Monthly Archives: October 2015

Night Train to Da Nang (and more highway robbery)

Picture of train.

The train to Da Nang.

February 23 - 24, 2015
Days 221 - 222

After taking a bus to Saigon (with no further knife-pullings), Katie and I boarded our train to the city of Da Nang, in central Vietnam. We paid for a luxurious soft sleeper, with only four beds per berth. A quiet-but-friendly mother and daughter shared the cabin with us. The plush beds with clean sheets were a significant upgrade from the hard bench seats we had ridden on many Chinese trains.

We spent most of our day staring at the rice fields, mountains and forests that characterized southern and central Vietnam. I would've appreciated some fresh air, but the windows were all locked, probably for our safety. Then, a few hours into our journey, a burning smell filled our car. I walked around, trying to locate its source. I never found it, but the odor was strong enough to force an employee to open the windows. Katie and I grew ecstatic. We stuck our heads outside like dogs, careful to avoid being decapitated. It took at least an hour for the fire to be extinguished, and we enjoyed every minute of it.

That night I bought two beers, but I forgot that Katie couldn't drink because she was on antibiotics from having giardia, so I drank them both. It was a wonderful journey.

* * *

Our Train arrived in Da Nang at 6am. We walked to the main road and got on the bus to Hoi An. The attendant was wearing sunglasses, and a mask covered her mouth. A local woman who boarded the bus in front of us paid 20,000 dong. I tried giving the attendant the same amount, but she demanded 40,000 each. After getting ripped off – and threatened with a knife – in Can Tho, I was already leery of Vietnamese bus attendants. And now we were being charged double, simply because we were foreigners.

I said, “The price is twenty thousand. I won't give you more.”

She yelled at me in Vietnamese, then turned and said something to the driver. The bus slowed down and the attendant pointed at the door. Her message was clear. It didn't matter how much the tickets normally were; the price for Katie and me was 40,000. There would be no bargaining. If we didn't like it, we could always walk.

It's one thing to overcharge a tourist for a souvenir, or even a ticket on a private bus. If you look like you have a lot of money, a good salesperson will increase the price accordingly. You can't blame them for trying. But this was a public bus, and it was the only one that went to Hoi An. I think I'm a reasonable guy. I have a lot of tolerance for other cultures, and I realize that Vietnam is a poor country. Many bad experiences can be chalked up to cultural differences. But this woman's behavior was unacceptable, no matter the country.

As much as I despised the attendant, I realized that she had the upper-hand. A taxi would be even more expensive than her inflated price. It would take us all day to walk to Hoi An. Seeing no reasonable way out of this situation, I paid her 40,000 dong. Then I said, in clear and slow English, “You have stolen our money. Understand? You are a thief.”

Because her entire face was covered, I couldn't read her reaction. For what it was worth, she didn't say anything for the rest of the trip. And if she had a knife, she kept it hidden.

Most of our interactions in Vietnam have been positive. The family we stayed with in Can Tho was simply amazing. In Chau Doc, everyone we saw smiled and waved to us. I didn't want to dwell on the few people who were hellbent on ripping off the tourists. I tried to put the experience past me, but I kept thinking: Am I a human being, or a walking cash register?

More photos from the train ride

Getting Stabbed Is No Fun

Picture of Ho Chi Minh.

Could Uncle Ho save us?

February 22, 2015
Day 220

Katie and I decided to take a day trip from Can Tho, Vietnam to a small town, about two hours away. At the bus station we found a chaotic jumble of attendants and salesmen running around, trying to drag potential customers into their buses. We went to one company's official ticket window, but none of their buses were going where we wanted. Instead, we walked to the parking lot, where several buses were waiting, and asked the salesmen for guidance.

A skinny guy led us across the lot, never bothering to remove the cigarette that was dangling from his mouth as he talked. Several men yanked us in all directions, pleading with us to go with them. We ignored them and ended up in a half-sized bus, sitting on a bench seat behind the driver. We breathed a sigh of relief – not only were we no longer getting hounded outside, but we also had plenty of legroom.

When we sat down, Katie reached for her phone. It wasn't in her pocket. She searched her bag, then confirmed: the phone had been stolen. Somebody must have swiped it when we were forcing our way through the large crowd. She hated that phone so it wasn't a huge loss, but still, it's always a terrible experience when something gets stolen. But there wasn't much we could do about it now.

The bus attendant was an overweight woman wearing a bucket hat with a yellow flower embroidered on the front. She sat next to the sliding door, facing us, and held up two 200,000 dong notes, indicating the price. My mind was still racing, thinking about Katie's phone, and I couldn't remember what the price was supposed to be. I had been to a few countries where one dollar was worth more than one thousand of the local currency, but Vietnam had the most extreme exchange rate I had ever encountered – 22,000:1. Needless to say, all of those zero's were confusing. I gave her one 200,000 note, thinking that should be plenty. She laughed and said, in broken English, “No, two hundred each.” It seemed like a lot of money, but then I remembered that we had just paid 320,000 for our tickets to Saigon, so it wasn't that expensive. We gave her 200,000 more and waited.

