Misadventure

I hardly dare tell the story. I know how it sounds. But the thing is, I already went. I already did it. And by myself, too. Hitchlessly. Took myself there, got around, made it back again with only a minor foray into the hospital to show for my troubles. There were no major problems, no incidences to speak of. I was a female traveler, flying solo, getting myself around SE Asia, being competent and on-the-ball the entire way; having fun, of course, and remaining inappropriate, of course, but competent, functional, like a Packsafe handbag or colourful socks. Others looked to me for advice and direction – not existential but important nonetheless. I navigated new cities, negotiated bad deals on bargains I didn’t need and traveled in successful mediocrity from place to place without disaster. In short, dear reader, I knew where my shit was at.

Fastforward a few months. I’m flying back to Vietnam. I’m participating in a skate tournament: speed slalom, are you kidding me? It’s organized for me, everything is arranged on my behalf. All I have to do is show up.

3 days before I leave I can be found at immigration getting my re-entry permit. I feel smug. Look at me, remembering my administrative loose ends like a queen – on it, in control, the boss.

“Don’t you need a visa?” Wei asks me.

“No,” I say, “I asked”, I tell her, “Lion says I don’t”. Matter solved. Unarguable. Lion travels all over for skate competitions. He too knows where his shit is at.

“Oh,” says Wei in her considering and thankful manner. “Is he British?”

“No,” I say, “He’s Thai,”, I tell her, and then I say more things to justify the veracity of his knowledge. But even as I hear myself saying words, there’s the worried tightening of intestines, the stomach-clench of anxiety. I think back to trip 1. I got a visa in advance that time, but why? There was a reason, I know there was. What was it? How does this memory relate to my current situation? There’s something important here, I can feel it, but it’s just out of reach. My brain’s sounding a warning call into the fog, but it’s not clear whether this is the real deal or just a drill. A drill, surely. They would’ve told me. Someone would’ve mentioned it. I’m no longer sure. The ghost warning remains indistinct. There’s a thought in there somewhere, Jim, but not as we know it.

I go home. I get on Google. The first thing I see are the mighty and glorious words VISA ON ARRIVAL. The concertina relaxes. A sigh of relief. ON ARRIVAL, by air. Simple. And of course, last time, overland, buy in advance. I relax. I am safe.

Even when the flight attendant – the last checkpoint before the plane; mentally I’ve boarded, I’m flicking through the in-flight magazine, looking at the people on the safety brochures; we’re taking off! It’s happening! I’m on my way! – even when she says to me “Visa?”, there’s no glimmer of fear. I’ve looked this shit up, man, I know what I’m talking about.

She looks at me, taps my old, used Vietnamese visa…

Ah.

There’s a peculiar beauty in the absoluteness of being refused boarding on a flight. Your expectations for your day, your evening, your weekend, your fortnight judders. It’s physical, a crunching of gears that puts the world off-kilter. I was living in the 5-minutes-from-now, I was in the future; I was at the skate event, I was laughing off my slalom failure, I was open-mouthed at the skate cross, cheering the kids who’d come with us… and now this? Thwarted? Denied? Suddenly I’m facing a wall of quiet refusal so impervious that it’s almost impressive.

Being led the wrong way through immigration is fun. People look at you like you’re some kind of drug smuggler. I’m as clean as roses in real life so the perceived notoriety is briefly  pleasing – after all, nobody knows. I could be anyone, a baddie, a gangster, a Notorious Person. Or not.

Right now I’m in the business centre of the posh airport hotel tapping this into a Word document that will cost 250 baht. I’ve just paid 70USD to apply for a visa I could apply for for nothing at the embassy. The visa itself will cost 50USD, the flight changes well over THB1000. All because I’m too apt to trust what I’m told, to trust others to think for me so I don’t have to think for myself.

It’s 8.55am and I’ve been awake for 24.5 hours after a quick hour-and-a-half’s nap on the airport floor this morning. But even as I wait, I find myself doing the occasional little grin. An adventure is in progress, an anecdote in the making. We get so little time, we may as well enjoy what we can, right? Even if it isn’t quite what we expected or hoped it would be? Who knows.

 Stay tuned for the next installment of Enid’s Misadventures.

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Day 34: The Cat Ba Quintet

Time flies when you’re having fun. When I started writing this I was in Hanoi and still not dead, maimed, injured or mentally scarred and now I’m on Cat Ba island and am all of the above.

I have continued to remain classy. You can tell I’ve remained classy because aan old Vietnamese man walked in on me on the toilet at a local street bar and then later I had to wee in Piss Alley, a stinking dead-end that served as a street toilet for the local bars. Fuckin’ A.

It was the day of Food Tourism. Dinner had included snail, frogs, pig heart and pig liver stir fried with crispy noodles, all washed down with medicinal tree wine. The medicinal tree wine came in a reused plastic water bottle, was the colour of poisoned rivers and tasted and smelt like bad ideas and whisky sweats. Later that night I experienced mu first tropical storm as we sat outside under the awning of a little kerbside bar opposite our hostel fat rain hoofing it down, thunder cracking open the sky and neon-bright lightening bleaching it white. Big Weather. Makes UK storms look like sneezes.

