Taken for a Ride in Hanoi
By Valerie Hamer
It says a lot that the first Vietnamese phrases I learned were ‘No thanks’ and ‘I’m not a tourist, lower price please’! That I became fluent in these within the first two days in Hanoi, despite struggling with Korean for two years in Seoul was more a case of necessity than any love for linguistics. Hanoi is just something else altogether when it comes to devious minds and scamsters!
I’m no innocent abroad. To describe me as suspicious and a little OCD when it comes to researching ways people will try to rip me off would be much closer to the mark. I’ve lived overseas for so long that I rarely take conventional trips. I like to stay in non-tourist areas and do unusual things. The trouble is that this persona exists largely in my head. To the local, touts and tourist scouts I’m just another target. What I learned in Vietnam is that no amount of caution is enough if you fail to stick to the rules.
I was in Hanoi to take an intensive English language teaching course, which I’d been guaranteed would take all of my attention. So with a few days in hand before this madness began I wiled away the time feeding my caffeine addiction and getting to know the lay of the land.
When my watch battery died I forced myself out of my coffee coma and made a plan. As a concession to the ‘I should do something touristy’ voice that lives in my head I planned to hire a rickshaw for the 30 minute journey to the jewelry area. To avoid the drivers’ cunning and commonplace trick of ‘misunderstanding’ your destination – leading to a major detour and demands for a higher fare – I had a worker from my hotel flag one down, explain in Vietnamese where I was going and agree on a price. Things got sticky when the guy insisted on being paid before we set off, but the hotel clerk was convinced this was ok so I went along with it. Mistake number 1.
The journey started off fine. The sweet old man didn’t even make the face I’ve heard some do when they have to cycle along propelling the extra weight many foreigners impose on them. It was fun to see the local back streets from the rickshaw, though where we went remains a mystery. The twists and turns on streets which looked so similar left me dizzy. Just as I began to relax I heard the weirdest sound, rather like someone had snapped an enormous elastic band against a balloon. Maybe that’s what he did? Anyhow, we stopped, and I knew it was bad news.
“So sorry madam, the tire has punctured. I can’t carry on.”
I was waiting for the punch line – surely this would be where he demanded more cash, claiming this was somehow my fault? But no, he seemed content to let the statement just hang there. Awkward minutes passed until I cracked and asked what would happen now. After much sucking of teeth and vague offers of pushing the bike (and me) the rest of the way a conveniently located friend appeared. This good old mate would put himself out and take me the rest of the way in his perfect rickshaw. Ok?
He deserved an Oscar, I’ll give him that! His face was a picture of concern meets triumph for having provided such a perfect solution to this ‘problem’, but he was no match for me. ‘Sure I’ll switch, just as soon as you give your friend the cash for the journey. After all, you don’t need it now, right?’ That’s when it started to get nasty. He ranted and raved, he begged and he pleaded. He needed that cash to repair his bike. He got nowhere and I refused to get out. He screamed and shouted and a crowd gathered, but I held fast. With a face that would sour milk he made a show of handing over some cash – not all of it but enough and the best deal I would get. My legs were trembling as I walked away through the onlookers, slipping the money into a pocket. I felt victorious until I realized I had no idea where I was and that he’s cleverly slipped me a lesser value note than I was owed.
There was no time to try to get back to the hotel on foot so I braved a second rickshaw and thankfully this went smoothly. Ironically we were about three minutes away from the starting point. Not to worry. I’d learned a hard lesson – never pay these guys until you are where you want to be. I’d had an adventure and was wiser for it.
My original plan had been to walk from the shopping area to my school, but being back at point A left me no choice but to take a taxi. I knew the rule: have someone call one for you and use only one of the two most reputable companies. I broke this in an effort to save two minutes, assuming that a cab parked outside my hotel would be fine. It looked like a Mai Linh taxi and I knew they were good. Hello mistake two.
We’d barely gone down two streets when I noticed the meter was spinning so fast I could barely see the numbers! Making a point of tracking our movements on my majorly awkward sized area map I could see he was taking the most direct route, but as the figures climbed into the thousands waves of panic overwhelmed me. Would I even have enough to pay this monstrous fare? Once he stopped I demanded a receipt which he duly handed over, and as it was clearly marked with the Mai Linh logo I paid. At this rate I’d be stuffed, my budget wouldn’t run to 265.000 dong cab rides twice a day.
It didn’t take long to discover I had been duped by a rogue driver. They fix up their meters to go faster when the car horn is used. If you’ve ever been to Vietnam you’ll know that’s like every few seconds. I’d paid over ten times the usual price and boy was I going to get even! Funnily enough the Vietnamese people I asked didn’t think it was worth reporting the guy to the cops. Whispers of mafia activity and lack of proof made sense as justification for their attitude, but I wanted some sense of closure, or perhaps, if I’m honest, revenge.
Finally the hotel manager called Mai Linh, who were most put out by suggestions that one of their drivers may be lining his own pockets. No luck there, but as fate would have it the culprit was right under my nose. My hotel room looked onto the street, and the next night as I closed the curtains what do I spy but the very cab. Sat there bold as brass right under my nose. Noting the registration number was easy; persuading someone from the hotel to interpret at the cop shop took more effort. This is where ‘pester power’ comes in.
I don’t really know what I expected, but what I got was a quasi flashback to the times of penal servitude. The police station opened into a large room, where two men sat forlornly chained to a metal table in the centre. Not wanting to intrude on their space I averted my eyes, but not before they perked up in anticipation of a floor show.
My story was explained second hand and not one thing was written down. Brandishing the car number plate and taxi phone number I tried to put on my best Miss Marple face, but it was no use. The bored looking officer seemed unimpressed. Lots of shrugs, this kind of issue was common place. It seems few people bother to complain officially. I was determined to come away with something: ‘So what should I do if this happens again?’ I enquired. He took a cool, long look at me and shared his wisdom: ‘Just get out of the car … and scream’.
I managed to avoid any more transport drama for the rest of my stay, but am happy to report that the sage advice came in handy for several of my classmates who were not so lucky. The men said they found it quite difficult but just as effective.
About the Author
Valerie Hamer is a British citizen living a quasi nomadic life. She’s been in Asia for eleven years and is currently gainfully employed at a South Korean university. Addictions to coffee, culture and the need to know everything fuel her website and life in general.