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Hello, Vietnam

Hello, Vietnam

JETLAGGED and a little dehydrated I woke up in the slightly musty hotel room – Room 407 of the Victory Hotel in Hanoi.

Victory Hotel, Hanoi
Victory Hotel, Hanoi

I had only arrived in Vietnam a couple of hours earlier. This was my first ever trip alone to an exotic location. I had flown overnight from Brisbane to Singapore, then after a four hour layover in Changi Airport a flight northward to here in Hanoi. Once I had passed through immigration (which included a test for bird flu which was going around this part of the world at the time), I had a transfer arranged. Fortunately for me this meant I had been quickly whisked away from the airport. After a sleepless overnight flight the forty minute trip into the city and to the hotel had been little more than a blur.

The Victory Hotel was very narrow, only seven metres wide. The narrowness was exacerbated by the fact that it stood five stories high sitting tightly sandwiched between buildings that were even taller and narrower. Despite being so cramped, the front of the hotel was quite attractive. Although the ground floor was quite ordinary with glass doors leading into a dark reception area typical of a cheap hotel. The upper four levels were quite elaborate with dull pinkish brown walls and a bay window in the middle of each level. The bay window on each level separated a balcony on either side containing an attached planter box with brightly coloured flowers.

Here I was in a strange room in the Victory Hotel in the middle of Hanoi. The room had two beds and a wardrobe stained in walnut with lining of shells, probably abalone. The carving and inlays were very intricate, although a bit too busy for my liking. This was especially so with the flooring being an awful black and white cheap glossy tiling, and the uneven walls being painted white. The harshness of the black and white colour scheme was exacerbated by the florescent spiral bulb lighting. Black and white colouring and florescent lighting just doesn’t go well with timber furniture under any circumstances.

Railway line passing through the old quarter
Railway line passing through the old quarter

A pair of frosted windows on the far wall denied me the view of outside. That was probably a good thing as this room was facing out of the rear of the hotel. This must be one of the cheaper rooms facing away from the street. The rooms on the other side of the hallway that had a view would have been a lot more interesting. The wall behind the bed was completely plain apart from one very small Vietnamese style painting that had been hung exactly in the middle of the wall, obviously before the room was furnished. With two beds and a timber wardrobe placed against the wall, the picture appeared out of place being closer to the middle bed.

The clothes that I had hand washed earlier in the ancient basin in the ensuite hanging on my portable twisted wire washing line. It was very damp and humid in the bathroom, so I wondered whether the clothes would dry in time for leaving on the tour tomorrow.

Dehydrated and badly needing a drink I needed to go out and buy some bottled water. My doctor had told me not to drink from the taps here. Anyway the plumbing was at least sixty years old so it wouldn’t have been safe even if the water supply was clean. I needed to buy some bottled water, and that meant leaving the security of the hotel to find a shop. Now the culture shock was beginning to set in.

Vietnamese style building construction
Vietnamese style building construction

It was time to venture outside. I unlocked the very old fashioned door with a large key lock I had been supplied whilst checking in a couple of hours ago.

I collected my camera bag. Who knows, I may get some good shots out there. I left the room locking the heavy wooden door behind me with my very traditional key. I walked down the stairs to the reception area, and then went outside to the street. I was wide awake now, so I should be able to take in the surroundings.

There was no lift in the building, so I took the stairs from my fourth level room. The stairs spiralled in a square shape with a small void in the middle to see all the way up and down. Each flight of stairs up one wall took you up quarter of a storey to a small landing. A couple of rooms went off from each landing. This meant the rooms were not all level so the construction must have been very complex, like something that Dr Seuss would design. It was the most amazing structure I had ever seen. The stairs had worn out wooden parquetry but the landing floors had black and white tiles.

Thankfully I was climbing down the stairs. A couple of hours ago I had struggled up here wearing my backpack and having my camera bag straddled to my front. This time I only had my camera bag, but will I take any photos when I go outside? I figured probably not because I will need to conserve as much battery power as possible until I can find a way to recharge my batteries having discovered none of the power adapters I had brought here actually fitted into the power points here.