Fifteen minutes went by and we were still sitting at the bus station. The attendant spent most of her time staring at her fancy iPhone 6, and the rest of her time yelling at everyone who crossed her path. A handful of locals were sitting at the back of the bus, and there were still several empty seats. It was now clear that we wouldn't leave until the bus was full.

While listening to the attendant berate a potential new customer for not wanting to ride with us, something clicked in my mind. We had paid 320,000 total (160,000 each) for our Saigon tickets. Today we paid 200,000 each to go half the distance. On top of that, the attendant hadn't even given us tickets. Most of our money was going directly into her pocket. (I later confirmed that we were supposed to pay 40,000 each for this trip.) Now I was seething with anger.

Another foreigner came aboard and the attendant wanted 250,000 dong to go to Saigon. She refused to pay that much, so the attendant kicked her off. She was becoming more belligerent and abusive by the minute.

I mentioned to Katie that we could always walk away. We were already flustered from her stolen phone and paying five times the going rate for our bus tickets, and we hadn't even left the parking lot. We still would have to buy a ticket back to Can Tho at the end of the day, and probably get ripped off once again.

The same foreign woman came back and paid a cool quarter-million, stating that none of the other buses were going to Saigon. The attendant lambasted her yet again as she took her seat. At that point, Katie agreed that we should walk away. On top of ripping us off, this detestable woman was stressing us out, and we didn't want to put up with her any more.

Katie told the attendant that we were leaving and asked for our money back. Of course, she refused. Katie held out her hand and said, “Mo-ney! Give us our money!” The vile woman screamed at her.

I stood and said, “Give us our money. Now!” I knew she wouldn't budge, but I figured it was worth a shot.

A horrified expression came across her face when I stood. She almost fell backward and scurried over the divider, into the front passenger seat. Then she reached into her purse and pulled out a knife! She opened it and the three-inch blade clicked into place. She snarled and her eyes grew wide. She pointed the blade at me, then made a throat-cutting motion, accompanied by a “hocking” sound-effect.

“Ooh, I'm so afraid of you,” I said sarcastically. “Come on, lady. Try it.” Maybe it was the adrenaline, but I wasn't afraid of this pathetic woman. Somehow, I didn't think she had it in her to attack me. I never took my eyes off of her.

As quickly as she had brandished the knife, she closed it and put it back into her purse. Then she stepped outside. She seemed calmer now. Maybe she had gotten rid of her aggression by threatening to kill me. She even went back to playing on her phone. Then she stepped inside the bus, phone in hand.

“She's taking our picture,” Katie said.

I looked at her and realized it was true – the phone's camera was pointed directly at us. Katie put her hand in front of the lens, and we left the bus.

Two can play at this game, I thought, and took out my phone. I tried to take a picture of her, but she slammed the door in my face. I walked around the bus and photographed the front and the license plate. The driver covered his face, but that was fine. He was just an innocent bystander. Or was he? Neither he, nor anyone else, said a thing when this despicable woman threatened to kill me and yelled at everyone. Why the silent treatment?

I went up to the closed door and laughed maniacally. The attendant was one of the most horrible human beings I had ever encountered. She was a cancer to society, spreading her misery to everyone she encountered. We had felt extremely welcomed in Vietnam until that point, and I didn't want to let her ruin our entire trip. Unfortunately, the other foreigner was stuck with her for the next several hours.

When I finished my crazed laughter, Katie said, “Freedom is having the time and money to walk away.” And that's exactly what we did. We were free.

* Side note: While this was happening, the rest of our group from Beijing was heading north through Vietnam on a bus. The driver only allowed five minutes for a bathroom break, and the line for the women's room was long. Haisam pleaded with the driver to wait a few more minutes so his wife could use the toilet. The driver grew belligerent and pulled out a machete. To defend himself, Haisam turned around and uprooted a small tree. Luckily Haisam's standoff ended as quickly as mine had, but that group still had to put up with this guy for the rest of the day. After hearing about this, I wondered: Are all bus employees in Vietnam crazy?

Mekong Boat to Vietnam

Picture of woman.

A woman steers her boat with her foot.

February 19 - 22, 2015
Days 217 - 220

Katie and I decided travel from Cambodia to Vietnam in style: in an enclosed speed boat down the Mekong River. We climbed aboard and left Phnom Penh early in the afternoon. Before long, we were gazing at the beautiful countryside, passing fishing boats, ferries, farmers, houses on stilts and plenty of tropical vegetation. The scenery brought back memories of my trip down the Amazon River in Peru and Brazil. Other than the Buddhist temples, of course.

