July in Vietnam: First Impressions

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Vietnam didn’t do well at all in making a good first impression.

It started with getting into Hanoi from the airport. The plane was delayed (not Vietnam’s fault) and I knew for sure that trying to get into town at 11pm was going to be a nightmare. I was sure the $2 Vietnam Airlines minibus described in Lonely Planet  wasn’t going to run at that hour, not when the taxi sharks were all circling at the main entrance.  Determined not to be stiffed, I approached an American couple who agreed to share a taxi.

We bargained with the driver and got him to take us to two different places for a total of $20. For some reason the couple got dropped off first, at a nice colonial-style hotel with twin curved staircases leading up to the main entrance. When it got to my address, it turned out to be a dark, shuttered, deserted street in what looked like a pretty slummy area. Here, the driver informed me that the price was now $40. I just stared at him and laughed, got off and ran up to my own crappy guesthouse. True to my luck, the place was closed even though I’d called ahead with my arrival time. I located the correct unit number and rang the doorbell to the dump of a guesthouse that I stupidly chose out of Lonely Planet (to be fair, it only cost $3 for a bunk bed). The annoying thing was that the guy who appeared didn’t open the gate to let me in. He instead spoke to the driver in Vietnamese, then told me that I had to pay $10.

I was livid. Immediately, I sternly told the driver shame on him for picking on a lone girl at midnight and that he could drive back to the swanky hotel to stiff the American couple instead. I had $7 in my hand and he had a choice to either take the $7 or nothing at all. He left grumbling. The only thing I regret was not taking down his licence number and to complain to the taxi company.

Thereafter, glared at the useless guy who let me in only after I icily informed him that I’d booked ahead. Of course I promptly checked out the next day.

The next morning, I didn’t fare a whole lot better. There were other challenges to contend with, such as the pirate bookseller who tried to sell me a fake Lonely Planet Vietnam for USD13. He tailed me for a good hour even though I’d told him I didn’t want it at that exorbitant price. In that time, I got myself a new hotel room, booked a Halong Bay tour (more about that in another post), bought a local SIM card and test-called Delightt to bitch about him tailing me. He was still waiting for me outside after I bought myself a second-hand real LP at a bona fide bookshop for USD11.

Here’s the transcript of the scintillating cross-cultural exchange that followed:

PB: (seeing the real LP in my hands) F**k off tourist!
Me: Go f**k yourself!
PB: What did you say?????
Me: (ignoring him by concentrating on my real guidebook)

Thankfully, that was the worst of my experiences in Hanoi, though not the worst of my experiences in Vietnam. Things started getting a whole load better from then on and as I wandered around Hanoi, I forgot about the bad first impression and was ready to see more of the country.

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June in Thailand: Elephants and Other Modes of Transport

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It was our last day in Ayutthaya and I went wandering the streets on my own while Tom recuperated from the heat. Along a shady area between wats, I found a little food stand and sat down to a simplet yet fabulous lunch of braised chicken with preserved salted vegetables, lots of herbs and incredible chilli sauce. Of course, all the ordering was done in sign language and it helped that I peeked at what other people were having before sitting down. There is nothing like street food for tasting what the locals eat and nothing like street food to have the true taste of a country.

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I wandered past the temples again, this time slowing down to take in the views.

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Outside one of the bigger temples, I spied a group of elephants from afar. The getup of the elephants was supremely touristy but somehow apt and nicely atmospheric for this city.

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The elephants looked so grand in their brocade and tassels.

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The mahouts perched on the elephants’ heads wore matching red costumes.

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And the tourists (Japanese?) posed cheerfully for my shots.

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They formed a very grand retinue, such a lovely sight all together.

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Soon, they ambled off as a group and it was time for me to go. I approached a nearby motorcycle-taxi driver, negotiated my price, and off I went back to the guest house to meet Tom and get to our next destination.

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April in The Philippines: Long Trek to Clark (Kids, don’t try this at home)

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You know what they say about always trusting what you hear on the ground and that your guesthouse is the most reliable info source? Well, it’s not always right that I can tell you. Thanks to my guesthouse, I probably took the longest route ever to get to Clark airport for my flight out of The Philippines. I guess it turned out pretty cheap, but I sure would’ve paid the extra needed for a direct bus there.

