I knew should have read my Lonely Planet on the flight from Mumbai to Hanoi. I rarely land in a brand new country without some basic orientation, but a month in India among friends had made me soft and the withdrawal pangs had delayed the transition into my usual travel-savvy self. It is only later that I read the section called “Dangers and Annoyances”, which might have saved me a rough landing.
I was still getting my head around the zero-rich Vietnamese currency (1 USD = 20,000 Dong), trying to negotiate the fare from the airport to my hotel when my taxi driver grabbed my wallet and started flipping through all of my money – US Dollars, the 1.5 Million Dongs I had exchanged at the Singapore airport and some leftover Indian Rupees. He fished out some thousands of Dongs to tell me how much the taxi ride would cost. On the way, he wanted to know if I had any lucky $2 bills. I offered him a 10 Rupee note, which he seemed to like a lot. He pointed at the image of Gandhi on the note and pointed out that Gandhi “also didn’t have any hair”. I smiled as he pointed at the image of a tiger on the back of the note and said it was very lucky. I had never noticed.
I had reserved a room at the Charming Hotel in the Old Quarter after reading the glowing reviews on TripAdvisor. The taxi guy said he knew where it was. After an hour’s ride, he stopped at a busy intersection. Immediately, the door opened and a man stuck his head in and said “Welcome to Charming Hotel”. In very broken English, he said something about a problem (Repair? Renovation? Hot water?) at the Charming Hotel and that he was taking me to a different hotel. Before I knew, we were zipping through narrow streets and soon, the taxi deposited me at a shady hotel. It smelled of cigarette smoke and looked pretty sketchy, not the kind of hotel that makes it to the top on TripAdvisor. “Welcome to Lemon Hotel”, he said, unaware of the irony. He showed me a very iffy looking room just behind the counter and started selling me trips to HalongBay. I told him I was already working with a travel company and asked him to call my contact, Jessie, who had been emailing with me. He called her on his mobile phone and after I talked to her, demanded that I pay him 10$ for the call. At this point, I let him know with gestures and a few choice English words that I was very much onto the lemonness of his operation and wanted no part of it. “Oh yes, the hot water is now working at Charming Hotel. You can go there now”, he said, perhaps in a face-saving ending.
After another taxi ride, I arrived at the actual Charming Hotel, which turned out to be everything that the TripAdvisor reviewers had raved about. The charming receptionists, Lien and Yen put me at ease immediately. When I told them of the attempted hijacking, the diminutive Lien stood up from behind the counter and shook my hand and said “Congratulations!”. She said I had done well to thwart the bad guys. I taught her the words “crook” and “scammer”, which she wrote down. |”You have nothing to worry about now”, she said as she offered me the “welcome drink”. “Lemonade?”, I asked, in disbelief. “Yes, lemonade, made from fresh fragrant Vietnamese limes”, said Lien. “Welcome to Vietnam!”