When you first arrive in Hanoi, Vietnam, your senses are literally blown. Thousands of mopeds pack into the tight streets like sardines, effortlessly zipping in and out of traffic with ease. Street stalls serving some amazing local food – some in which you’ve never seen before. Thriving, bustling markets and friendly faces. In other words – the worst place in the world to have a hangover.
It’s the kind of City that you just want to dump your bags down in the hotel, have a beer and shut yourself off from it until you can think straight. When you do muster up some sense of adventure and head out to explore, the world has moved on without you and you get the impression you’ve missed out on something, even if you did only put your head down for a couple of hours.
Crossing the road can be fun. Even ‘Frogger’ would have trouble getting to the other side. But at least he’s an expert with a fighting chance of making it out alive. It’s a human game of chess. Pick your move wisely. There were times I literally didn’t know if I would make it to the other side, and be left stranded half way across with traffic swarming around you like a school of fish.
It doesn’t take long to forget about your safety and just go with the flow. The skill and accuracy to dodge pedestrians and drive through incredibly small gaps at speed is amazing, so the driving is some what admirable. Little did I know that I would get a chance to experience the ride later, and of my admiration becoming respect.
The group and I had spent the early evening drinking local brew, at a popular tourist corner in the old quarter of the City. It’s an awesome spot smack bang in a busy junction. I was literally drinking inches from the road, perched on kids furniture. Traffic whizzes past inches from your head as you knock back some tasty beer, with one eye looking over your shoulder. I hadn’t experienced anything like it and haven’t since.
The night had run away from us and we soon found ourselves in a bar, shooting pool, smoking Shisha and knocking back shots. It was the early hours before we decided to call it a night and head back to the hotel. I left with two of my group (I can’t remember exactly who) and we were instantly greeted by taxi drivers, bartering with each other over a price to take us home. It didn’t take long. I jumped on the back of one bike, whilst the other two jumped on the bike ahead. As the three of us was all staying in the same hotel, I told the driver to follow the bike ahead for the journey.
If you haven’t guessed already. This is where the fun started.
As we set off, my driver did as requested and tailed the other bike. It was only a 5 minute ride back to the hotel and after a couple of straight roads – we were already most of the way there.
But then out of nowhere, he veered off to the left, losing sight of the other moped. At first I didn’t notice as I was literally focusing on his back to stop me from throwing up. However I soon caught on and by the time I had realised what was going on, we were off in a completely different direction.
So you know how it goes.
You might be in trouble.
Hit him in the head? Try and stop the bike or even risk jumping off? Would my broken leg be covered in my travel insurance?
I couldn’t think straight but I was sobering up pretty quickly.
Once I realised I wasn’t John Rambo, I opted to look around for a minute or two, trying to figure out whether he was taking a short cut or just completely lost.
It was wishful thinking and it started to dawn on me that my luck may be running out. We had lost the bike, lost the hotel and I was slowly losing the will to live.
This could end badly.
Eventually I said something (long overdue) along the lines of,
“Mate – you’re going the wrong way. You’ve lost the other bike”
He mumbled something I couldn’t make out, and I wasn’t satisfied with his response. I began to get a grip and started feeling a bit more ballsy. If he wasn’t taking me back the hotel, where was he taking me? Did I really want to find out?
(I’ve always been fairly trusting towards the locals where ever I’ve went and never needed to lose my temper over anything. I’m fairly patient. However I knew this might be bad.)
Then all of a sudden, I had no more time to assess the situation as the bike began to slow down. He had taken me down a dark street in some residential area. I had been on the bike no longer than ten minutes but it felt like an eternity. I looked ahead and saw that we were about to be greeted by a group of young guys, hanging around on the pavement. I quickly searched through my pockets to see if I had any sort of weapon, anything of value or a clue of what to do. Where’s Bear Grylls when you need him?
Ah yes. As I thought.
Just me, my fists and my wits.
And all three are a fucking shambles.
Now this is where everything became a blur. You’d think this particular moment would be as clear as day in my memory but sadly it’s not, so bear with me. I’m trying to stay true to the events without bull shitting, but I was pretty hammered.
I remember telling him to let me off the bike (about ten minutes too late) and being asked for money by the driver. He was cocky and I felt like I fell face first into a tourist trap. I refused to pay him. In fact I couldn’t. Earlier, when I had rifled through my pockets, I realised that I spent the last of my money in the bar, and had agreed to square up with the other two when we got back to the hotel. On top of that:
No credit card.
No hotel key.
And no fucking idea where I was.
I began shouting in a ‘I’m shitting myself. If I talk loud enough they will be scared of high frequency noises and scatter off into the shadows way’ and I think I actually showed him and the guys my empty pockets. I must have looked stupid. As I had nothing to give them, I worried that I would be beat down for the fun of it. I didn’t stick around to find out and I legged it up the street. My adrenaline was pumping and they began to follow me in their mopeds. Thankfully, it wasn’t long before they lost interest and backed off.
(Jesus Christ. What is this? A police statement?)
I’m still unsure of their intentions to this day. For all I know they could have just wanted a hand lifting furniture. What I am sure of, is that I was completely vulnerable and doing a runner seemed the only logical thing to do. (Since then I’ve became a huge fan of ‘Curb your enthusiasm’. If it happened now, I’d like to think I might handle it a bit better, drawing inspiration from the show. I often wonder in day by day situations– What would Larry David do?)
I had made it to a main road but there wasn’t a soul around and no passing traffic. I was far from everything that seemed familiar. I looked around, trying to find anything at all that would give me a clue to where I was. I decided to pick a direction and go with it. Hanging around would get me nowhere. I tried to walk with a bit of swagger and confidence but I felt like a dick in the shirt I was wearing. What was I thinking? Flowers never was and still to this day – not my style.
