There are only 3 million people living in Hanoi, it is the largest city in Northern Vietnam (there are 87 million people in the country). Our train from Sapa arrived at 4:15 a.m. at the Hanoi train station. It was still pitch black out, but all the vendors had already set up outside, serving up cafe and tea for the exhausted passengers. We stopped for a cafe before heading by foot to Hoan Kiem Lake right in the centre of town. Yann was hoping for a photo of the sunrise and we couldn't really show up to a guest house until 7 or 8. By five o'clock the path surrounding the lake was full of Vietnamese dancing, walking, running, stretching. We watched them for hours as the performed their morning routines saying hello when they noticed us.
At 7 we headed out to find a guest house and despite the fact that none of the stores were open yet, the empty streets were still crawling with hotel touts, trying to lure us to their "very cheap" guest house. Our goal was to find a hotel for 3$ U.S but after at least 6 guesthouses we didn't have anything under 5$ and that was for two dorm beds. The touts leave you alone when they offer you a room for 10$ and you ask if they have one for 3$? We realised maybe we might be hoping for a little too much in the busy Old Quarter, so when a loud, annoying young tout offered us a room for 6$ we took a look (despite the fact that he was really really annoying). We had a double bed, cable T.V and a hot shower so I agreed to take it even though it was on the sixth floor (Yann was pouting because he thought we could get better). Note: After 5 days in Hanoi we didn't meet a single person who had a room for less than 8$, even Asian tourists. The one issue was the annoying hyperactive teenage tout who happened to be the owner's son (we did grow to (sort of) like him after a while).
Meanwhile, the front desk manager is desperately trying to sell us a package tour to Halong Bay. He wooed us with free coffee and baguettes every morning (until we accepted his tour, after which we no longer existed). We did want to take a tour to Halong Bay, the tours are cheap, all-inclusive ordeals which we felt would be easier and possibly cheaper than doing it on our own. There are no fixed prices for buses in Vietnam, so you can be charged whatever the driver wants to charge you. It is especially difficult when there is only one bus to the destination. We spoke to a backpacker in Laos who had crossed the border from Vietnam from an extremely remote location. The bus driver had charged him 10 times the fare because there was no other way of crossing the border, when he refused to pay, the driver left him (at 2 a.m.) in the middle of nowhere, even though the bus was half empty. Its a strange thing that he would prefer to lose money rather than to charge a foreigner the real price of the ticket (this backpacker had even offered to pay 5 times the price of the ticket). So for 43$US/each we had a three day tour of Halong Bay including all food and transportation.
Before heading on our tour of Halong Bay we spent two days wandering Hanoi, eating Pho on the streets, visiting Uncle Ho's Mausoleum and of course dining out at our new friend's house in the outskirts of Hanoi. Every salesperson in Hanoi knows to charge tourists more than they should. I curse all the fools who throw their money around, "what the heck, thats only 2$ US". The salespeople love to use US dollars cause it makes things seem cheaper. Our first morning a salewoman tried to sell us a donut for 20,000 dong, we eventually got her down to the standard price of 1000 dong. We meet other tourists who were promised a hotel room for 8$ US and when they go to the desk to pay, they are charged 8$/person plus "service charges" and "taxes" so that there room is now over 25$. Instead of walking out (this is check-in) they actually take the room! There are hundreds of guest houses in the old quarter and you let yourself be ripped off, its just so maddening! I blame the tourists for the insanity in Hanoi (and thats really the only way it can be described, insanity!), you have a duty to those who come after you for crying out loud. Our Halong Bay tour begins with a mini bus picking us up at our hotel, and we are crammed into a mini bus with 14 other tourists, no problems yet, this is what we expected. We arrive in Halong City 5 hours later and quickly board our boat. We are served lunch as we sail off into the Bay. As mentioned in the brochure, drinks are not included (and that means no drinking water too), water is sold at three times the price. Yann and I came prepared as we had read the fine print and knew no drinks = no drinks. We visited a cave and sailed through the limestone islands. In the late afternoon we were scheduled for some kayaking, our guide informed us that we were running late so we could only kayak for 45 minutes. We all lined up and loaded into the kayaks from a small ladder hanging off the side of our boat. It was a slow process and our guide yelled the entire time. Yann and I tried to help out, and were the last people to load into a kayak, at which point our guide threw down a paddle and exclaimed: "no more paddle for you, you get one". I don't blame him, it is a difficult concept, 14 kayaks equals..hmmmm... 28 paddles give or take. There was another couple behind us, who had waited patiently the whole time to get in a kayak, when it came to their turn he told them "no, you too late, no kayaking for you!". We set out with our one paddle and later on they caught up to us, with their two paddles, after having argued with our guide. We slept on the our boat the first night. We had the room right over the motor room, and we hoped we would wake up alive the next morning, as all the windows were sealed shut and we took in fumes all night. It was pretty romantic. The next day we were dropped off on Cat Ba Island, the most developped of the islands on Halong Bay. We were scheduled for a 12km hike through the National Park. Our hike consisted of being dropped off on the side of the highway, were we proceeded to walk up a hill for an hour or so until we were picked up by our minibus a little further up the highway. We didn't dare suggest it might not in fact be the National Park (35 km away according to our map), we just pretended it was (makes us much happier). In the afternoon we went to one of Cat Ba's beaches. It was deserted, due to the cloudy winter weather and we lay there reading for a while (our photocopied books from Hanoi). You know they actually have photocopied Noam Chomsky books? Our hotel was quiet and clean with a seaside view and a hot shower and the staff liked us, probably because we were the only tourists who hadn't showed up pissed off at the quality of their "luxury 3 day tour of Halong Bay" (and then taking it out on the poor hotel employees). We were happy to have seen Halong Bay, but also happy to get back to Hanoi away from our evil (prostitute selling) guide. We spent the next few days hitting more Hanoi tourist sites, museums, pagodas. I even posed for a photo with the Canadian ambassador, who we ran into while he was leaving the embassy. Note: the embassy has a prime spot right next to Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum. Similar themes reappear at all the tourist spots, "the great victories of Vietnam over its agressors", "our great wise leader Ho Chi Minh"... Its all a little bit over the top, but it's obviously an important part of the country's history. The Vietnamese have spent most of the last century under foreign control.
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