Our impression of Hanoi started at poor and rapidly deteriorated from there. The problem was that the residents of Vietnam’s capital city possessed an uncanny ability to make us feel like walking ATM’s – complete with flashing, neon targets on our backs.

The city loomed gray, wet and hazy from pollution as our taxi from the airport ($15 USD to get downtown) closed in. Whereas Ho Chi Minh City appeared welcoming and bright, Hanoi looked dark and dingy. Instead of Lunar New Year decorations, homes and businesses were adorned with caged wild birds that frantically threw themselves against their prisons. I puzzled over the birds (I would come to learn purchasing wild birds as ornaments and symbols of good luck is en vogue in Vietnam) and marveled at how narrow the buildings were; perhaps local builders are taxed by street frontage?

The taxi driver took us to our hotel and Him paid the  fixed fare. But then the man extended his hand a second time.

“What?” Him asked (though he must have known full well what the driver wanted).

“Happy New Year Money!” the driver demanded.

“Um, no.”

We hustled into the Rising Dragon’s lobby before the driver, now quite angry, could run us down.

The Rising Dragon’s check-in procedures consisted of a 20-minute, hard-sell spiel about the tours they offer for Ha Long Bay, a limestone wonderland located about 150 km east of Hanoi.

Unless a hotel is able to offer a deal or some added amenity, we urge against booking tours through your accommodation. By booking through the hotel, you simply add a middle man who will jack up the ticket price so they get a cut. In Southeast Asia especially, it is common for hotels to steer guests toward a lesser tour or activity run by the owner’s friends or family members.

The Rising Dragon quoted us $230 USD for a 2-day, 1-night cruise of Bai Tu Long Bay (a less-crowded, more pristine sister of Ha Long Bay) through the Indochina Junk company. Transportation from Hanoi to the bay cost extra. But by simply walking to Indochina’s office, we were able to speak directly with an Indochina employee and book the same cruise for $200 – including transportation. The downside was that we spent the remainder of our stay at the Rising Dragon tiptoeing around the building to avoid the concierge.

With the Bai Tu Long cruise scheduled for later in the week, we set off to explore Hanoi, starting at the Ho Chi Minh Museum (VND 25,000) for a primer on communism. It was at the museum that we learned to “study and follow Ho Chi Minh’s moral example.”

We recommend visiting the Ho Chi Minh Museum but not because you’ll actually learn much about Ho Chi Minh, aka Nguyễn Ái Quốc, or Vietnamese history in general. The exhibits are oddly abstract – like some sort of experimental modern art show (the kind with giant plastic fruit and video montages of rockets blasting off ). Plus, the description placards are not exactly descriptive. Go to the museum simply because it’s bizarre.

First is a series of glass panels depicting the likes of Pablo Picasso, Charlie Chaplin and Albert Einstein. We surmised this colorful maze is meant to represent the great minds that inspired Uncle Ho on his path to the Vietnamese presidency. Further along is a reproduction of Coc Bo Cave, HCM’s headquarters while engineering the “Vietnamese Revolution,” 1941-1945. The cave, presented in the form of a human brain, includes a stool and stone table used by HCM in the original setting.

My favorite exhibit? It has to be the small stone “used by Nguyễn Ái Quốc for rubbing terrestrial leeches off himself when he had to go through jungles, 1941.”

After the museum, you may be inclined to meet the man himself. Stuffed and pumped full of formaldehyde, Uncle Ho’s conveniently on display at the dismally gray Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. He entertains visitors from 8 to 11 a.m., Tues.-Thurs. and Sat.-Sun. – that is unless he’s vacationing in Russia for “servicing.” Uncle Ho died in 1969 and despite his desire to have his remains cremated, his countrymen entombed him like Snow White — in a cooled, glass coffin.

Personally, I was impressed by Uncle’s waxy complexion. I wanted to ask Him if he too noticed the ethereal glow emanating from his yellow skin, but speaking (and, oddly, crossing one’s arms or placing hands in pockets) is forbidden within the mausoleum.

