Ah, Hanoi. The flight to get here involved 3 schedule changes, a lot of bumping around for the best part of 2 hours and having to allow my shoulder become ‘part-time pillow' for the two sleeping Asians on either side of me who actually fell asleep on me, woke up and realised, and yet continued to stay in the same position. I did however get my own back upon disembarkation by towering over them and forcing myself out into the aisle first and away into immigration before them, something that seems to really get to people over here. The immigration official was polite and courteous – rubbish, he wasn't a bit, he was rude, silent, took his time inspecting each and every page of my passport like I'd presented him with some blatantly forged document and looked at me like he'd just found me – on the bottom of his shoe. On the plus side, my lift from the airport to the hotel made up for it and the man, in broken English, asked me a few questions about the flight, what I was doing, the usual; he had by no means got the conversational range of a Dublin taxi driver – we didn't manage to find our way into the topic of deregulation or the weather – but was pleasant nonetheless. At this stage however I've begun to (albeit, slowly) realise that Asia has a nasty streak of presenting you with something great initially – like Beijing Airport for example, or in this case, the brand-new car we were sitting in – only to suddenly and unexpectedly drop you into terror.
We arrived to the hotel and my heart sank almost immediately. To start with, it's actually called a different name to the one I booked (it appears, like a lot of places, to have multiple names – adding a new one with every unfavourable review of the old one). I decided straight up that I'd be paying at least midway or at the end of my stay and furthermore, would not be forfeiting my passport to take advantage of my self-created payment terms. The next problem on the agenda was the room itself; it has two tiny windows at just below roof level and yet is somehow still swamped with flies, both of which combine to give it this whole Asian ‘maximum security prison' feel to it. Anyway, disregarding those problems I had a quick look in my ‘minibar' – wow, a whole 3 bottles of water. It'd be a wild night. After treating myself thoroughly in mosquito repellent, putting my anti-insect sheet on the bed and treating myself in repellent again, it was off to bed. When I finally woke up sometime the next afternoon the room was, much to my great sadness, much the same as I'd remembered it. I had been waiting for this the whole time since I'd arrived at the hotel but finally, as I deigned to leave the premises for the afternoon, it happened.
‘Ah…Mr. Farlane, yes, very great to see you, have a seat'
– OK, first things first – what is it with the lodgings here and deciding that the ‘Mc' at the beginning of my surname doesn't actually merit inclusion at any time? When I left Ireland, I left, from my understanding, as Mr. Mcfarlane. When I arrive back home, there can be no doubt about it, I will be Mr. Farlane because seemingly that's what most of the world would prefer I was called.
‘Now, I see you're only staying two days, I have looked after train tickets for you but perhaps you'd like to consider a tour?'
Truth is, no, I didn't want to consider a tour but whether I wanted to or not, I was pretty much forced to sit for half an hour and listen to all the tours on offer from the hotel, each one in vivid detail. I nodded and agreed at what sounded like all the important points but otherwise paid very little attention. Finally, sensing my boredom, a free map was pulled out and some areas of interest highlighted for me. I say areas of interest, but the majority in fact were areas they'd have liked me to visit such as her friend who had ‘a great shop here, cheap beer' or ‘lovely gifts on this street'.
The first major issue I came across in Hanoi is the issue of water that's safe to drink. It sounds easy enough – I have a bottle that you can fill from any freshwater source and it should sterilise it by itself (and from first-hand experience, I'm 100% sure it does a sterling job of filtering every nasty out there) but I'm not entirely convinced it filters what's supposedly in the tap water here; Arsenic. Secondly, there seems to be a lot of counterfeit and illegitimate bottled water on the scene so it's not the easiest to be sure the water you're drinking out of a bottle isn't actually the very thing you're trying to avoid. In fact, to give an example of how hilarious the whole bottled water rivalry is, I read a situation whereby a new company set up shop using a years-old reliable spring. No sooner were they in business but the spring after years of use, unexpectedly and without warning stopped. Turns out the Government must've done some engineering or construction near the spring that disrupted it. It later turned out that even a Government official admitted that a rival bottled water company may have had something to do with the work being done where it was. Not long after that, the new company found that its spring had been poisoned, creating a potentially hazardous situation for consumers. And that's just one example of one bottled water company. It's so bad in fact that one company, La Vie have spent more on moulded plastic bottles that collapse themselves before they can be refilled to stop counterfeiting and refilling. So it'd be safe to say that to date, I've been sticking to a 50% mix of (filtered, so it should be safe) Arsenic-laced tap water and 50% bottled water – Irish luck may be needed to carry this off!
