June 24, 2010

oh Ho

i arrived on the night bus from Hue. it was the worst of the bus rides i think because this driver was really bad. there are two drivers for the night bus and when we get pulled over by the 'traffic wardens' there is a quick change of drivers so i suspect one may not be correctly licensed. you know when you are getting close to the end of the trip when the drivers let the hotel touts onto the bus. the bus stop is again some random intersection surrounded by taxi and hotel touts. there are two good ways to deal with them. the first is let all the other westerners get off first then sneak around the back. the second is to jump off first and move quickly down the street because they are mostly too lazy to follow you and wait for an easier target behind you.

i find a cafe in the old quarter and leave my bag for a couple of hours while i explore Hanoi, look for a hotel and book a trip to Halong Bay for the next day. i beeline it to the mausoleum where the body of Ho Chi Minh is on display. he is a national hero similar to Che. this is a must do in Hanoi because the whole experience is surreal. first off, i am really lucky because Uncle Ho's body is here. for two months every year [October and November] he is shipped off to Russia for 'maintenance'. the list of rules about walking through the mausoleum is long and strictly enforced. i see the guards pulling random visitors from the line and making them empty their pockets and they are not kind. this is after a TSA style security check where all electronics must be checked at a desk. i just avoid all eye contact and walk as slowly as possible [the guards push you if you stop or walk too slowly or put your hands in your pockets or talk or laugh] so i can enjoy the air conditioning. mostly i just feel sorry for the guy who lived a humble life and is now pumped full of something and left on display. 

as i leave the museum at the complex i'm approached by this tiny Vietnamese woman who asks me to help her with her English.  we talk for about 10 minutes and she has a gazzillion questions for me and i wait for a product pitch but it never comes.  other travelers have similar stories and it makes for a great experience and an opportunity to ask questions about the culture and their families.  i ask about the disparity in response to Westerners and she tells me the people are cranky because it is so hot but i'm not buying it.

there are no tuk-tuks in Vietnam but the taxis are metered so it is not required to negotiate the cost up front. however, when i grab a taxi from the mausoleum complex i get a block and see the taxi driver has started the meter at 100,000 dong [$5] instead of 10,000 [50 cents] and i tell him to reset it or pull over. this doesn't end well for him. i get out against his protests and i am in front of the Dutch embassy. the guards don't speak English but i gesture wildly and the taxi leaves. i hope all fraudulent taxi drivers burn in hell for all eternity.  really. 

lunch at KOTO [know one teach one]. i am such a sucker for these NGO's that are doing such great work to get the kids off the street. again the food is fantastic and staff eager to create a good experience for the patrons. this one holds the distinction that Bill Clinton has been a visitor.

there is a feeling among some travelers that the lonely planet writers are fear mongers because the guides are constantly warning about all the ways you will get scammed.  after the bad taxi i become frozen by the fear of being ripped off and it makes for a bad afternoon of hunting Hanoi in the heat of the afternoon for a decent hotel and tour office to book a trip to Halong Bay.  hang in there with me for just a minute as the day turns out quite good. 

i get my admin [that's what we call our travel booking, laundry, blogging, email, skype or other chores] done and head over the Tamarind Cafe for dinner.  here i have dinner with two Australians and two Kiwis and we laugh and swap travel stories late into the evening.  the Australians are also booked for a Halong Bay trip and it sounds like we may be on the same boat but there are so many boats that we can't be sure.  off to bed for a good night sleep with just a little bit of trepidation about the quality of the boat and tour of Halong Bay.

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