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Surviving Beautiful Vietnam

There is something really miserable about waking up at 5 am three days in a row, especially under vastly differing circumstances. On Tuesday, I woke up at 5 for my flight to Hanoi. On Wednesday I woke up at 5 to go to the bus stand to come to Xuan Thuy National Park and today I woke up at 5 because the lights went out. Just as well that I’m up actually, good time to get some writing done. Before my friend Dinh Phuong comes to pick me up and drop me to the bus station. I’m heading back to Hanoi, if you’re wondering.

The Xuan Thuy National park is huge area of wetlands and mangroves. People are engaged in either Shrimp farms or rice plantations here. It’s a very low -lying area and has a very unique set of problems. Here I met my next hero. But, more on that in my next post.

Right now, I want to write about my experiences over the past twenty-four hours.

I left my backpack at the The drift backpackers hostel, and am carrying just a change of clothes for the over night trip in my day pack. The staff at Drift is extremely helpful and suggested I take a taxi to the bus station and then a bus to Nam Dinh Provice to reach the National Park. Seemed simple enough, right?

So I got into my taxi, reached the bus stand and just as I was stepping out, I realized the driver had returned incorrect change. When I confronted him, he looked sheepish and rather reluctantly returned the cash he had conveniently siphoned off! I’m still getting the hang of the Vietnamese currency- Dong. When I exchanged a hundred dollars at the airport, I was handed a wad of cash and I was a Millionaire for the first time in my life. A bottle of water costs sixteen thousand Dong. I’m still struggling to do some quick math in my head to figure when I’m being hustled.

Feeling mighty good about nabbing the cheating cabby and thinking to myself that ‘my mamma didn’t raise no fool’, I sauntered into the bus station and was quickly proved wrong.

There was not a sign in English, neither a sign of a person who spoke it. I went from counter to counter waving my little slip of paper with the name of my final destination. Then I started to match the letters on my paper to words written on the bus. Didn’t help either. All while strange men were grabbing my arm and trying to get me on their busses or motor bikes!

An angelic young girl, probably still in her teens took pity on me and grabbed my hand, took me all the way to the other end of the bus stand- apparently I was in the ‘city’ section and my bus was from the ‘out station’ section. She got me on the bus and disappeared before I could even thank her or burst into tears in gratitude.

The Hostel staff had warned me that bus conductors might over charge me if I didn’t know the fare in advance. He tried, I prevailed. Score one for me.

The bus was packed and not just with people! At one point there was a bicycle parked next to me and a woman and her daughter with six huge bags full of baguettes.

A young kid eventually sat next to me and we got talking. He was possibly the only person I’ve met (since I started traveling) who wasn’t stunned when I told him I was Indian. His name was Kae and he’s a university student in Hanoi. He was fascinated to learn about my journey and wanted to know how he could do something similar! I told him to ‘just start’. We chatted intermittently for the next four hours and he even asked me if I was single. I told him, yea, all the good ones are taken!

He asked a bunch of people for directions to my final destination and gave the driver and conductor ‘instructions’ to make sure I get there. In twenty minutes the bus was empty and we were at the last stop. The conductor came up to me muttered something in Vietnamese and shooed me off the bus. I tried to show him my piece of paper with the address but I don’t think the fellow could read. He took me to the home of the village chief/head who was actually quite a mean looking chap with a gruff voice. In a minute there was a huge crowd outside his house and everyone was staring at me like I was standing there butt-naked! I wasn’t, and they were just curious. I’m sure I was the only foreigner in a hundred kilometer radius. But, I felt anything but special or welcome at that time.

The mean looking man then called a young boy out from the crowd, pointed to me, handed him the address and gestured that I get behind him on the bike! The young boy looked as spooked as I was, and he was pretty skinny.

So I figured I could take him! Then I said a little prayer and got on.

As soon as we took a turn and couldn’t see the crowd anymore, he stopped, opened his wallet and showed me a fifty thousand Dong note and made it clear that I’d have to pay him for the ride. Obviously, I agreed, this was hardly a time for bargaining.

