Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Day 1 - Back in Hanoi



LEAVING MANILA

My least favorite part from a trip is the departure from Manila. I dread setting foot at the NAIA (Ninoy Aquino International Airport). Unlike most airports, there is something unsavory about the place. And I personally believe that the travel tax levied on local travelers is a bit stifling. Come on. This is still a third world country with the superficial fa├žade of a cosmopolitan metropolis. Our buildings and our SUV’s can outshine the best cities of the world - but that’s where we are good at – facades, lobbies, entrances, exteriors! The local travelers try to make do with what they have, but a travel tax of almost $35 puts a dent on any travel budget. I wouldn’t rant if I know where all this money is going. Nowhere! Rather, to the politicians’ coffers! It doesn’t translate to anything substantial that filters back to the people. The internal revenue of this country heavily taxes anybody and anything and for whom? For the whim of these idiot greedy avaricious ravenous politicians. What other synonyms pa ba? LOL

COME ON – MUG ME, PUNK!

My check-in was unexpectedly painless, unlike last time where I had to stand for 2 ½ hours to an almost-non-moving queue. Leaving right on schedule for a change, I was a relaxed soul. I was busy discovering my new mp3 player which I bought especially for this trip knowing there will be hundreds and hundreds of kilometers of bus rides along the way.

As a principle, I refuse to bring with me anything expensive during long haul journeys. I did once and lost them when I got mugged in Parque del Retiro in Madrid. A video cam, an SLR camera, even my Bulova watch and a new pair of Doc Marten shoes straight from Camden Lock Market (London) ! There's more: passport with several European and Schengen visas, credit cards, etc. Good thing I left a bundle of Euros in my side pockets (I hated using a wallet then). Another good news then was the fact that I insisted on paying 3 days advance for my hostel (a bad habit gone good, if you really think about it). Well, to cut the long story short, I ended up staying in Madrid while re-processing of my passport and visas were on-going - for 3 long weeks.

These days, the only thing worth stealing from me would be my Canon camera (which cost me $800 – Manila price). My Rayban stays at home! I hardly use it anyway. I am not an eyeglass person. But I brought my Police with me, a knock-off - but who cares! My wrist watch? Cheap! I used to refuse carrying even an ipod as it distracts me from hearing my surroundings; from what the people are saying; to any sound or noise that will help me learn more about where I am. Well, this time, I bought a very cheap mp3 player – less than $20. They can mug me and take them all – and I wouldn’t cry over them (except for my Canon of course)!

TALK TO ME!

I slept during most of the flight! Three hours later, it would be my 3rd arrival in Hanoi – in less than 10 months! Having filled up my immigration card, I went straight to the nearest booth for the immigration formalities. I gave my passport and managed a curt, “Hi!” I think I managed a little smile too. Believe me, one hello and a smile will never hurt you anywhere - not even at 2AM! Didn’t take 1 minute, I swear! The young officer was swift and I was sent away just as fast. Sometimes I relish a little Q&A, just as a little welcoming tete-a-tete, but hey, I’m good with “no questions” too.

THE SCAM REVISITED

After picking up my 8 kg baggage, a little tension creeped in. Hanoi, for new arrivals, is known to harbor a hundred and one scams and their equivalent low-lifes and scums-of-the-earth, out to squeeze as much money from its new arrivals. Mas lalo na pag ganitong madaling araw ang dating ng eroplano. In essence, a lot of Pinoys fall prey to many of these scams. In fact, last February, I became part of the statistics. After agreeing on a fixed $15 fare to the city center (the Old Quarter), the driver and his white-uniformed sidekick suddenly detoured to a make-shift police booth. The sidekick asked for $35 for the policewoman. When asked what for, he wouldn't answer - feigning ignorance to what I was saying. He just kept asking for $35 worth in Vietnamese dong. What do I say or do? Am NOT gonna argue with a police officer and the 2 taxi guys. It was a big blow to my ego. Akala ko kasi, alam ko na. Haha! Ayun, na scam pa rin!

SITTING DUCKS

Pinoys arriving in the wee hours are sitting ducks from such scams. Somehow, Cebu Pacific has to address this matter, but with their very poor PR rep these days (rude customer service personnel all over the country from Manila to Cebu to Davao – I encountered 2 of them within a month - last May), I doubt if they would care!

Now back to my Hanoi arrival, by the time I stepped out of the baggage room, I heaved a sigh of relief. Someone was waving a board with my name on it! Sikat! Hehe. I made sure that somebody picks me up from my hotel, Tung Trang. I emailed them 3 weeks prior. (It was my 2nd email; they didn’t get the first one. They have a long list of email reservation backlog which I saw last February and, though theytry to reply, sa haba ng pila, they just randomly pick an email to reply to. Not every mail gets read.) My welcome party was a tall Vietnamese guy wearing white shirt. Uh oh. The same white shirt the February scammer wore. Ganito yata talaga ang palakad sa Hanoi when you get a taxi. You have a driver. You have a white-shirt guy whose purpose I am not aware of. Anyway, I keep telling myself that my huge Toyota Camry is property of my hotel. On the get-go, I am safe!

AVOIDING SCAMS IN HANOI

My only suggestion to avoid such unfortunate incident is, arrange for a pick-up from your hotel. Reserve for a room and have them pick you up. A taxi from Noi Bai Airport to the city center will always ask for $15, pretty much a fixed rate. My hotel pick-up was just $12. The decision to arrange for an airport pick-up is a no-brainer. I am not sure though if the popular Hanoi Backpackers Hostel offers such service. It just doesn’t seem “fun” to get scammed on your first day. You have to keep in mind that many of the scams that a tourist encounters during his Indochina travels are likely to originate from Vietnam. This is due to the fact that the concept of quality customer service, customer rights and protection are virtually non-existent in this Vietnam. There is no known grievance agency for consumer complaints. Nada!

A SLEEPY HANOI WELCOME

My ride to the Old Quarters was quiet. Neither of my driver nor his assistant was capable of conversational English, so that’s that! At about 2:30 AM (3:30 Manila time), I was dropped at the nearest street leading to Tung Trang. The corridors were dark, but I am already familiar of the 3 turns that lead to Tung Trang. I was grateful I didn’t have to shell out police payola this time so I tipped the assistant. The driver refused to accept his, which was weird. I have never encountered a Vietnamese who refuses a tip for services rendered.
Tung Trang was in deep slumber the minute I set foot infront of the hotel. The assistant – who walked with me to my hotel- knocked at the barricaded door. No one stirred inside. He got his mobile and started dialing. In 3 minutes, a new lady I haven’t seen before opened the door. I handed my passport (guesthouse formalities – I’ll just pick it up in the morning) and said, “Room 201?”!) I always stay in Room 203 at the opposite side of the building. Though there are windows, there’s hardly a view to enjoy. At $13, it would have been alright (aircon, cable TV, clean bathroom, 2 separate beds), but I wanted to try the rooms facing the small avenue in front. I wanted to try a room with a veranda – for a change. At $20, I was pleased. $20 is already an “expensive” undertaking as per “Backpacking 101” but I wanted something different this time. It was a nice huge room with a view. I began charging my phone, mp3 and camera, and left them as I head to the comfort of my $20 bed. I shall be a gracious tourist tomorrow. LOL. For now, I shall fulfill my nocturnal obligation to myself.
Girls at Hoan Kiem Lake - my favorite Hanoi jaunt.

The Huk Bridge, Hoan Kiem Lake

Door leading to my $20 veranda at Tung Trang Hotel.

The view directly from my room's veranda.


This is the Eye in the Sky!




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