Xin Chào all!
So I know it's been a while since I last blogged but I will attempt to pick up where I left off and tell you a little bit about the week that I spent in the Vietnamese capital city of Hà Nội prior to setting of oop North on my xe moto. As I spent seven days in the city I will tell you seven things that I observed whilst there/here. The reason I say here is that I seem to find myself back for another week whilst I sort out my visa extension but more on that in a bit.
So my eight observations, in no particular order are:
1) Vietnamese men can go from placid to violent in a matter of seconds. I know this because on a hostel bar crawl I observed a Westerner on a scooter acting like a prat, pulling out in front of a car making it stop then backing up and doing the same thing again. After doing it about five times he got bored and let the car pass but it didn't go very far, instead it went around the corner and a guy got out from the passenger side, walked up to a table full of beer bottles and started throwing them at the guy who had been on the scooter. After chucking a few of them he smashed one and proceeded to chase the guy down the street with the broken bottle whilst screaming obscenities at him in Vietnamese. Luckily the other guy was a faster runner and a minute later the Vietnamese guy returned, smashed what was left of the bottle on the floor and then jumped back into the car which sped off. I don't have much sympathy for the guy who was acting like a prat but messing about on a scooter shouldn't be enough to get you bottled!
2) Even if you agree on a price with a xe om (motorbike taxi) driver and confirm it any number of times before setting off, you shouldn't expect him to remember or honour the agreed on price when you get to your destination. Whilst I would like to believe that all xe om drivers just have bad memories and that they're good, honest people really I sadly do not. One evening after the hostel bar crawl had ended at 12am, everyone decided to head across to Lighthouse; the one bar in Hanoi which has a late license and can serve until 3am (read: has paid the police a big enough bribe to let them stay open later that is normally allowed) and so we all got onto xe oms in twos and we agreed with our driver to pay him 40,000 VND for the three minute trip which is a fair price and after our short journey, we got off and each handed him a 20,000 VND note as payment. Now whether all the rice wine he had been drinking earlier that day had affected his memory or not I don't know but he suddenly thought that the price we had agreed on was 400,000 VND rather than the actual price of one tenth that amount. What followed was him shouting at us in Vietnamese, pretending to swing punches at us, grabbing us and making cut throat gestures. In the end we gave him another 10,000 VND note which seemed to placate him a bit and we made a hasty move inside the club and enjoyed the rest of the evening/early morning. Adding on an extra zero or two is common practice amongst xe om drivers and if you have the exact change and it's daytime it's easy to just pay the agreed price and walk off but if you only have 100,000 or 500,000 VND notes it gets a bit difficult and drivers have been known to just speed off with all of the money rather than give you change, although I haven't experienced this myself.
3) The quality of tofu in street-side restaurants can vary wildly. I know this as rather than take my chances with the dodgy looking meat/entrails that are available to eat/kill yourself with I have mainly been eating a vegetarian diet whilst in Hanoi. As you have a choice between Pho Bo (noodle soup with beef), Pho Ga (the same but with chicken) or Com (boiled rice) with a variety of different accompaniments that you can choose from, the food can get a bit plain but in Hanoi there's a good choice of restaurants serving Western style food which is ok price wise but the portions of which are always very small. Getting back to my observation however, the choice of accompaniments for with Com normally consists of the following; tofu, egg (small omelettes), cabbage in vinegar, other assorted vegetables, spring rolls, chicken, beef, pork, various entrails and other unidentifiable things that I wouldn't touch with a barge pole. (or a chopstick in this case) I normally get the tofu, egg and various vegetables and whilst eggs are eggs and vegetables are vegetables, the tofu has ranged from being chewy and burnt to being like a fishy tasting wet sponge. Up North it's nice as it's normally served with tomatoes in a sauce which give it a bit more flavour but some of the times I've had in in Hanoi it's been horrible and after eating it I kind of wished I had picked the dogs' testicles instead. (note: I probably have seen them on sale but as the food items don't have labels on them I wouldn't know. In fact I wouldn't know anyway as I don't know what the Vietnamese for dogs' testicles is)
4) Sitting on your motorbike all day and shouting "Hello, motorbike?" at every passer by classes as being employed in Vietnam. Judging by the standard of driving of lots of the xe om drivers I doubt any of them have ever passed or even thought of doing a driving test/driving training and I think that you're way more likely to have a crash on the back of one of them than on a bike by yourself. Now Vietnam actually has a low unemployment rate of 4.4% in 2010 compared to a rate of 7.8% in England and most of the shops and businesses in Hanoi open early and stay open until late, however I wonder just how many xe om drivers there actually are in the city and how you are able to register as being self employed as a motorbike taxi driver without any sort of formal training? I mean if it's that easy then in a few months when my money runs out I may be found in Hanoi sitting on my motorbike all day shouting at every person that goes past in the hope of earning a few VND!
