The War Between Tourists And Touts


This blog entry about the events of Friday, December 10, 2004 was originally posted on December 17, 2004.

DAY 419:  “Did you ever see the movie Speed?” I asked Brit Lisa in the back row of the bus gunning us from Vinh to Hanoi that morning.  Unlike the rest of the bus, the back row was elevated in a way so one could see the oncoming traffic ahead.

“Yeah,” she said.  “You’d think it’s like that.”  Our bus was almost out of control, weaving in and out of traffic like it’d explode if it went below 50 miles per hour.  Often it’d speed down the opposite side of the road towards oncoming vehicles, and at one point, it swerved in and out of a closing railroad barricade.

“Oh my God!” Lisa gasped.  As terrified as she was to look out the windshield, she was fixated on it like it was an action movie on a silver screen.  “Did you see that?!”  The bus was on the other side of the road again and just narrowly missed slamming into a cargo truck head on before it swerved back into the correct lane.

“It’s a game of chicken every five minutes,” I said.

FIVE HOURS OF THE ROLLER COASTER RIDE, with a pit stop for Vietnamese oranges and peanut brittle at the mid-point, my “platoon” and I arrived at the southern bus terminal of Hanoi, about 15 km. short of the Old Quarter where we had been promised to be dropped off by our agent Hai (who sold us the tickets the night before).  The bus driver dropped us off in the middle of a big lot and unloaded our bags on the ground for us to fend for ourselves.  Soon, we were attacked by Vietnamese auto-rickshaw drivers incessantly calling us over for our attention and ultimately our money.  It was then we realized we might have been had by Hai.  Western Tourists, 0; Vietnamese Touts, 1. 

Jim the American wasn’t the least bit impressed.  “So Hai lied to us,” he said, lighting up a cigarette.  “I’m really pissed off now.”  He exhaled a puff of smoke.

I asked one of the auto-rickshaw drivers if we were at the Long Bien bus station and he said “yes,” which meant we were in the Old Quarter after all.  However, once we walked outside, we saw that we weren’t near anything that looked like it might have been central Hanoi.  Upon further analysis we were still way off our drop point. 

Shit, had we really been had by Hai? I thought to myself.  Dammit, I bought the open-ended hop-on/hop-off bus ticket from him for transportation up and down the coast for a flat one-time fee already.

Our “platoon” had no choice but to take a taxi into town, which was readily available at the nearby taxi stand of overly eager drivers.  None of them could speak English of course, but one random guy in a blue shirt served as a translator, a liaison between us and them — although we seriously doubted his neutrality as he spoke Vietnamese to his fellow countrymen so we couldn’t understand.  Prices quoted for the five of us (the two Swedes had wisely ditched us) were from 180,000 to 200,000 dong, a steep price they justified because the Old Quarter was “very far.”  “No, we want the meter,” we’d argue back; but they were still pushing for a flat rate. 

There were two vehicle types available, car or minivan, and we wanted the latter so we could all remain as a group.  While most of us were arguing with the cab drivers, Lisa asked the nearby minivan driver if he’d take us all with the meter.  He obliged and so she put her pack in the back of the van.  “He says we can go with the meter,” she told us.

Blue Shirt Guy intervened and exchanged some Vietnamese words with the minivan driver.  Suddenly, his services weren’t available, leaving us to split up the group into two pricey cars.

“Wait, let’s just wait,” Jim said, smoking his cig.  We went to the side of the lot and put our things down.  “I’m still really pissed that Hai lied to us.  I think [Blue Shirt Guy] and Hai are working together,” he theorized.

Another minivan pulled up, unaware of the commotion going on.  Dara approached him for a ride and he accepted until Blue Shirt Guy intervened again.  The deal Dara had made with him was off, under the justification that other guys vied for our business first.  We sat back at the side to think.  The smokers lit up while Blue Shirt Guy and other drivers had conversations in Vietnamese we couldn’t understand.

Finally, after much deliberation, the first minivan driver was available to us and with the meter too.  “Should we just go with him?” Paul asked me.

“Yeah, I’ll go,” I answered. 

“You guys can go ahead.  We’ll meet up later,” Jim said.

“Can’t we just go with them?” Dara his wife pleaded.  There was enough room for the five of us.

“I don’t want to go with him,” Jim answered.

“Why not?”

“Because then he wins.”

Paul, Lisa and I loaded our bags in the back of the minivan while Dara had a chat with her new husband out of earshot.  Soon, the American newlyweds were in the van with us.  Never underestimate the power of a woman.

The driver turned on the meter as we pulled out of the parking lot.  “This is probably going to be the longest way [to the Old Quarter,]” Jim said from the front passenger seat.

