A Return to Vietnam

Trip Start Nov 08, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Sunday, November 16, 2008

We needed to do a visa run, and we had already been to KL and Singapore for our previous two.  We thought about going to a beach in Malaysia called Panang, but it was a lot of money to go somewhere that would be inferior to Thai beaches just to get a visa.  So we decided we'd much rather go back to Vietnam and check out a place we missed last time.  Flights were $200 with taxes and rooms would be pretty cheap.  What we wanted to see was a place near Hanoi that's called "Halong Bay on land." Halong Bay is pretty incredible, so I wanted to see this place.  Plus we could grab some souvenirs that we couldn't carry when we were backpacking through Vietnam for 3 months.  

So we flew to Hanoi and it took me 8 minutes to remember why I hate that city.  Then for the next 48 hours, while we waited for our Thai visas, I was reminded every 90 seconds or so why I'd rather have a guy with palsy give me a vasectomy than ever go back to Hanoi.

I won't tell the full story, but let me preface this by saying that I've traveled a fair amount.  When I say the city is hellish, it is not just because it's not comfortable or modern or easy to navigate like cities in the States or Europe.  It's not because I can't handle a little chaos or a language barrier or aggressive people.  When I discuss Hanoi, I am comparing it to massive metropolises in Central and South America.  I am comparing the people to Mexicans and Burmese and Malays and the French. I am comparing the noise to Guatemala City, NYC, Glasgow, La Paz, and even Saigon.  I am comparing my experiences in the Vietnamese capital to countless others in various pockets of the globe. And I can say without hesitation, that I hate Hanoi more than any city in the world.  


I should point out that I enjoyed Vietnam during our first 3-month journey there.  Hanoi was hectic, but we had time to kill and got to hide in our hotel room for entire days while we built up the energy to head once more into the breach.  We had 3 weeks in Sapa to fall in love with the country, its natural wonders and its indigenous populations.  We went to quaint Hoi An and Hue and took a 2-day boat trip on Halong Bay.  So punctuated by all of that, in the right circumstances, Vietnam is an incredible destination, and Hanoi is the price we pay for that.  But these particular two days in Hanoi just shopping for some winter clothes for our trip to the States and applying and waiting for our visas were just miserable.  I'll give a quick run down of all the fun.

Cab from the airport to the Old Quarter has gone up 100% in 18 months.  Fine.  We split a cab with several people, but the driver does 4 extra loops around the lake even though we've been there before and know where we're going.  Then when we're dropped off the driver demands several extra dollars for his troubles.  When we refuse, he gets irate and only our hotel owner coming out and dropping the money in the car window and walking away to cursing resolves the issue.

Hotel owner who saved us several dollars then proceeds to charge us that much extra for our room even though we have an email confirmation with a price we got several days before. Written agreement?  So what.  Then AC doesn't work.  Hotel guy pretends to try to fix it by smacking the remote for 2 minutes, then shrugs his shoulders, leaves, and never returns.

I'm buying some jeans across the street from my hotel at what appears to be a pretty nice store.  When I'm checking out, the price is more than expected because there's a 50%-off sign.  My money is already on the counter but I say to hold on one moment. This is a department store, not a vendor by the way. Another clerk leads me away to say, no, these identical jeans are the half off pair.  I say I'll take those and head back to the counter where they've already gone through with the first purchase and locked up my money.  They won't give it back.  I talk to 4 people who all give me an equally infuriating dismissive look and tell me to go to hell.  It takes 20 minutes, our hotel owner coming over again, and a threat to call the police for them to unlock the drawer and return my money.  

Dozens of small things happen like people refusing to point out that we're a block from the Thai embassy even though we have the address and a map and are politely asking for assistance. A moto driver tries to give us a ride across town even though we know we're 100 yards from our destination. And none of these things on their own are any big deal.  Shit happens on the road in the developing world.  It's 40 of them in succession in a day that makes it brutal.  And the fact that the city has no redeeming qualities or offers of culture or sites to balance it out.  We had seen the 3 things worth seeing in Hanoi already.  

