Posts Tagged 'vietnam'

No Hue: Hue Riders Knock-Off

Um, is this supposed to be something important?

Mr. Loc is over it.

He slows the motorbike, pulling over to the skinny shoulder of the highway that wraps seductively around the lush green mountain. He points. “Photo.” It’s more of a command than a suggestion. I snap of shot of the vista—pretty, with rice paddies and a cloak of fog. But I couldn’t tell you any more about it.

That’s because Mr. Loc isn’t having it. He’s shown us the goddamn vista, his posture seems to say, what more do we want?

Even the most skilled and adept of independent travelers (and I’m certainly far from one of them) falls for an imitator sometimes. It happens: we’re tired, we’re rushed, our guard is down, it seems like a good idea. We wind up paying top dollar for a half-assed adventure.

I’d heard about the Hue Riders one night in Hanoi. Instead of a boring old tour bus, they take you on motorbikes from Hue to Hoi An, an historic trail that stops at waterfalls and pagodas and old American bunkers. “It’s supposed to be brillant,” one of Jacob’s friends told me, hunched on our plastic stools over the billow of BBQ smoke.

Killer. Sign me up.

I asked my hotel in Hue if they’d heard of the Hue Riders and they nodded enthusiastically, leading me over to the dude posted at the cafe next door. He thumbed through his photo album—him with smiling white girls, him with white dudes giving the thumbs up sign. He showed me an entry in his customer comment notebook from a girl who was “from your country!”

I couldn’t tell if it was cause to be suspicious, or if he was just that certain kind of proud that third-world tourism workers sometimes are. He showed me his business card: “FIFTEEN YEARS Experienced, All’s for your satisfaction.” But hey, it said “Hue Riders” under his name.

It was only later, after I’d paid and signed up, that the real suspicion began to mount. I googled Hue Riders. And holy shit, there was an actual, legit website. For the real Hue Riders. Of which Mr. Loc was not one.

Oh well, I told myself. Chalk another up to experience. Sometimes the DIY, hustling tour guides can be just as good as the bona fide ones your LP recommends.

Which is true. But Mr. Loc, I’m discovering, isn’t one of them.

He isn’t terrible; he’s just monumentally not into it. Fifteen years of experience has translated to boredom.

Our first stop was a fishing village off the highway: a dirt road strewn with debris; a couple of kids playing soccer; a clutter of wooden boats, docked and sleeping; nets laid out like the vacated skins of snakes.

“Fishing village,” was the extent of explaination given.

Joe, the upbeat and friendly male half of an American couple who’d also gotten roped into the tour, attempted to ask some questions. “Do they go out in the morning?” We got a sort of unintelligble, one-word answer.

Now at a mountain pass—but was it the first or the second pass?—I attempt to eavesdrop on the tour guide next to us. Something important about these cables, this view, something about Americans? I try to ask Mr. Loc. “Was this something important during the war?”

“Yes, I think so.”

Tourists at a former bunker

We move along. It’s a foggy, white-wrapped day, and all the sights we stop at are equally shrouded in hazy incomprehension. We stop by bunkers used during “the American War” (now a tourist trap—more on that in a later post). We stop off for overpriced coffee at a cheesy resort. We pull over at the roadside operation for a kind of cosmetic oil made from a local leaf. We stand around awkwardly as Mr. Loc tells us the prices of the different sized oils.

“Not much of an oil type myself,” Joe declares good-naturedly. He’s pathologically cheerful, in that particular American way, with his buzz cut and beaming cheeks. “When do we get to the waterfall?”

“No waterfall today,” Mr. Loc declares. “The weather,” he gestures around us, “road too slippery.” He makes a skid-and-crash motion with his hands. We nod solemnly, disappointed.

We stop at Marble Mountains, thrust from the flat earth near China Beach like a glittering rock of crystal. Pagodas and temples abound. Joe maintains his positivity, reading aloud from his Lonely Planet to make up for our lack of tour guide. I’m grateful for his unrelenting optimism.

Holy light

We wander into a cave that feels like a cathedral—a carved Buddha in the stone, incense like breath, sunlight filtering through the ceiling like the fingers of gods. There’s the hush of a holy place there; Joe reads that during the War, it was used as a VC hospital.

