I peeked over the shoulder of my motorbike taxi driver as we flew through the buzzing, honking streets of Hanoi toward a large round-about intersection.
A bum-rush of cars and other motorbikes, some topped by entire families of three or four, appeared to be heading straight for us. I squealed softly in terror and clamped my arms tighter around the driver’s sweaty torso. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a couple of young Vietnamese guys, who were lounging casually on their parked bikes on the sidewalk, chuckle at the frightened foreigner squeezing the life out of the person presently responsible for not getting her killed. A blur of wheels, face masks and helmets flashed by me on both sides, in the opposite direction.
The driver asked to see the address of my hotel more than once, seeming confused. Finally he stopped the bike, pointed in a vague direction, held out his hand and said, “Hotel there. $45,000 dong.”
“$45,000?! I was told $10,000.” I showed him the email from the hotel stating that the ride from the airport mini bus station should cost $10,000 dong, or 50 cents USD.
He laughed and shook his head, “No, no, no. $45,000.”
I kicked myself for not having negotiated before I got on the bike—complete rookie mistake! It equated to only $2 USD, but it was the fact that I’d let myself get scammed that irritated me. With hands shaking in part from the strain of my death grip, and part from feeling flustered as we blocked traffic and were drawing stares, I fished $45,000 from my wallet and handed it to him, then proceeded to fumble my way through the final two blocks to my hotel.
Toto, we are not in Europe anymore, I thought a little grouchily as sweat trickled down my back and a deafening barrage of horn blasts filled my ears.
During the month of August, I finished up the last two and a half weeks of my ‘hunker down to save cash’ period in pleasant, uncomplicated Budapest. I then flew to Dublin, Ireland and met up with my good friends from San Francisco, and attended the wedding of my Irish friend who I’d met while she was living in SF a couple years ago.
I really enjoyed that time with my friends in Dublin, and its pretty surrounding countryside. When those eight days came to an end, it was time to finally take the giant leap away from the calm and familiarity of Europe.
I was extremely excited for the change. Europe had become comfortable for me, and it was beginning to feel too easy. Too normal. The gorgeous thousand-year old churches were starting to all look the same. The ancient Roman ruins, too. Same with the lovely architecture, statues, food, and markets.
I was craving something totally different. Something new to reignite the fire of my wanderlust.
Because, I’ll admit it: more and more often lately, I’ve caught myself daydreaming about my life back home. I’m not sure if seeing my friends in Dublin eased that homesickness, or made it worse. There are times when I feel jaded and want to give up on my year of travel before it’s even halfway through. There are times when I miss my friends, my cozy apartment, my cat; my awesome city, where I know exactly how things function, and I don’t ever feel lost. I’ve even fantasized about going to work again, having a job that I enjoy focusing on, a comfortable routine. (Trust me, I’m as surprised about that one as you are.)
Those whispering thoughts worry me: Am I too much of a homebody wallflower to travel for a whole year? Did I bite off more than I can chew? A year is such a long time…
I needed to shock my system into again feeling that excitement and wonder I had when my journey began.
I needed something to remind me why I’m doing this.
West Meets East
My first stop in Asia from Europe was Singapore (mainly because it was where the cheapest flight from Ireland took me).
I cannot lie: I was not a fan. Only little pockets of the Asia of my memory (based on my visit to Thailand three years ago) actually existed, mostly in temples and street markets — the rest of the city felt like overpriced Las Vegas-style plastic. It was as if the government, in an effort to sweep the city clean for tourists somehow swept away its culture, too. I was glad I’d only booked a day and a half there.
From Singapore, I flew to Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh City (still Saigon, to many folks) was certainly a shock to my system, though not exactly the kind of inspiring cultural experience I’d been hoping for.
Just like I would encounter a few days later in Hanoi — motorbikes and cars flowed in chaotic rivers of wheels, incessant honking and fumes.
The best part about my stay in Ho Chi Minh City was getting out of Ho Chi Minh City. I took a day tour to the Mekong River Delta, where I met some wonderful travelers from France, China and Australia. And one creepy guy from Japan with purple-polished fingernails that were sharpened into long points, who kept following around the Australian girl, telling her repeatedly how pretty she is.
Creepy stalker-claw-man aside, the day trip was actually really great for a few reasons. It gave me a small taste of the adventure that awaits in Asia, the kind generally only found outside of huge, loud, hectic city centers. While I’ve been very cautious and hesitant about taking out my camera on the city streets (I’ve heard too many stories of valuables being snatched out of tourists’ hands by motorbike riders), here I felt safe to snap away. And getting some nice photos usually puts some wind back in my sails. The tour also allowed me to meet awesome new people, which is one of the best things about traveling.
In a couple of days I will leave behind the whirling fray of Vietnam’s biggest cities (I do seriously love the food in them, but that’s about all I love) and will head for the quieter rice paddy hills of Sapa, and the mountain islands of Halong Bay.
Funny enough… I can’t wait.
In other news: I’ve made two significant (to me) changes to my tortoise-like lifestyle during the past month!
- I decided it was time to get back to my roots and have my blonde highlights dyed closer to my natural dark brown color. That’s partly so I won’t have to worry about maintaining the highlights (which were badly grown out), partly to attempt to blend in at least a tiny bit better in Asia (blondes stick out like a sore thumb here), and partly because I’ve been feeling recently like the blonde was something of a costume, and not really me.Saying goodbye to the blonde I’ve had for the past 10+ years makes me feel more like the real me, and I like that.
- I have downsized my luggage AGAIN! I started out with my small blue day backpack and a monstrous hiking backpack. Then I ditched the huge hiking backpack for a smaller duffel bag. Now I’ve gotten rid of the duffel bag and have ONLY my little blue day backpack and my purse (which is doubling as my camera bag). I get very excited every time somebody points out what little luggage I’m carrying.
So… I think the moral of this story is, sometimes change is exactly what we need to recharge our batteries… even if it’s scary at first.
Stay tuned for upcoming stories and photographs from Vietnam!
Categories: My Wanderings: Month-in-Reviews