A bumpy thirty minute ride later, we arrived at the National Park. I wanted to sprawl out on the floor and cry but I held it together… somehow.

The day got a lot better from that point on and was spent with the beautiful and bright Dinh Phuong. I’ll be sharing her story shortly.

On my return to Hanoi, as I got off the bus, the bike-taxi blokes surrounded me. They quoted a hundred-thousand Dong to my hostel but I eventually brought it down to ten thousand! The trick is to wave dismissively and start walking away! They will come chasing after you. Though, thanks to the last ride, my slippers have left some freaky tan lines on my feet. Did I mention it’s ridiculously hot in Hanoi.

Don’t go to South East Asia now, they said. Monsoons are a bummer, they said. Well Somebody’s doing the rain dance all wrong cause there aint none!

It’s my third day in Vietnam and I’ve made a few observations. First- it reminds me of Calcutta. No, seriously. Last night I was walking around in the old district near my hostel and well before night-fall, most of the shops were shut. I sat at this small lake and all around me were old men playing board games, drinking tea and chain smoking. Even at night I felt very safe. The place is dripping history but it’s also rather dilapidated and in need of some serious TCL.

The most prominent remnants of the French I’ve seen are the delicious fresh Baguettes being sold on every corner and the numerous churches that totally caught me by surprise as we drove through sleepy villages with red tiled roofs, surrounded by rice fields.

Motorbike and car taxi drivers are very ‘hands on’. The first couple of times I got furious when they grabbed my arm and tried to tug me to their waiting rides. Unwarranted grabbing and groping is my pet peeve. But, I quickly realized that, they do it to everyone! Men included. The local women just jerk their arms free and walk away, so that’s what I did as well.

The younger people are more open and willing to help than the old folks. Life is tough here and they really couldn’t be bothered about some pesky tourist who’s lost, doesn’t speak their language and is grossly mispronouncing the name of the places she’s enquiring about. Their indifference is completely understandable.

The price of all basic amenities vary dramatically from one shop to the other. It could be a day trip or a bottle of water you’re paying for, but you’ll never be quite sure if you’re getting the ‘best price’. But, practice makes perfect and don’t be shy to haggle, I advise.

NOTE: I wrote half the post at 5 am and the other half after I reached Hanoi.

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13 Responses to “Surviving Beautiful Vietnam”

  1. Maggie says:

    Hey Tithi! i’ve been strolling in an out of the site the last couple of days looking for something new! thanks for writing. Its all so familiar…isnt it? We give the same lessons to our tourist friends when they go out on the streets :)

    Waiting for your next post…want to read all about the hero


  2. kiran says:

    Talk of sleepless…that’s what is happenning to me when I don’t see the next post and the next and the next. Great reading Tithi. its as though I am getting to taste the cultures on line as you ramble along. keep going girl!

  3. Anuradha says:

    your mamma surely didn’t raise no fool! keep on!

  4. Mohit says:

    cheating cabbies? were they from delhi?

  5. Suvrit says:

    The place is dripping history but it’s also rather dilapidated and in need of some serious TCL. did you mean TLC?

  6. Rohit Markand says:

    really enjoying reading about the journey so far… all the best!

  7. Shashikant says:

    calcutta? seriously?

  8. Avlesh says:

    Hot in Hanoi? Its 32 degrees C, delhi is boiling at 43!!! thank your stars.
    btw, just bumped into your blog, great read! all the very best!

  9. Rajat says:

    where are you off to next? this is way too exciting!!!

  10. Henneman says:

    Cambodia is way more interesting! are you going there?

  11. Henneman says:

    if you have time you must visit the vietnam museum of revolution in hanoi… wont regret!

  12. Nandita says:

    Waddya mean “all the good ones are taken” ?? Are you calling me a bad ‘un?

  13. Nicholas Mammano says:

    This makes me want to learn more about this topic. Thanks for the post.

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