5) If you don't either live in Hanoi or know somebody that does, you cannot possibly expect to find the correct street on which to buy a multi adapter/motorbike helmet/fake Christmas tree. Oh and finding it by blind luck doesn't count. I know this as similar to in China there is a separate street for everything, from kitchenware to tools and from clothes to baseball caps. I went out looking for a new motorbike helmet yesterday as a light fingered person took my (two week) old one from behind the hostel desk a couple of nights back and I was firstly directed to Don Xuan market; a huge two building, three storey market but after spending two hours walking around every stall there and finding only clothes and food I got a bit bored and headed back to the hostel to see if anyone else had any ideas about where to get a helmet from. I got told about a street some way South of the hostel which is the only place in Hanoi where you can buy Western style (aka of some use in a crash rather than a plastic baseball cap style hat) motorbike helmets and accessories, so I set off walking and when I found the place it was like motorbike heaven. There were spare parts, tyres, super loud horns, HID lights (high intensity discharge lights - very bright ones basically), chrome bits and anything else that a budding boy racer may want. I managed to steer myself away from the Aladdin’s cave of goodies and after some searching I found a good quality full face helmet which is a lot comfier than my old one and which cost a grand total of 430,000 VND or £13. What a bargain! If someone was to make a map of Hanoi which listed what goods are sold on each street I'm sure it would be a big seller, at least for the first twenty four hours anyway or until someone scans it in and starts selling a fake version of it on the streets! (note: book and map piracy is huge in Vietnam)
6) If you want to develop a prescription drug habit then Vietnam is like a paradise island amongst a sea of opiates, morphine, ritalin, vicadin and whatever else you may want to get your hands on. I know this as when I went to the pharmacy for some painkillers to try and ease the pain in my foot, the young woman behind the desk proceeded to pull out three different boxes of different coloured pills and say "These very good, only 390,000 VND." Whilst I'm sure they would have been very good painkillers, I had never heard of two of the types of pills that had "By prescription only" written on their boxes and when I asked the woman working at the pharmacy what they were she didn't seem to be too sure either. She picked each one up and read the name and the usage/dosage instructions from the front of the boxes then handed me them to look at. Whether they were compatible with each other or whether they would've given me liver failure I don't know and I turned down her offer of the super strong happy pills and instead opted for some co-codamol instead. Looking at all of the tablets and vials of liquid in the seemingly untrained pharmacist's counter, I managed to count morphine and codeine amongst others and from speaking with people in Hanoi who have had serious things wrong with them it turns out that a whole host of other things are freely available and you no more than have to ask for them, tell the pharmacist your symptoms and then pay up and you can have a stomach rattling full of pills in no time. I'm glad I only went for co-codamol tablets in the end as I've even had to stop taking them as they made me dizzy and confused (more so than normal) so I shudder to think what the other pills would've done to me!
7) You can expect to get lost when wandering the streets even if you have a map. I have been officially lost no fewer than three times whilst out and about and it is even easier to get lost when riding a motorbike about than when you're walking. I say this because the maps provided by the hostel cover quite a large area of the touristy part of the city however if you take a wrong turning down a one way street you can end up way off the map and just trying to find out from people whether you need to go North, East, South or West to get to the general area is hard enough, never mind getting any sort of proper directions. I've now figured out that it's perfectly ok to go the wrong way down a one way street here as long as you honk your horn whilst you're doing it and you stick to the side of the road so from now on if I think I'm getting lost I'll just turn around and go back the way I came but if you actually follow the traffic system through the maze of streets which change their names at every junction you can be guaranteed to spend quite a lot of your time wandering about trying to find the way to where it is that you actually want to go to.
That’s all for now folks. I hope you've enjoyed reading about my time in Hanoi and if you check back in a day or two you can expect a blog post telling you all about my motorbike adventures oop North