In a corner, a bat with a broken wing arches and flops. He squeaks intermittenly, and it sounds like a very small prayer, echoing against the rock.

We descend the mountain and find Mr. Loc waiting for us, leaned against the motorbike. “Okay, we go.”

I realize the thing about Mr. Loc isn’t that he’s rude or unknowledgable or even a shitty tour guide. It’s that he’s supremely Vietnamese. It’s this certain way, this certain attitude, that I’ve begun to understand, the same as in the nail shops at home—matter-of-fact, blunt, nothing sugar-coated or said sweetly. Here’s your tour. There’s a sight. Good? Okay.

“Vietnamese people aren’t very nice,” other travelers have told me. I understand where they’re coming from, but I don’t think it’s a simple matter of not being nice; I think it’s a profound cultural difference. (“You want pedicure? Okay, you pick a color.”) Brusk and brash—jarring as the chorus of honks from the motorbikes.

We arrive in Hoi An wind-blown and dirt-covered. My eyes well from the thousand particles of crap swimming around my contacts; my hair’s matted to my head from too many hours wearing a helmet.

Mr. Loc drops me at my hotel. “Happy?” It’s a business-like question.

I nod. Why not?

Hanoi’s Secret Cafe

I love rooftops, and I love rooftops in cities—sitting up on your bird’s perch and watching the strange dance of it all.

There’s no pigeons in Hanoi (except the ones you see plucked and pink at the food stalls), and there’s virtually no places to take respite.

Jacob told me about the secret cafe—not so much a secret, but a nameless, signless place you could never find without looking for it. On a road behind Turtle Lake, beside an especially terrifying roundabout, at the heart of the chaos—a nondescript storefront shop selling all the usual lanterns and bags and lacquered art. You walk past it, through it, down and back, what looks like the dim hallway to some squalid toilet.

It actually leads to a cafe, opening up into a courtyard that evokes the same “ah” sensation as stepping into a riad from the din of a Moroccan medina. A girl thrust a menu at me and told me I needed to order there, right there, before going any further. I pointed to the coffee with milk and egg white, as recommended, and the girl moved aside and let me pass.

I climbed up a flight of stairs, past a set of carved doors left ajar, revealing a glowing, smoldering altar within. Up another skinny staircase, and I was at a quiet little terrace that overlooked the lake, the skyline, the swarming street, the madness of the city.

It was my fourth day in Hanoi, and I was only then beginning to make sense of it. Its roads were a tangle of incomprehension, like lines in a palm whose fortune you couldn’t quite decipher—electrical wires and branches the gentle hatch marks that lay like a webbing, even less decipherable in what was certainly a story, certainly trying to say something.

But on the terrace it almost made sense, or at least begin to take shape. The other tables were sparsely inhabited by couples, leaning in and speaking low, by a few other foreigners smoking and reading. My egg white coffee came and it was goddamn delicious, thick and like a milkshake. I spooned it to myself like I were my own infant and sat there, just sat, thinking my nothing thoughts and watching.

It was refreshing, to be up there like a bird, in a city that doesn’t have any—to enjoy a moment of peace amid the frenzy. Which is a metaphor for life, in the way it’s all a metaphor for life—one great metaphor beneath the surface of everyday, at the center of everyday, everything just an arrow, pointing, leading, hinting us towards some soft secret (down a passageway, behind a trinket shop)—nudging us towards something we can’t possibly ever know or say, can only sense sometimes, in the still moments—can only approximate, speak about in abstractions, relationally. Which is why it’s a metaphor in the first place, and not The Real Thing—why we need metaphors and egg white foam in thick coffee and pretty little terraces to take a breather on.

Hanoi Secret Cafe: 11 Hang Gai


I dreamed your apartment was suicide-proof:
those little half-windows
that only open in slits,
like doped-up eyes,
how we blew the smoke
sideways and down
and it couldn’t really make it out,
just blew right back to us.

I asked if there were earthquakes here
and you said there weren’t,
but I didn’t believe it—
not that I didn’t believe you,
but I didn’t believe the earth—
that somewhere down
under all this something
was shaking,
ready to shake:
the smell of a seizure
before it erupts.

I got up and paddled
my bare feet across the floor,
my bad ankle snapping.
I realized I’d forgotten the kitchen window,
that slides open wide—
a ledge and a little metal railing
that wouldn’t be enough
to keep a body from crouching,
crawling out
to the 16 stories
of honking beneath.

