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Virtual meanderings

Vientiane – Ha Noi

Vientiane, Laos

Gotta love Laos…

Unfortunately I did not see much of Vientiane. Vientiane airport is conveniently located on the highway from Vang Vieng and it was where the van dropped me off.

Vientiane airport, Laos

Vientiane airport, Laos

The airport was new and a note said that it was built with help from (if I am not mistaken) Japan. A small note here: in the seventies and eighties Lao’s main economic partners were the USSR and Vietnam. Relations with China at the time were cool. Vietnam still has a significant (political) weight in Lao, but – unsurprisingly – a lot of new construction in the country is being done by China. Being a member of ASEAN, Laos has opened up for new partnerships to perhaps lessen the weight of its immediate neighbors – and hence one possible explanation about the Japanese help in that airport construction. If that story was too short for you, there is plenty of information on Lao economic achievements online.

The plane landed in Hanoi about an hour late. Then we waited for another hour in the baggage reclaim area (it never became clear why). Finally we moved on to passport control.

Unlike tourist visas offered by most countries, my Vietnamese visa had a fixed entry and departure date. Back at home when I was planning the trip I had no idea when (or even how) I’d reach Vietnam, and I had given it my best shot when applying for the visa. If the visa expiration date was to be honored, I only had the right to stay for four days in Vietnam. The border guard fiddled with my passport for a while, consulted some female officer who was probably his boss – then stamped it and let me off. After I had a look inside, I realized that he had re-stamped my visa for two full weeks starting from today. Without asking me anything all along. Not bad.

At the arrivals hall the guy from the hostel I’d booked was waiting to pick me up, as arranged. Or so I casually assumed that he was staff from the hostel – and as we got into the car and hit it off I started chatting with him about Vietnam and Hanoi. Very soon it was clear that the guy spoke virtually no English, and what little he spoke, didn’t make him sound very excited. So, I quit socializing and focused on the road.

I soon realized that Bangkok – whose traffic I had up until now consiered craziest on our planet – was actually a child play to drive in compared to Hanoi. We were on a major highway going on from the airport to the city. In the city itself I would soon find out that things got even, if I am allowed to say so, better.

Courtesy: peterrust1 @ Youtube

Along the highway there were a fair number of billboards featuring hammers and sickles ( I hope they start translating those in English eventually). But there were some in English as well to let the city guests know that Ha Noi was celebrating 1000 years since its foundation.

Billboard in Hanoi

Courtesy:  spraguephoto.com

Earlier, when the airplane had approached for landing, I had also noticed (a novelty for me in South-East Asia) the unmistakable silhouettes and bell towers with crosses of Christian churches. Did you know that a significant number of Vietnamese are practitioners of Christianity? I’d never given it much thinking before I saw that the churches were in fact many.

St. Joseph's Cathedral, Hanoi

... like this one, for example...

Courtesy: virtualtourist.com

I have not researched the matter, but I’d guess that why this foreign religion found good reception in Vietnam is rooted in history. Vietnam’s two neighbors – China (especially) and Japan – have both been imperial powers to which Vietnam happened to be too near and just too weak for its own good. Neither empire was Christian. So, if you are a Vietnamese ruler looking to forge an identity for your people to set against the oppressing power, you either invent your own religion (the Vietnamese actually came up with two – Cao Dai and Hoa Hao) or, well, open your doors to a third imperial power enthusiastic to exploit your riches but at least protect you from the other two. The French, that is. On a side note, I’ve read that in Korea the majority of people too adhere to the Christian faith. If this is true as well, I guess the reasons are similar.

Our car finally reached the hostel – which was not far from Ha Noi’s historic city center. We got in. My driver went to the reception and proceeded with signing papers, gesturing and conversing (in Vietnamese) with the guy at the reception I then realized that the hostel in fact did not take care of delivering its guests from the airport itself, but was instead using a regular taxi service (convenient, isn’t it). It is then that I learned the price of my joyride – $20. That did not make me too happy because the “airport pickup” option on the website did not list a price and in no way suggested that you’d be charged at all (by the way, a free airport pickup and ride to the hotel is a common practice in Laos and Cambodia). Oh, well.

Oh, well? I will fast forward and say that since the prices in Vietnam are generally very low, the $20 charge was indeed a total rip-off. I would not be surprised at all if I found out that hopping on a random taxi at the airport would have cost me half of that. But this was one more piece of knowledge that I acquired postfactum and hence too late. By the way, if I’d taken the public bus to the city center – and then another bus to the hostel – it would not have cost me a single dollar. Another side note: you did know that Vietnam is a major oil producer and it can afford to keep gas prices low, right? Cause if you did not, now you do.

That small hiccup aside, the hostel itself was excellent – very clean rooms, bed sheets changed every day, luggage storage room, four computers with free Internet, wi-fi. All of that for the extremely reasonable price (cheap is the right word) of $5.5 per day. There was a buffet too where you could order some food, pool tables, beer & soft drinks.

The hostel offered many convenient services for the inept but busy traveler (all of those nicely advertised on posters at the reception desk). It could get you a new visa, buy you a train or plane ticket, they could also change money for you – at 18.500 per dollar. (I went out and found a currency exchange office which did 19.450 per dollar).  In a word – the “hostel business model” was being practiced at its finest.  The staff was all Vietnamese, but the hostel owner was an Australian woman in her forties, who clearly held things under tight control. She knew her trade. Cheap rooms and good service as bait, extra services with convenience charges as a second revenue stream.  For a try, I asked how much a train ticket to China would cost me – and was quoted a price. Later that day I went to the main train station (which was within walking distance from the hostel) and asked the same question and the English-speaking counter. I was told a price 1/3 less than the hostel quote. Of course, there is nothing wrong with this – convenience comes at a price – and make up your mind how much convenience suits you.

That said, I’d still recommend this hostel in Hanoi without the slightest hesitation. Rarely have I stayed at another such smoothly run and well-maintained place.

By the time I got me a hostel bed it was no later than 6pm (Vietnamese time). But as I felt completely exhausted from the trip, I dropped on it and slept untill the next morning.

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2 responses to “Vientiane – Ha Noi

  1. Pingback: Hanoi | Master(s) of Puppets « mastercopycat

  2. Pingback: Nan Ning Eve Ning « mastercopycat

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