Saturday, October 2, 2010

Happy Birthday Hanoi

Next stop Hanoi. This ancient city is 1,000 years old this year and the fact is being celebrated, seemingly on a daily basis. There’s celebratory bunting on every street and Vietnamese flags hung from every shop front. I’m still struggling with some of the more rudimentary Vietnamese phrases but I know exactly how to say ‘Happy Birthday’ for all the fucking good that’ll do me if I‘m lost and hungry somewhere in the Mekong Delta.
The festivities are centred around Hoan Kiem lake which lies in the middle of the old quarter where you’ll find most of the hostels, restaurants, bars and, indeed, life in this city. It’s a wonderfully mazy neighbourhood where maps are for pedants only as there’s zero chance of getting really lost with such a huge bloody lake as a reference.
Hanoi is home to a well trained school of motorcycling mujahideen who dare you to enter into a battle of wills with them. Simply put, crossing the road in Hanoi is unlike anything in any city I’ve experienced before, and I’ve been to bloody Cairo. The traffic never pauses from any direction, the pedestrian crossings are there for effect only and the green man you see inviting you to cross the road is the Hanoiese equivalent of an invitation to a chicken-run.
I’m staying in a hotel in the old quarter that, if it were any rougher around the edges, they’d be handing out knuckle-dusters as you checked in. But it has a bed, is perfectly central and has a functional shower - these are the bare necessities on this trip. Sleeping and showering - this is what keeps me going in Asia.
Hanoi is also home to the cheapest beer of this trip. Earlier today I sat on a tiny plastic seat sipping cans of ‘Bia Ha Noi’ for 11,000 dong which is less than 50c, almost enough to make me complain about the price of beer in Prague. Because of this it would of course be rude to drink just the one. Hic.
This is also the base for my trip north to Sapa and then on my return a swift hop over to check out the much vaunted delights of Halong Bay. But here’s where things get interesting. Vietnam has lax - i.e. non-existent - copyright laws which allow, for example, a start up business with no customers to steal the name of a well established travel company with a good reputation. Whilst I do find this amusing ideologically - and think about how it’d piss off, say, Michael O’Leary - it’s a pain in the arse when it comes to the practicalities of booking a tour. Who’s real and who’s not? There are more scams ongoing in Hanoi than in Dáil Eireann and so booking a tour becomes fraught with uncertainties which would have been alien to the Thai tourism machine. Regardless, I have a 2 day, 1 night trip to sail on Halong Bay booked with a reputable agency, who promise that they are indeed the origin of the species. We'll see.

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