Then I get some crazy monkey pox from my sketchy hotel room.  It's not a small rash or a few bites.  It's not even bed bugs, which I can ignore.  It's neck-to-knee chicken pox even though I've already had the chicken pox.  I show them to my hotel owner and her eyes open wide like I have something she never knew existed: boils, the plague, manners, scruples...something utterly unknown and foreign in Vietnam.  So she writes me a little note in Vietnamese that says something to the effect of, "Contaminated foreigner, handle with care, douse with kerosene in case of emergency."  I got to a clinic/pharmacy.  I go up to the woman with the nurse's hat and white coat, show her my note which she doesn't care to read, then show her my pox.  She raises her eyebrows in a very clear, "Why would I ever consider offering you any assistance even if you were dying at my feet" and simply utters the word "No."  That's it.  I point at all the medicine behind the counter in their pharmacy, then back at my pox.  "No." And she points at the door.  

That was the thing.  The motorbike driver was trying to hustle us to make a buck.  Fine.  The taxi driver was trying to rip us off, but again for money.  Same for the jeans store.  But regular people we encountered in Hanoi again and again treated us like shit for no reason.  A medical professional refusing care?  Come on.  It's not like I had on my "USA A-OKAY" shirt, or my "My parents invented Agent Orange" hat.  They didn't know I was American.  I wasn't being obnoxious, even after all the hassle.  I know how to conduct myself abroad.  They were just all dicks. 
Do you think I'm done?  Nope.  Just wait for the climax when we get to Ninh Binh, and not the good kind.

I will say that we went to two restaurants we liked a lot when we were there last time, one of which I recommended to 300,000 people in my Sapa article, and they were cool.  The lantern lady and t-shirt guy were super cool, and I showered them with thank you's and smiles and my business.  But they were a couple of decent people drowning in a sea of bastards.  

I absolutely loathe Hanoi.  Just to clarify.  Loathe it.
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dane on

Re: Hanoi
I've heard numerous stories from 'seasoned' travelers about the challenges of Vietnam. If you read the rest of my blogs, you'd see that when things go well, I'm the first to say it. I published a glowing travel article about Sapa that ran in a U.S. newspaper with a circulation of more than 300,000.

1) First, being turned away from a medical facility when in need has nothing to do with poor planning. I was at a place that gave care to the sick and they refused me. 2) It was a fixed price taxi, and he changed the price. I believe that's clear in the blog. 3) As for the purchase, it was a department store and my guard was down, as it would not be at a street vendor. But I could have been more defensive with the transaction. In my defense, I live in Thailand where things like that would never occur.

As for faults and charms, there are certain idiosyncrasies that can be both frustrating and delighting. These experiences in Vietnam do not fall under that category. I've been in Asia for 3 years and traveled in Latin America extensively, which is much rougher and aggressive. But it was an insanely frustrating few days in Hanoi and Ninh Binh, where the hotel owner moved our things while we were out and broke our laptop and then denied it. Every travel blog should not be all sunshine and joy. It would be misleading. And the inane notion that the whole world must be charming is what makes so much travel writing ring false, which is why it is ignored. Journalism should be a reflection of the world. This is just that.

Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

dane on

Re: Blog post
Thanks for the article. There is definitely truth in that. Let me clarify that I at no point generalize and say that these experiences reflect the totality of Vietnam or its people. People can read my blogs about Sapa, Cat Ba, the outskirts of Ninh Binh and the family who took us into their home, and see that I had beautiful moments in Vietnam. I'm not a misanthrope and I don't rush to judgment, particularly in regard to an entire 'race.' But my experiences are just as real as those who love the country. I think many people who roll with the punches, look at the bright side, find the wonder in all things, etc., still struggle with certain cultures and countries. For example, I still struggle when I go back to my native U.S. or any number of other places. My experiences in Vietnam (particularly Hanoi) are just that - experiences. I've never had a trip I didn't enjoy. This entry is just a page in a long book of moments on the road, but there's nothing wrong with telling it how it is. I don't judge all Vietnamese based on a handful of interactions (although I've spent several months there), just as I don't expect to have my impressions or stories based on a single blog entry. Blogs are very different from travel articles, because they are immediate and powerful and unedited. I think there's value in that.

Thanks again for the blog link.

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