Note to self: travel days are stressful – brace yourself for them. Not necessarily in bad ways, but there’s almost always some inherent unforeseen challenge involved in getting from one place to another in this developing world. (‘3rd world’, ‘developing world’ – tell me please, what is the ‘correct’ lingo these days?) Add in potential exponential factors when crossing borders.
Welcome to Vietnam!
It promised to be an easy crossing – after all, it was only an hour to the border and then another half hour to Ha Tien – the first Vietnamese town I would encounter. Once considered a remote outpost in the far south corner of Vietnam; the town has since expanded, stretched its former boundaries and was now moving in every direction since the border with Cambodia had been opened a few years ago. It was not Ha Tien I was after – it was only its convenience to Kep that made me choose it as my embarkation point into this country. From here, I was completely unsure where I would head. While this had caused some undue consternation in itself (and ridiculous amounts of time pondering, deciding and then not-deciding), I finally realized I would just arrive and see what happened – nothing really needed to figured out beforehand.
First I chose what I had been told was the most reputable mini-van company to get me from Kep to Ha Tien. Botanica sold their tickets and I had used them before in Cambodia with hardly a glitch. I bought a ticket the evening before my departure from the company ‘office’ in the middle of the crab market. Yep, I returned there for one more crab dinner (this time cooked in coconut milk, garlic and lemongrass – wow!) before I departed Kep. It was a wise decision. The dinner, that is. The mini-van ticket is another story – no, it’s not another story, it’s this story!
The man in the ticket office asked me where I was going in Vietnam. Since I didn’t yet know, I said to Ha Tien and maybe to Phu Quoc – he tried to sell me the ferry ticket to the island along with the van ticket, but I wasn’t yet ready to commit. “Okay,” he said. “The mini-van will drop you off in the middle of Ha Tien then.” Yep, that’s what he said. It sounded fine with me.
As promised, they arrived to pick me up at Botanica – I was waiting and ready for their arrival, which was a few minutes early. The mini-van was surprisingly empty – only two other travelers, an older (late 60’s, maybe even early 70’s) couple from France. From Paris, actually (along with another house in Southern France) – and somehow they fit the part, impeccably dressed without a wrinkle in their khaki-colored linen pants, matching linen hats, designer matching luggage and everything ‘just so’. These were the kind of people who could pull off beige and they did. There I sat with my bright orange and white dress, giggling to myself as I conducted the fashion assessment. We exchanged a few friendly words – they were headed to Phu Quoc, the known-to-be-idyllic island off the coast of Vietnam (and part of Vietnam) that had been toying with me for the last few weeks.
To Phu Quoc or not to Phu Quoc
I was befuddled by Phu Quoc – it had been on my itinerary since before I arrived on my trip – most everything I had read in my preparations painted an extraordinary picture of the quintessential tropical paradise. Why wouldn’t it be on my list? So on it, it was. But then I had discovered and been satiated with the beach life at Otres in Cambodia. And then I had read some rather disparaging things about it on Trip Advisor, a reference tool, I’m finding, that is highly subjective and very difficult to depend on.
As I was readying for my Vietnam departure, reviewing my notes and needing to create a route, I kept coming back to Phu Quoc – when I had researched possible places to stay, it was difficult to find a room for a budget in the single digits – no, not difficult – impossible. The lowest price I could find for a place with decent reviews was $25. That would blow my already mostly-blown budget (a topic for another time – suffice it for now to say that my idea of living on $25 a day is not being realized – things have changed in Asia since last I was here and food, housing, transport and ‘a little extra’ was coming out to more like at least $35 a day … but I digress).
That element alone was helping me to decide to blow off Phu Quoc – I didn’t really need any more beach time – it was time to move into the cultural experience of Vietnam. But then I would talk with someone who had been there or who was planning to go there and the enticement would return – ‘oh, don’t miss it, it’s gorgeous. And it’s slated for huge change – the Vietnam government has decided to turn it into the biggest tourist draw in Southeast Asia (they hope) – in 5 years, it will be completely different – they’re calling it the new Phuket.’ Well, I had been to Phuket 12 years ago and already then, it had been turned into a tourist haven, way over-developed, crowded and expensive. I could only imagine what it was like now. Everyone said that Phu Quoc was amazing … but still I was undecided.
So initially I was going. Then after hotel reviews, I decided not to go. Then after a few conversations at Botanica, I decided I would go. Then I wrote to the $25 a night place and asked for a reservation. No response. I decided if I didn’t hear from them, I would take that as a sign that I wasn’t going to go (funny how everything begins to ‘mean something’ – but what else did I have to go on and how else would I make up my mind?!). Then as I was falling asleep the night before I was to leave Cambodia, I heard the new email noise on my I-phone go off – I checked what the message was and sure enough, there was an email from the Phu Quoc hotel – yes, we have room for you, please come to our hotel – we’ll see you tomorrow! I laughed out loud and rolled over and back to sleep. I would decide in the morning.
