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Vietnam

The Vietnam Taxi Scam

As a Londoner my experience of the black cabs that operate in the capital has been consistently good. Drivers are polite, chatty, sympathetic, amusing, helpful, trustworthy and have a brain that has memorised the a- z book of London street maps. They therefore rarely get lost. You do however, pay for the service. On the other hand, taxi services in other parts of the world can be extremely trying.

Travel books offering advice on transport in other countries, more often than not. will have advisory warnings about taxi services being in cahoots with bag snatchers/muggers/mafia. They may kidnap you, drive you to a hotel where they get commission, badger you about tours, ask for an extortionate fare on arrival then try to charge extra for luggage. From experience I can add:-

a) they get lost - if a driver looks even slightly vague when you mention the address don't get in. In Australia I often end up reading out of a Melways (street maps of Melbourne) and directing the driver to my destination.
b) they will take you to a tour agency when you ask for the bus station ("no more buses today") - insist on going to the bus station and don't pay until you are sure you are in the right place.
c) they try to charge extra for 4 people sharing - negotiate the price before you get in and stick to it.
d) If you are on a meter the driver will often take the longest route in order to bump up the price - do some research on the route to your destination.

One piece of advice books do give is to insist on a taxi meter as an effective way of preventing overcharging. I have in the past also found this to be effective. However, recently in Hanoi I discovered a new scam. Taking a taxi, on the meter, to the bus station to book a ticket to Ha Long Bay cost 50,000 dong (the long way around). On the way back I shared a taxi with three other people, on the meter again. Cost 254,000 dong for the same journey. The driver insisted that the meter was right but knowing that we had been scammed we refused to pay the full amount. After a protracted argument we ended up paying 90,000 dong.

The next day I caught another taxi to the same station to leave Hanoi. It was early and there was little traffic on the road. In the city one of the main noises you will hear 24 hours a day is horns blasting out. They will beep to let you know they are behind/driving towards/passing/about to hit you. They toot to say hello/goodbye/I'm here/I'm waiting/I'm fed up/move your ass. The length of the sound and amount of times they hit the hom depends on the message they wish to convey. So it was no surprise when my taxi driver blasted away at the traffic, human and automated, all the way to the station. What was odd though was that he hit the horn over and over on empty stretches of road. I put it down to over-enthusiasm. On reaching my destination the meter showed 84,000 dong. Another argument ensued. I still had no idea how the meter was being fixed but later fell into conversation with other travellers and was enlightened. The meter is connected to the horn and every time it is sounded more money gets added.

Today, I arrived back in Hanoi from Ha Long Bay. Taxi drivers were swarming around me as I collected my luggage. "How much to the lake" I asked. "120,000 dong" they replied. "Too much, 50,000 dong" I said. "We go on taxi meter, no problem" they promptly responded. "No taxi meter, beep beep" I retorted. They left me alone. I caught a motorbike taxi for 20,000 dong and still probably paid too much.

Posted by travelhappiness 18:46 Archived in Vietnam Tagged people travel humour scams Comments (0)

Dangerous Animals

Treking up to the fort in CatBa Island

Yesterday I walked around the hill fort on CatBa Island where Ho Chi Min visited. In fact as I write the anniversary of that visit is being celebrated in the street outside my hotel window by the population of the island. There are at least forty tents aligned side by side each playing a different genre of music as loud as possible overlayed by the national anthem on a regular basis. Currently the karaoke tent is well ahead of its rivals in the 'who can burst as many ear drums as possible' competition.

The walk up to the fort was amazing. Peaceful with stunning views of the bays. Best of all my partner and I were the only tourists up there. As we walked up to the summit we passed several signs that advised us that it "was definitely dangerous" and "maybe dangerous". Unfortunately, what harm could befall us was not made clear. We looked up, down, over the scrub at the side of the road, checked the road for enormous boulders rolling down the hill - nothing. The last sign varied its advice and said "see possibly dangerous animals". The writing ended with a smiley face giving the reader the thumbs up. All a bit too casual for my liking. First, anything with fangs, horns, sharp teeth, venom or a nasty temperament is quite definitely dangerous and to be given a wide berth. Second, what kind of idiot on rounding a corner would be happy to come face to face with an animal that can gore, bite or kill. Well gung-ho TV personalities of the Steve Erwin ilk would. But most sane people would back away whimpering quietly or leg it as fast as possible depending upon which dealing with deadly animals literature they had recently read. Third, what makes an animal possibly dangerous? Maybe it has had a bad day and decides to take a chunk out of a passing tourist. Maybe it's just very chilled and just can't be bothered to sink its fangs into flesh. Maybe it has developed a conscious and only kills deserving victims. It's all a bit too ambiguous for me. I proceeded nervously jumping at every rustle in the undergrowth. Fortunately, no encounters of the possibly dangerous kind occurred.

