I was barely able to get into Vietnam after arrival. I had applied for a “Visa on Arrival” which meant that my visa had been confirmed but that I would not get an actual Visa sticker until I got to the country. Sounds fine right? Well I had completely forgotten that the fee for the stamp on arrival was to be paid in American dollars or Vietnamese dong, ONLY! I had about 400,000 ($375) Korean won on me but not a dollar or dong in sight. All I needed was $20…
The fifteen year old customs immigration official was no help at all. I explained that I could get him the money if I could be let into the main portion of the airport where the currency exchange kiosks were located. However, that would require getting past the immigration booth in which I need the $20 for! What a joke! Was I to be trapped there forever, unable to get back on an airplane, because the ticket booth was also on the other side of immigration, but also unable to get into the country? Luckily some helpful Brits loaned me the $20. It was very embarrassing trying to borrow your own countries currency from the British by the way. Once we got across immigration we walked together to the currency exchange and I instantly became a Dong Millionaire! They were even nice enough to let me ride with them from the airport into town, thereby side stepping the bloodthirsty taxi cab drivers waiting outside of the airport like a pack of wolves waiting to devour any unsuspecting tourist that steps out!
This actually ended up happening to Andrew despite his best attempts. While I had gotten lucky in finding a free ride directly to the hostel from the airport, about a one hour journey, Andrew got taken for a ride. He did not arrive from his 32 hour plane ride from San Diego until after ten o’clock. At that point the exchange kiosks were closed and, while he was able to withdraw Vietnamese Dong at the ATM he had no idea what it was worth! Unbeknownst to him the exchange rate was 20,000 Dong to the Dollar. When the taxi driver told him the price for the trip would only cost him the lowly sum of 1,000,000 Dong he simply handed it over and was happy to have made it to the hostel in one piece. Being ripped off and taken advantage in this way by the Vietnamese would become a virtual hallmark of the country over the next three weeks that I spent there which was easily the most frustrating experience of the trip. The shear audacity that it must take to charge a stranger almost ten times the normal rate while maintaining a straight face is mind boggling. I had heard that the Vietnamese were very friendly but apparently also cutthroat.
I had told Andrew that I didn’t think we needed a reservation for our hostel in Hanoi because cheap rooms are always plentiful in this part of the world, especially in such a big place. However, because of our late arrival he had insisted on booking a room ahead of time. Again, not knowing the prices Andrew book a room for $30 a night. What we got was a luxury room with silk sheets, two king beds, flat screen TV, walk-in shower, and a private computer. Very surreal after walking the trash strewn, desperate streets outside.
A good nights sleep was in order. This turned out to be rather difficult for Andrew who was not used to the noise of the honking motorbike hordes in Asia. I have come to be able to sleep through just about anything. In the morning we went sightseeing for the entire day! Some of the sights included the central lake area of the Old Quarter which included a little island temple, the Opera House, Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum (the communist leader of Vietnam), lots and lots of old French colonial architecture, and the “Hanoi Hilton” the infamous POW camp where John McCain was help prisoner and was tortured.