There are some things you cannot unsee, and there are others you may never have the opportunity to see again. Asia is the biggest traveller hotspot in the world. With the cheap lifestyle (for westerners), and something to tickle or destroy all five of your senses, it has an attraction.
Hanoi has become one of my favourite cities in Southeast Asia. After analysis I feel it is because Vietnam resembles much more of a civilised country than its more popular next door-but-one neighbour, Thailand. But, there are a lot of similarities, like transport.
The experience of getting to Hanoi was unforgettable and certainly was not one I would like to ever re-live.
The sleeper bus from Vientiane (Laos) was not the most uncomfortable bus I have ever been on from my time in Vietnam; however, the dodgy service stations, the questionable borders, and the areas en route to Hanoi were enough to make even seasoned travellers feel uncomfortable.
In the western world, our borders (land, air or sea) have high security and are regulated to the highest standards. Generally the process goes: wait in a queue at the border. When it is your turn hand your passport over to a moody looking officer. Make a facial expression similar to the one on your passport. Maybe pay some money for a visa if required (and always the same amount it says on a plaque or information form) or show a pre-arranged visa, get a stamp and off you go.
Over here, air borders are the most secure, but certain land borders are known to let people through with a monetary bribe. Following discussion, everyone seems to have a difference experiences of different borders, each story worse than the previous. So it really depends what day you arrive on and with which company what experience will be had!
In my experience at this particular border, if you are white and non-Asian your passport is put to the bottom of the pile straight away. That is after the westerners and yourself have attempted to form an orderly queue, but generally Asians only know how to queue when they have a ticket with a number on it. This was not available at this particular border, so climbing over each other to the desk whilst shouting at each other in the process is the only way.
Once you have waited an age for your departure stamp, you must proceed to the next unnamed building to find out what is next.
It is 07:00, raining and cold like a normal British day and once again the westerners have to wait until the end to get their passport checked by a rude, sexist and obnoctious young boy who feels the need to comment on every females appearance before letting them through the gate anyway. The European women and I were pretty disgruntled, but as it is unknown whether you will be allowed to proceed, and you could be denied entry ‘just because’ the person with the stamp is in a fouler mood than normal, you have to take what you get.
Meanwhile his colleague performs the obligatory yelling in Vietnamese at you before you can continue to the visa desk–whoever said German was a harsh language has not been to Asia.
With the same process as the departure desk, no orderly queue, arms and sharp words flying everywhere, the western passports are put at the bottom. But the Europeans are the lucky ones. If you are from the USA yours gets put on a separate desk to look at after everyone has passed the border, and after the guards have all had their morning fag breaks. If you are a lucky American, you might not even have to pay a second time for your visa.
Three hours later all but two on the bus managed to cross the border. While we continued the journey to Hanoi, in which it became obvious the only rule of the road over here is to use your horn, two were left stranded at the border in the rain and cold.
Leave voters: what do you think about our borders now?
If you are not interested in how our borders then scroll down a bit.
The UK does not enter into the Schengen Agreement. Which means it retains control of its borders and every single person who passes through them, whether British, European or any other nationality has to be checked for the appropriate documents. For European countries who have entered into the Schengen Agreement it means citizens can freely pass through the borders without having their passports checked.
The advantage is that it is easier for the free movement of EU citizens, however it also means it creates a small loophole for immigrants or migrants to enter Europe. It is not the sole reason for migration in Europe, but it is one of the contributing factors. However, to get to the UK every single person still needs to have their identity checked, which makes immigrating to UK difficult without official documents.
Back to Hanoi. The worst part about Asia is the constant harassment. Any country, any place, any time. Trying to adjust to your surroundings while you depart from the bus is impossible when you have five different blokes screaming “TAXI TAXI”, “MOTORBIKE MOTORBIKE”, “WHERE YOU GO? WHERE YOU GO?” at you. Asia might have a poor rating on the poverty and human rights scale, but they are world-class at the sport of harassment, bargaining and making westerners feel uncomfortable in such situations.
But it is not just taxis, it can be anything from toilet roll, to them forcing you to take a photo of them and make you pay for it. Even the children are in on it. The very young ones learn two words of English and anytime they see a white person they put on the cute face, hold out their hand and say: “Hello, money?”
In Bangkok it is fairly easy to work out which taxis are safe. Choose pink or the green and yellow ones, and ones with a meter. In Hanoi, the fraudsters are a bit more intelligent and there is no way to tell if you are being scammed or not until you get into the taxi and watch the meter crank up twice as fast. As you are in a new foreign place, they can happily drive you around the streets for an extra 10-15 minutes, until you realise: “This is the second time around this lake.” They have ‘fast-meters’, so just when you think you are safe by getting in a taxi with a meter, they hit you with a 600,000VD fee. (About £21). As I had read about this, realised what was happening about half way through the journey, but yet could do nothing about it, the guys I shared the cab with bartered him down a few 100,000VD and gave him less than he was asking for but unfortunately more than the journey was worth.
The most free I felt was in Chiang Mai, a richer and more westernised area in Northern Thailand. Poverty was almost non-existent, or at least nearly invisible so there were less people to harass you by saying a noun twice. Here the taxis are pre-booked through a company, any stalls or street food almost always belongs to a market, and less people have to nag for business.
In Sapa, (Northern Vietnam) after ambushing us from the bus, one woman stood and watched a friend and I have breakfast and drink coffee, meanwhile she tried to persuade us to go to her homestay–I lost count how many times we said no. On another occasion in Sapa while the same friend and I were in a coffee shop, a young girl no older than 11 stood next to me for over half an hour trying to sell me a bracelet. After I bought one, she continued to stand there and I suddenly felt responsible for the kid as her mother had vanished.
Whether it is taxis, tuk tuks, random strangers in the street pointing you in the direction of something then requesting money for it, dodgy blackjack games you get invited to, or weirdo locals saying the temples are closed today and to go with them for an “alternative city tour”, being scammed is all part of the Asian experience, but the skill is trying to keep it to a minimum.
There are however many enjoyable parts of Vietnam…