Monday, 9 April 2012

Getting swore by a local - The real local experience

I took an overnight bus from Nha Trang and reach Saigon at 6am. This is my last day in Saigon which I reserved for any last minute souvenir shopping.

So I check in to my guesthouse where I am greeted with some tea and fruits and suggestions for a nice breakfast. I love this place already. I rest for a couple of hours and leave for some random wandering. I meet my friendly shop keeper at her department store, eat some yummy food, and just stroll around the streets.

I then go to Ben Than Market to buy some souvenirs for friends. I only have $50 on me and I need to pay for airport pick up, my hotel and keep some money aside while transiting in Singapore airport. So I budget carefully.

Now in Ben Than Market, there are millions of shops on top of each other selling the exact same products but are priced slightly differently. I wanted to buy some freshly ground coffee so I was scanning through each shop and I came to shop where a young lady was sitting.

She is so eager to sell that she starts shoving each blend of coffee beans into my nose for me to smell the freshness & the blend. I have lost my sense of smell by then and finally decide on a particular blend. I tell her I need 200gms and she quotes a price. After the usual haggling we decide on a final price and she runs to get 200gms from another shop. I give her the money and she stares at me. Turns out, the price she quoted was for 100gms and not 200gms. I don't want to spend double the amount so I tell her she misunderstood what I said and turn to start walking.

She slaps at my wrist, (Ouch!) (here's the best bit) and on top of her voice, shouts something that sounds like "Fat queue" in her Vietnamese accent. I turn back again thinking, "WHAT!!! did she just say THAT??? I surely heard "You".....Oh my god she actually said it...she swore at me". Every tourist there has stopped their shopping and is looking at me probably thinking "God knows how much this girl must have haggled with the poor shopkeeper in a country where things are already cheap".

I cant even get out as it is pouring outside and I am trapped in the market. I pick my phone with a flat battery and pretend to read texts and call someone while the nosy tourists are still looking at me. Should I tell them the story and convince them that I am like a cuddly teddy bear and I have a heart of gold??? Oh, stuff it!

It stops raining after a while so I run out of the market. I walk around the streets that I might have missed before. I go to the temple to meet my Indian friend. He suggests that we catch up for dinner. So I head back to my hotel and pack my things to leave for Melbourne next morning. He comes to my hostel and picks me up and we go to an Indian restaurant.

The chef of this Indian restaurant was apparently the chef of the Indian governor general. Hmmm OK, I can totally picture the price of the food.

So as we sit at the Restaurant and scroll through the menu, my eyes automatically scan for the cheapest item on the menu. Great, I've found something for $2 - Masala Poppadums. Hmmm... I am going to starve. By then my Indian friend tells me, the dinner is on him as I am his guest. I tell him convincingly that I have to treat him hoping he wont say yes. We order some food and as the bill arrives I stare into my wallet for 2 minutes thinking how the hell I am going to pay for this, but he quickly snatches the bill and pays. Awww, I feel bad. We talk for a bit and he drops me back at my hostel again.

I have a couple of hours in the morning next day before I leave for the airport so I decide to buy something for him. With the limited money I have, I buy some apples (the most expensive fruit in Vietnam) and go to the temple. He's not there yet, so I write a nice note for him & his family and leave it with the apples.

I come back to my hostel and my taxi is ready to pick me up. As I get on the taxi, I get a text from my Indian friend saying the apples and the note are the most heartfelt gifts he's received so far. Awww I'm touched :)

I get to the airport and wait in the line to check in while joyfully reminiscing the last two weeks, the adventures, the encounters, the good, the bad and most importantly the friends I've made, the Jetstar guy at the check in counter oh-so-sublimely brings me back to reality by saying I'd have to be detained in Vietnam as the Australian Immigration wont give me permission to board. w-t-f! Seriously, WTF! He asks me to wait while checking in other passengers as my issue is taking time to resolve. He contacts his boss who is trying to contact the immigration. Anyway, after 15 minutes of confusion, helplessness and extreme prayers to all gods,  he tells me its all good. Turns out the Dept. of Immigration dint have my updated records. Phew, I hate you Immigration!

I finally land in Melbourne. Ohhh, how awesome & quick were the last 2 weeks!

Yes, I backpacked alone. I cant believe I did it!
As Mark Twain rightly puts it, "...nothing so liberalizes a man and expands the kindly instincts that nature put in him as travel and contact with many kinds of people"

I feel like a new person......until I go to my room to lie on my bed. Oh crap, I have to clean it first, its so messy.  Damn I wish I was traveling!

