Buses are a great way to see a country but they’re hard on the posterior. I just arrived in Nha Trang after a 12 hour bus ride. What I’d like to know is, who in God’s name designed the seats in buses (or in airplanes, for that matter)? The headrest of my seat was curved so far inward that it was impossible for any part of my my neck and shoulders to lean against the back of the seat and the seat itself felt like it was made of concrete. In order to get the least bit comfortable I had to recline the seat and scoot down so that my head was below the headrest. That caused another whole series of problems because my assigned seat had some sort of motor bolted to the floor under the seat in front of me, so there was nowhere to put my backpack but on the floor where my feet would normally go. I rode the entire 12 hours slunk down in the seat with my feet straddling the backpack, trying not to encroach on my seat mate.
If you’ve been following the blog, you’ll know that today was not my first experience with bus travel in Vietnam. Two days ago I took an all-day tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels northwest of Saigon. I would highly recommend the trip but the driver drove me crazy. I swear that he honked his horn every 30 seconds. He honked when he pulled out to pass another vehicle. He honked every time he came up on a bicycle or motorbike on the shoulder of the road. He honked at every pedestrian he passed. Oh yes, and he honked (and waved) at oncoming buses and trucks whose drivers he knew. I’m talking about a big ah-oogha bus horn – the kind that makes you jump a foot high when you hear it. I figured it was just this particular driver who had a penchant for horns – boy was I wrong. Today’s driver was even worse. Not only did he blow the horn every 30 seconds, but each time he hit the horn three times! I suddenly realized that it was happening all around me. All the vehicles were constantly blowing their horns. Each driver has a particular rhythm. Some toot-toot. Some lay on the horn. Some horns have high tones while others are low; some vehicles have even customized their horns to be musical. It’s gotta be a guy thing. I figure that all these macho men are really henpecked husbands and the only time they get to exert their authority is when they can blow their horns and bully the smaller vehicles on the road. It’s so bad that today, when we were out in the rural areas where there was no traffic, our driver couldn’t keep himself from sounding the horn every so often despite the fact that there was nothing to honk at. It’s almost as he honked to reassure himself that the horn was still there. Guess that would be known as honking withdrawal, huh?
My seatmate was a nice young man from Tokyo, by the name of Dai. The honking didn’t bother him one little bit. Neither did the very loud woman behind us. After we got settled Dai pulled out a little notebook and wrote me a note introducing himself and explaining that he’s deaf. We passed the book back and forth, writing our lives stories and talking about our experiences in Saigon. If travel presents challenges for me, imagine what it must be like for him. Not only can he not speak the language of this country, he can’t hear or speak at all. His written English, though, is impeccable. He learned English so he could go to the Philippines and train other deaf people to be self-sufficient. I am quite sure we will stay in touch. It was such a pleasure to meet him.
Speaking of challenges, I’ve had a few myself over the last 24 hours. After dinner last night I went back to my room to write my blog. The hotel I was in had no Internet so I figured I’d get all the prep work done before going to the Internet Cafe two doors down. That way I would only have to pay for the time to upload it once I got there. I finished about 11:30 PM and headed out to log on, but the Cafe was closed. When I came back to the hotel within 30 seconds they asked me what was wrong and I told them the Cafe was closed. They directed me to another Internet Cafe, just two stores further down the street, that is open all night. I found it and went online, uploaded the blog, answered my email, and headed back to the hotel just before 1 AM. I walked the four doors to the hotel but didn’t see it. I must have gone too far, I thought, and turned around. Nope, now I’m back at the Internet place. Where the heck is it, I wondered. I know it’s right here. I finally stepped back onto the street so I could read the signs above the stores and with a shock realized why I hadn’t found my hotel. The sign light was off and the entire front of the open hotel doorway was now barricaded shut with a steel door. Oh….my….God! The store next door was open and the owner was on the stoop. I looked at him with my mouth open. Fortunately, he spoke some English.
“They no tell you they close?” he asked.
“No,” I said, still in shock.
“That crazy,” he said.
I figured, worst case scenario, I’d have to pay for another room somewhere on the street and collect my things in the morning, but I decided to knock on the steel door first. I banged away – no response. Then the shopkeeper pointed up. I looked to where he was pointing and saw a doorbell just below the overhead marquis. I hit that several times. Finally, a sleepy employee appeared and let me in.
“You didn’t tell me you close – what time do you close,” I asked.
“Close midnight every night,” he replied.
“Well, you told me to go to the Internet place at 11:30 – why didn’t you say you would close soon?”
“Man who check you in suppose tell you.”
“Well, he didn’t tell me.”
“No problem – you come any time, you ring bell, I let you in.” He sighed, walked over to his bedroll on the floor in front of the reception desk and settled back down to sleep. Another thing to add to my checklist of things to always do when I travel – ask the hotel if they close.
Here’s a couple more tips for traveling:
- When you’re in a country where you don’t speak the language, always pick up a business card from the hotel. That way, when you are done sightseeing and want to grab a cab back to the hotel, you can just had them the card so they know where to take you.
- In third world countries, forget about traveler’s checks. Hardly anyone takes them any more. The savvy traveler gets a Visa or MasterCard debit/ATM card that is linked to a checking account. There are ATM’s all over the world these days, so you only need to carry a little cash and have access to an ATM to get more when you need it.
- Speaking of cash, never bring $100 bills. In third-world countries especially, it is hard to get them cashed. They are suspicious because there are a lot of counterfeit hundred dollar bills around. Tens and twenties are best, and it’s even better if they are crisp, clean new bills. Often, money changers and stores will not accept a bill that is wrinkled, torn, or has folded corners. I had trouble with a hundred dollar bill the other day at the exchange bureau because it was an older bill that was a bit worn. The girl looked at it, turned it over, looked at it again, then handed it back to me, saying, “You have better bill?” Now, that was the only hundred dollar bill I had, but I knew arguing was an exercise in futility, so I went over to the row of chairs and fished around in my backpack, pulling out my wallet, and making like I was getting another hundred. Then I went back to the counter and handed her the exact same bill and said, “Is this one better?” She went through the entire inspection process again, this time taking twice as long, then just sighed and handed me my Vietnamese Dong. Works every time.
- When traveling overseas, always carry the following and you’ll never be sorry: a small notebook and pen, a few snack and sandwich size zip-lock bags, a packet of portable handi-wipes, some paper towels, Chapstick, a rubber sink stopper in case you want to take a bath or wash out clothes (many of the built-in stoppers in hotel sinks and tubs don’t work), a tube of laundry detergent, a portable clothesline, portable toilet paper, and an all-in-one plug adapter.
I’ll be in Nha Trang for a couple of days, just laying around on the beach. After my whirlwind last couple of days I need some time to chill out. Not to mention time to get ready for the next ear-splitting horn blowing butt numbing bus ride.