I'll post photos when I return.
It's Sunday afternoon, just checked into my hotel. Can't seem to access Facebook (maybe that's a good thing) so I'll make a quick blog post.
The plane flight was uneventful (thank God). I had arranged and already paid for someone "from the hotel" to pick me up. Two guys (Tom and ??) were waiting with a sign with my name and the hotel address, but I grilled them just to make sure I wasn't getting ripped off. I felt like an ugly, snobby American, but all the advice said to be on guard. Tom phoned someone, then told me the name of my hotel, but he said the old Vietnamese name (Chiang My), not the current English name (Harmony Hotel). Fortunately, I had seen the former name mentioned on Trip Adviser, or I wouldn't have trusted them.
I wrote "from the hotel" because they didn't actually work there. I guess the travel agent arranged it. The guy who spoke English (Tom) tried to make conversation, but I was still wary and being short with him. When he asked about me exchanging cash, I got suspicious again. He took out his phone and showed me exchange rates from the internet, so I relaxed a bit and tried to make small talk.
Before dropping me off at the hotel, they took me to a place where I could exchange my money on Sunday, since the banks are closed. It's such a strange feeling to be on guard like that, not know who's trying to rip you off.
Anyway, it turns out he wanted to know what currency I was exchanging so he could find a place with the best rates. There are a lot of these exchange types of places near the hotel. I ended up getting 19,500 dong to 1 US dollar, which is a good rate because I just checked xe.com and it's 19,450 to 1.
When I got to the hotel, the front desk guy held my passport and showed me my room. I got nervous again, but I knew that they needed to do extra paperwork because the government keeps tabs on where foreigners are while here. Anyway, he said he'd return it right away (see below).
I had been in my room 5 minutes when the front desk called and said the driver wanted to talk to me. I thought, "Here it comes, they're gonna try to get money out of me when I had already paid in advance through the travel agency." I went downstairs, and it seemed like the driver was trying to get money, but with their accent it's difficult to understand their English. I looked to the desk clerk for help, but he seemed confused. I produced my receipt and asked to use the phone to call the travel agent. At that point, as if by magic, everything was squared away.
The driver kept just hanging around, so I figured he was after a tip. I didn't have any smaller dong (LOL) so I asked the front desk guy for change, gave Tom a tip (he did take me to the money exchanger, after all) and that seemed to make everyone smile. I gave him 50,000d and, not being familiar with such large amounts, I was afraid I had overtipped him. Later I figured that's like $2.50, and seeing that it was a 45 minute ride to the hotel and that he took me to the money exchange place, that's not bad.
By the way, I stayed in the lobby to write this to wait for my passport, and the clerk just now gave it back, so things are looking on the up-and-up.
Time to try to take a little nap, then venture out with my camera.
After trying to take a nap on the hard, wafer-thin thing they call a mattress--in all my clothes because the room was so cold--I went downstairs to explore my surroundings.
As I walked through the lobby, a different front desk clerk stopped me to tell me that my room was ready. Huh? It seems that I had arrived before check-in time, and so I had been put in a temporary room. My new room is much bigger, and has a bed with a real mattress, a large bathroom with a big bathtub, a balcony overlooking Lan Ong Street, and heating!
With my spirits lifted, I walked down the ridiculously crowded streets of the Old Quarter, around Hoan Kiem Lake, and stopped at one of the many vendors to buy a t-shirt (I 'heart' Hanoi). I got my first experience in haggling here. The woman said the t-shirt was 100,000 dong. I saw 2 other shirts that I liked, so I asked if she could go lower than 300,000d for the three. She offered 270,00d ("only 90,000 each"), so I pulled out 250,000d and offered that. She hesitated a bit, but in the end took it. Perhaps someone else could have gotten them cheaper, but I felt good that I even negotiated in the first place. By the way, 250,00d=$12.80US.
After my t-shirt purchase I found a small pho shop called 24 Pho. I sat next to a couple of German women who suggested I see the Ho Chi Minh Museum, which I may do tomorrow. Anyway, I was anxious when I paid my bill, because it's hard to get used to these staggering dong amounts, and I'm always worried that I'm spending too much. My pho was 44,000d, but turns out that's just $2.25US.
I walked down some different streets to get back to my hotel. I wasn't actually sure where I was going, even though I had a map. I was hoping to find a cool cafe, and I did: "Barista Frank" on Phu Doan St. The middled-aged proprietress wearing too much make up was quite friendly, and I felt so continental drinking my mint cappuccino (delicious!) at a sidewalk table.
After my initial nervousness about getting ripped off by the driver and while exchanging money and my disappointing first room, I feel much better now and ready to explore more of Hanoi tomorrow.