Thursday, 15 October 2015

Hanoi airport to Hanoi by City Bus (or WHAT THE FFFFFFFFF? )

I have a stamp in my passport.  Good. That means I'm in Vietnam!

Duty Free stores?  Let's buy cigarettes!

A carton of Winston for US$18. That is CHEAP!.  Hang-on!  Vietnam is happily accepting US Dollars in its Duty Free stores? Odd.  After inquiring with the very nice young women working in the store whether I may import one carton into Vietnam (Yes, but only 19 cigarettes, i.e. less than 1 pack, into Hong Kong), I buy one and walk through the Nothing-To-Declare aisle into Vietnam proper. 

Now what?  Smoke!


The very first thing I do when exiting the doors is inhale deeply.  Every airport has a different smell.  In Vancouver it is cold exhaust gases.   In Hong Kong it’s that see-weed smell.  Hanoi airport smells like when your mother applied those iron-on patches to the elbows or knees of your jeans or shirts.  Very odd. 

What else?   Oh, right.  Money!
This is the actual ATM in Hanoi that is the first to give me money !

I didn't buy a single Dong (that's what they pay with here) in Canada, so I approach 3 different  bank machines.  After trying 2 different cards on all machines I start to sweat.  Cards not accepted.  I am rendered Dong-less which in this country is as bad as penniless. I can't even take a bus!  Then I remember the money exchanger.  But they don't take Hong Kong Dollars!  WTF? Still penniless.  I meant to take those US Dollars I have left from my Los Angeles stint, but they're collecting dust in Vancouver.  What am I going to do?  Are all bank machines in this country this way?   I finally realize that the money exchange does accept British Pounds and that by a stroke of luck I'm still carrying the ones around left from the bike trip to France.  Just over 100 pounds make me a Dong multi-millionaire !   I can afford the bus now. )

Now how do I get away from this airport?

After I buy a bottle of ice-tea for 25,000 Dong (about 1.5 Canadian Dollars) I start following the signs that say #7 and #17 bus to city.   But the collection of buses I run into first  doesn’t include the one I’m looking for. Naturally no one speaks English so I end up writing the # 17 on a piece of paper and showing it around.  NOPE, NOT around here is what the shaking heads mean.

When I point at the building in the distance that might be another terminal building,  the looks change from negative to maybe.  Good enough. I start walking.
The plane from Hong Kong had been full and was occupied by about half non-Asians.  I notice that I’m the only person walking that long walk. Everyone else is taking taxis.  A taxi to Hanoi costs in excess of US$25.  



When I get close to the other building (indeed another terminal), I see bus #7, and then #17, with its driver just starting the engine.  I start running, and he closes the door behind me and leaves the non-existent bus stop.  The bus has a ticket collector in addition to the driver, who approaches me and holds a ticket in front of my face. Smart man; this way I learn that the fare will be 9,000 Dong, about 50 cents or a third of a small bottle of ice tea, for the > 1.5 hour bus ride into central Hanoi. 
THE  bus ticket
 What a crazy world.  See why I didn’t want to take a taxi? 


Maybe the pictures show a 10th of the culture shock I experience in the next 1.5 hours, but they don’t really show that the bus driver honks at every scooter he passes and the few millimeters that he passes the shoulders of the people driving them by. 

video
The bus didn’t take the highway. It sped through every narrow village street it could encounter on the way to Hanoi.  I had to cover my eyes quite a few times. The pictures also don’t show the number of truly happy smiles I saw from the bus in the faces along the roadside.  Definitely a culture shock when arriving from the frigid Western end of Canada.



first glimpses of Vietnam
video








After a while I notice myself grinning innately ? and even slightly moving in rhythm to the music blaring out of the bus loudspeakers.  Something Vietnamese for 1.5 hours.  I like it here ;-)

Shortly after I have shown a Google map of Hanoi on my laptop to the ticket collector (this is about 1.5 hours into the ride) accompanied by a lot of pointing outside and shoulder-shrugging (Meaning; I have no idea where we are), he somehow reassures me that the terminus station is near





He's holding the RED thing.  Ever braked on a bike one-handed?
Nothing could prepare me for the pandemonium I encountered when the bus reaches its terminus station at Long Bien Station in Hanoi. I had seen pictures and videos on TV of scooters and cars blocking intersections in Bangkok or other places like that.  But to see, hear, and smell it from a distance of less than a meter is different.  Add to that that except at the very biggest intersections there are no Yield or Stop signs, NO ONE pays attention to traffic lights or pedestrian crossings and everyone honks every 3 seconds to indicate that they are proceeding, and you get the idea.  
No, actually you can’t.  You have to be in it.  And it’s EVERYWHERE surrounding you!  (There actually IS some method to the madness, but 1) not much, and 2) it takes me days to realize what it might be).
.
Good thing that station is less than 1 km from my hotel.  When I get off the bus, the ticket collector even points me in the right direction.


I get the idea reasonably quickly: people offer food and services (scooter tire repairs, etc) on the side walks. So scooters stop in the gutters on the street for those services while the other scooters and cars keep honking loudly and pass the obstacles as quickly as possible. 
video

And still all those traffic-controlling devices seem to be of no importance to anyone.  
It's actually quite doable once you're used to it, but this newbie pedestrian thrown into this at dusk feels slightly overwhelmed, even though the grin on my face must indicate to everyone that I am enjoying it immensely.

I have no idea where I'm going, of course, so I do what I do in these cases:  Just walk into the first hotel you see (they will most likely speak English) and ask for directions. Just be careful how you phrase it ;-)

After 2 hotel inquiries I find my place:




Can you say Colonial?




After unpacking and a quick shower, I dare to go out again for dinner.  Should have stayed in ;-(







Yummy beer and  Yummy  food,  but the Gods of stomach upset seem to be united against me this week ;-(


No, I didn't even touch the uncooked greens ;-(

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