Adventures with Mr. Tang

TRAVEL STORIES | Read Time: 6 Mins
by Nesh Soni

Day 1 of our honeymoon. Destination: Hanoi, Vietnam.

After a comfortably late breakfast, we decided to start our day of sightseeing. Equipped with a list from Trip Advisor, I had created a DIY itinerary for the two days we were going to be in Hanoi.  And first on that list was nearest to our hotel – the oldest pagoda in Hanoi, Tran Quoc. So we decided to walk down to the pagoda. We reached the gates of the pagoda in about ten minutes, but unfortunately, it had closed for lunch. No problems, we could always come back to it later in the day. We decided that we would move on to the next item on our list: the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.

This time around we took a taxi, paying millions of Vietnamese Dongs for our short trip (The Vietnamese currency is extremely low in value compared to most western currencies). ‘Closed for the day’, read a sign at the Mausoleum. “Ah well, let’s try the National Museum, it’s just next door.” You guessed it, closed for lunch!

Sitting on the steps of the National Museum, we were considering what to do next when a Vietnamese gentleman slowly approached us. Short, middle-aged, dressed casually in a pair of jeans and a maroon jumper, Mr Tang had the confidence of a man who had been there, done that. In broken English, he explained that he could take us on a tour for the afternoon to landmarks that would actually be open!

It was certainly a good idea but we had to look relatively unimpressed for the bargaining that was to inevitably follow. He then took out a decently old-looking pocket diary from the back pocket of his jeans and showed us handwritten testimonials from his customers. “Where you from, India?” he guessed, going by our appearance. We replied in unison, “New Zealand.” He quickly flicked to a page and said, “this one from New Zealand, nice country, good people.” I thought it was time to cut to the chase, “how much?”

“30 US Dollars”, Mr Tang said.
Long pause. Look suitably uneager. Add in a few hmms and aahs for dramatic effect and then say “10”
“No, no no…ok, for you special, last – 25”
“Done! We’ll come with you for 15”
“No, no, Too low, too low”
“It’s ok, we don’t want to do all the spots, come, let’s go.” And then just start walking. Show him that the deal is there for the taking NOW if he agrees to the price.

Look at me pretending to be an expert at bargaining tactics. Although I successfully halved Mr Tang’s initial proposal, I was sure that we had paid him much more than we needed to. But then again, that’s usually the case in Asia. Anyway, he started leading us to the parking area. I screened the scene before me but couldn’t see any taxis or cars parked. I was starting to wonder if he’s got a partner who’s going to bring a car around for us and if that car would be comfortable and air-conditioned.

Breaking my chain of thought, he pointed towards a barely-bigger-than-a-toy electric motorbike (or known as ‘scooty’ in some Asian countries) and handed me a safety helmet as he took a step back. Uh oh! His face seemed to ask, ‘Why don’t you take your wife for a romantic ride in the bustling, confusing and chaotic streets of Hanoi dodging humans, stray dogs, some street stalls and other such shenanigans while driving on the WRONG side of the road!’ Never driven in Asia, check. Never driven on the non-British side of the road, check. Never had a pillion rider who reached their destination without bruises, check. So you see, I had a holy-mother-of-universe-no-way-am-I-doing-that moment. Not the kind of tour I thought I was signing up for. Probably reading the shock and fear on my face, Mr Tang said, ‘No, no, I drive, you sit.’ Ah! Phew!

Fear soon turned to embarrassment. I saw this little toy on wheels again and imagined that it could possibly, barely, accommodate me alone. And Mr Tang was insisting that the three of us, yes three of us, would not only sit but also actually transport around Hanoi on this minute thing. Helmets were on. Prepare for battle. More like prepare to feel the presence of every extra inch of fat on your body.

Mr Tang suggested that I sit in the middle for stability. Makes sense, put the heaviest object in the middle. I plonked myself in the middle, followed by Divya behind me, and Mr Tang in front, half standing to drive the scooty. Imagine an elephant on a tiny scooter-bike flanked by an elegant swan on one end and a malnourished fox on the other. You get the picture.

The tour in itself was largely a fantastic experience. We started off in the most interesting fashion: Mr Tang took us to what looked like an urban-overflow-pond with some sewage mixed in, overlooked by modern apartment buildings on three sides. My immediate thought was, ‘money down the drain.’ But then he pointed and we noticed, that in the middle of this pond were the remains of an American B52 from the Vietnam War. Truly intriguing!

As part of the tour, we visited a local Vietnamese art workshop. Although this was clearly inserted in our itinerary so that we would purchase something from the workshop, it was nevertheless a worthwhile experience. Most artworks were made using eggshells, Pahwa shells and vibrant paints – all juxtaposed together in beautiful combinations.

We also visited the famed Old Quarters of Hanoi. Narrow streets, hustle and bustle, and a million stalls on the streets selling delicious food, jewellery, and anything else you can imagine. These streets were so narrow that I had to tuck-in my knees to avoid breaking the stalls or vertebrae of passers-by on either side. I was tempted to do a few Bollywood stunts by breaking these stalls with the sheer power of my knees and shins, but I somehow resisted. Only because I cared for the stall owners and their livelihood, not because I was too scared to break my knees or anything, you know.

While whizzing through Hanoi can usually be considered a great start to any holiday, for us, this unplanned adventure on day one of our honeymoon, forever etched it in our collective memories.

And in case you were wondering, the swan next to the elephant would be my wife. Not Mr Tang.