If you choose to pay Uncle Ho a visit, dress conservatively and arrive early because the lines to gawk at his stick-thin, embalmed form can be long. Still cameras, videocameras and cell phones are not allowed inside, so either leave them at your hotel or hide them lest they be confiscated. And one more tip: If you happen to be traveling with a life-sized paper cutout of your sister and desire a photograph outside the mausoleum, unfurl her and snap the picture some distance from the building. The mausoleum guards, for some reason, do not approve of such activity.

Complete your tour of all things red at the Presidential Palace (VND 20,000). Just don’t expect to actually enter the palace. Instead, you’ll complete a loop around the palace grounds, check out Ho Chi Minh’s impressive car collection and peek inside the humble stilt house he is said to have lived in after eschewing the luxuries of the palace. (A more plausible reason, Him said, is that the jungle-shrouded stilt house was less visible to U.S. bombers).

Throughout Hanoi, there are countless dives serving pho. Be sure to try this tasty beef noodle soup but settle on a price before you take a bite. The proprietor of a street side restaurant adjacent to the Temple of Literature quoted us VND 40,000 a bowl, so we sat down to eat. It was only after we slurped up the last of our soup that his wife demanded we pay VND 50,000 a bowl. Considering that the local customers pay just VND 20,000 for the same dish, this well-timed price hike had me fuming.

My mood failed to improve at the Temple of Literature (VND 20,000), an ancient center of learning dedicated to Confucius. There we met a couple visiting from California, she Caucasian and he of Vietnamese descent. They too had picked up on Hanoi’s unfriendly, unwelcoming vibe and related how a local shop owner, assuming the man was the woman’s tour guide, had asked him what commission he desired for whatever she purchased.

Within about a minute of leaving the temple, I noticed my iPhone was missing from my pocket, and I rushed back into the grounds to recover it. Him remained outside, tearing through my belongings once again and eyeing the exit in case he spotted my tell-tale, bright pink case.

The gift shop clerks on the grounds refused to accept my business cards. They insisted they wouldn’t contact me because I would never see the phone again; it was undoubtedly in the hands of one of the many pickpockets who frequents the temple.

What disturbed me most about my conversation with these women was that they spoke of the temple’s pickpockets as if they are regulars whose “business” on the grounds amounts to 9-to-5 jobs. They are accepted (maybe even welcome?) fixtures. Later, I would learn watching pickpockets target tourists is a form of entertainment in Vietnam. There are videos online showing these thieves at work as knowing locals look on and laugh at the unwitting tourists losing wallets, cameras and smartphones.

Read Financial Jesus’ “Top-10 countries to have your wallet stolen by pickpockets.” (That headline makes it sound like something one aspires to).

I felt violated. The device supplying ready access to my bank, email and social media accounts was gone. So were half the photos I had snapped during the past three months. In tears, I implored the man in the temple kiosk to call the police. He physically waved me away.

“What is wrong with you?! Why won’t you help me?” I asked, tears streaming down my face.

I eventually calmed down and accepted the fact that the phone was gone. Yet we still needed a police report to file an insurance claim and so were forced to solicit the help of our hotel’s employees, the same ones who tried to overcharge us for the Bai Tu Long Bay cruise. They instructed us to fill out a police report and stash it and VND 300,000 into an envelope which they would then carry to the police station for us.

Without the cash, the police won’t even glance at your report, they said.

I’m not sure whether the police or a hotel employee pocketed our cash, but the report did eventually make it back into our hands. A small stamp in the corner of the paper indicated it had been “authenticated” by Hanoi’s crackerjack police force.

No, I did not like Hanoi. After the iPhone incident, I was so disillusioned that I didn’t care to explore any additional sites the city had to offer. My spirits sank so low that I even broke down and ordered spaghetti for dinner. Yep. It was certifiably awful.