Once you get past the nonsense of the comical bottled water rivalry, the fact that you may well be poisoning yourself with arsenic with every sip of the local water and that the hotels generally carry two or three different names so you can never be sure exactly where you stayed so as to be able to complain later, Hanoi itself is small and yet, packed to the rafters. The Law of Tonnage applies here more than ever (refer to the previous article to find out what this is) and in fact, even traffic lights I've discovered are considered more like a ‘guide' than an actual lawful instruction – as a result, here more than ever, the slow-and-steady confident walk I'd pioneered elsewhere whereby you pay no attention to the number of vehicles, just slowly plant your foot on the road and then quickly and without stopping continue across the road, has been crucial to getting about. The city is absolutely jammed full of motorcycles and the irritation for me personally is that while you're standing there waiting to get across the road, chances are extremely high someone will try to sell you something in the meantime. When I finally made my way to the lake, which by the way is actually pretty spectacular – as an aside, so too are the buildings if they'd stop tacking large, ugly signs to the front of them – I decided that on such a hot day (and it really is extremely hot), what would be nicer than a brief sit down.
Bad move. Within about 30 seconds I was surrounded; a woman held out a ‘natural bamboo' fan at me and insisted I buy it, the man in the middle opened his cooler bag and tried to physically shove bottles of water onto my lap, meanwhile in on the right another guy, reckoning I wouldn't be content having a lap full of bottles of water and being gently fanned by the ‘natural bamboo' fan on the left, began his effort at selling me packs of postcards. I initially tried the ‘Nah, you're grand' approach but they all just looked at each other confused – why wasn't this westerner either giving up and buying the stuff or going red in the face with apoplectic rage like all the others? After finally sitting there for a few minutes staring right through them to the lake on the other side, they shuffled off in different directions, still looking evidently confused at how things had gone so badly that I'd managed to actually retain my seat without going mad or buying anything. However, moments later, a man sat down and begun a conversation. Needless to say since China, I've decided to begin bending the truth for everyone – how long have I been here? Oh about a month – sure enough, out came the bag a second later, no doubt full of goods I didn't want. First there was some postcards – nope, sure I'd been here a month according to my story, I sent all the postcards I needed to send. What about some books? No, sure I have a whole library in my rucksack I bravely lied. Finally, as things got desperate, he turned to some slightly unusual offerings – he gave my sandals the quick once-over and insisted that they were ‘no good' and would I like them repaired. Nope. Finally, with his hand mostly still inside the bag but holding it up just enough for me to see, a small bag of marijuana. OK, now I don't know what the law is like here regarding drugs but I bet if it's anything like Thailand, both himself and myself would have ropes hanging around our necks if this bit of his sales effort was spotted. So I declined – and this time, decided he could keep the seat.
I'm leaving Hanoi by train tomorrow for Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as it's better known and while I'm excited to be getting out of here and onto the next place, I'd have to say that in spite of what I've just written, Hanoi is actually a scenic place – personally, I just detest being offered tat on the street and having to concern myself with whether my waters poisoned even though it came in a sealed bottle. I'd say that although I saw as much as I wanted to, I'd quite easily have spent more if people annoyed me less – which is sad to say about a country where the average wage is just $300 US a year, but it's true. I found myself buying water from convenience stores just so I wouldn't have to start negotiating from ridiculous price levels for a bottle of water on the street, only to find out it was counterfeit or refilled. I suppose perhaps the fact that a lot of people are so poor makes them literally desperate to sell stuff, just to make any money they can and while I appreciate that, it's just not for me – give me a price, make sure it's somewhere in the middle of what it costs and what you'd like to sell it for and I'll probably buy it if I want it, but empty bags of bottles of water onto my lap, while fanning me and simultaneously trying to pedal postcards? Sales overload.
So, onwards to Saigon then and hopefully I'll catch everyone again before I fly onto Kuala Lumpur on Monday morning,
Cheers & Hugs…