It was 11 pm, exactly four hours before I had to leave for the airport. My last time leaving for a flight that would take me half-way across the world was 7 years ago. Knowing that everything changes at a very rapid pace in Vietnam, it was both going back to a country that I knew and embarking on a whole new adventure.
I felt an intense feeling of excitement mixed with just the right dose of uneasiness. It was an expectation for freedom and new discoveries. It was also the realisation that I had many good friends who went out of their way to see me before I left the country,… even until four hours prior to my departure. It was the stress of realising that there were ONLY four hours left and I had JUST started packing.
Once packing was successfully completed on time, it was smooth sailing from there. I bade goodbye to my sweetheart and left with mother to the airport.
As the plane landed in O’Hare Airport, Chicago, I was greeted by this magnificent scenery. As I contemplated the scenery, I thought to myself “This is what freedom looks like.” As I was attempting to get the perfect shot, a flight attendant passed by asking me to turn off my camera during landing procedures. I looked up at her, smiled, turned off my camera, waited for her to sit down and buckle up at the front of the plane, turned on my camera, and started shooting away. Freedom…
3:30 transit time in Chicago. I was famished. I quickly gulped down your typical American breakfast (2 eggs, bacon, potato fries, and orange juice) and had 2 hours to kill after arriving at my departure gate. My head was still pounding from the lack of sleep of the previous night. As I was wondering what to do next, Baby Can Dance by Carsie Blanton started playing on my iPhone. Somehow, only obvious thing to do to occupy the time that was left was to dance in the middle of the airport. At first, it felt strange Lindy Hopping in the middle of the airport alone to music that only I could hear. People passing by did throw a few odd glances at me (maybe I should have dropped a hat). It didn’t matter. As the music went on, the world around me and my headache faded out. It was liberating.
The rest of the flight from Chicago to Hanoi stopping by Narita was uneventful. Only few noteworthy occurrence were the green tea, strawberry, and cherry blossom-maccha flavored Kit Kat bars and the AMAZING tempura udon that I had for lunch. The noodles were soft without the usual chewiness that I would usually notice in Montreal and the broth, I have no idea how to describe the taste, was just right.
Quickly rapping up my first day (which lasted 28 hours), I would like to share three stories between the moment I landed in Noi Bai Airport and passed out in my bed at Little Hanoi Hostel.
A story about solicitation (aka: feeling cheated vs. feeling generous)
As I walked out of Vietnamese custom, I was looking around for the driver that the hostel was suppose to send pick me up. He was nowhere to be scene. As I was looking around, a young Vietnamese man approached me, introduced himself as a taxi driver, and asked if I would need a drive back to Hanoi. I had been previously warned to be weary of taxi drivers at the airport since they try to take advantage of travelers. I told him that I was waiting for someone who had agreed to pick me up. Since I did not have a working phone, he offered to lend me his so I can call the Hostel to check. It was indeed very kind of him. The Hostel apologized for forgetting and sent a driver right away. Out of curiosity, I asked him his rate for the drive to Hanoi. He said 30 USD. To which I inquired, “That’s strange, I was told that a ride from Noi Bai to Hanoi was only 300,000 VND (15 USD). Why 30 USD?” He explained that since there were many customers from Noi Bai, the drive Noi Bai – Hanoi was more expensive than the drive Hanoi – Noi Bai which is indeed only 300,000 VND. I smelled a rip-off. As I was waiting for my lift, he would follow me around, chatting me up, reminding me that if my lift did not arrive, he could bring me into Hanoi. When my lift arrived, he left me alone for a few moments, then came back chat me up again. He asked me where I was flying in from, we spoke about his family, about China, he taught me a few Vietnamese words that I didn’t know. All in all, I would say it was a good friendly exchange. Towards the end, he asked if I could give him the smallest Japanese bill I had because he wanted to have some foreign currency for show. I didn’t have Japanese dollars. He asked about Canadian dollars. I tried giving him a one dollar coin thinking that I only had twenty dollar bills. He showed me his wallet saying that there is no way he can keep a coin without losing it. Remembering that I had a five, I gave it to him. He left happily.
As he walked away and I thought back on the circumstance, I had mixed feelings. I did give him the five dollar bill because I wanted to and it made me happy to give it to him. On the other hand, I can’t help thinking that it was what he was after the entire time.
A story about change (aka Did Hanoi change? vs. Did I change?)
After arriving at Little Hanoi Hostel on Hang Ga street at midnight, being jetlagged and unable to sleep, I decided to take a midnight stroll around Ho Hoan Kiem. As I was contemplating my surrounding and breathing in the light fragrance of sewer waste that floated among the dampness (mind you, it was a very light fragrance, not enough to be bothersome) which reminded me that I was definitely in Hanoi, three young ladies dressed with a tight black tops with glitters sprinkled about them and tight jeans with an appropriate amount of make-up. If it was not the time of day and the way they approached me, I would think of them as perfectly normal girl going out for a good time.
They came up to me and asked “Where are you from? (this part was in broken English)” To which I asked them why they were asking (in Vietnamese). They justified by saying that they wanted to ask the time. I told them the time. Then, since they heard my Vietnamese and realised that I wasn’t from Hanoi, they proceeded in trying to find out if I was from Northern or Southern Vietnam. As I tried to evade the question, they say “You’re handsome, you want to go for a massage?” I walked away.
Now I understand why my 70 year old dad looks at young women dressed for clubbing in Montreal as if they were prostitutes… Was it Hanoi that changed or simply the fact that I was now going on 26?
(Note: There are motorcycles going right on both sides of the street and going left in the center)
A story about inflation (aka MT: “Stop ripping me off!” vs. Clerk: “It does happen, but I am not.”)
I went to buy a can of Orangina at the convenience store. The clerk told me that it was 12,000 VND. I grimaced and told him that it was too expensive. He told me that it was really how much it is worth… That’s atrocious! I still remembered how much it cost 7 years ago, 5,000 VND.
Let’s take some time to analyse the situation…
Seven years ago, when I last visited Vietnam, a bowl of pho for breakfast would cost about 5 to 10 thousand Vietnamese dollars, a can of soft drink would cost about 2 to 5 thousand Vietnamese dollars, a haircut would be about 20 to 50 thousand Vietnamese dollars.
I come back seven years later and am told the following prices as I attempt to buy the same products:
Pho : 20 thousand VND
Soft drink: 12 thousand VND
Haircut: 100 thousand VND
A bit of perspective…
Seven years ago, 1 USD was worth somewhere between 10,000 and 12,000 VND.
Today, 1 USD is worth between 20,000 and 22,000 VND.
Let’s crunch the numbers in USD:
I’m going to put the cost of a haircut aside because it is a service and there is great volatility in how much it could cost depending on who is doing and its quality. As you may notice from this table, the price increase in Vietnam seems to be du to tremendous inflation, 100% inflation when compared to the USD in 7 years.
No wonder everyone speaks in USD. No wonder that that taxi driver wanted to keep some foreign currency. Imagine, if your savings were in VND. In 7 years your hard earned savings would lose half its purchase power AND there is no low risk investment vehicle that can come anywhere close to allowing you to preserve it. Scary isn’t it?