Learning to Ride On a Motorbike in Hanoi

Hanoi is a bipolar child with a strict bedtime.

Clinging hands behind me to the metal rack, I try to suppress the involuntary flinching—a circumstantial case of Tourette’s. It’s Saturday morning, and my first ride aback a motorbike through the frenetic traffic of Hanoi.

If you want to see the word “clusterfuck” defined, acted out in an exquisite charade, snap on a spare helmet, straddle the seat of your friend’s motorbike and take a ride through the streets of Hanoi. Feel the blanket of exhaust haze whip up around you; feel your legs naked to the risk of a thousand near collisions; feel the breeze of your own mortality and the queasy cocktail of sweetened coffee, cigarettes and exhaust churn in your stomach.

See towers of Tet trees and blossom branches balanced aback bikes; see jugs of water and housewares, bundles of mysterious somethings tied on in impossible precariousness. See families of four smooshed onto a single bike; see the eyes of children placidly blinking in the madness. See drivers texting, pulling out without looking, barely slowly, pedestrians stepping out into the chaos of it all—women walking with baskets balanced on a piece of wood across their shoulders, liked Lady Justice, except it’s their mouths that are masked; their eyes remain wide open.

Hear the horns beep and squawk like a million hungry birds—seven million, to be exact, and every damn one of em has a motorbike and is riding their motorbike, lanes just vague suggestions, right-of-way a nonexistent notion.

See this all this because you’re in this, suddenly a part of this: a passenger in the strange dance that feels more like a riot or a mosh pit—but no, no, must be a dance because you keep skirting disaster, skirting death, and you keep wanting to clamp your eyes shut but can’t, can’t.

Riding aback a motorbike through Hanoi isn’t exactly a near-death experience. It feels more like being on an airplane with really bad turbulence: you trust the pilot but not the skies. You know you’re not actually going to die, but you really can’t wait for the whole damn thing to be over. You get off feeling like you’ve just stepped off a rickety old rollercoaster that’s safety permits are supremely suspect.

“The sidewalks in Hanoi aren’t really for walking,” Jacob throws over his shoulder. “They’re more for commerce. If you want to walk, you’ve pretty much gotta do it in the street.”

It’s not a walking town, he says, and it’s true—at times I don’t see a single pedestrian, just a weaving, wheezing sea of traffic. How do you get to know a place without walking it? How do you get a feel for feel for a place without your feet on its streets?

It gets easier. I tell myself to trust, to put faith in the fact no one seems to be crashing. It begins to feel like we’re moving along this barely perceptible tightrope that weaves in and out of other people’s tightropes, maybe like telephone wires—like our own personal orbit, the miracle of chance that we don’t collide, such a miracle that it can’t be chance at all, but driven by some other force I can only suspect, can feel at times in the smoggy breeze, but can’t come close to naming.

Nighttime is different. It’s as though someone flips a giant switch. By 11, the streets have cleared, suddenly swept of everything but a faint whisper, the asthmatic glow of the headlight. The streets seem smaller in the dark, emptied of their madness—they don’t seem like the same streets at all, but an entirely different place, a different city. An incredible stillness settles over the buildings, the pavement, the wires stretching and branches drooping and the shapes of shadows in the dim drizzle—as if none of it were real, all the daylight mania just a waking dream, a reverse nightmare.

By Sunday I’m able to hang on with only one hand and snap photos with the other. I’m comfortable enough to carry on a conversation as we drive. Jacob points out landmarks and tell little stories; I tell him how my parents were revolutionaries when they were young, how the met in a Communist meeting. He quizzes me Vietnamese numbers, phrases; we laugh about the universal asshole-ness of SUV drivers. We weave through the manic chaos of daytime, and I tell him Hanoi feels like a bipolar city.

Rain comes that night, along with a cold wind; we move more slowly through the vacant streets. I blink against the lashings of wet and my hands turn frigid. Slowly, I loosen my grip on the metal grating, and place both my hands in my pockets.

I’ve learned how to trust the gods of traffic and chaos. I’ve learned how to ride a motorbike in Hanoi.