“Oh, it’s gonna be the longest fucking ride of your life,” Paul said, minding his spear gun rifle placed the length of the van interior.  “We’ll be back in Vinh.”

The driver took us down the highway into the city.  “Welcome to Hanoi,” Lisa said.

HANOI, VIETNAM’S CAPITAL CITY and the center of the Vietnamese Communist Party for decades might conjure up an image of stoic unimpressionable buildings with little tourist appeal.  However, it is quite the contrary, a place that Let’s Go calls “one of Southeast Asia’s most charming cities.”  Architecture in Hanoi is a reflection of Hanoi’s hodge-podge of a past, from its origins in Chinese Confucianism to the era of French colonialism, all amidst a group of small picturesque lakes. 

That’s not to say that Hanoi’s traffic was bland, with thousands of motorbikes (picture above) and cars weaving in and out of each other.  One motorbike narrowly missed hitting a car head on, but swerved out in the nick of time.  Lisa gasped again like she did on the bus.

Jim had Paul’s Lonely Planet Vietnam book in the navigator seat and tried to get our bearing.  Eventually he found our position on the map and traced it with his finger.  “We’re here, and we’re going up here.”  His navigation skills kept the driver in check from going out of the way to increase the meter, a common scam amidst taxi drivers in any city.  In the end, we got to where we wanted to go and the meter only read 57,000 dong.  I assume Jim felt really good about that.  Western Tourists, 1; Vietnamese Touts, 1.

We had been dropped off at the beginning of Tam Thuong, an alleyway where one of the cheap guesthouses that Lonely Planet suggested was on.  Of course, the majority of the travelers have the same book and the hotel was full, as was all the other “backup” guesthouses in the alley — except for one, the Tung Trang Hotel, a nice looking place with an incredibly friendly Vietnamese staff.  We managed to snag the last three remaining rooms, just before the Swedes Kristoph and Anna showed up.  They wandered off, but eventually found a place we assumed because we saw them wandering without their packs.

THE LEGACY OF FRENCH COLONIALISM IN HANOI is not only evident in the architecture of the Old Quarter, with its quaint European-style buildings with colorful shutters and a Christian cathedral, but also in the cuisine — fitting for all the apparent French tourists we saw wandering around their former empire.  The five of us ended up in one place, the Cafe Marleaux, a France-meets-Indochina-looking place that played the ambient lounge music of the Buddha Bar on Paris’ Champs d’Elysées.  I had quintessential French snacks — a croque monsieur and a plate of frites — with quintessential Vietnamese beers — Tiger and Halida.  After lunch with my “platoon,” I went off to investigate the ticket I bought from Hai in Vinh to see if it was legit or not.  In the end, the office he sent me to said that it appeared fine; I just had to call them up and sort it out when I wanted to go. 

My “platoon” planned on regrouping at 19h15 to make the 20h00 show of Hanoi’s famous Water Puppet Theater, but it wasn’t until 20h15 that Dara and Jim woke up from their nap — and more power to them; it was their honeymoon after all.  Instead of the puppets, we ended up just hanging out in Paul and Lisa’s room for a makeshift room party with a beers, a bottle of whiskey and Coke, cable TV and Jenga — until we got a complaint call passed midnight that we were being too loud. 

The end result of that day of Tourists versus Touts came out to be a tie, 1-all — which is fitting I suppose, because “tout” is merely just “tourist” without the “ris,” which is something I just pulled out of my ass just now because I have no idea what that means.

Next entry: Rebel Without A Clue

Previous entry: Platoon

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Comments for “The War Between Tourists And Touts”

  • So, how do the Vietnamese deal with Christianity? Just curious… I know that since the fall of Communism in Russia, all the Orthodox folks have come out of the woodwork…

    Tomorrow I go get on the plane to go to Florida, and won’t be back in internet land till the 26th. So, Merry Christmas all - and E - I’ll talk to you when I return.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/17  at  08:42 AM

  • NOELLE:  There are Vietnamese Christians here; it’s just not the major religion.  The French brought that over during the days of Indochina; before that Portuguese missionaries did their thing.

    I have to say I must thank the Portuguese missionaries for introducing a written language system that uses Roman characters (with plenty of weird accent marks); otherwise, it’d be as confusing as Chinese characters!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/17  at  12:02 PM

  • i think the touts still won on that one…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/18  at  02:52 PM

  • Me too, but Jim saved the day with use of the map in true AR form.

    LP was actually useful for a change.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/19  at  08:45 PM

  • Erik, I’m staying in that same alley you were in now that I am coming back to read it.  Yeah, I’m like some of those western tourists you mention - Hanoi’s traffic terrifies me!  I need a drink…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/23  at  10:13 AM

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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

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