How the movie “Alice in Wonderland” brought me back to my travel senses in Hanoi

Originally published on April 9, 2010 during my travels in Vietnam.


Usually I love exploring cities when I travel. It’s a maze, a mystery with plot twists in small streets, helpful characters and cheating villains (both of whom I’ve met my share of as a tourist). This morning, I was not feeling it. Actually I’ve been in a funk for a while now, since I’ve left India. Today it took Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland movie to pull me out of my funk and start to climb out of my own rabbit hole that I’d been sitting at the bottom of for two weeks now.

But back to this morning, which was very gray and damp. I walked around the hostel area trying to get my bearings and looking for coffee. I walked past Vietnamese people on small stools eating their savor breakfast. I walked over uneven sidewalks that were grey stones and black sludge. My legs were covered with the latter. My rain jacket clung to my skin with the humidity and rain. Usually, I snap a lot of pictures of these morning scenes in order to have a record of a sense of a city. But this morning a woman selling vegetables said, “no photos,” and my camera lens fogged up from the humidity. I went back to change my flip flops to shoes and capris pants when I noticed two people pouring animal offal into a sewer drain.

Newly changed and a little more fresh I walked out and found a coffee place. During my latte moment, thoughts kept creeping into my head. What am I doing with my life?  I’m so done with traveling? What am I..blah blah blah. These small maggot thoughts had turned into swarming flies as my trip has gone on. I am so sick of them, I thought. I didn’t even feel like sightseeing. But I did, I made my way to the lake in the middle of Hanoi and the old market. My mojo and wonder that usually accompanies me on city walks and explorations were not with me. I was annoyed at the crowds and the woman who poked me in the back to get her way through the crowd. I decided to get a taxi and hit some more tourist spots – Ho Chi Minh complex, the Temple of Literature, the Museum of Ethnography, and the One Pillar Pagoda.

Hanoi Vietnam

I found a taxi and got in when he agreed to use the meter. On the ride, which was no more than 2 kilometers, I noticed the meter was ticking up the kilometers nine times the actual distance. So much so that the price on the meter was 180,000 dong. He told me the price and I said, no we only went 2 kilometers, I can pay you 20,000 dong (the appropriate price). I showed him the map. He kept motioning to the meter and getting angrier and angrier.

I remembered a story one of the travelers had told me about a taxi driver overcharging her group by 20 dollars and then shouting at them and threatening the police. I resolved to keep my cool. The driver got angrier and angrier, but I felt like it was an act. He pointed to a guard at the Canadian embassy across the street. “We go to the police,” he shouted. Ok, I said and we walked across the street. I caught hesitation in his face as I called his bluff. He shouted some more at me and the guard, but the guard didn’t do anything. He got out his wallet and shoved 15,000 dong in my hand and walked away. I felt guilty about that, he wouldn’t take it back. I think he was doing the whole, “here Cheapo, you need this more than me, obviously!” bit.  I said to myself, this is strange, I don’t know what to do, I’ll give it to a temple or something. I walked on.

Fifty feet from the guard, the driver pulled up next to me shouting for his money. I gave it back to him. An old man pulled up on a motorbike and translated that I should pay him 50,000. I said, 20,000 is fair. We settled on 30,000 and the old man communicated it to the driver, who was still angry. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any small bills and dishonesty was still in the air. I only received 60,000 dong in change for my 100,000 dong bill. I felt really put off the by the whole experience. As I walked to the mausoleum my feelings of hatred towards this city, this trip intensified. Until I stopped these thoughts with a fly-girl raised hand. No, I stood my ground, used my street sense when he got angry, and paid a much, much fairer price than the quoted one. As much as I beat myself up for paying too much, I’ll celebrate this little victory.


I didn’t feel like celebrating anything Ho Chi Minh given the American/Vietnamese war history so my time at the complex was about 10 minutes. Upon leaving, a man approached me for a motorbike ride to the Temple of Literature, the first national university in Vietnam. We negotiated a price (30,000) to this one location and I hoped on the back of his motorbike. With him, I went to the very serene and beautiful Temple, the informative Musuem of Ethnography, which had a great outdoor museum, and the One Pillar Pagoda. At the beginning of the ride, my driver, Huong, showed pictures of pleased customers and letters of recommendations in English on his driving skills and kindness. At the Temple and Museum he advised me not to buy souveniers and got me in with camera, but not the camera fee. He buckled my helmet and gently guided me off the bike. When I asked how much, he replied, “Up to you,” and showed me another letter from a Swiss man that was so pleased with his services that he advised the future customers to, “consider his kindness and caring and pay him what you think the ride was worth.”

I thought to myself, have I finally found an honest taxi driver? All was good until I mentioned that I wanted to see the One Pillar Pagoda and then back to the hotel. Gone was the helmet buckling and guidance. In place was indifference. The OPP was actually at our starting place of the HCM complex. We rode back to the hotel. I had decided that 150,000 dong would be appropriate for his driving and waiting time. On the hotel’s street, I went into a shop to change my 100,000 dong note so I could give him the price that was, “up to me.” The shop woman would not give me change. I went back to Huong and asked for change. He took my 200,000 dong and explained that that was the price and listed out all the places we had been and the made up charges that went with these destinations. I argued a little about the “up to me” part and realized it was hopeless. There would be no change. I felt defeated and went to my room and pouted.

After a small pouty nap, I saw a hazy sun through my hotel window and felt a little better. I walked around the lake, stopped for some Pho (a noodle soup) at Pho twenty four. The lake is pretty and the walk relaxing.

Hanoi Vietnam

I’d heard about a movie theater downtown and non-dubbed American movies playing there. Truthfully, and I felt such traveler guilt about this, I just wanted to see a movie, specifically Alice in Wonderland. I found a taxi, negotiated a fair price, and went into the cool, modern mall.

It was a very typical mall with American and European stores, a food court, but not anchor stores. The megaplex was on the sixth floor. The movie was just what I needed. It reminded me that I could face my fears, slay my jabberwocky and look at the world with wonder and flight as I travel. I turned my back on so many expectations, conquered so many fears to get here, and every day exhibit enough strength and conviction to follow my dreams. I’d given my power to the Red Queen and the Jabberwocky when all along, I just had to fight both.

After the movie, I thought, why was I taking taxis everywhere? I never used to, I walked everywhere and looked at the cities with fresh eyes and discovered markets and people and culture around every corner. I walked back from the mall to the hotel neighborhood, renewed with my strength. Why was I eating in so many restaurants? Why was I insulating myself and crawling into fear and loathing? I found a crowded streetside restaurant with locals huddling on stools and scooping pho into their mouths with chopsticks. I went in and sat down. The friendly pre-teen waiter brought me my soup with chicken and I scooped right in. I love street food, I love the local scene, I had become afraid of it after my food poisoning in India that happened just once and was using that as an excuse to eat at restaurants.

Hanoi Vietnam

Right now as I write this, I feel my mojo coming back, maybe you can tell in the writing. I’m excited to go to Nha Trang tomorrow and be at the beach. I’m excited to end my trip to Morocco and figure out what’s next. I vow to begin to get my sense of wonder about travel back and remember that the jabberwocky is dead and has no power over me.

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One Response to “How the movie “Alice in Wonderland” brought me back to my travel senses in Hanoi”

  1. April 27, 2010 at 1:30 pm #

    Oh gosh, we had days just like this. Just hang in there, you’ll turn the corner. Actually, it looked like you did in Nha Trang!

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