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Thursday, May 8, 2008

A long and miserable day

I am rapidly finding out that the North of Vietnam is not quite as friendly as the South. From the time I woke up yesterday till the time I went to bed, it was nothing more than scam after scam after scam. And now, I awake with a bad headache from trying to take my mind off of such a shitty day on the road by rapidly consuming the tasty local brews last night.

It all began when I was handed my bus ticket at the guest house where I had spent the night in Ninh Binh. I had intended to travel to Halong City and sort out a boat to cruise the waters of Halong Bay for a few days. I looked at the ticket and realized they had put me down to go to Haipong, a city near Halong city, but much less accessible for what I needed. When I inquired, the lady told me it was the same, or in her words, "Same Same." She said that it was easy to get a ferry to an island and then another to Halong City. I consulted a map and my guidebook to see how easily this was done and quickly realized that the process could take me a full two days and cost me a good deal of money. Again I spoke with the owner of the guest house and when the bus arrived, she yelled something to the driver in Vietnamese and said that he would get me to Halong City, same ticket, no problem.

With the bus leaving, I didn't have much choice but to get on. I however now had no ticket in my hand and the lady handed the bus driver the 70,000 dong I had paid and off we went. Not sure of where exactly I was heading, I popped in my headphones and started to enjoy the ride. It didn't take long before the bus stopped and began gesturing to me to get off. They pointed at another bus that had pulled off onto the highway and directed me towards it. Everyone was waving from the other bus to hurry and my bus was pointing at that bus. With no one speaking a bit of English, I was stuck in a tough position. I wanted to inquire if they had a ticket or money for the other driver, but without any Vietnamese language skills I was forced to go with the flow.

I boarded the other bus which I did notice was actually bound for the correct destination and found a seat near the back. A few minutes passed and the man who collects money came around and gestured that I needed to pay him fifty thousand dong for the ride. Seeing as how the entire journey was supposed to cost 70,000 dong (four dollars), I wasn't about to pay again. With no one on this bus speaking English either, I made a few hand gestures and held up some fingers indicating that they should have gotten money from the other bus and that I had already paid for the journey. He kept pointing at himself saying that I needed to pay him. There was no way in hell that was happening. I gestured for him to call the other bus and even gave him the phone number of the guest house so that they could sort out his money. On principal alone, there was no way this bus was getting money from me.

After a half hour of arguing with me in Vietnamese and lots of hand gestures, I figured I was about to get kicked off the bus. The collection agent eventually walked off, made a few jokes about me to others on the bus and kept looking at me. He eventually made a second attempt with no luck again and finally left me alone for the rest of the journey. When we neared Halong City, they indicated that we had arrived at where I wanted to go and kindly dropped me off smiling. Amazed that I had successfully made it, I was dropped off into the usual armada of motor taxis all begging to give me a ride. I told them which hotel I wanted to go to and the bargaining began. The first shouts were for 50,000 dong. I just laughed and kept walking. The price began to drop and I said I would pay 20,000 dong. They all said no. I smiled and said thanks anyway and goodbye. Two steps later, I hear the familiar Ok, Ok and off we went.

Zipping across an enormous bridge on the back of the motorbike, I was enjoying the surrounding view when another motor bike pulled up next to us. Driving along, he began to discuss something in Vietnamese with my driver. I was pretty sure that they were talking about me and my suspicions were confirmed when we pulled over the new motor bike driver paid my driver 20,000 dong and gestured for me to switch motorbikes. I agreed and made it clear that there was a good chance I might not even stay there and I wanted to be taken to a certain hotel, but only because it was in the center of the city. I wanted to eat lunch, check the weather and see what it was going to be like around Halong Bay for the next couple of days. This was only because it was an extremely overcast day and I could hardly see my hand in front of my face. It was not the type of weather I wanted to enjoy the 1,900 or so islands of Halong Bay with.

We shortly came to an intersection with the name of two towns on it. One was the town I wanted to go to and the other I had never heard of. We turned towards the one I had never heard of. I quickly asked my driver who fortunately spoke good English where we were going. He said he was taking me where I wanted to go. I reluctantly went along with the idea. A few minutes later, I decided we were heading in the opposite direction of where I wanted to go. I made him stop the bike immediately. I argued for a bit with him and then explained again where I wanted to go. He was trying to take me to his office where I could book a trip to Halong Bay and then was planning to take me to my hotel, or so he says.

We finally arrived at the hotel where the owner was anxious to check me in and I told everyone the same thing I had told my driver who was now waiting to assist me in booking a boat for Halong Bay. I was very clear that I may not even stay once again and only wanted to eat lunch and check the Internet before I made my decision. After a quick bite to eat at a local Vietnamese restaurant I picked up my bags and walked across the street to an Internet cafe where I quickly was able to confirm my suspicions that the weather was going to be less than appealing for the next few days.

