Hanoi greeted me with a perfectly foggy jeans and t-shirt type of day. It was love at first sight. The city was charming with European style buildings, windy streets, numerous cafes and merchants pedaling French baguettes on street corners. There was a lake in the middle of the old quarter where locals would come to practice tai chi, play guitar or just sit on benches watching the whole scene. I went for a six A.M. run one morning to find the lake bustling with couples cha-chaing to blaring Latin music and teens partaking in a badminton battle. The Vietnamese really knew how to enjoy themselves.
Dao, the worker at my hostel greeted me with open arms asking all about my trip and what I planned to do in Vietnam. The warm welcome was nice after my four A.M. wakeup, flight, and treacherous journey meandering the unnavigable streets of old town Hanoi to find the hostel. I stumbled into my bed for a mid-morning nap.
It wasn’t long after my first stroll through the city that I learned the words on the lips of every tourist were “rip off,” and my rose-colored romanticized image of Hanoi began to fade. There seemed to be an irritable tension in the air among every traveler I met. Outwardly, I attributed this to the ear piercingly incessant motorbike honking. That’s right, I had missed the rainy season, but if the honking was any indication of the weather, Hanoi would surely be flooded and wiped off the map in no time. New York City, you’ve got nothing on Hanoi.
The locals drove as bad as, well, they sounded. One way streets and red lights meant nothing. Motorbikes, sometimes piled high with four people zoomed, swerved, and u-turned through the narrow streets competing with street vendors and pedestrians who were forced to relinquish the sidewalks to motorbike parking. Crossing the street was an animal all of its own. Traffic (obviously) never stops, so one must boldly step into the blender, as if poking a finger into a fan, and walk roughly at the same pace as the mopeds perfectly timing an entry through the spaces between each oncoming vehicle.
“Ok,” I thought, “this crossing the street business seems a bit dangerous, but no one would actually hit me. This was just a scare tactic, when it came down to me and the motorbike, the driver would surely stop.” FALSE! Apparently in Vietnam, you pay a smaller fine for killing someone than just injuring them, so it would indeed be beneficial for the motorist to go for the kill. Pedestrians beware!
The stressful street scene kept tourists on their toes. Everyone either outwardly despised Vietnam and weren’t bashful to say it, or tried to convince me it was great, nervously twitching all the while. I was somewhere between apathetic and twitching happy tourist. I thought I liked it. That is until I got rudely shuffled out of a restaurant and a shop for no other reason than I can conceive but being foreign. Before I could even say a word, the respective owners flung their hands at me in an out the door type of gesture hissing all the while.
I started to get the sense that Vietnam was out to get me. I was quoted ridiculous market prices that no Vietnamese would pay (like $.75 for one orange) and the locals refused to bargain even a bit. I went to the supermarket and oranges were going for $.75 a pound! Go figure…I eventually began to forgo the markets. If they clearly didn’t want me here, I didn’t want to give them my money.
My first week in the country went like this. There were ups and downs with overly friendly locals who made me want to love Vietnam, and unspeakably rude people who made me hate Vietnam. Likewise, I was flung through an exhausting rotation of content to irate tourist and all the shades between.
After an exasperating run in with a bus driver, I decided this love hate roller coaster was here to stay and I wasn’t getting off any time soon. I pulled out my bossy shoes, toughened up my skin and figured I could play the same game. And things started to get a whole lot better…