At last the time had come for a month-long break. A chance to get out of Singapore and backpack my way around Vietnam, a country I was yet to visit.
Flew Tiger Airways from Changi. During the flight, I had the pleasant company of a Vietnamese chap from Hanoi, who, patriotic chap that he was, took great pleasure in showing me photographs of Hanoi on his laptop. I arrived at night after the 3.5hour flight, with no hotel booking. The airport was nice enough, and immigration was pretty speedy. I got on a minibus which cost $3 to get to a destination of my choice. After flicking through the Lonely Planet (good only for maps, as I soon found out), I opted for the Hotel Camilia, which seemed nice enough judging by the description. As I got into Hanoi, the bus mysteriously stopped and picked up a local man, who got on and promptly asked where we all wanted to go. “But there are many Camelia hotels” he said when I explained where I wanted to go. So we arrived in the Old Quarter. Traffic was horrendous. Motorbikes with whole familes on them were vying for space with buses, trucks and the odd taxi, but it was the motorbikes that caused the majority of noise, chaos and, to the bewildered foreigner at least, confusion.
We reached the beautiful Hoan Kiem lake, but it barely had time to register in my conscience, as our minibus careered down a side street and past a throng of shops and street-side eateries, with people squatting on small blue stools and tucking into local fare cooked in a big black copper pot. I had that familiar feeling when first entering a foreign city…a mixture of excitement, apprehension, and the feeling that I had no idea where anything was, and that surely I’d never be able to navigate this place. The bus stopped outside a hotel. By now, only and a German couple, Tom and Mera, were left. This didn’t look like how the Camelia Hotel was described. It was dark and small, and run by a couple of real chancers, obviously drunk. “Camelia Hotel” announced the shifty chap the minibus had picked up confidently. “Welcome to Camelia”, slurred the homeless-looking guy at the front. We looked up and saw no sign or other indication that this place was a hotel. Seasoned from years in Asia, I realised this was a hotel scam, and I wasn’t prepared to fall for it. The German couple joined me in demanding we be taken to the real Camelia. After 5 minutes the driver relented, and we set off. Over the next month, I would speak to many people who were fooled by the scam, and ended up staying at the hotels and paying more money for a worse location. The minibus dropped the shifty guy off on the street, and he scurried away sour-faced into the night, ready to plot another scam. I felt victorious. I was ready for it. I was sure I’d be facing a lot of scams on the trip, and that I’d probably fall for a few, but at least the first one didn’t get me.
We got dropped off at Camelia Hotel and walked in. It looked grand enough, with marble floor and pillars. Well-lit too, and packed with older foreigners. The staff were surly ( a redeeming feature of almost everyone connected with the service or tourism industry in Hanoi), and reluctant to give us a room. They said only one room was available, so I went to take a look. The room was cavernous but characterless, and overpriced at $25. By now it was around 9:30pm, so we were tired. We sat in the lobby and tried to figure out our next move. Mera went off to look for a place, and I chatted with Tom. He was a nice fellow, and had lived in Saigon for a month. The girl came back and she’d found a place. We followed her eagerly down some dark streets, and into Central Star Hotel. It wasn’t the best-looking place, but cheap at $10. We checked in. I chose a twin bedroom, that had a tiny balcony where you could look onto the street below. It was pretty basic, but at least it had a fridge and cable TV.
I freshened up and went out into the night. I was due to meet Tom and Mera at a bar we had seen on the way, amusingly called ‘Halfman, Halfnoodle’, but I thought it was shut as we walked past it now, and so I continued alone. The streets were getting quieter as by now it was 11:30pm, and Hanoi pretty much shuts down at midnight. I found a cyclo (a form of the Indonesian becak, a bicycle with a small carriage at the front for up to 2 people) and negotiated a fee of 10,000 Dong to find a restaurant that was open. The driver cycled around for a while and then down a dark street where he took me to a restaurant/bar. Two expats sat downstairs, and the rest of the place was empty. I went upstairs and sat on the balcony overlooking the quiet street. The staff seemed a bit pissed-off that I was ordering food at that late hour, but I ordered mixed fried rice all the same, that came with some good seafood, and a Beer Hanoi that tasted OK to wash it down with.
During the meal suddenly all the lights outside snapped out. An announcement on a loudspeaker echoed hauntingly, and I saw a police van cruising down the street slowly, searchlight slashing across buildings to both sides. So this was the ‘fun police’. At midnight every night, they drive around ordering restaurants and bars to shut. Rules have been tightened up for some reason, and I was reminded that we were in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, and certain restrictions were imposed. Amazingly, 5 minutes after the incident, the lights came back on, the stools came out, and people emerged again from hiding. the danger had passed.
I finished my meal and went for a walk around the lake, which was beautifully lit. The Ngoc Son Temple at the Northern end was lit red, and at the Southern end, Thap Rua (Tortoise Tower) glowed an eerie white. I walked all around the lake, past some notable colonial buildings, past the Martyrs Monument, and then strolled back to the hotel, somehow finding my way in the dark, and had a long sleep.