Today was highly frustrating. It should have been an excellent day; I woke up and had breakfast on the beautiful Cat Ba Island, where I had spent the last two days. Aside from a touristy settlement around the docks, the island offers mostly natural beauty, and has some great hiking trails. This had been a nice breather from the Vietnamese city atmosphere, and I could not have wished for a nicer place to start my day. With the island’s minimal level of development came, however, also the fact that there were only two ATMs. That’s where my luck began…
Out of money
The first ATM turned out to accept only VISA cards. Of course all the cards I had on me were Mastercard. The second one was out of order, and showed no sign of recovering soon. Doing a quick count, I realised that I had only 233,000 Vietnamese dong left in my pocket. Fortunately I could pay my hotel bill by credit card, but I still needed to buy a bus ticket back to Hanoi: 210k. That left me with 23k: just over a dollar (US).
After some two hours on a cramped bus, then an even more cramped boat, and then another bus, I was getting pretty hungry. So when the bus stopped for a break, it was a good time to get some food. Normally that wouldn’t be much of a problem in Vietnam, as I have yet to find a street that isn’t lined with food stalls. But my poor financial situation didn’t make it easy. I found a little stall selling some fruit, and asked how much for a banana. “5,000 dong”. I drew the loose 3k from my pocket and told the lady that I would take it for that price. “O.k. You want to buy two?” Unfortunately I could only afford one. I figured I’d keep my last 20k in case I needed to buy lunch later, or catch a motorbike taxi. (Either would have been feasible for that money, assuming some strong haggling.)
The bus got under way again, and after another three hours of sitting uncomfortably and being forced to listen to cheesy Vietnamese romance songs (I think), I finally arrived in Hanoi. That is, I arrived at Luong Yen bus station, which is at least 25 minutes removed from the ‘centre’. Though tired and hungry, I couldn’t quite afford to take a taxi before I had made sure to have a bit more cash.
Finding an ATM in Hanoi
So off I went, in search for an ATM. Of course the first three machines that I encountered were either out of order, wouldn’t accept my card, or showed some other malfunction. Finally I managed to locate a local branch of HSBC, which generally has reliable ATMs. Of course I was charged through the nose to use their service… but at that point I didn’t care. I just needed the cash. I probably would have taken out a payday loan if I had seen one before.
As an aside, Vietnamese banks absolutely suck! Their ATMs:
- Often and unpredictably don’t work;
- Charge you an insane commission on your withdrawal (up to 10% on a standard credit or debit card checking account);
- Usually give you no more than 200k dong, forcing you to use their services more often than you’d like (HSBC is an exception, but they charge you 2% of the amount withdrawn, with no maximum).
Getting something to eat
Having solved my financial problems for the moment, it was time to get something to eat. I was figuratively starving. I located a well-reviewed French bistro on TripAdvisor and started making my way there, meanwhile having decided that if I would encounter anything else that looked good, I’d take it. That opportunity soon presented itself.
On the way I found a large establishment full of Chinese people eating, drinking, and seemingly enjoying themselves. I went in and was gestured upstairs, where an uninterested boy (the waiter?) pointed me to a table by the window and asked me something in Vietnamese. Not understanding, I smiled and made a gesture of a menu. He gave me a funny look and went to fetch me a menu.
The menu turned out to be a list (in Vietnamese) of their dishes. No English explanation, no pictures, and worst of all, no prices. While I am generally adventurous when it comes to food–if I don’t understand a menu I just ask for a suggestion or point at a random dish, often with excellent results–it is a well known scam in Hanoi to offer food without mentioning a price, then charging a ridiculous amount afterwards. So I won’t order anything here without first having obtained a price quote.
I pointed at a random dish on the menu and asked: “How much?”. I had come to know that even if people didn’t speak any English otherwise, they would understand this question. The boy didn’t. I pulled out some notes from my pocket trying to get the boy to ‘point out’ the price. He just stared at me with a blank expression. I looked around and pointed at some other people who looked like they might belong to the staff, and asked “English?”. Again to no avail. Finally I gave up and walked out of the restaurant, still hungry. It was the first time ever I did that.
Having wasted some precious time, I decided to press on straight for the French bistro. It took some effort to find the place, located in the middle of nowhere (or rather in the middle of some shops selling carpets and earthenware). Of course, by now their lunch hour was over. All that was left were some ‘snacks’, which didn’t look very good, and worse, not very filling. Despite my ravenous hunger, I thought better of it and gave the place a pass.
Walking two blocks farther I found a large ‘Bia Hoi’ place filled with drinking and shouting locals (although I later made them out to be Chinese rather than Vietnamese). Since the place looked lively and prices were transparent and reasonable, I decided to order a ‘beef tendon salad’. Not knowing what exactly a ‘tendon’ is, and judging from the picture it to be small pieces of beef, I was very disappointed. Apparently tendons are small pieces of dried beef fat, which I found absolutely disgusting. This was another first for me: a Vietnamese dish that I disliked.
I decided to just eat the veggies to still my worst hunger, and have another meal later elsewhere (which would turn out to be excellent). At last I went into a café that looked comfortable, to relax a bit and write this blog post.
So what did I learn from this ordeal? First of all that being out of money is very stressful. Always having been financially conservative, I have never been broke. When you have no money, that severely limits your options. When you have no options and need to solve a problem, that leads to stress. My life has always been pretty stress-free; because of the choices I’ve made regarding work, love, and the material aspects of life. I have arranged them all in such a way that they keep me flexible. Flexible means full of options, and thus little stress.
I realize that this is easy to say from my position, and that for some people money is a real day to day worry. My monetary trouble rarely goes further than finding a working ATM. But if you have the choice, I’d say be careful before you spend your econd to last dollar. If you see that cool pair of shoes, just think about what financial position it would put you in if you buy them, even if you’re not ‘broke’. Having a bit of a buffer gives you much more flexibility in life.
Second, understanding just a little bit of a language will go a long way. As far as Vietnamese goes, I haven’t put in the effort to learn much more than how to say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’. Just being able to use some basic phrases as ‘how much?’ and ‘what is that?’ enable you to get a lot more out of a foreign experience.
I’m going to try and pick up just a little more Vietnamese before I leave the country (which will be in about a week). Also, from now on I won’t push my cash reserve as hard, and try to stock up on cash a little earlier. It should make my life and my travels more enjoyable and free from stress.