This is what happened: I checked out at the ungodly hour of 5.30am and hopped into a cab to take me to Pasay Bus Terminal. There, I caught the onward bus to Dau. It was a pretty uneventful trip as it was an airconditioned and not very crowded coach. It was only when I got off the coach that I discovered to my horror that (a)  I still had to navigate past the gate of Clark Freeport Zone to get into the airport and (b) the trike ride from Dau would only take me to the gate. The 5 minute trike ride of less than 1km cost me 50 PHP (S$1.50). Feeling stiffed, I stood uncertainly at the gate of the Freeport Zone trying to figure out how to get inside without spending the last of my reserves on a taxi (200 PHP) and getting stranded for not having the local currency to pay my airport tax.

A couple of jeepney drivers offered to take me and my dive gear (it was a huge bag) into the complex for 180 PHP. I refused and decided to try my luck with a bit of crying. The stress of the journey and the early morning start helped. Soon enough, another jeepney driver came up to me, telling me he could take me into the Zone somewhere close to the airport for 20 PHP, but I’d have to walk to the gate myself. Wiping away my tears and thanking my lucky stars, I climbed into the front seat of the jeepney (a rare privilege), waited for it to fill up with people and we were off!

The Zone was rather large, and to my surprise (doh!), more people wanted to get to other parts of the Zone than the airport. I was set down about 5 minutes later in a fairly deserted area about 500m away from the airport. There wasn’t anyone around except the odd security guard patrolling the odd gate. They all smiled at me and pointed me in the right direction. Given the dive bag that was almost size, it was pretty obvious which direction I was heading. One of the guards even introduced himself and we had a little chat. Another one motioned to me that I had to jumped across a drain at the narrow part if not I’ll be stuck and not get to the terminal! It’s amazing how friendly they all were to an odd stranger.

After a pretty long and sweaty trek in the hot sun, I finally reached the airport gates! After showing my passport to the guards, I fairly stumbled to the cool of the waiting area outside. A chat with the locals made me realise that I was quoted the right prices, and even the lowest possible prices. They were amazed that I trekked in to the airport.

After taking a cab, a bus, a trike and a jeepney, then going on foot, I hopped on the plane and sank into the comfy seats, secure in the knowledge that Noid was picking me up in her car on the other side.

[post script: I later found out that there were scheduled buses leaving from SM Mega Mall to Clark Airport. Le sigh.]



April in The Philippines: Warm People and Strange Bands

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The Philippines is full of the loveliest people ever. They are so warm, friendly and plain trusting in their hospitality. There was the breakfast lady in Coron who gave me the best and cheapest morning meals ever who told me that it was dangerous to travel as a lone girl (not once in The Philippines did I feel at all unsafe) with that look of earnest concern on her face. There was the friendly shop assistant at the mami stand, where I stopped for a quick snack, who insisted that the water wasn’t safe for delicate stomachs like mine. There was the friendly security guard who gave me directions in the middle of nowhere (more on that in a bit).

Most crucially, there were Natalie and Derrick, a couple I met in transit at Manila airport. Our planes were delayed as usual and we somehow struck up a conversation. Natalie was Filipino and Derrick Australian, they returned to The Philippines often to see her extended family. After just about an hour of chat, they gave me their contact number and invited me to stay with them in their service apartment in Manila when we three got back into town.  Natalie even suggested making arrangements to let me in should I get back earlier than them!

Taking things on the cautious side, I went to visit instead when I returned to Manila and we went out with Natalie’s niece, Anne-Marie and Pristine, her daughter. It must be pretty cool for Natalie to be such a young grandaunt. Pristine was such a sweet 8-year-old. She held my hand and called me Tita (aunt).

After dinner, I adjourned with Natalie and Derrick to a bar for some drinks. Here’s where we met the T-Rex. It was rather amusing as I had to peer past it to see the rather bad but amusing cover band. The girls wore midriffs, which was fine for the slim ones, but one of them had way too much baby fat still. The boys weren’t hot at all and the lead singer couldn’t help but hog the limelight even when he was doing backup for a girl song. So amusing.

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Natalie and Derrick later sent me back in a cab right to the doorstep of my guesthouse. They also insisted that I text them the moment I got safely inside. It was another moment where I felt guilty for not trusting enough.