Unlike the time in Thailand when I nearly ended up as lunch. I am not a great swimmer and wear a life jacket when I snorkel. So there I was happily splashing around, looking at the pretty fish and drifting away from the crowd when I looked down and saw two wide smiling toothy jaws with sleek grey bodies heading up towards me. I panicked and swam/floundered/floated back to the boat expecting to feel excruciating pain at any minute. Reaching the boat in safety I flopped on the boards and gasped out "shark". The captain seemed very amused. "You very lucky" he said. "Lucky to be alive?" I asked. "Shark just being curious" he replied. "Curious to see what their lunch would taste like!' I retorted. He smiled. Sadly sarcasm is lost on some people.

Maybe this encounter could be classified as seeing possibly dangerous animals. After all being inquisitive is hardly a menacing attribute. In any event if I ever happen across an animal that could be dangerous I'm not hanging around to find out if it possibly might kill me.

Posted by travelhappiness 18:16 Archived in Vietnam Tagged vietnam island treking humour catba Comments (0)

101 things to do with a Panama Hat

Because my hat had been snaffled by some sweet old thing I have had to think about replacing it. Not because I want to make some kind of fashion statement but because it is so hot in Vietnam I don't want to suffer from sun stroke. I had the misfortune to get this in Denver, and was really unwell. At the time the girls in my dorm were not concerned because they thought I was drunk. I was at various stages crawling around the floor, rambling incoherently, passing body fluids, normal stuff for a bout of excessive alcohol. So I do understand where they were coming from. It took the high temperature and lapse into unconsciousness spur them into action and throw me under a cold shower and to call a doctor. Therefore, I started to look for a replacement hat.

In Vietnam women tend to wear either a conical hat or bright, floppy hats in primary or dayglo colours often decorated in flowers, rhinestone and lace. Don't you just want to go out now and buy one? Women here also wear clothes that are reminiscent of the pajamas I wore as a child and if I am going to be honest, still do on a cold night. Not sexy or alluring I admit but then I have no intention of trying to be when it's less than minus 1 degree and I have no central heating.

I was tempted by the conical hat as it is used to keep the sun and rain out - dual purpose and a money saving apparel - I liked that. It could also be multi-purpose rather than dual. A 101 things to do with a hat (did you read 101 things to do with a cat?). A bowl, water carrier, a bailing out implement for boats, a baby rocker. I kid you not. Attach a couple of long ropes to it, hang it from a meat hook and baby's asleep. I've seen the prototype in Indonesia. Unfortunately, I would look like such a tourist in it! I decided to go dayglo and am now the proud owner of a wide brimmed neon pink cloth hat with a swirly flower trimmed in black ribbon stuck (yes glued) on the side. All for the princely sum of "two dollar". What I love about this hat is that anywhere else in the world I would look ridiculous and you would not lose me in a crowd. Here, in my bright pink neon hat, I blend in.

Posted by travelhappiness 17:42 Archived in Vietnam Tagged people travel humour hats adaptability Comments (0)

Happy to Service You

When I travel I love to read signs and menus in that have been printed in the English language. They often are a veritable feast of mispronunciation and inadvertent innuendoes. My most recent find was in Hanoi Vietnam. A shop had "please cock here" pasted to its window. I think they meant please stop here and look at our merchandise but one can never be too sure. Other gems I have come across include "happy to service you", "chessburger, seebuger", "Creepes" (crepes - to my delight it was halloween, I was in Bolivia so presume no pun was intended). Today I found a "humburger". It certainly puts a whole new spin on entertainment while you eat and I look forward to ordering a whistling hotdog and a singing sandwich.

Not all errors are delightful though. Hanoi restaurants seem to be particularly masterful at using incorrect English to sell substandard food. On our first night unbeknown to us we fell into such an establishment. We listened to a guy ordering his dinner in an exasperated tone. He was extremely specific about what he wanted and called the chef over to make sure he had been understood. Pumpkin soup, vegetables on the side - not in the bowl, no chillies, no salt or pepper and could the waitress spoon feed him as well? No please or thank you - just a fuck off and get on with it attitude. My partner and I made faces at each other, commented on the ignorant behaviour, generally put him down and smugly agreed that we would never behave like that. When his dinner came there were no vegetables just a small side salad and the soup had chicken in it. He didn't handle it well. We ordered and this is what we discovered.