The mini-van ride was, as promised, about an hour to the border – there was a small dusty village with a border that wouldn’t have been noticeable except for the red and white metal bar across it. The min-van stopped on the Cambodian side and the driver directed us to the booth on the far left – I left my backpack in the van, and walked over, passport in hand. There’s something dramatic about crossing over the borders of countries – it’s all artificial, of course, these random borders that we create. But they mean something to the people on either side of them, that’s for sure. ‘It’s ours – no, it’s ours.’ – More lives have been lost to this tug of war than to any other. I pondered this as I ambled slowly through the dusty road and I was romanced, not by that notion, but by the very fact that I was freely moving through the world, from one country to the next with confidence, ease and a sense of I-belong-here that at any other time in history would be astonishing. I chose to still be astonished.
It was big news that I had over-stayed my Visa by one day (not to me, of course) and all men clad in green uniforms gathered around to look at my passport and discuss this – it even required, imagine that, a few forms to be completed. Once done, one of them looked up at me and said, “pay me only $5.” “Only $5?” I smiled. He didn’t. I handed him the money and walked back to the mini-van. Everything was in order.
It was then that I noticed several moto drivers around the van. The Parisian man was talking rather vehemently to one of them. The Cambodian man was trying to hand him a cell phone – he refused to take it. I couldn’t quite get what was happening. The driver’s seat of our van was empty. I looked around for the driver and saw him eating in a nearby open air restaurant. Oh, all is fine – he’s just eating before we carry on. No worries, we can wait. At least that’s what I told the woman waiting in the van. The French man was getting more rattled. I decided I would take matters into my own hands and clarify the situation with the driver. I walked over to where he was eating and began a conversation with him – he looked right through me as if I wasn’t there (that sounds like the line of a song – ?). Then one of the moto drivers approached me, holding out a cell phone (someone calling me – how nice, I thought!) – I took the phone and someone on the other end who spoke good-enough English said – “just take the moto – it’s fine – I am waiting for you on the other side of the border with a van that will take you to Ha Tien.” “Well then, why don’t you just come here and get us then,” I asked. “It’s too expensive; the government charges a lot of money to us to cross back and forth. That’s why we have two vans and the motos to take you across. There is no charge. Don’t worry – I am telling you the truth.” Ahhhh, that should have been my first clue – when someone is telling you the truth, they don’t need to tell you they are telling you the truth. But I didn’t pick up on the clue. The French people with their designer luggage didn’t want to get on the motos – she was scared – I encouraged them to surrender and see it all as part of the adventure. “But why didn’t they tell us this in Kep?” she moaned to me. “Well then, it wouldn’t be an adventure now would it?” I said with an encouraging smile. She was worried about how the luggage would make it – I asked if she had seen how much stuff these folks put on motos – their luggage would hardly stymie these people! We were off – I got on the back of the moto and headed to Vietnam.
Once at that border, again I had to pass through now the Vietnamese passport control. First a form to fill out about the state of my health – all is fine, I reported. The man held up a thermometer to my cheek, it read out 36.6 degrees and he asked me to pay him $1. I didn’t quibble. I went to the next window to have my passport reviewed – he asked where I was going – this time I surprised myself and said Phu Quoc. Hhhmmm, that was news to me.
Once across the border I walked to a parking lot where I anticipated finding the van. There stood the motos with our luggage still on them. But I noticed a change – they were different motos with different drivers. No longer Cambodian, they were now Vietnamese of course. There was no van in sight. The Parisians showed up and I gave them the news – there is no van – we have to take the motos to Ha Tien – it’s only about 18 kilometers. The woman turned white. 800 meters was one thing, but it seemed that 18 kilometers suddenly sounded to her like 1800. She said she wasn’t going to do it. The man was more than perturbed. They kept referring to what the man in Kep told them. I realized I was getting drawn into their drama and really, I was okay with this – slightly concerned and wondering where the hell the moto would take me if I went sailing off on it, but surely comfortable enough getting on the back of the moto. And yes, after all, this was part of the adventure. Although all the warnings I had heard about Vietnam scams happening at every turn were going off in my mind, my intuition told me it was okay. My radar was up, but I decided all was well.
The French guy had taken a short walk and found out that they could hire a taxi to take them to the ferry for Phu Quoc – did I want to join them? No, I wasn’t paying for any more transport to Ha Tien – I had already adamantly told my moto driver that – “no more money, I already paid.” “Okay, okay, maybe only a tip for me.” “No, no tip,” I barked – “I want to be taken to Ha Tien like I was told and that’s it.” He said fine and I decided to let the French people find their way on their own – I hopped on the moto and we were off.
