There’s a lot of country between Hue and Hanoi but we’re on a tight schedule and we’ve lost at least a couple of days already from staying up until sunrise drinking so to try to get to the key things we really want to hit, we bought tickets from Hue to Hanoi earlier in the day and had our private driver Ha drop us off at the Hue airport. We were there too early to check in so we grabbed some coffees, jump on the Wi-Fis and started reading up about what to do in Hanoi and in particular how to get to Ha Long Bay, the main reason we were headed to the north of the country. (Also Murphy bought a Ha Long Bay poster in Hoi An and it’d be pretty lame to buy the poster and then not visit the place.)
After almost inadvertently dine-n-dashing the Stop (Coffee Cup Symbol) Go cafe – not to be confused with the Stop and Go Cafe near the Citadel – we slide through security and head upstairs to a little bar. The menu and the walls are covered with pictures of amazing looking burgers, fries, Vietnamese food, all kinds of things. We just ate but the fries look pretty great so we order up a plate. It’s about $4. What looks like a mountain of crispy deliciousness in the picture comes out as a soggy fistful of yesterday-potato. Classic bait-and-switch.
While looking for ways to get out to Ha Long Bay we discover that there’s a fucking SEA PLANE from Hanoi to HLB. It’s almost $300 USD per person but none of us have ever been on a seaplane before and it sounds like the most baller thing we could do, can’t book online but we send a message through the website to get back to us ASAP about flying out there tomorrow afternoon and hope for the best.
We get a few rounds of whiskey/cokes in and type away on the blog for a bit while occasionally taking a stroll around the very small secure area for a bit. This is the only real bar but there are a few souvenir shops, coffee shops, convenience stores… Everything is “Lucky (something)”, like “Lucky Souvenirs”, “Lucky Cafe”, “Lucky Restaurant”, “Lucky Gifts”. Eventually they announce that our gate’s open over a blown speaker that gives a Charlie Brown Teacher effect, we cram into a hot bus and we’re driven across the tarmac to our plane.
An hour later we touch down and I’m running toward the baggage carousels. I’m the only one of the three of us with checked luggage so I hate this part, I’m always afraid that my shit’ll get lost or at the very least it’ll take a while and it holds everyone up. Sure enough I stand around for over half an hour and still nothing. Almost all of the other bags have been picked up, there are only a handful of other passengers straggling about, and I’m pulling my beard hair out in frustration. The boys are gone, assume they’re outside pacing around waiting for me.
“Lost luggage? Big dump? We’re outside” – Jonathan Murphy, in an email I read later
An airport employee sees me stressing and asks me where I’m coming from, I tell her Hue and she asks whether I’ve tried another baggage carousel. Why would I, this is the carousel for the Hue flight right? She shrugs and walks away. I run around quickly scanning all of the other carousels and sure enough, there’s my bag, one of the last two, on a totally different carousel. Arrgh. My blood’s running hot and on the way out airport security asks to see my bag check ticket, I kind of roll my eyes and swear as I drop all my shit and start rustling through it all, security rolls their eyes as I hold up the line and just waves me through. The boys are waiting outside kind of grinning, Murphy asks me what the hold up was, I just swear a lot and we try to find a minivan-taxi into the city. He asks me whether I’m “Hannoyed” and grins like a 12-year old proud of a fart. I try my hardest not to slap him.
We find minivan to take us into Old Town Hanoi, I sit down and try to cool off while the boys kind of pace around outside. Some of the strangest music I’ve ever heard comes on, it’s like really shitty disco with the most inane lyrics. “We all like to have fun!” “Come on everybody, don’t just frown, have a dance and let’s get down!” Every so often there’s a baby’s voice saying something like “We’re all having a good time!” except it’s not a baby, it’s obviously an adult making a baby-like voice. Creepy, creepy shit.
It’s a good forty-five minutes into the city and it looks pretty cool, way more developed than the cities we’ve seen so far (possibly with the exception of Danang) and very little of the chaotic horn-blaring on the roads, everyone seems to be making it work. The strange music keeps going, it’s all disco-style stuff about topics like Ma Baker and Rasputin. (A bit of top-notch Adventure Detective work revealed these are Boney M songs, but I’m pretty sure what we were listening to were even shittier cover versions.)