A few hours into our journey, Katie cracked open a beer. As if on queue, we stopped at the border, where we had to get stamped out of Cambodia. Katie sipped her beer while waiting in line. She commented that it was her first, and probably last, time drinking alcohol at an immigration checkpoint. The officials didn't seem to mind. They simply stamped our passports and we were on our way. Next we got stamped into Vietnam and continued our trip, watching the slow-paced life along the river's shores.

As the sun was setting, we pulled into the small city of Chau Doc and found a cheap hotel near the main square. The Tet lunar new year holiday was just getting started, so lots of people were playing games with their kids and enjoying their evening. We got a bowl of delicious pho soup amidst the crowd of happy festival-goers and called it an early night.

Picture of kids.

Local kids in Chau Doc.

I felt lethargic the next morning. In fact, I found it difficult to carry my backpack more than a few blocks. Normally I had much more energy than this, so I knew something was wrong. Maybe it was the pho soup? Still, Katie seemed all right and we both had eaten the same thing...

Rather than do anything strenuous, Katie and I went for a short walk around Chau Doc. And that's when the waving began. Everyone, yes everyone we saw smiled and waved to us, and most said hello. In all of my travels, I had never gotten such a warm welcome from so many people. One reason for this was obvious: we also didn't see any other foreigners, so this town had yet to be spoiled by mass tourism. Too bad I didn't have the energy to enjoy it more.

In the afternoon we took a bus to Can Tho, one of the largest towns in the Mekong delta. I slept most of the way, and when I woke up, Katie was complaining about stomach cramps. Then she burped and I caught a whiff of rotten eggs. The smell brought back an unpleasant memory, when I had gotten giardia from drinking polluted river water while canoeing on an Amazon tributary in Bolivia. I hoped my instincts were wrong, but all signs pointed to both of us being exposed to contaminated water. Maybe it was the pho soup, after all.

When we got to Can Tho, we stopped at a “home stay,” similar to a bed and breakfast. An older couple who didn't speak English lived there. Their employees had all gone home for the Tet festival, so their friend's English-speaking son Tom came over to help us. He offered to take us on a tour the next day, and laid out an ambitious itinerary. He was such a nice guy, we didn't want to disappoint him by canceling. Despite the fact that neither of us felt well, we agreed to meet him at 5am.

Picture of family.

Home stay family.

I'll spare you the details, but suffice it to say that Katie didn't get much sleep. She definitely had giardia. I slept well and woke up feeling almost back to normal. My theory was that I had been infected with parasites so many times in my life, my body was able to kill this strand quickly. Of course, I'm not sure of the long-term implications of getting sick so many times, nor would I recommend going through this process to build up an immunity.

As promised, we met with Tom at 5am. The pharmacies weren't open yet, so Katie would have to wait a bit before we could get her the drugs she needed. Tom took us to the Mekong River, where we rented a boat. Even at this early hour, many people who lived along the shores were outside of their homes, going about their daily routines. There were also some signs of industry, such as stacks of wood, factories and gas stations. Our main reason for going to the river so early was to see the floating market. Unfortunately, not many vendors were out, due to the holiday. We bought a fifty-cent watermelon and a couple rounds of coffee, then headed to a village along the shore for a bowl of rice noodle soup for breakfast (Katie passed).

Afterward, we took a tour of a rice noodle factory. Once again, business was slow due to the holiday, but the employees did explain how they husked the rice, then burned the husks to cook the rice, then used the ashes to fertilize the next crop of rice. It was an impressive closed-loop system.

Picture of kids.

Getting set for Tet.

When we motored back upstream toward the city, the market was in full swing, small as it was. The main product for sale was flowers, undoubtedly for the holiday. The shops were now open in Can Tho, so we were finally able to get Katie her medication.

The drugs took effect within a few hours. When the mom at the home stay found out that Katie was sick, she made her a bowl of rice porridge to help her stomach. Before long Katie was back to her normal self. It's amazing what antibiotics and a little rest and relaxation can do for you.

On our last day in Can Tho, we borrowed some undersized bikes and rode out of town, past wheat and rice fields, banana plantations and plenty of other farms. There was a long sidewalk, devoid of pedestrians and parked motorcycles, so we could enjoy our stress-free afternoon in the countryside. Then we helped the family make spring rolls and had a delicious bowl of fish soup for supper. Despite our illnesses, our stay in Can Tho was great. It would've been amazing, if only a crazy woman hadn't pulled a knife on me...

More Mekong River photos
More Chau Doc photos
More Can Tho photos
More floating market photos