treated the way you were.

    My only reasoning I can make is, Vietnamese tends to treat you back the way you treat them.

    I’ve an advice piece, I wrote, linked to my name here. Shame it is probably too late.

    I feel like apologising for Vietnam – a place that I loved so much. But I also want to explain that it is not like that. Not as far as I found – or at least certainly, not usually to that extent.

    I am so disappointed that you hated it.

    The link is to my old Blogger blog (I switched to typepad) but this one has all the old comments on it which I think also give you a great deal of other people’s thoughts on what I think is a wonderful country.

  • Dellie says:

    This really was an amazing story. I wish that Dateline NBC had taped it. You girls really kept your wits about you and it was interesting to see how you protected each other. Kudos to Jen. It seems to be popular at this time to dislike Americans in many places in the world. Wow, you girls really got a dose of it. Travel fatigue and unwarranted disrespect certainly was a tough hit to overcome. Thom was a blessing- a kind human being with manners. That’s understood in every country. Thanks for the great post.

  • Dellie says:

    Hey ADP, you’re far from obese but I’m sure you know that…

  • the_cookie_maudester says:

    I was just wondering if you guys do carry any form of defensive weapon. If not, maybe you ought to have. Your driver case may not have warranted that too much but just to avoid worse things from happening, maybe you guys ought to carry something in your pocket at all times.

    Watch your backs, girls!

  • The Lost Girls says:

    Thanks to everyone who left a comment. Please pardon the mistake that I made in posting the vital amounts….the amounts in question were 35,000 dong, 40,000 dong and 100,000 dong, respectively (we often drop the “hundred thousand” when discussing amounts in Vietnam).

  • TravMonkey says:

    I had a similar thing happen getting a cab from the station in Hanoi to my hotel.

    It was 5 in the morning and the cab driver thought he’d drive around in circles to get the meter up…. even though I was half asleep I noted the cab driving across the railway tracks 3 times (hence around in a circle)…. I refused to pay the meter and paid he what I knew it was worth.

    He was agressive…but I just walked away.

    I personally found Cambodia much worse for aggressive touts and salesmens,

  • the_cookie_maudester says:

    The same thing happened to me but it was at Saigon though. Thankfully, the driver then was apologetic when my viet-speaking caucasian friend gave him a mouthful.

  • THE BLUEST BUTTERFLY says:

    I was looking for “Watch Me Turn 30″…the link over the sidebar with the cake is broken. 🙁

    How do I get to see it???

  • Schmanders says:

    Hi Timen,

    In response to your comment, I’ll first say that I made an error when listing the amounts in question on this post…we were actually arguing over 40,000 and 100,000 dong, which in retrospect, seems ridiculous! As smart women, we probably should have just given him the money and gotten out of there, but something made us stand our ground. “Something” might have been the constant overcharging we’d experienced over the previous couple of weeks.

    I’ve spoken with several people now who feel that we might have had a tougher time in Hanoi simply because we were unaccompanied females, and that its considered very, very bad form for women to challenge men (which is why the driver would have rather taken us back to the train station than get a cent less than he was asking). I’m not sure if this is the case or not, but I did speak for a very long time with a Scotish girl living in Hanoi and she too was frustrated at the cold shoulder she often got from locals. We’ve traveled all over the world at this point and I’ve yet to experience what we did during our stay in Hanoi.

    That said, I’d love to return under different circumstances and spend more time outside the busy, touristy district that we’d chosen to make our home base. During our time in the city, we did meet dozens of incredibly friendly and gracious locals, and 95 percent of our taxi drivers did charge us the fair price.

    It’s tough to ever tell a discouraging tale about a particular city or town without sounding as if you hated the entire experience. We actually found a lot of love about Vietnam as a whole…stay tuned for more along these lines!

    Happy travels,

    Amanda

  • Michael says:

    your blog is incredible, i’m the guy you met in cusco wayyyy back in june 2006 (long time ago!) anyway i was in hanoi a couple of years ago and we had a dispute at the hotel over the payment, they ripped us off completely. we argued for a little while, then they locked the door and whipped out screw drivers on us and tried to make everything much much worse. we caved in and threw them the extra dong…aiyya!

  • Lonnie says:

    Greetings from China…

    On my way to Siagon (HCMC) soon…yipes…

    Great stuff!

    OMBW

  • Greg says:

    Chilling post…!

    Unfortunately I spoke with 3 other women met in Indonesia whom were robbed by a taxi driver in Hanoi, only in this instance the man turned around with a can of pepper spray and demanded simply that they get out, leaving their bags.

    Thanks for sharing,
    Greg

  • Roger says:

    Hi,

    I wonder if your readers understand that 40,000 dong = $2.38 U.S. Dollars. You make this sound like you were the wronged party here. I think you tried to screw the taxi cab driver out of his fair.

    You can’t buy a gallon of gas in Kansas for $2.38 much less operate a cab

    You were probably treated badly because you probably behaved badly.

    The good news is this: It was a brave thing you did. Traveling the world is a life enriching experience and not for the faint hearted. You grow as an individual great deal.

    Your book will no doubt bring you fame and fortune. Be wise and be kind. Not many people get the opertunities you have.

    -Kansas Hay Seed

  • Epiphanie says:

    This post reminded me of my own nightmarish experience in Tay Ninh (a rural town in southern Vietnam) where I hired a motorcycle driver to take me to a sight – he drove me a very short distance and then demanded money. I gave him a very little amount and then walked away. He followed me, prepared to get violent if necessary, and it wasn’t until I walked into a Vietnamese home and the family took me in that he went, grudgingly, away. What happened was completely unfair and I had committed no wrongdoing of any sort. I was civil and well-mannered to the driver, and he tried to cheat me.

    I also encountered various other people who tried to cheat me and divorce my finances from me during my trip to Vietnam. I don’t think I’ll ever return again, despite the natural beauty and tasty food.

    Though I should also add that I did experience kindness as well – in fact, the family who let me go into their house called a relative who spoke English and I communicated to her what had happened. She arranged for her brother to drive to my destination – it was very considerate and helpful.

  • Caroline says:

    What a bad string of luck! The hotel I stayed in ripped off my friends but generally nothing bad happened in Northern Vietnam. Of course, I found the people in Hanoi quite icy. They were much friendlier down south.

  • Hanoi city is much friendly, even of my thoughts of pre visit to the beautiful place…

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