Vietnam, Look For Me Cause Here I Come: How to Get A Visa

Yes, travel is exotic and life-altering and profoundly moving. Yes, you encounter new environments, new people, new customs, and in that way, also encounter some new piece of yourself. Yes, you become more cultured, more able to pepper cocktail conversations with ledes like, “Well, when I was learning tango in Buenos Aires…,” and “There’s really no comparison to actual Italian gelato…”

But there’s also the nitty-gritty, the laborious and unglamorous, the tedium of trip planning. It’s not fun, there’s no scene cred, and no one likes to talk about it.

So, with twelve days left until my departure to Southeast Asia, I’m taking a pause in the string of earth-shattering lyrical narratives to discuss the oh-so boring details necessary to Vietnam travel: visas.

The first step to any obligatory activity, whether it’s commuting or house cleaning, is to get yourself a killer soundtrack to lessen the annoyance. For this, I suggest listening to Abner Jay on repeat.

Having to obtain a visa before visiting a country is a strange and confusing process to those of us native to countries of privilege. As an American, you’re more or less used to waltzing up to a customs window, flashing a smile that gleams of tourist dollars, and getting your stamp. Some countries, like Chile and Brazil, charge you of reciprocal entry fee, a kind of fuck-you I can appreciate. But needing to arrange a visa prior to arrival? What kind of criminal do you think I am?

Once you get over the indignity that the majority of the world’s other citizens are subjected to, you’ll need to actually procure the said visa. Here’s what I learned, thanks to research and Thorn Tree, one of my all-time favorite travel resources.

There are no “visas on arrival” for Vietnam.

Other countries in Southeast Asia, yes. Vietnam, no. It’s pretty simple.

There are different types of visas.

For your basic Vietnam tourist visa, there’s a few options. You can go for a one- or three-month visa; you can also opt for single- or multiple-entry. There are no longer six-month tourist or business visas. This means that, if like me, you’re planning on cruising in and out of Vietnam for a period longer than three months, you’ll need to get a visa extension while you’re there. That’s a beast I’ll tackle when the time comes…

Visa costs aren’t fixed.

Figuring out exactly how much a Vietnam visa will cost is an adventure in obscurity. The Embassy and Consulate websites conveniently don’t tell you how much visas cost. Through poking around, I discovered that if you go directly through official channels—that is, the Embassy or Consulate—you can expect to pay anything from $70 for a one-month single-entry, to $150 for a three-month multiple-entry.

There are several companies (like this one) that facilitate visas, and their prices are far from fixed. Discounts apply for groups; the larger the group, the deeper the discount. Prices for these service range from a $20-$50 discount from official prices.

Going through the Embassy or Consulate is expensive, time-consuming and worrisome.

In most situations like this, I’m skeptical of companies with cheesy websites that offer deeply discounted prices on official services. So I’d decided to stick with getting a visa from the Consulate. But this meant handing over my passport. I’d either have to mail my passport to the Embassy and wait for it to be returned (hello anxiety), or get up early one morning and head out to the Vietnam Consulate in San Francisco. Here, I was told I’d need to give them my passport for processing, which would take around 5 days, and then come pick it up again. It sounded like a pain, but preferable to mailing my most sacred of travel possessions.

The night before I was to roust myself and cram onto the train with all the suit-and-ties, I discovered that…

There’s a way around all this. Kind of.

So, you can actually negate the visa process, in a way. You can get what’s called a Visa Approval Letter, an official document that allows you to get what is essentially a visa on arrival. The pluses are that it’s much cheaper, your passport doesn’t have to leave your possession, and you can do it from your computer. The two big catches are that you need to be arriving into one of the international airports (Hanoi, Da Nang, and Ho Chi Minh), and you need to be ready to pay a $25-$50 “stamping” fee.

I used Vietnam Visa Pro, and while the actual entry into Vietnam remains to be experienced, I’m so far super happy with them. I paid $30 for an approval letter for a three-month multiple-entry. I paid via Paypal, which I liked since I’ve heard horror stories about stolen credit card numbers from shady foreign websites (incidentally, just had my credit card number stolen, but that’s another story). I heard back from the company promptly, and had my approval letter emailed to me in 2 business days. Printed it out, made copies of my passport photo, and am ready to roll!

Now all I’ve got to focus on is amassing some more exotic-sounding stories.

Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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