He asked me (he had to ask me!) where I wanted to go – to Ha Tien, I said – take me to the center. He said it was no good, very expensive and not nice. Well, then, take me to the center anyway so I can have a look and then I can decide what I want. The ferry to Phu Quoc was not for another two hours – I had time to make my decision. He took me to the center and from the looks of it, he was right. I don’t know about the expensive part, but it was a big bustling city with noise and big tall buildings and from a cursory look, it didn’t really offer me anything I could imagine that I wanted. The vision of a pristine tropical island floated to the surface of my mind’s eye. I leaned forward to his ear and said, “Take me to the ferry please.” And he did.
We stopped along the way at a place where I could buy a ferry ticket – about the amount I knew the ferry to cost, so nothing out of the ordinary. One problem – I had no Vietnamese currency. And unlike the Cambodians, they were rather attached to the idea of using their own currency and not ours. Okay, next hurdle. Of course, I could exchange money here, too. “Change money, change money,” he ordered me. The woman behind the makeshift desk wrote down the exchange rate – it looked okay to me as I recalled the guide book and the internet reporting it was about 18,000 dong to a dollar. She was offering 19,000. It all looked okay, but I was hesitant. Is this a scam of some kind, I kept wondering? Unless the money is fake, it looks okay, I reasoned. First I pulled out $20 to change, then $40, then $60 as the moto driver kept saying, “More, more” which only made me more and more hesitant. Whatever it was in me that decided it was all okay pulled out a total of $100 (careful to try to hide the other $900 I had in my pouch less they think I was one of those ‘rich Americans’!) – I handed it over to her – she handed me back the correct change – I looked over the colorful, plastic (yes, plastic) bills and decided it was all just fine. Time would tell, of course, when I went to use it; but the deal was done. Just as we were leaving, the French people showed up in their taxi to arrange their ferry tickets. We rode off to the ferry dock and the moto driver brought me to the nearby ‘restaurant’, handed me a menu and ordered me to sit down and eat. I smiled, handed him that $1 I said that I wouldn’t and thanked him. He smiled broadly in return and drove off.
The chairs were those plastic jobs, low to the ground and barely wide enough for me. I crouched down into one of them, gingerly so as to avoid crashing through it, lest it couldn’t hold my weight. It held it just fine. I was surrounded with Vietnamese people who got a big kick out of me sitting there – they smiled, not nearly as widely or as warmly as I had come to experience with the Cambodians; but smile they did. A woman, probably in her 20’s with long beautiful dark hair and peppercorn eyes came and sat near me – she didn’t speak a word of English, but she smiled and sat there with her daughter, encouraging her to wave hello to me. The girl and I waved incessantly back and forth. The smiles became warmer. I ordered some food – carefully, I pointed at the bread and egg on the menu for 50 cents – a snack I figured I couldn’t go wrong with. The woman and the girl prepared to leave – the girl blew me kisses as they walked away. I decided in that moment that I couldn’t believe everything I had read about the Vietnam scams. Not yet, at least.
I wandered over to the ferry dock where the French people were waiting. No other tourists around. We boarded and had an uneventful 2-hour ferry ride to the island. It seemed that indeed I was now headed to Phu Quoc. Since I had a reservation, I figured what the heck – it promised to be a whole lot better than Ha Tien looked and from there, I could figure out onward travel. I had a pocketful of dong and I was ready to go! I was relieved that the decision was finally made.
A woman came around on the ferry offering mini-van tickets to Long Beach, where my hotel was. She assured me that they would take me directly to my hotel. I hesitated only a moment and shelled out the $2 – here they would take dollars! I joked with the French folks who I had seen also buy the tickets – “geez, I guess we’re an easy mark – let’s hope this mini-van shows up.” They didn’t laugh nearly as heartily as I did.
The woman who had sold me the ticket helped me off the ferry and directed me where the mini-van would be waiting. I walked off the almost-kilometer long dock and wondered what I would find. Sure enough, the van was there – and we were quickly off. A Vietnamese man onboard tried to sell me another guest house – a common enough routine that it hardly bothered me – I assured him that I had a reservation and a room and I would like him to take me there – I wanted to be on the beach, not in town and that’s where we were headed. Actually the hotel I chose was not directly on the beach because those were really price prohibitive, but it was supposedly a 2-minute walk away. We drove on. The pitted gravel road was in the process of being widened to what looked like would become at least a 4-lane road. Yikes, development was indeed underway. So far all I could see was the sea, mountains all around and palm trees everywhere. It looked promising.