Upon reaching the bottom of the stairwell I entered the reception area, very dark with walnut furnishings. The two ladies who had checked me in and advised in rather broken English that my tour briefing was at six o’clock tonight were still there.

The journey here had been sleepless apart from about ten minutes as the plane flew high over the Kakadu at the top of Australia in the darkness of the moonless night. I am a side sleeper and trying to sleep on your side in a seat in economy class is next to impossible.

I had expected to experience a bit of a cultural shock upon leaving the hotel, but this was insane. The noise of the hundreds of motorbikes I could see negotiating the narrow one way street was deafening. The fetid air was filled with a strong smell off rotting fish. The smell was very strange to me then, but I would soon recognise this acrid fish smell as distinguishing characteristic of South East Asia. Despite the sky overhead being overcast, it was surprisingly hot and humid here. I had expected it to be a lot cooler up here in northern Vietnam with the imminent onset of the Northern Hemisphere winter. It had been very humid in Singapore with an overnight low of twenty seven degrees. It wasn’t as hot here, but it was certainly a lot warmer than I had expected.

Street market, Hanoi
Street market, Hanoi

The activity here was far more frenetic than anything I had ever seen before. I’m no fan of crowds and busy traffic at the best of times, but this was overwhelming. I continued to take in my surroundings. Tall very narrow buildings surrounded me along either side of the frightfully narrow street. Each building had a tiny shop on the bottom level and I guessed living quarters in the higher floors. One building across the road was under construction, with concrete floors being held up precariously with cut logs in the upper floors, and bricks in the lower floors. The building was in the process of having bricks installed. The building standards here didn’t seem very good at all, so I hoped Hanoi wasn’t an earthquake prone area.

I started walking along the road in opposition to the traffic. I would have taken the footpath, but that was completely blocked by parked motorbikes, market stalls, and piles of rubbish. Where I come from in Australasia it is illegal to block a footpath. Obviously there aren’t such laws here. I negotiated my way around all the motorbikes whizzing past along the heavily potholed single lane street. I was the only foreigner in sight, standing out here like a sore thumb. I suddenly realised I was fair game for a mugging with all the cash and photography equipment I was carrying. I didn’t want to leave any valuables in the hotel room in case I needed to do some photography, but I felt a little too vulnerable to take out my camera.

Now I was back outside the hotel alone. it was starting to sink in just how naïve and clueless I was as a tourist here. Now I wanted to be back in my travel comfort zone of Australasia.

Hanoi Old Quarter
Hanoi Old Quarter

About a hundred metres from the hotel I discovered a small shop that had bottles of water amongst numerous grocery items. The shop was only three metres wide and had two young ladies in it. Then I realized I didn’t know any Vietnamese. I had attempted to learn some during my insomniac night flying between Brisbane and Singapore, but I’m pretty hopeless with learning languages. I had a Vietnamese phrasebook with me, but I recalled someone telling me about a year ago that these aren’t much good. Sure I could learn the phrases, but could I understand the responses? I doubt it.

I pointed to the bottles of water and asked how much they were. Fortunately the shop keeper produced a calculator and advised the price – twenty thousand dong. That seemed insane, but I did a quick mental calculation and realised it translated to about a dollar twenty for two litres of water. That’s a pretty good deal I thought at the time, but it was probably a rip off with the lady clearly recognising me as a naïve rich traveller who had just stepped off the plane. I took a green one hundred thousand dong note from my small wad and gave it to the lady. Fortunately she managed to find enough change from that. At the time I had no idea this was considered to be a really big note.

With the water in hand, my immediate survival need had been taken care of. I still felt incredibly insecure out there in such unfamiliarity, so I quickly returned to the security of my hotel room and drank as much water as I could to overcome the dehydration.

Here in this strange land this very much unseasoned traveller was about to embark on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Now I was unsure how I would cope at all in such a strange environment. Thankfully I was going to meet my tour group downstairs in a couple of hours.

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11 October 2009





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