When you leave a city like Shanghai, where you drive thirty minutes to the airport and never once lose sight of skyscrapers in any direction, any city would seem meager in comparison. But when you go from a city like Shanghai to a city like Hanoi, where the buildings lean precariously onto one another and everything from homes to street signs to people are clouded in a thick cake of dust, it feels like you went back in time. And when we landed in Hanoi we were feeling even more lost in time—or maybe in translation—because we were in one of those inevitable travel situations where you feel like the fate of your trip is hanging by a thread. Our thread was dangling precariously by the hand of a swindling  Vietnamese desk attendant at the Hanoi airport’s tiny travel information booth. Here’s what I wrote in my travel journal the following day:

Off the plane and the journey begins. What a difference a few hours make. Compared to the pristine goliath of PuDong Airport, Hanoi is the stinky small town bus stop. We have to deplane (my new favorite travel word) on the tarmac and then take a crowded bus to get to the airport. Scott waits for baggage as I find an ATM, where I get $1 million dong, thinking it’s $500 and will last me almost to the end of our trip. Later I realize it’s $50. Doh! There’s just too many zeros.

The flight landed late, so we now have just over an hour to make the overnight train we need, and the station is 40 minutes away. We don’t have a ticket and I’m nervous.  I go to the travel information desk to see if I can call the office of the train rep I’d been emailing with. Instead they try to sell me a ticket themselves. I’m skeptical; I know these people are hustlers. They’re selling “taxi vouchers” into Hanoi at twice the rate my guidebook says and they’re giving the hard sell on everything to anyone who will listen. Nothing seems legit.

He makes a call and says there are only 2 tickets left on the train we want. I’m sure he’s lying but buy the tickets anyway. It’s not worth the risk—or the time—to try to figure out the purchase on our own. Better to get where we need to go, even if it means getting taken for a ride.

Of course there’s a catch. The attendant wants us to pick up the tickets at an office in town but I refuse—there’s no time! He finally promises to have someone meet us with the tickets at the station. We leave the airport with nothing but this promise and a handwritten receipt.

To be continued…