Then, out of the darkness, came a moped.
I flagged him down by literally stepping in front of him, and thankfully he stopped.
He was friendly and spoke a bit of English. He wore a helmet and a black jacket. I told him in part about what had happened, but mostly about how I had no money, but assured him I’d pay when I get back to the hotel. He agreed and I was one relieved man.
“What’s the name of your hotel?” he asked.
The night was far from over yet.
I put my hands on my hips and looked to the sky. I had completely forgotten.
And not only that – I had no way of finding out. I didn’t even have a map.
How the hell was I going to get back to base? I had zero ideas and neither did the driver.
I began to rattle off what I think it may be…
“Sun flower? Sunny house? Sunshine Inn? Flower sun? Do you know it?”
The driver replied.
“My friend – there are very much hotels with the word ‘flower’ and ‘sun’ in it.”.
He was right. There were many. So much so that I remember commenting on it earlier in the day.
So here I was. Probably the most vulnerable I’ve ever been in my life, with my hopes of getting home in the drivers hands. Sounds like I’ve been here before…
I hopped on the back and off we went. Bike ride number two. I was quite up beat to begin with. How hard could it be to find the hotel? I figured I’d recognise it in passing. But after four or five failed attempts at different hotels, I realised one big problem…
When night falls in Hanoi, almost every hotel, shop, bar, and anything else you could think of literally ‘shuts up shop’. They pull down metal shutters after locking up. Every street looked the same during the day, and now with the added bonus of night fall and shutters, it made it even more confusing to navigate around. Not only does everything look similar, but some of the signs get covered too! Jesus Christ! Cut me a fucking break already!
I had been on the back of the bike for an hour or so, and I felt like we were going in circles. In fact we were doing just that. I started to get pretty disheartened and needed a breather.
He kindly stopped the bike and we smoked a cigarette. I liked him. He was very up beat about the whole thing. We got chatting and he was a genuinely nice guy, going above and beyond what he needed to do. Here he had a pissed up, stupid tourist with zero cash or a clue to where he was going, yet he still drove me around. He was only going on my word and I respected that. It was then I promised him a hefty sum for getting me back safe and sound. I also offered to pay his petrol.
After chatting we got back on the bike and he took me to his family home so he could get a map. We had figured that if we got a map of the city centre, I could point out which area I’d been drinking in. If I could at least get back to there, then I was within a fighting chance of getting back to the hotel. I could even trace my steps if I was lucky.
After hitting a couple of areas that didn’t look familiar, we found the bar I had been drinking in earlier. We had also found a couple of tourists on the way home. I hopped off the bike and approached them, telling them what happened. I’m not sure what I wanted to achieve by this as they were as clueless as I was on how to get home. I’m not sure but I think I was suggesting I stayed at their place the night, as I would have a better chance of finding my hotel in the morning. They were having none of it and they weren’t very interested. I used the whole ‘I’d do the same for you line’ but it didn’t work. I was pissed off with them. Damn shirt…
So the search continued and it was getting very early now. Not quite sunrise but not far from it. I was on the bike for over two hours and we had covered the same ground on countless times. We were just driving slowly down streets, hoping that I’d find something familiar.
(Man. If ‘sunrise’ was the name of my hotel and I arrived there at sunrise, now that would be a story. Needless to say – it wasn’t. Moving on…)
The driver had an idea.
He had a friend who worked in a hotel. If we could get in and use his computer, we would be able to search all the hotels with ‘sun’ and ‘flower’ in the name. Plus the manager would know more about hotels in the area. Searching through the computer, I could potentially recognise the street name as well as the hotel name. It was getting desperate now and this was pretty much my last shot.
The group was moving on in the morning and I really needed to catch the morning bus with them, otherwise I’d be left behind.
We arrived at the hotel and chapped on the shutter. The hotel knew of our arrival and we were greeted by a friendly man, who was happy to help.
As soon as I saw him I recognised him. We had met before. I also recognised the hotel lobby, the chairs, the desk and everything else.
Suddenly it had dawned on me.
We had arrived in Hanoi the day before in the small hours, and walked to the hotel from the train station. When we arrived we had found out that the hotel had double booked and didn’t have enough rooms for us. After some hanging around the reception, we waited whilst the manager tried to sort out somewhere for us to stay. After some time, he sent us on our way to hotel number 2, and we picked up our bags and walked there.
I was standing in hotel number 1.
Jackpot! He recognised me too. And more importantly – he knew exactly where I was staying.
I was ecstatic. I hugged the manager, then the driver as we both cheered and jumped around. It was quite a moment and the driver was just as happy as I was.
Five minutes later – I was back. I knocked on the shutter and I was let in by a sleepy receptionist. The sign was covered and I realised I had no hope of finding it in that form. I was lucky and I was very grateful.
I paid the driver and couldn’t have said thank you enough. He was a true legend and did me a massive favour which he had no need to. I offered to take him out for a beer the following day but he politely declined.
(Must have been the shirt.)
Lesson learnt folks. Prepare for the worst! I was caught completely off guard that night and due to my own stupidity – I paid the price. When I look back on it I laugh and smile as it was one of those evenings that really made my trip, and no trip is complete without a good story. Thankfully, that was about as scary as it got for me.
I didn’t get to show my appreciation to the driver which is one of my regrets. And still to this day – I don’t remember the name of my hotel.
When I travel, I always write it down now and keep it with me. Although it was one night I’ll never forget, it is one that I never want repeated.