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Lonely in Nha Trang - Day 11

After the 14 hour journey with barely any sleep, I get to the party town Nha trang. I go to my hostel and ta-da its full. I am totally exhausted. The lady there takes me to another hotel. I have to pay  a couple of dollars more but I'm in no mood to haggle. I get to my room and the shower doesnt work. Far out! I take a cold shower at 6 in the morning and all I can think of now is to call my bank ASAP to cancel my card. I come downstairs and go back to my original hostel. The girl there is very friendly and I tell her the rough night I had. I call my bank from my phone and do all the privacy/security checks for 3-4 minutes and just when she is about to transfer me to the correct department to cancel my card, I get cut off! Damn, I dont have enough credit.
The receptionist takes me to a grocery store to buy a refill card to top up my balance. Now I have only $100 on me and I need to get by for another 3 days plus return back home. I pay 100.000 dong ($5). I scratch it and enter the pin doesn't work! Oh god. Turns out it was another phone company's card and wont work on my phone. The shop lady wont take it back as it is already scratched! Ahhh $5 gone! I take a deep breath and head to the nearby post office and try calling from there. I call my bank and get disconnected for another 3-4 times again then finally I cancel my card. I ask them if there have been any transactions on the card since yesterday - she checks while placing me on hold - my heart is beating so fast and I m sweating and shivering - "no transactions after 4.30pm" she confirms. Phew!!
Now I can totally picture my brother taking his hands to his forehead and shaking his head. I obviously wasn't going to call him - there really is nothing he could have done except worry. I have to sort out the mess I created. There is just something with me and travel - last year when I was in gold coast, I lost my wallet and my licence, I've lost ATM cards numerous times in Sydney and the medicare card - it has been reissued like 6 or 7 times. No, I'm not proud of this and I'm not bragging at all. While I am laughing now thinking of how it all happened, it was not nearly humorous then.
Well, another lesson learned. I only hope the heartache of losing something teaches me to be even more cautious next time.
So its 8.30am and I have the whole day to go around Nha Trang - I ask my hotel lady to book me on a tour which starts at 8.30. The trip costs $6 so I think its much better than sitting in my hotel room. She calls the guy and I run to the bus. I get on the bus and all I see is Asian people. WHAT! where am I! I thought Nha trang is a party town full of white people but the bus is full of local Vietnamese couples. Now I have nothing against Asians, but hey we all know they are least friendly and how love their own group. I sit and spot a white couple. Its the 3 of us vs the sea of local vietnamese. We get off the bus and I start talking to the English couple. The whole bus is full of couples and I am the only single traveler. I have never felt weird traveling alone until I came to Nha trang. The asian couples are the worst - wearing his/her t-shirts, taking pictures of each other in the most random locations with awkward poses and doing all couply things. The tour guide comes to me and says, "Why you come alone, you come with your boyfriend, more fun".......Yeah, thanks!

They take us to an island to snorkel and dive. There is no instructor to help you snorkel but there is a guide for diving. Now I can do basic a dog - not like the cute dog on TV commercials, but an angry dog trying to save its life while splashing water on everyone. Hmmm...I am not going to embarrass myself...or Australia or India. So I decide to go diving with an instructor. Its $25 - I think twice and decide its O.K. I wear my gear and my guide instructs me. The english girl says she went diving and she hated it. I'm already in water, hmmm O.K. 
So he puts the breathing apparatus on my mouth and I feel like I am about to choke. I m not even 10 meters in the water and I just want to go back. I have water on nose, eyes and ears and I already have a bad cold & flu. I m half way down to see the corals and I tell him I want to go back, he convinces me I'll be fine but I insist I want to go back. He keeps telling me I'll be O.K. but I am petrified of going deep underwater. He then tells me I would still have to pay him $25 for coming half way. WTF! I take the breathing apparatus back from his hand put it on my mouth, shut my mouth, hold him tight and dive straight in. 
I am prepared to die than waste $25! Geez!
I see some beautiful corals and beautiful fishes. He says its time to head back - $25 for 10 mins.
We come back to our boats and we're taken to other islands where we laze on the beach, and just relax. We again get back on the boats and we have a song/dance show. So what they do is, they invite tourists from every country individually and sing a popular song from the country. So one by one, people from US, France, UK, Korea and other countries go up to the stage and sing songs. Its Australia's turn. He asks me if I know Waltzing Matilda. I only know "Aussie Aussie Aussie....Oi Oi Oi" Oh god, I am such a disgrace to Australia :( He doesn't know any Indian songs so I sing 2 lines of Jai ho and mime the chorus of Waltzing Matilda and hide my face and come back to my seat. 
We finish our tour at 5. I get back to my hotel and I am ready to leave for my last bus trip to Saigon.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Group spooning & Farts

When things go bad, they just dont stop there - they go from bad to worse. 
I hop on the bus to experience what would be the worst ride of my life. Apparantly the bus company had overbooked people and I am having to squeeze into a 5 bed seater. As I mentioned before, the sleeper buses in Vietnam are nothing like the fully reclining, super comfy leather seats they advertise in their brochures. I go to my seat and there are already 4 people sitting there. Great! I am sandwiched between two couples. We are sleeping right next to each other with barely any space to move. 
Yuuuuuuuuuuck! Everyone stinks. Oh God!
I take my deo (luckily I had it in my bag) and want to lift everyone's hands and spray it away.....but instead spray it on my mattress and the so called quilt and on myself and breath through my clothes & the quilt!  Ewww.

