I made it all the way from Cape Town to Bangkok without any trouble at all and arrived at around 7pm, local time. As always, I had already set my watch to the time it would be wherever I was going. This helps a lot when it comes to jet lag.
The connecting flight to Hanoi was at 7am the following morning so I even checked into the Novotel at the airport. Things were going smoothly enough; you won’t catch me sleeping on the floor by the check-in desks with the Australians.
But, it was a decision that nearly ended in complete disaster, and I don’t mean finding out they charge an extra $25 for internet access. Everybody has free internet access these days. Coffee houses, bars, even African shebeens on dusty and deserted roads seem to be able to connect up your iPad, for free.
Not at the Novotel in Bangkok they don’t. That attitude will be one of the reasons I was almost the only person there. Still, who cared? I can manage one night without downloading…. er, listening to the online radio.
The other person staying in the hotel was also leaving at 5am and I met him on the shuttle bus. American, in his 70’s, fat, grey, mustache, golf shirt and cap. You know the guy. No wonder he was on his own. Just as the bus was pulling out I made a quick check of my bag and screamed ‘stoppppp.’ That woke him up.
I had just remembered that I had hidden my travel file in the room and if I didn’t get back up there before the maids, who are usually straight there in airport hotels (even empty ones), then I might not recover my boarding pass, passport, hotel confirmation, visa acceptance letter and more thousands of US Dollars in cash than I dare to admit I was carrying.
Actually, if I didn’t get to it right away then the hotel confirmation in Hanoi wouldn’t matter much would it? Directions to the UK Embassy in Bangkok would be all I needed from then onward.
I ran through the hotel foyer like Whatshisname Bolt, grabbed the card key from the porter who was still walking back to the desk, sprinted up three flights of stairs and found, to my relief, the door opened. File recovered I clutched my dollars with a sense of relief that I can hardly explain, except to say that it felt like somebody had just let go of the larger of my intestines.
So, I re-boarded the bus, apologized to the golfer, who grunted, and we set off in stony silence, which suited me at 5am. He was the first to crack; ‘where you heading?’ he asked. ‘Hanoi,’ was all I said. ‘Damn murdering commie bastards won’t get a penny of my money,’ was the best he could come up with. That cheered me up, ‘Ahh, of course, you’ve been there before haven’t you?’ I was goading him but he didn’t notice.
Instead he started telling me about his golf tour of Scotland last year. He clearly imagined I am interested in talking about Scotland at that time of the morning. I wasn’t. Nor at anytime of the morning, or afternoon. Now I think of it, at anytime at all. Thankfully, we were back at the airport by then.
‘Vietnam Airlines please’ I asked the driver. ‘Damn commie bastards,’ he repeated. ‘Still too soon is it?’ I asked as I got out. I never saw him again. But I will, one day, or someone just like him. So will you. So stereotypical was he that I expected Woody Allen to jump out and shout ‘cut’ at any moment.
At check in with Vietnam Airlines I was immediately ripped off as the bastards charged me fifty quid in excess baggage for my golf clubs. I have a good mind not to play golf now, that’ll show them! In reality though, I was just relieved in the end to find that all of my bags had actually made it this far.
After all, they had been through Johannesburg Airport at one point, where the only way to prevent them from being rifled is by having them shrink wrapped. The last time I failed to do that they had my Zippo lighter away, although I did laugh when I saw they had left a very expensive Mont Blanc pen in the same suitcase pocket. ‘What’s this….? What does it do? Who can I sell it to for $2? Nah, leave it’
On arrival things could not have been easier. I had already checked for the best way to obtain a visa for a communist country and that is to apply online with their embassy, provide flight details, length of stay, pay $29 and you receive a letter of acceptance (invitation, they call it) via email within two-days.
Armed with a printed version, passport sized photograph, $45 in cash and you are in, with a three month stamp and no waiting in the visa application queue, with all the Australians who looked like they hadn’t had much sleep.
Whilst waiting for my bags I looked around for all the murdering commie bastards, but there weren’t any. There were men and women in uniform but they were more helpful than blood thirsty.
I asked one, as a precaution, how much, in dollars, a taxi should cost to take me to The Old Quarter in Hanoi. She showed me on her phone, the number 15. Apparently she understood what I asked her but didn’t know how to say ‘fifteen dollars.’ This happens a lot in Hanoi.
The first thing I did after passing through customs was the first thing I do every time I arrive in a country and that is head for the ATM. There is no harm in having some local currency in your pocket, especially when the currency in Hanoi is Vietnam Dong. You try exchanging South African Rand for Dong in Cape Town.
In fact, you just try asking for it. So, with three-million Dong in my pocket (that’s about GBP100) I headed straight for the mobile phone shop and paid $50 for a local number, 100 minutes of talk time (who am I going to phone?) and, vitally, three months of unlimited internet access.
This means I can set up a smart phone to become a wi-fi thing. I later found out, in Hanoi City, I could have made exactly the same arrangement for $4.80 per month. I can’t be bothered to go back to the airport for an argument over $35 but if you are coming to visit me then wait until you get into town before spending any money.
The next thing I knew there was a driver standing next to me. ‘cab?’ he asked, ‘The Old Quarter’ I replied ’twenty-dollar’ he said, ‘no, policeman said fifteen’ I told him.
‘OK fifteen’ he say. I know how not to get ripped off, after all I have lived in Cape Town for eight years. (he says, having just been ripped off at the phone shop in the airport)
The next thing I knew I was heading, in an air conditioned 4 x 4, over the great Red River (known locally as Hoang Hang, meaning something like ‘The Emperor ) and into Hanoi. I noticed the driver had fingernails that were over an inch long.
I found out later this is a status symbol around these parts, to show others he doesn’t have to do manual labour, such as work in the fields or mend scooters. I gave him the hotel confirmation and he took me straight there, although in reception they had never heard of me.
The driver waited around in case I needed him to find me somewhere else. However, after I showed them the hotel.com booking reference number, and payment receipt, they quickly found a room for me on the top floor and, two days out of Cape Town, I have finally arrived in Hanoi.
Part two next Saturday