We arrived at Hanoi International Airport somewhere around 9pm. Another 20 minutes got burned waiting for our luggage to be extracted from the plane, and then we were off to find a cab.
Oh, the taxis of Hanoi.
Getting the cab was no problem: there was an actual, orderly taxi queue at the airport, where a white-shirted attendant helped us into the first available car. We’d prudently written down the name and address of our hotel on a card to hand to the driver, and all of Hanoi’s airport cabs are a flat US$10 fare anywhere into the city, so there was no haggling: away we went.
The first 20 minutes or so were down the airport access road, which was a shocking sight: a four-lane highway with an actual center divider! Of course, this didn’t mean that our cabbie paid any attention to the lane markers on our side (he did not) or that he didn’t spend half the trip tailgaiting much larger vehicles while holding down his horn (he did), but the highway itself was still an amazing sight.
Of course in true Viet Nam infrastructure style, the highway peters to a dead stop just on the outskirts of Hanoi, and the rest of the trip into the city is spent on the usual twisty 1.5-lane streets clogged with scooters. Adding to the list of amazing uses that the Honda moped has been put to in Viet Nam, several of the ones we passed that night were loaded up with what appeared to be an entire farm’s harvest of green onions! The scallions were bundled up in blocks comprised of two or three hundred onions, and each bike had about seven or eight of the blocks carefully secured on the back as they zoomed past us.
By this point, it was nearly 11pm, we were dead tired, I was feeling increasingly dyspeptic, and we wanted nothing more than to get to our hotel and collapse onto anything that could conceivably be called a bed. So we were extremely happy when we pulled up in front of a hotel…
…and not at all pleased to realize that it was the wrong hotel entirely.
Here, see, is the problem with the taxis of Hanoi: they are clean, they are polite, and they are all on the take. Each taxi is paid kickbacks by a number of hotels that they’ve contracted with to bring tourists there. Sometimes, they will tell you that the hotel you want to go to is closed, or has burned down, or is full. Sometimes, like our driver, they’ll just play dumb and drive up to one of the hotels they’re touting for. Often, by the time the confused tourist realizes what’s going on, the hotel’s bellhops have unloaded their bags from the taxi, at which point you may have to ransom your bags back before you can even try to find another taxi.
Having been warned in advance by the woman we’d made the hotel reservation with, we were having none of it. We handed the driver the card again. He put on a confused look. We opened up the Lonely Planet guide to the Hanoi Map and showed him the intersection. We firmly and politely insisted that we wanted to go to the Stars Hotel at 26 Pho Bat Su. He shrugged, and after about five minutes brought us to…
…another hotel that was not ours. This time, we were perhaps a little less polite, and a little more insistant. We also saw the bellhops angling toward the trunk, which may have added a touch of hysteria. “No. Stars hotel. No no no. 26 Pho Bat Su!” Another shrug, and off we went… to a third hotel that was not ours.
I have never, in all of my travelling around my own country and others, lost it. I have never snapped. I have never yelled. I have never slapped the attitude out of someone who desperately deserved it. This is a matter of some pride with me, especially when travelling in eastern countries, where Americans are smelly barbarians, and maintaining face is everything. This was as close as I have ever come.
This time, the wrong hotel was on Pho Bat Su at least, but it was obviously several blocks away from our actual destination. By chanting “26” over and over again, and making it very obvious that we were not leaving the cab until #26 was where we were, we somehow managed to convince our driver to start the engine up one last time and take us the rest of the way there.
I think that the next time I go to Hanoi, I’m going to get special business cards printed up. They will say, in English, French and Vietnamese:
Hello. I am an American. Specifically, I am from New York. What this means is that I will, reflexively, tip cabbies between ten and twenty percent. But if, and only if, you do not go out of your way to fuck with me.I understand that part of the problem is that there’s no easy way for a Vietnamese cabbie to tell the difference between an American (who will tip lavishly), a European (who might tip or might not) and an Australian (who will likely never tip a cabbie), but dear lord: did this man think that if we didn’t fall for the first hotel, we might give up after two or three more tries? Apparently so, and since it was a flat fare trip, everyone involved got to go home with the feeling that a great deal of their time had been wasted. Sheesh.
The Stars Hotel turned out to be a narrow backpacker joint with two or three reasonably large rooms per floor. We lugged our bags up to our room on the third level only to find that something in that room had leaked all over the floor. Well then, on to the fourth floor, and by this time I think we would have happily slept in the bathtub as long as it was dry. Two twin beds were pushed together to form a kingsize, and we gratefully dropped into it after the bare minimum of preparation. Soon, we were fast asleep…
Until I wasn’t. Somewhere around 2am, I woke up with that odd prescient aura you get when your body is getting ready to let you know that it’s well and truly unhappy with something. Once consciouness actually filtered in, it wasn’t too hard to figure out what that was.
Let’s just elide the gory details right now and call it Emperor Tu Duc’s Revenge. Foreshadowing is a bitch, and pride goeth before a fall. Or, in my case, a lengthy sit-down.
The night passed…fitfully.