Yesterday morning in Lang Son, I went for a random wander up one of the main side streets; cement and rebar houses in a similar style to Korea alternate with French townhouses and square maansions painted yellow with mangy gardens out front. The townhouses are the most bizarre thing - the prototypes of a hundred years ago were clearly designed by French architects wanting to recreate their homeland in Indochine, but the builders and finishers, clearly Vietnamese, haven't quite understood that they're all supposed to sit side by side, in a row. Throughout Northern Vietnam, there are two-storey, narrow-frontage townhouses with a porch at bottom and a balcony on top, the front gaily painted and decorated, with no windows on either side, and with the sides left finished in plain cement.
We ate lunch at a dog restaurant, much to Jen's horror, and I was successful on flagging down a hiace van going to Ha Noi. Their starting fare: 50,000d per person; eventually they were happy to take all six and our packs for 200,000. There was some debate as to whether we'd all fit, but one should never misunderestimate the ability of Asian people to utilise space efficiently; not only did we and all our packs fit; also the driver and the three other passengers and two more we picked up along the way. The trip took two and a half hours; half the time quoted in Ronery Pranet, whose Vietnam edition appears to be approximately as useful as the China book.
Taxi drivers at the Northern bus station in Ha Noi tried their best to rip us off, with a complicated double-team involving misquoted meter rates, a broken meter in one cab, supposed confusion about the unit of currency we were dealing in, and blatant bullshit "We travel 50 kilometres! Rearry!" 20 minutes' drive through streets choked with bicycle and motorcycle traffic doesn't get you 5 kilometres, let alone 50. They wanted 120,000d per car; in the end I left 25,000 on the roof of one cab and we waked away. They must have been happy with it, since they drove away instead of trying to chase us down.
In the meantime, Ben and Jen had been collared by a hotel tout; despite me having told him to piss off earlier, and they agreed to go to his hotel. As a general rule, I never take offers from touts unless I have no other choice - no matter how nice they are and how good the deal seems, there's always some sting in the tail. The initial sting was that it was a bloody long walk from where we were, no rooms were ready for us, one room had no double bed and no aircon, etc. I'll keep you posted about the rest. The guy who runs it is suspiciously lax about money - he says we don't have to pay until we check out, and was fuzzy on a few details.
The Old Quarter of Ha Noi is more or less overrun by scruffy-looking, half-dressed types such as ourselves, and naturally enough the scamsters who make money, legitimately or otherwise, off them. The highlights appear to be tap beer (bia hoi) for 1500 - 3000d per glass, Good Morning Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh t-shirts, beadware, tours to Ha Long and Cat Ba, motorcycles for rent, etc. We wandered around and found a restaurant which suspiciously ran out of tap beer just before our food came, requiring us to either stop drinking or pay three to five times the price for bottled beer. I bought a bootleg copy of When Heaven and Earth Changed Places from a street vendor who claimed I was depriving him of food because I wouldn't pay his outrageous opening price. We found another bia hoi joint, and Ossie got a glass with a whole grain of rice blown into it - blown into the glass itself, sealed like a bug in amber. We tried to talk with an incomprehensibly wankered Frenchman and his Vietnamese minder who is the spitting image of Christopher Walken - the Deer Hunter. The likeness is frightening, and we had to use the old 'group photo' trick to get his picture. Lang Son closes down at about 2100; Ha Noi isn't much better and the only places open after 2330 were mood-lit pop-music-blaring yuppie-drink bars.
The hotel was shut and locked, and the staff were curled up alsleep on the floor when we got back. Someone (presumably staff) had been into our hotel room and turned down the bed covers, put a tropical lily on the pillow and taken (but not replaced) our wet towel. Very strange.