When I Go Solo

Hanoi, May 15th 2010

As everything in this world has its good and bad, so is it with traveling. Traveling in a group and traveling solo has its own good and bad. Let me quote Richard l'Ansonin in his book Travel Photography on page 101: "Trying to combine serious photography ... on a group tour can be a challenge. Group itineraries are rarely sympathetic to the needs of a keen photographer."

Honestly I've experienced what Richard said. Even being in a tour conducted by a photography school doesn't guarantee top priority for photography related needs. However, traveling solo in my case also makes me less responsible even to myself. As I've written before, I skipped dinner while I was in Sapa because I was too sleepy to get up. I could have forced myself, though. I definitely would not have done that if I were in a group with friends. It would be very unlikely that the whole group sleeps through the night without having dinner, wouldn't it? Or, if it were like my previous trips, I would feel responsible to keep my companions "well fed".

The moment I stepped down the train in Hanoi Station, I realized that I had never thought of how to get to Noi Bai Airport from Hanoi Station. Even when I exchanged my US dollars into dongs the night before in Lao Cai, I didn't prepare dongs for my taxi fare. Silly.

I regretted for not asking Sunshine Travel to pick me up at the station the way I had required when I arrived at the airport. Or, prepare enough dongs for taxi fare, or at least think of another way. Uh, I was totally unprepared for that. When I am with friends, I tend to plan for each step more carefully.

To make matters worse, it was raining that morning. Although not so hard, I definitely could not walk around while dragging my stuffs to find a hotel or something where I could exchange my US dollars. I approached a taxi driver (there were a bunch) in front of Hanoi Station. I asked him whether I could pay him in dollars. He pointed to his meter. I told him that I don't have enough dongs left. He kept on pointing on his meter. Apparently he did not understand English.

Another taxi driver came to me. He could speak English. He asked for $18. I bargained for $13, because that was the fare on my first trip to Hanoi almost half a year ago.

The driver shook his head. I said, fifteen. He said again, eighteen.

Well, that was the same price offered to me when I inquired to pay in US dollars at Malinh Taxi Booth inside the station. I just made sure that it was "eighteen" and not "eighty". I gestured with my fingers "one" and then "eight". "Yes, yes!" he said.

Even though my sense of direction is poor, that wasn't at all my first time in Hanoi. I had a feeling that the driver was taking me round and round. He drove in and out lanes. He once drove on the opposite direction. He stopped by the end of a lane and spoke something to a lady by the side of the street. He looked irritated and drove on. He said to me that some streets are still close because it's still early in the morning. I didn't say anything to that but just wondered. On my first trip to Vietnam, when I took a taxi from my hotel in Old Quarter to the airport it was even earlier. It was still dark actually. But our taxi driver did not turn round and round like this. Well, I might be in a different part of Hanoi. I didn't care to check the map. It's fixed for $18 anyway.

The driver asked me what time my flight was. Instinctively I answered, "Just please bring me to the airport as soon as possible, okay?" Actually my flight was at 9:20 and it was still about 5:30.

"Are you late?"

"I want to get to the airport as soon as possible, okay?"

"Okay, okay."

He asked me where I was from and whether it was my first time in Vietnam. "No," I answered confidently.

I recognized that we were already on the way to the airport. Sigh.

Still curious, I asked, "Last time when I took a taxi to the airport it was $13."

I think he looked a bit startled but quickly managed to look calm. "Gasoline now," he pointed to his speedometer, "up, up!"

"Gasoline," he said again while shaking his head, "very expensive."

Once again I didn't say anything to that but just wondered. When Sunshine Travel gave me his detail cost for my car rent in Hanoi a few days ago, he wrote $13 for pick up from airport.

I noticed that the driver kept the taxi meter on. I did not understand the words, but I read "9000 VND/km.". I started to calculate. The night before in Lao Cai, 1 USD was equal to 18.000 VND. So, 18 X 18.000... I took out my pocket calculator which I always keep handy in my handbag. 324.000 VND! And, (324.000 VND / 9.000 VND) X 1km = 36km. Hmmm...

Obviously he noticed me taking a close look to his taxi meter and I pretended not to know. I kept on examining the meter with question marks in my mind.

"Do you work in Vietnam?"

"Why?" I asked back.

"No, no," he replied.

But after a few minutes, "You work in Vietnam?"

He asked me again for the third time. I kept silent. Somehow I enjoyed watching him being curious. Little evil.

"Do you have twenty thousand dongs?" Suddenly he disturbed my evil enjoyment.

"I told you I don't have dongs. That's why I asked to pay you in dollars."

"What do you need that for? I thought we agreed on 18 dollars already."

"Into airport. Come, twenty thousand. Out, twenty thousand again."

I just repeated, "I told you I don't have dongs."

But later on when I checked my purse I found out that I had a twenty thousand dong bill. Although I had committed a little evil on him, I didn't mean to lie. I really didn't know I had that bill. I was already thinking of giving that twenty thousand bill to him, but my curiosity once again arose. Why $5 more expensive and yet the taxi did not come purposely to pick me up? No, no. I'm not going to give him any extra. This is not my first time going through and forth Noi Bai Airport and I never ever had to pay extra for anything.

Moreover, the driver turned of  the air con. Another thing I don't like. First, I thought I was already paying for the air con also. When I took a taxi from Old Quarter to Noi Bai by the cost of $13, the driver did not turn off the air con. And now I'm paying $18 but without air con??

Second, unless the weather is like in Dalat, I'm addicted to air conditioning. I can't stand the slightest heat.

The more I felt being cheated. I fixed my eyes back on the taxi mater. Hmmm... the numbers on the display didn't change much.

When we entered the airport area, I realized that I didn't have a one dollar bill to make a $18. If I give the driver 20 dollars, I doubt he would have the change. It seemed that along this journey from Hanoi Station to Noi Bai Airport I had to do a lot of mathematics. I thought of giving the driver $17 plus a 20.000 dong bill. But... 1 USD last night was 18.000 VND. So it would be too much to give 20.000 dongs. Ah, let me cut $1 for turning off the air con.

Before I got off at Noi Bai Airport, I jotted down the numbers on the meter display. It was "6.26". Doesn't that mean "60.260 dongs"?? I'm not sure.

I handed my $17 to the driver and already expected him to protest. He didn't. Not a word. I walked on and thought he would call me. He didn't.

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