Vegetables = salad = one piece of lettuce and 2 slices of tomato. If you choose mash potatoes over the chips, chips will be served anyway. You will be overcharged for a scant meal when you were expecting - according to the menu - "a feast". The next day we ate somewhere else. Again we learned something new. Pork chop in sweet and sour sauce actually means pork rib bones with a bit of gristle on them. Sweet and sour sauce = hot chilli sauce. Mash potatoes still means chips. I began to empathise with Mr fustrated, he'd probably been in Hanoi for a while and had lost all patience. I decided to follow his shining example and complain - the meal after all was not cheap. There followed a heated conversation with the waitress and owner. Gesturing at different body parts for emphasis I debated the difference between ribs and chops. But they insisted that the ribs- all five one inch long bits of bone and gristle - were in fact a chop. I began to believe that it was genuine language mistake and feeling bad for making a fuss, paid the bill and left.

At breakfast the next day, having ordered eggs, bacon and toast and received in return an egg and processed ham sandwich, the conversation over the table turned to food experiences in Hanoi. Someone mentioned that they had the same rib/chop saga a few days earlier than mine. I had been conned. In future I will send anything back that does not match the description in the menu. Silent humbugers, chess burgers that don't make a move or creepes that fail to frighten me will all be returned to the kitchen and if staff really are "happy to service" me there will be no problem.

Posted by travelhappiness 16:49 Archived in Vietnam Tagged food travel humour spelling mistakes menus Comments (0)

Bus Journey to Hoi An

I was standing in the dark watching a boy load luggage into the storage compartment of the bus. We were running behind schedule but that didn't seem to bother him as he repeatedly unloaded then reloaded assorted rucksacks, cases, bags and boxes into a space the size of a rabbit hutch. Hawk eyed I stood in the cold, wet, deepening night and watched the proceedings. Luggage, you see, has a disturbing habit of wandering off if left on its own. It has a particular fascination with bus stations and often enlists the help of friendly locals to aid its getaway. Now if my bag had a personality like Rincewind's luggage I would sleep happy knowing that anyone attempting to befriend or even steal it would be risking loss of life or limb. I would also never have to crawl up mountains, pound pavements, ford streams ( you get the general picture) with it attached to my back as it would follow me with dog like devotion on its own legs.

Finally the boy jigsawed all the bags into the small space bar one which, of course, was mine. As there was no room left, not even for a small clutch handbag, I hauled my luggage onto the bus shoving it onto my bunk bed along with my backpack, snacks, drink, pillow and blanket. One problem though, no room for me. I started to unload and reload the bed!!!! Finally cramped up into a fetal position I tried to get some sleep. Unfortunately a bed designed for dwarfs, a prime position over the toilet, loud Vietnamese music, a driver hyped up on 30 red bulls, a pull over by the police and a manic attempt to make up lost time - and let's not forget the luggage stuck into my soft fleshy parts, did not a peaceful night make.

Twelve hours later, grumpy, sleep deprived, disheveled and in need of a shower, I fell out of the bus into the clutches of a tout. Earnestly he informed me that the hotels were too far away to walk and I would need him to drive me to a hotel with vacancies. Despite my zombie like state I knew I was being conned. There were hotels all around us! I started checking them for rooms with the tout in tow haranguing me all the while. Twelve hotels later plus conversations with other roaming homeless established that there were over 1000 delegates in town for the first ever Asian choral convention. The whole town was booked out unless you were willing to pay over 100 dollars - which I was not.
In despair I went with the tout to a hotel he said had rooms - it didn't - the only vacancy was the space behind me as he shot off on his bike to find another sucker. Resigned to waiting it out until check out time (4 hours away) to see if anyone was leaving town unexpectedly I met a man on a motorbike. He knew of a hotel that had delegates checking out that day. Throwing suspicion into the wind and grasping onto desperation I jumped on the back of his bike. They had rooms, check in 2.30pm (6.5 hours wait) and best of all only 12 dollars for an ensuite! Passports and luggage deposited I headed into town for breakfast and a long wait.

Posted by travelhappiness 16:35 Archived in Vietnam Tagged travel bus humour journey Comments (0)

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