The Long Wander in Vietnam © Sahand Sedghi

City Rotations

Hanoi, Vietnam


1st Rotation
Our farewell from Hanoi was a death threat. We never spent more than three days at a time in the city, even though, like Rome, all roads lead there. It is the unavoidable heart of northern Vietnam. Every rotation we made into the city was followed by a swift rotation out, with several adventures in between.

Sahand in front of Hanoi StationAt the train station the first night, we fight our way through hoards of motorbike drivers hustling for passengers. We only make it five blocks from the station before we are hit with another wave of hustlers. These are the hotel goblins, come to lure you back to their hotels with glossy brochures that rarely match the rooms. We gather a circle of them round us like children in a candy shop and then pit them against one another to bid the price down. We're aiming for a $3 room and one by one they drop out and slink away until only three are left. We ignore the brochures, pick the nicest guy and follow him another ten blocks to his hotel, which is tiny, cramped, bug-infested and costs too much. We are pitched back onto the streets to search for a hotel ourselves.

We enter a dozen hotels. We cut the crap. We get straight to the point. Three questions. Do you have a room? How much is it? Can I see it? In the room, there isn't much to say. We turn on the lights, sit on the bed, turn on the shower, look at the sheets, turn on the TV and the fan. If everything works, if the sheets are clean, if there is a window, we usually stay. Most rooms under $10 don't pass the test.

Our first hotel room in Hanoi has electric blue walls. There are two beds foot to foot with a boudoir sandwiched between. But the room is big for the price and we stay for three nights. The first morning we wake with tiny red bumps on our arms and legs. We both shrug it off and rush off to see Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum. The second morning we take notice of the bumps and figure we must have bed bugs. By the third morning we had checked out to go to Halong Bay. The bugs went with us.

2nd Rotation
On the first morning back in Hanoi after Halong, I am in our hotel lobby. I listen to another traveler arguing futilely with the desk clerk. Hotel room prices are quoted in US dollars. She wants to pay her bill in Vietnamese dong, but he's giving her an exchange rate you would only get if you were desperate for cash in a remote village town. It is not a rate for a bustling capital city. I pitch in for her and tell him the rate I got at the bank yesterday. He gives me an evil glare, but gives her a fair rate.

We are optimistic, sarcastic, eager travelers. We sleep in until ten every morning and wake up as ourselves. This new place is a piece of the attainable infinite world we explore. We are ready for it. But somehow, the city eats the next ten hours and we return home at night frazzled, grumpy and barking, “NO!” at the millionth rickshaw driver who rings his bell. Hanoi Pineapple vendor © Sahand ImagesWe've been rubbed raw in several places throughout the day. No one expects to get a nasty rash from a city, but there it is, blooming on your attitude and asking for some balm. It is a cruel cycle from hope to disappointment, everyday.

On the street, they only smile when you first approach. It withers in an instant when they realize they can't swindle you out of $5 for a mini-pineapple. The fruit vendors are ruthless with their inflated prices. Their baskets hang heavy from either side of a long stick which settles into a groove that has carved itself into their shoulder. They squat in the gutters near the curb to carve their pineapples into a spiraling, yellow swirl. Near the train station, we watch locals buy two for 40 cents and then leap in to demand the same price. She is vaguely annoyed, but there is no avoiding giving us the fair price this time. Back in the Old Quarter we laugh when the pineapple hustlers try to extort us for insanely inflated prices. No more $5 pineapples.


3rd Rotation
Our third and last stay in Hanoi, we are still drying out after a wet stay in Sapa. My left butt cheek is resting on the rim of the bathroom sink, my right knee is tapping the toilet seat and every time I rinse my hair I bang my elbows into the wall; but the water pressure is great and its the first good shower I've had in a week, even if it is in a coat closet masquerading as a bathroom. After my shower, I slide open the tinted window, point the fan directly at my sweating navel and am lulled to sleep by the slowing traffic below, which is at full tilt when it wakes me in the morning in this big bed with crisp, white sheets.

When I wake my first thought is, 'This is what a hotel is supposed to be like.' A good shower. A good night's sleep. A person with a soul to help you at the front desk. These things make for good days in a city that is merciless with one's patience. A trip to the Temple of Literature tests every skill one has as a traveler. Motorbikes demand $5 to drive 2 km to the Temple. The bus will wait another hour until it is full. One night's trek through Hanoi's Old Quarter with a backpack to find a place to sleep makes walking to the temple today our last choice, but it weighs out as easier than bartering with the motorbike guys. Tow kilometers can disappear into shoe soles in half an hour, and suddenly, somewhere beyond the Old Quarter, but still within the city, the din of traffic and street vendors dulls within the sanctuary of this one-time school for Confucianism. The students at Vietnam's oldest University have been replaced with hoards of tourists, but the incense is still heady and thick and somewhere here an age before moto-drivers and pineapple vendors is hiding its mystery.

Hanoi traffic © Sahand Images

Our second day in the city we ditch our bags and head out to play in the mystery-free traffic that is modern day Hanoi. The road sags with motorbikes, which outnumber cars twenty to one. Crosswalks become nothing more than pretty lines on the road, and we ignore them while we get our kicks stepping off the curb and into an avalanche of oncoming vehicles. The trick is Tai Chi. Slow steps. Face turned toward the onslaught. All energy focused into what seems would kill you. The opposite side of the street materializes along with our bodies and we are human again. Having survived the bed bugs, vendors and motorbikes of Hanoi, we decide it's time to make one last rotation out.

Optimists include time in their scope of things that are good and plentiful. We buy train tickets for 6:15 in the morning and think nothing of our ten a.m. habit. After all, we own an Armitron digital wristwatch. It tells the time. It tells the date. It has an alarm. After packing and showering we go to sleep at 2 am. We wake up moving in fast motion as though we never went to sleep. There is no space between when my head leaves the pillow and my bag is on my back and I'm outside the hotel running down the street. It is ten till six and we are two kilometers from the train station. It is impossible to walk and we will have to get a moto. Inflated prices, bargaining and being in a rush are an impossible combo anywhere in Asia, but especially in Hanoi.

Aggression and predawn hours don't compliment each other. Yoga, newspapers, and coffee all pair nicely with early morning. Death threats do not. We headed straight for Hoan Kiem Lake, a usual moto-driver haunt in Hanoi. Unfortunately, the Armitron's features do not include moto-driver tracking at six a.m. and there was not a ride to be had. As we rounded the lake, one of the hotel goblins didn't recognize that we were leaving the city and would not stay in his hotel. He pushed his brochure on us and we brushed him aside roughly. His reply to our forceful `No!' was the unmistakable and apparently international insult `Fuck you!' Suddenly possessed by the spirit of a New Yorker, we made the ill-fated choice to return his insult. The slow, low rumble of his approaching motorcycle, our rush to the train station, and the fact that we were standing in the middle of a street in Hanoi all made my heart start to pound. As we rushed on, he circled us slowly and menacingly and then uttered a perilous joke. “You want die?” This stopped us where we stood and he followed his threat with a second menacing circle around us and then took off so quickly I became instantly certain he was off to round up the morning shift of the Vietnamese Mafia. We waved down the next taxi that came by. The threat and our rush amounted to a double taxi fare to catch a train that was literally pulling out of the station when our feet hit the steps of our car. We plopped gratefully onto our wooden seats and made a thankful final rotation out of the city of Hanoi.


In three days we stayed in as many hotels, each successive room a notch above the last and, to our relief, all three bed-bug free. Be cautious of the touts!

From the Photo gallery

Click here for the Vietnam photo-set.