We get dropped off in the Old Quarter with an affordable hotel in mind but no reservations. It’s full but the whole street is filled with hotels so we try the next one we see. $75 USD, way pricier than we’re accustomed to, but it is a private room (one large bed, one small) with a TV and, unusually, an elevator. It also has free breakfast on the 8th floor overlooking the river, alright deal, we’re in.
Bags tossed on the bed, we hit the street to find some dinner, no food yet and it’s almost 11:30 by now. Surprisingly we don’t see much in the way of food, at least not much that’s open, one place looks decent with burgers and other western food but it’s nestled into a weird side street with minimal people-watching opportunities so we keep walking and come out on the river.
It’s really pretty and surprisingly peaceful, closed off to traffic so a lot of families and teenagers playing ball games or cards or just hanging out. The water is filled with the reflections of the buildings from the other bank and there’s a little island in the middle, connected by bridge, that’s lit up really cool. Strangely nothing we can see in the way of night life and not even really any restaurants aside from a Popeye’s Chicken, a Burger King and a Lotteria (like a Korean McDonald’s). We keep walking and people-watching.
By midnight we’re pretty hungry so we decide to double-back to the western place we saw but it’s pulling in its chairs and so are most other places. Is the whole city shutting down at midnight?? Sure looks that way. Thankfully we find a place called The Avalon with a big sign out front that says “Open Until 2 AM”. Swanky-looking, a greeter invites us in, guides us to the elevator and sends us up to the fifth floor.
It overlooks the river, the food and cocktail menus are decent but limited. The boys get pho, I get spaghetti bolognese. Five minutes later the server comes back, no spaghetti. Okay how about this chicken dish? Sorry we’re out of chicken as well. They discover they have some penne so they make me penne bolognese, which goes well with my bright blue coconut mojito.
The place itself isn’t bad albeit pricey but the crowd definitely leaves something to be desired. Everyone’s pretty much keeping to themselves, including a couple of German girls that were a few dollars short on their tab and Murphy helped them out (still didn’t really come out of their shells). Also a group of obnoxious older Americans sitting behind me, grinding my gears, alright let’s get out of here.
With the town pretty much shut down we decide to just head back to the hotel and figure out how to get to Ha Long Bay tomorrow. The front desk guy is outside having a smoke when we walk up. He wants to know our names and where we’re from. He tells us his name is Tony. “Ok, but what’s your real name?”, “Dong”, “Dong? Like money?”, “Yes, they call me Mister Money.”
Tony Money takes us inside and starts giving me the run down on some options. MacKay is wiped and hits the room. T-Money tells me that we can book a cruise tour through him. It is 2 days/ 1 night and includes: a bus to Ha Long Bay, 5 meals, kayaking, a cave tour, a cooking class and you sleep on the boat. There is also a DJ, bar and party on the boat. All of this is $135. Sounds decent.
I go up to the room and get the Ok from the boys. When I come back down T-Money has a binder out with pictures of the tour. The boat looks like some James Bond villains yacht, all white and gold with multiple levels, a killer sun deck, bar, those red dragon fin sails, and rooms that look better than any place we’ve stayed so far this trip. Daaaamn this boat looks Baller AF!
I decide to drop a card on it and get reimbursed from the guys later. But of course my card doesn’t work in their machine, nor do I have 8.5 million dong on me to cover everyone’s tickets. T-Money says there’s an ATM just down the street.
The street is dark and quiet now and the ATM is sitting a few doors down right on the sidewalk. Alright, I’ve gotta make this quick. Bee boop bee boop, 8 million dong please… Nope. Fucking thing only allows 2 million dong transactions at a time. Card back in, bee boop bee boop, 2 million dong. Take a quick look around. Card back in, bee boop bee boop, 2 million dong. Take a quick look around. I need to do this 5 times total? Is my bank card going to get cut off for fraud? Kind of sketchy hitting the same bank machine 5 times for max transactions after midnight in a foreign country. But Arrowhead doesn’t care, and now I’m rolling phat with a huge stack of inflated Vietnam Bucks.
Back to the hotel, I windmill slam 8 million bucks onto the lobby counter right under T-Money’s nose. We’re all set! Now I realize SEA isn’t the most WYSIWYG place on the planet but I’m pretty sold on this cruise package. And what could go wrong booking from a dude named Tony Money?