I arrived at Hotel A74 (unfortunately and boringly named as the street address) – it was a tall building and I couldn’t quite get where the sea was, but I walked on determinedly and glad to have a place to end this travel – it had already been six hours since I left Botanica and I was hot, tired and hungry. At the hotel entrance, I was greeted by the smiling faces of the women workers. I returned them. The man behind the desk asked me my name. I said I was Christina and that I had a reservation. I’m sorry he said, but there is a problem. We don’t have a room for you. But we can help you with another room in town – it’s not so far away and we can give you a free bicycle than you can use to come here and have breakfast. It was a long, run-on sentence. I sunk. And I was pissed. I knew I shouldn’t have come to this island, I thought immediately. He looked at me dejectedly and apologized. It didn’t carry much weight for me in the moment.
What’s your name, I asked. “Binh,” he responded. I told him I wanted to talk to Tim. Tim’s not here. Ohsure, he’s not here, I thought. I was getting madder by the second. “Why did Tim write to me last night and tell me to come if you don’t have a room for me? I don’t want to be in town – I want to be here, at the beach. I don’t want to ride a bicycle in this heat. This is very bad business”, I told him. “I’ve been traveling all day and now I have to walk the streets here and find another hotel? This is ridiculous.” I left my backpack and stormed off. After a few steps in this totally foreign place, I turned around and walked back in the hotel. I told him that I wasn’t going to walk up and down the street, that he had to take me on his moto to find another hotel. “I am very unhappy,” I told him again, just in case he hadn’t yet figured that out. He was calm, patient and apologetic throughout my tempered tirade. I felt even more exhausted.
“There is one other option,” he said. “We have a roof-top terrace where we can set up a bed for you and then we can figure out something else for you tomorrow.” He looked at me expectantly. “Well, let’s go look at it,” I acquiesced, my voice softening. No elevator, of course, and five flights up to a gorgeous terrace filled with potted palms, hammocks and a stunning view out to the sea. “We can set up a mattress for you here with a mosquito net and here’s a shower – I’m sorry, only cold water, but that’s okay, yes?” “What kind of mattress,” I queried. He showed it to me, a thin, fold up kind of thing. I’ve certainly slept on worse. And better, but not likely tonight. “Yeah, well, what will you charge me for this?” “Just $5,” he said. My mood lifted a bit. Or, he reminded me, “I can show you the place in town or I can take you on my moto to other places, c’mon, I will take you there right now, it’s no problem.” He really was trying to make it right. “No, I said, I’ll stay here for the night.” He visibly sighed with relief. So did I.
He directed me to the hammock to have a rest. No sooner had I gotten into the hammock that Tim arrived all smiles and apologies. He assured me that they would take care of matters, would upgrade me to a deluxe room tomorrow night and started making jokes about the air conditioning they would turn on for me up here in this totally open air terrace. Suddenly I was embarrassed for making such a fuss. And they laughed and made more jokes and I took it as a sign that my behavior was forgiven. We went back downstairs and Tim ordered me a fizzy lemon and ginger drink that was thirst quenching like no other. He introduced me to Graham, the co-owner and to other nearby guests. Little did I know that Tim was one of the owners, too. With smiles and laughter, he proudly told everyone how upset I was with him and how he had made it right.
We discussed the beauty that is Phu Quoc, nearby restaurant picks and Binh showed me the walk to the beach. I headed there immediately. After a swim and hanging out beachside to watch the sunset, I returned to the hotel, showered in the bathroom off the kitchen (!) and headed to the restaurant that Tim suggested. It was fantastic – tofu and veggies and ice cold beer and even ice cream for dessert – all for less than $5. My tummy was happy, I had a place to lay my head and finally, I had arrived.
I returned to A74, Binh assured me that my bed was all made up for me, teased me again about having turned on the AC; and no sooner did I notice Jo and Stuart standing there, with whom I had taken that lovely walk at Kep National Park. We exchanged pleasantries and then Jo asked me where I was staying. Binh, Tim and Graham were all standing nearby – we all laughed and I said – “I’ve got the penthouse suite – I’m getting VIP treatment around here!” they were off to eat and asked about a good place – “I just came from a place that Tim recommended” – I’m not sure why I took his advice (I grinned as I looked in his direction – he smiled at me and nodded), but it was great!”
I sat and talked and laughed with Binh for awhile. His hometown was in the Mekong Delta and along with working here, he runs a small travel business. He would take care of all my onward travel needs from here. Ohyes, patience and a sense of humor are the most important travel companions I could have – I lost them for a bit earlier in the day, but am relieved I have found them once again.
A long day was complete – I headed up to my penthouse and the warm ocean breezes lulled me to sleep. I awoke early to the sun’s light and the whirring of the omni-present motorbikes in the distance.
All was well – good morning indeed, Vietnam!