I couldnt take a picture of my bus mates, but I googled and found this picture - this is how it literally was - Me sandwiched in between the big guy & the girl wearing glasses to his left.

The quilts given to us on the bus is more like a long towel. The aircon vents are broken and it is blasting cold air so I try to cover myself with the quits given. I can barely cover my top. While I am freezing and trying to fit into the mini quilts, I look at the BIG guy next to me with his girlfriend - he is also struggling trying to cover himself......and he can only cover his right arm and right leg! HILARIOUS! It looks like an elephant trying to cover itself with tissue paper!
I have lost my card, feel terrible receiving a gift from my receptionist, petrified hoping no one misappropriates my card but I cannot stop bursting out laughing seeing how the big guy can only cover his right arm and leg. Everyone in the bus is looking at me and but I still cant stop laughing. There is no place to keep my hands to my side so I have to keep my hands behind my ears (like how you keep in your hands when doing ab crunches). Ridiculous.
In the middle of all this at about 1 am, when things seem to have quietened a bit,  I hear the biggest fart! I swear, no kidding. And it smells HORRID! It is the big guy next to me. F*&^%$#%^*&^K!!! I know this is gross but I can feel the hot air through my legs! How disgusting!
Oh god please, I want to die - RIGHT NOW! To top it all, he thinks its cute, smiles and holds his girlfriend's nose! WTF. What about the rest of us!
I try to get up to get some fresh air so I decide to go the toilet on the bus. There is a white guy sleeping on the floor (its pretty common to overbook people). So I look at him down sleeping so uncomfortably and try to be positive. But I regain my senses and realise, hey its much better to lie on the floor than having someone fart on your legs!! Its 1 am, the lights are off and I dont want to wake him up so I get down, hold on to the rails and I am diagonally crossing seats doing matrix stunts - the bus is moving fast so I am standing in a nice V to hold on to the rails and at this most awkward moment, the guy sleeping on the floor opens his eyes. Oh god.... A-w-k-w-a-r-d. I pray he doesn't recognise my face in the morning. I finally get to the toilet and Ta-Da...I am greeted by a puddle of awful smelling urine and poo. GROSS!!
I cannot get myself to stay there another second so head back doing my matrix stunts crossing seats.  As I try to get up to my seat, the boyfriend (the non farting one) of the girl to my left asks "You dint go? what happened?
Me: "I dont think the flush works"
Him "Oh.....but mine went down" 
Ewwwww! I dint ask you explanation! 
White guy sleeping on the floor

Big farting guy next to me half covered with his quilt
2 hours later I can see someone hugging me - and it is the boyfriend (the non farting one) - WTH! He is hugging his girlfriend but because we are so close to each other, he is hugging me too. Ewwww! I lift his hands throw it away back on his face!  I cannot wait to get off the bus. Finally there is a toilet break for 30 mins. The toilet facilities are very basic - like there is a small tiny wall to separate the men's and women's giving ample view for people to have a peek at each other while doing their business. Oh my god, can this get any worse?!
I talk to my australian friend explaining my seat and what had happened and we both cannot stop laughing while people eavesdropping are also chuckling. She then points me to the big guy who is eating sausages and eggs! "DUDE! Please STOP it! I cant take it anymore! No food for you till I get off the bus" (I silently yell to myself)

Oh god! I sure wanted the "local experience" of traveling in Vietnamese buses - but Hell, who would have thought I would have to sleep next to smelly farting backpackers! 

The journey was 14 hours - needless to say I did not get a wink on the bus!


Sunday, 1 April 2012

Sick of & in Hoi An - Days 8,9 & 10

So I check into  my in Hoi An room. My receptionist is extremely genuine and sweet. I make small talk for abt 5 minutes and she says I am her BFF....Ummm O.K! She tells me the best place for getting some clothes stitched and shoes made and says she has no affiliation with them. Ah, I am sold!
I go in search for something to eat -The lonely planet describes Hoi An as a charming town oozing with history and culture and a stroll down the street is supposed to be hassle free with lesser touts. Are you kidding me Lonely Planet! 
In Hoi An every person's sister/mother/wife is a tailor. I am at the restaurant and the waitress/cook serves me and tells me her sister is (surprise  surprise) a tailor and pretty much commands that I get clothes tailored from her sister. I burp, pay for my meal and leave. I look at some shoes in a shop and some random person walking on the street comes up to me and says her mother is a tailor. I ignore and keep walking. I go the public toilet, the lady there tells me her daughter is a tailor. Oh god, I cant even pee in peace! 

