Vietnam

January 4, 2009

Good morning, Vietnam. Good-bye, Vietnam. Good riddance, Vietnam! This is a painful blog for me to write, as three-fold bad luck stuck me while in Vietnam. From a plane ticket gone wrong to losing everything, this trip was doomed from the start.

After finally finishing school and the most anxious and chaotic week of my life (3 finals in 24 hours + move out+ travel plans in arrays + farewells), I pick up my rather large rent deposit (sense the ominous foreshadowing), grab my plane ticket (2 plane tickets actually, LONG story) to Hanoi and head off. I say my last goodbyes to my fellow exchange students, and head to the airport, with a sinking feeling in my stomach. Whether the sinking feeling was from leaving Thailand, from saying goodbye to my friends, or from the trip to Vietnam, I just had a bad feeling about this trip.

I arrive at the airport far too early (me, early to the airport?!? Now that’s weird….) and spend the next few hours aimlessly walking around (in particular, walking past the free chocolate sample booth). I eventually get on the plane, make much progress on my new book, and arrive at the Vietnam airport 2 hours later. After breezing through immigration, I’m approached by a Vietnamese man, asking if he can help me. And so it begins.

My first instinct is to ignore him, but I decide to entertain the potential taxi driver that most likely is out to rip me off. After exchanging currency to the Vietnamese dong (the most worthless currency on the planet), I begin to talk to this guy, who is actually quite nice. He’s not much older than I am and when he offers me a ride to town, I ask how much. He throws out a price and not only is the price reasonable, but it’s dirt cheap. Warning sign #1. Unfortunately, the lack of sleep over the last week has obviously affected me, as I’d just forgotten the cardinal rule when traveling through SE Asia: All taxi drivers will rip you off when given half a chance. Just about everyone in SE Asia will try to rip you off, and with a big smile on their face. So when my taxi driver said 1500 dong, he actually meant 1.5 million dong (about 90USD). Brazen!

Before I get to the drop-off point, and the heated argument that followed, this guy was way cool. On the 45 minute cab ride, we listened to Celine Dion (I didn’t even have to ask for it!), talked about our jobs, and he even taught me some Vietnamese. Then comes the drop-off point and when I hand him 200,000 dong, thinking I was including the tip, he laughs at me, and the negotiations begin. He makes up some bogus lie about a 500,000 dong entry fee into Hanoi and when I demand the receipt, he comes up with nothing. Surprise, surprise. We finally settle on a 10 USD cab ride, but I realize I only have 6 USD left over from my trip to Laos. Gahh. We continue arguing and as the conversation gets more heated, I begin formulating an escape plane. Right as I’m about to grab my bags and book it, I hear the locks switch, and both of the men turn towards me.

At this point, I decide to just get out of the car. I throw the money at them, shoot a dirty look, and peace out. As I’m walking down the street, stewing about the taxi drivers, I run into Mj and Stephen, my two friends I’m meeting in Hanoi. So good to see a familiar face! I drop my backpack off at their hotel, grab a bowl of Pho (popular Vietnamese dish) and past out a few hours later, as Hanoi basically shuts down at 11pm…the hotels even lock the doors at 11 or 12, so you can’t get in past then.

So many motobikes and NO traffic lights or laws

The next day, we have a nice, long breakfast at the Irish pub down the street. Little did I know this would be the last meal I’d be able to pay for… (cue the ominous foreshadowing). We then book a 3 day, 2 night cruise along Halong Bay, a beautiful area nominated as one of the new 7 natural wonders of the world. Good thing we booked the superior tour, because no amount of money I spent would have mattered… (cue two). We spend the rest of the afternoon shopping for Christmas gifts. I wish I had bought more… DUH DUH DUM. Are you feeling the sense of doom, yet?

Merry Christmas, almost!

Adorable little Vietnamese girl-- so cute!

After shopping, we visit a big cathedral. When we walk in, the place is completely empty. Next thing I know, I’m surrounded by 60 people chanting in Vietnamese and swaying back and forth. Time to leave….

Cathedral

We arrive back at our hotel, where the very sweet owner has made us dinner. We all sit down and enjoy an authentic Vietnamese meal with her family. I accidentally eat pork. At least it wasn’t dog.

After dinner, we head to the night market—the scene of the crime. Stephen, Mj, and I had just bought ice cream cones and we’re walking down the crowded street when I suddenly feel my bag become lighter. My hand immediately swings up to my back. I feel around and realize my purse is missing. I start running through the streets, bumping into people and pushing them over, to see if they know what just happened, but everyone looks the exact same and I have no idea which face took my purse. I find a cop who pushes me aside and doesn’t lift a finger to help.

At this point, my screams have drawn a crowd and I run into Stephen, who has grabbed my bag and is staring at it with his jaw open. There are 2 perfectly slit gapes in my bag, made only be a surgical scalpel or a very sharp knife. I’m now running down the street, desperately trying to find someone who speaks English. With every passing second, I know my chances of recovering my wallet are rapidly diminishing and there is nothing I can do about it. I finally find the police station and as soon as I walk in, the police officer gives me a bored look and ushers me out of the building, without a second glance my way. I quickly realize the cops here are useless to tourists and the only thing left for me to do is find an internet café, call my bank, and cancel all my cards.

I spend two hours on the internet and cannot even pay for it. I am literally penniless. Luckily, my passport was back at my hotel, so at least I won’t have a problem leaving Vietnam. The next few days are a blur; a suspicious blur. I walk around with no money, yet constantly aware of where everyone is and how close they are to me. Seems paranoid, but to put it into perspective: 1 week before, my friend Abby was in Vietnam and lost everything after someone stole her purse right from under her, while she was asleep on the bus. 3 days after I got my wallet stolen, our new Welsh friend felt someone unzip her bag as they walked behind her…luckily, she swung around just in time to prevent something from getting stolen. It’s really sad, because I have such a bitter taste in my mouth when I think of Vietnam. The lady who did Mj’s laundry even tried to steal her pants. No joke. Bitterness over–moving on to the tour of Halong Bay! Stephen, MJ and myself board our “cruise ship” (boat?) to spend the next 2 days at sea!

All aboard!

Sunbathing like we're still in Thailand

It’s a chillingly cold trip, compared to the last 5 months in the tropical heat of Thailand, and the first time all semester I get to bust out my sweatshirt and scarf! MJ, Stephen , our new Welsh friends, and I spend the trip playing cards till the wee hours of the morning, drinking a bottle of Jack for breakfast, and swimming in the frigid sea, just so we could say we did it. Other highlights from Vietnam include:

  • Stephen’s first time riding a bike! Besides the minor laceration on his ear due to a small crash, he did very well.
  • Exploring the magnificent and incredibly large caves throughout Halong Bay.
  • Kayaking along the caves and not capsizing into the frigid waters.
  • Not having anything else stolen from us!!
  • Not getting run over in the lawless traffic lanes.
  • Seeing a water puppet show!
  • Endless meals of Pho.
  • Not eating dog, but seeing one hanging in a nearby night market :/
  • LEAVING VIETNAM!!!!!!!

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