Now that I had decided that I wasn't staying in town, I needed to catch a bus to Hanoi so I walked back over to the hotel I had been dropped off at and asked how much the bus to Hanoi would be. "Ten dollars" the man replied (he claimed to own the hotel). I laughed at him as it was only a three hour journey and the only bus ticket I had paid ten dollars for in Vietnam was a sleeping bus that had your own bed, pillow and blanket and lasted fourteen hours. When I told him that, he was quick to inform me that it is different here. The road is very busy and there is lots of traffic. I again laughed at him and told him that I was going to walk next door and ask them what the bus costs. He said that it would be the same an to go ahead.

"Five dollars" the nice young woman said. "They will pick you up in twenty minutes out front and drop you at whatever hotel you want in Hanoi. It was like magic. No problem whatsoever when you talk to honest people and take a little time to sort things out. The bus ride to Hanoi was quite uneventful as I slept most of the way there. I arrived at a nice little hotel, checked into a shared dorm room and went straight for the shower. It was time for a beer and I felt I deserved it after spending the day doing battle with all of the con artists and scamming hawkers that litter the streets of Northern Vietnam.

Seeing as how it was happy hour when I arrived at the restaurant and that would be ending ten minutes later, I managed to squeeze three beers down before happy hour was over. With a slight buzz, I ordered some dinner and proceeded to make friends with a couple of people nearby. The night went on and we left the restaurant and made our way a short distance down the road to another nice spot to have a drink overlooking the streets of Hanoi.

I am not sure what time it was but it was definitely time to go. I was feeling quite good and my thoughts about the miserable day that I had were far from my mind and now, all I wanted to do was get to bed. Now all of the streets in the old quarter of Hanoi look fairly similar. I had a map in my pocket but I decided that I could find my way back to my hotel without it. As I stumbled along the streets saying no to every moto taxi that asked me if I needed a ride, I quickly found I would be needing the services of my map. Opening it up in the dimly lit street, I couldn't figure out where I was. I continued to walk to the next intersection thinking that might help but when I arrived, it was the same thing. I had no idea where I was. I began to say the name of the street I was looking for to anyone I saw and occasionally someone would point down the road in the direction I was traveling.

Now, at this point, I should have hopped on the back of a moto taxi, said the name of my hotel and gone straight home, all at the cost of about one dollar. For some reason I had it in my head that I was going to make it home on my own. I wasn't about to give up and let a taxi do the work for me. While standing at yet another intersection alternately staring at the names of the streets and my map, looking as confused as ever, I heard a man with very good English ask me where I was going. I walked over to the doorway he was standing in and told him the street I was looking for. He ignored me and asked to see my map. I don't know why everyone in Asia wants to see your map when you ask for directions. I have yet to find anyone here who can actually read one. They usually spin it around about six times before letting it finally come to rest in an upside down position as they stare intently at the words written all over it. Of course, the same thing was happening here and the guy walked back into the store or house or whatever the hell this place was and told me to come into the light so we could see it better.

I thought we could see it just find where we were and tried to say no before he walked to the long fluorescent bulb that was located on the side of the wall of the empty room I was looking into. As he further studied the map, I analyzed the situation and determined that someone would have a hard time shutting me in from outside and that this guy had better pull out a gun if he was going to be beat me in any kind of fight. The situation seemed odd but I felt confident I would come out of it ok. I needed my map back!

After walking in and finally getting the man to understand that I just needed him to point me to Hang Ga, he put his hand on my shoulder and asked where I was from. I could tell the hand on the shoulder was supposed to mean something and I shrugged him off as I told him where I was from. I asked again to have the map and the man kept talking but this time changed the subject. "I bet your pretty big" he said as the hand that was on my shoulder was now making it's way toward my crotch. Instant sobriety immediately set in and before the man managed to grab a hold of my most sacred possessions I grabbed him by the hand, twisted his arm behind his back and threw him into the wall. "Don't even think about ever touching me!" I told him as I pulled his right arm high up behind his back with one hand and with the other pressed his face against the wall. I quickly grabbed my map, released this strange man and walked out the door.

At this point I probably should have hopped on a motor taxi but I walked another block and finally realized where I was. Just a few blocks away from my hotel fortunately! I picked up the pace in case the strange man had decided to follow me and finally reached my hotel. It was a long, strange and miserable day and I was glad that it was finally over. It seems when you travel that most days are really quite amazing but when one thing goes wrong, everything seems to go wrong. I am kind of glad that is the case as it gets it all over with all at once and allows your good days to be that much better!

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