I go to the tailor recommended by my receptionist....OMG it is every girl's dream. Now my friends will attest how I can spend 16 hours evaluating to buy something for $2. I am at the tailor and there are literally million designs to choose from. I sift through each design carefully until I decide what I want. Give them my measurements and they tell me it will be ready by 3pm next day. Perfect! 
I go back to my hotel and start talking to my receptionist. I cannot fathom how sweet she is. She tells me she meets a lot of tourists but has never felt a connection like this. Wow! She tells me about her family and says her sister is a tailor - but never tries to sell her sister's services to me unlike every other person I met in Hoi An. When I asked why she dint tell me this before, she says if I dint like her sister's tailoring, she couldn't see me disappointed. Awww! Finally one soul in Vietnam that is not being pushy! That's it - I decide I want to get my clothes get done from her sister. 
She invites me to her house next day to meet her parents and her sister. She is overjoyed to take me to her neighborhood and shows me off as her new foreign friend. Everyone is running around in her house frantically to get me something to eat/drink and make me feel at home. Geez! Such poor people but with a heart of gold! I am so humbled by their hospitality. 
She tells her sister to charge me the bare minimum - I am a little low on cash as I have already ordered some clothes from another tailor and shoes from a friend she recommended. I feel terrible having to haggle with her but she willingly discounts the price for me. She tells her sister to stay awake all night and put her heart and soul to it. Awww!
She drops me off at my hotel. I meet my Australian friend from Hue and we go for dinner - the town is really meant for the newly weds and nearly deads. Its beautiful at night especially with lantern lit over a bridge. Every restaurant is full of happy young and old couples having a vacation of a lifetime.

I woke up next morning to experience what would be the worst day of the trip. My friend and I meet  up for breakfast. After breakfast, I have my second fitting at my tailor (alterations made from first fitting). My bus is at 5 pm and it is 1. I am still waiting my shoes and clothes from my receptionist's sister. Everyone assures me things will be ready before I leave. I have a couple of hours to kill and my friend and I walk down the same streets for the 34526th time. There really is nothing in Hoi An apart from the millions of tailor shops next to each other. Even as a shopaholic, I am nauseating seeing so many clothes and I just want to run away from the town.
Its 4 pm and my clothes from my receptionist sister are not ready yet. Hmmm things dont look good. The next hour is crazy with me running around between my tailor, shoes shop and my hotel all 500 meters apart. Finally at 4.30 my receptionist gives my clothes. My bus is at 5 and I need to pick up my shoes and clothes from another place which is 500 meters away! I pay for my shoes. I am running low on cash so I run to the ATM to draw some money. 
I cautiously count my money and put it back into my wallet safely. I come back and pay my receptionist. I still dont have enough Dong. I only have dollars and she doesn't have change. I am searching for any Dong I may have and as I am searching through my wallet I realise I have left my ATM card in the machine which is 500 meters away in the opposite direction! F*&%! NOOOOOO!
I run back to the ATM but can't see it. I am absolutely gutted and cant think straight. Its nearly 5 and I am yet to collect my clothes from another place and then take the bus. I come back to my hotel and I try to tell her that I have lost my bank card. She cant understand me and I have no time to explain it to her. She says its OK if I am running short. I am short by about $10 - this might seem not much for us but it is a lot of money for them. I feel so terrible for not being able to pay her the agreed price that is already heavily discounted but I m so helpless. I need to leave now or I'll miss my bus. While I m frantically shoving things into small bags, she hands me over a gift. Oh no! I feel even more terrible now. 

Custom made shoes & clothes - The bad guys that caused me all the heartache!
She tells how much she has enjoyed meeting me and is about to cry seeing me leave. Shucks! 
My brain is totally dead - I m still in shock loosing my card, hoping no one has misappropriated it and I need to run another 700 meters to get my bus and collect rest of my clothes. I give her a hug and all I can do is just feel helpless and terrible. I run like a mad woman with 3-4 bags in my hand. I stop at a street shop to buy a bag to shove these small bag in. I have no time to haggle and sensing my desperation, the lady wont budge with the price. Arghhh.... the bad karma for haggling everywhere is biting me at the most inappropriate time! I finally buy the most dirty overpriced bag and stuff everything. I run to my bus company and the guy there is yelling in Vietnamese at me for coming late. I have no time to explain. I tell him to wait for another minute while I collect my clothes from my another tailor. LUCKILY I  have my credit card on me. All I can think is how lucky I am to not loose my passport. I pay them and run back to my bus company. He asks me to sit on his bike to take go the bus stop which is 1 km away. Far out! I have no time to call my bank and cancel my card. The guy shoves my bags. I get on the bus to experience the worst 14 hour journey of my life!

Next post: The worst bus ride. You're all going to love it! Stay tuned.