Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Good Morning Vietnam!

Oh, Vietnam! How do I love thee? Let me count the ways....

I cannot begin to explain what a relief it is to be in Vietnam right now. Primarily because it means that I am no longer sick and am able to get on the move again. But also because, while China is nice, I never found a connection with the country that I was hoping I would. Its a bit like seeing a movie that everyone tells you is SO AWESOME! Like, OMG, go there right now and see it! You'll love it! And then you go see it and are all like, this is it? What's all the hype about?

Vietnam is much more like what I pictured Asia to be like. Its more rustic and gritty and just feels more real. The people here super friendly in a way that I would never equate with China. Maybe its just my personal experience. I know I have friends who would argue this very point, but its my blog, so my view is the one that's getting heard.

My first experience in the country was a bus ride from the border to Hanoi. Had I not seen and experienced it, I'd have thought it was one of those obscure travel stories. I assure you, this is common over here! We decided to take the bus from Lao Cai because the train station is closed from 11:00am - 4:00pm and we arrived at the train station 30 minutes too late to buy a ticket without having to wait or buying a train ticket from a travel agent for an inflated price. I thought I read somewhere that the bus took 9 hours to get to Hanoi while the train would take 12 hours. Not sure where I got those numbers as they turned out to be far from correct. We figured that leaving Lao Cai at 1:00 would put us into town at a reasonable hour. Had I known what we were getting into, I would have undoubtedly made a different decision. But since we were already on the bus, we were committed.

The long distance bus terminal appeared to me more for goods transportation rather than passengers. None of the buses are clearly marked and we had to double check to make sure we were on the right bus because the drivers were busy loading the bus full of all kinds of crap we couldn't identify and strapping more stuff to the roof. This is what the back of the bus looked like when we left:

Most of the seats in the back of the bus were removed to make room for storage. Obviously, there wasn't enough room. We had no leg room because of all the boxes and bags. Check out the front...

We started with 5 passengers and about 1 ton of crap both inside and on top of the bus. Over the next few hours we'd stop and pick up random things like boxes, tires, letters and occasionally more passengers. The driver's assistant paid off the police at least 4 times throughout the trip. Eventually, we had so many people on board that there were no more seats and people started sitting in the aisles. And on one stop, we were apparently the moving van for a family along the way. What should have been a 30 second stop (these buses don't stop while you climb aboard--they keep moving with or without you!) turned into a 20 minute stop while they loaded everything from armoires, beds and chairs to boxes and a few passengers. Once it became apparent it was going to take a while, David volunteered to help load things and climbed up on the side of the bus to assist. The fact that it was dark and they were handing heavy furniture over a 3 foot deep trench to load the bus made things much more interesting and precarious. The biggest difference between Asia and the States is that nobody on the bus seemed to mind the delay. Just part of travel!

So, we thought the bus ride was going to be shorter than the train. But at 8:00, when we stopped for dinner, we were still out in the middle of nowhere. We were served last at the roadside restaurant and figured out we were about to get scammed when the locals at the next table started talking about how much the Dollar was worth in comparison to the Dong. Of course we were overcharged and of course we fought the bill. To the point that David threw down money and started walking back to the bus (which they'd started and were backing up--another tactic to get us to pay without questioning things), leaving me there surprised! The locals blocked my way out, insisting that I pay the difference in the bill. I went out the other way and got back on the bus. They chased us onto the bus and stopped the engine until the bill was settled (we got them down a whole dollar!). Its more the principle of the matter rather than the amount. Everyone is trying to get a cut and we're so familiar with scams and overinflated pricing that its almost become a non-issue. Just an every day annoyance.

Once we got moving again, it became obvious that we were in it for the long haul when the locals started finding random nooks and crannies on the floor and on top of luggage to fall asleep. By 10pm, I'd had enough and was exhausted. I curled up on a space in the aisle on top of a bag of walnuts, squished in between some guy's briefcase and people's feet. Not exactly comfortable, but I managed to score a few hours of dozing before trading places with David, who had the seat we were sharing. He couldn't get comfortable there but, again, I had no problem dozing.

They dropped us off 3k from the borders of my map of Hanoi at 3:15am, waking us up yelling that we had to hurry and get off the bus. This is a common tactic they use when pickpocketing you in your sleep--to force you to hurry off the bus or train, only to realize after you've gotten off that you're missing something. We were hip to this scam and were careful to sleep on top of our bags so nothing was missing. We regrouped and caught a cab to a hostel in the old town and were in bed by 5am, dusty, dirty and exhausted. A couple came in like 20 minutes after us, having taken the overnight train from Lao Cai in a soft sleeper, which they said was quite nice. They paid 2.5x what we paid for our train ticket and didn't have near the cultural experience, but they were clean and well rested. The train may be the way to do things from now on....

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