Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Do you remember the first time?

When Yorkie Pittstop first came to Hanoi his hotel experiences were far from first class, but that’s why he’ll always remember them

Jumping on a mini-van bus at Noi Bai airport a smiling man told me my first Vietnamese word, “chao”, which I discovered niftily meant both hello and goodbye. Immediately, my travelling companion and I started speaking like Italians, shouting “ciao bella” out the window at the cute girls, with handkerchiefs for masks, flitting in and out of the traffic.

Then the smiling man – whose grin looked like it would never fade – told us he knew a hotel we might like. He said those magical words “very good, very cheap”. It just so happened that this official Vietnam Airlines mini-van would be stopping outside this very hotel.
Fantastico!” we told him.

He said something to the driver, who laughed, and the bus turned away into the old quarter and dumped us outside the hotel. There to greet us was another man, who, coincidence of coincidences, was the chap from the bus’ brother.
Fantastico!” we yelled, before exchanging a “chao” with everyone on the street.

Inside, the two receptionists stepped out of the shadows with a trust-me-as-far-as-you-can-throw-me-glint in their eyes. Under insidious in the dictionary, I speculated, you might find an illustration of these two. The two brothers disappeared and suddenly, my companion and I decided, things were not so fantastico.

Although we were psychologically backtracking, we played along with the “show us the room, how much, sorry, we’re looking for something a little bit more, shall we say, rustic” rigmarole.

The $30 room swiftly became the don’t-tell-the-other-guests-$10 room. In seconds we were back on the street, shouting “ciao”, giggling mischievously. The receptionist, now not grinning, but looking very irritated, was following us down the road and, we suspected, abusing us in the vernacular.

We spotted a xich lo (cyclo) and piled in with both rucksacks. We told him to take us to the Dong Xuan hotel, which we spotted in a guidebook (someone else’s) on the plane. The words “Very cheap, medieval-style surroundings and diminutive staff” had caught our eyes.

The scrawny xich lo driver grunted through the congested old quarter streets, in the heat, argued with women in conical hats that sat hunched over sacks of grain, raw meat and steaming pots, just to get us through. I started to feel guilty but my travelling companion assured me it was all “very fantastico”.

When we arrived at the door and bundled our bags in the door, no one seemed more surprised than the staff. We had interrupted a harmless bit of mid-afternoon karaoke. The three of them were on average about five feet above sea level. They must have been aged between 13 and 15.
“Is there a manager?” I asked.
“Yes, I am the manager,” said the tallest one, a spotty boy with floppy hair, stepping behind the counter.
“Your second cheapest room,” my companion said.
“All rooms eight dollars.”

In the end we stayed for a month as we searched for work in the city. We sat with the boys. Ate a lot bananas and cheese triangles. Drank suspect Chinese beer. Sang karaoke and smoked VND1,000 packs of cigarettes that tasted of burning pork fat.

Years later I returned. The boys were still there, a little taller than five foot above sea level. The eldest had no spots and a girlfriend and played it real cool – just like we taught him. But, all in all, it seemed as if the whole street hadn’t changed – in fact, in about a hundred years I dare say it will be the street that changes the least in all of Hanoi. I hope so – that means I will always be able to travel back in time to 1999, the year I first arrived. And that, my friends, is “very fantastico.”


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Peter Perfect said...

There once was a hotel that wasn't a motel. It's name was Belle. It was Hell. And certainly not worth the $6 a night we paid for it...

Venitha said...

Nice story! And I'm glad to learn a little Vietnamese, too. Thanks!

pittstop designer said...

I just drove past the hotel - it's gone.

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jon said...
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