Hanoi is my favourite of all the cities so far. I love it for no single reason I can immediately think of. Maybe because it’s cool here, not so sticky, or maybe because our hostel’s so sociable, or because I got a pair of prescription glasses and sunglasses made up for $30, and a hat for 50p. All that and more, maybe. The streets are smaller and less hectic, winding, more varied. The shopping streets are themed. Here’s metalwork street, every shopfront crammed with pans, hangers, buckets, drums, cans, wire racks and all other metal things. Next is bamboo street for all your bamboo ladder needs. There’s woodwork street, clothes street, party craft street, mannequin street, Things To Sell To Tourists street and Stuff That Goes In The Garage street. The fruit and veg are together, live seafood close by. The markets sell coffee beans, herbs, spices, unrecognisable fruits. It’s weird being surrounded by so much stuff you can’t name.

On Easter Sunday we travelled to Cat Ba Island, discovered that there is no Cat Bar on Cat Ba, and are staying in a guesthouse that has MOUNTAIN in the kitchen – or just a rock wall, depending on which way you look at it. We are a quintet. Hartley, Callie and I have been hanging out since Phong Nha, we met Keegan in our Hanoi dorm room, and the fifth is Tazmanian Tom who I’d met back in Mui Ne – happened to spy him on the street in Hanoi, chased him down, appropriated him.

Cat Ba island is breathtaking, a prehistoric wonderland chock full of enormous jagged karst (limestone) slabs jutting out of the ground, blanketed with jungle. It’s stunning, otherworldly, more Jurassic Park than Jurassic Park. You half expect to look into the distance and see a heard of Stegasaurus lumbering around the rice paddies, or see a pteradactyl swooping overhead.

We rented motorbikes and rode to the other side of the island, eyes full of scenery. Keegan climbed a mini lighthouse and got stuck because he couldn’t jump backwards and I rode my bike into a bollard, but only a bit, and only the wing mirror and only at about .5 of an mph. I was distracted by THE GROUND. I’m a dunce but no harm done.

Yesterday we went out on a junk boat to explore the rock formations and kayak. Stunning. Hard to believe that such scenery really exists. We kayaked through caves, into huge, sheer-walled grottos, saw – just by chance – a Cat Ba langur, and kayak-raced the boys and won, obviously, as if it could end another way. I found some green slime on a rock that tensed and moved when you poked it, jumped off the boat into the sea over and over again and almost kayaked into a dismally large jellyfish sitting around in the water. It was hungry work, all that Fun. When we ate lunch our table was the only one silent, intent on stuffing our faces. We won that race as well, finished about 10 minutes before everyone else and left no scraps behind, cleared up next door’s fish rolls as well. Our guide was surprised but he had admiration in his eyes, I could tell.

At nights we drink beer and eat delicious food, bully Keegan, laugh. On our first night there was a beer/hallucination tent and dancing Chinese dragons on a stage. Last night I ate shrimp, the whole thing, even the brains, even the shells. We lost to the boys at pool, drew some vagina dentatas on people. Standard.

Today is Wednesday. I’m out front of our guesthouse, hungover from Vietnamese whiskey, Tiger beer amd too-little sleep, tapping this out on my phone whilst listening to the harmonious sound of building works a few doors down and looking out through the trees into the bay. Hartley and Callie leave for the mainland in a few hours, Keegan and Tom to follow tomorrow and then me on Friday. Over so soon! Can’t believe it. This has been frikkin’ awesome. Can’t wait for the next adventure.

PS/ If you want to see a photo of me crossing a river with a bike and riding a tandem, you should check out Callie’s blog post, here: http://www.wildsofwherever.com/country-gal/

Day 28: Lost my glasses, cut my hair

We went to The Pub With Cold Beer. It was an adventure. We had to cycle there but there were 5 of us and only 4 proper bikes so we ended up taking three plus a tandem, obvs, that mode of transport famously designed for steep hills and rutted dirt tracks through the rice paddies. We were warned that it was quite the tough trek, that we’d need to cross a river, that the roads weren’t really “roads” yet. Tourism’s only just becoming A Thing in Phong Nha, the infrastructure isn’t quite sorted out. Yeah. Whatevs.

Mike gave us directions as a group, which nobody listened to because we got distracted by PUPPIES (infinitely cuter than directions). We had a map, anyway. And the navigational expertise I developed during my years as a sea captain in the British Navy back when I was young. What’s the problem?

We got lost in the rice paddies straight away, of course. It was inevitable. Luckily, my aforementioned navigational skills came into play and I was amazing. We got back on track, arses already killing from the bike seats. The scenery was stunning. People working in the fields, cows and buffalo mooching about by the sides of the roads, kids legging it down to to high-five us as we cycled past, calling out “Hellooooo” as soon as they spied us. At one point we had to cross a river on foot, pushing our bikes through the water and trying not to let the current push us over. It was shallow, just above the knees, but it was STRONG. True-blue adventuring.

When we finally got there, we almost cycled past the place. It wasn’t so much a pub as someone’s house with a huge porch, chickens in the front garden, a stone table and seats outside and a hand-written “The Pub With Cold Beer” sign. The girl didn’t speak any English but the beer was cold, and that was the most important thing at this point – it was after midday and HOT. We ordered some chicken using the international language of The Point and she killed it there and then, indicated we should come back in an hour. We rented an inner-tube and took it down to the river for a swim. Some Vietnamese people stopped on their scooter and took photos of us. By the time we got back I’d lost my glasses in the river, and all the money was missing from my fanny pack but I was too happy to care.

The girl had prepared a full meal for us: rice, Morning Glory fried with salt and garlic, crushed peanut paste and the chicken pasted with a piri-piri-style sauce. It was presented on a huge basket with banana leaves, and we ate cross-legged on cushions on the floor of the porch. It was the best and most delicious meal I’ve eaten so far, the closest we’ll come to eating in a Vietnamese home. Peanuts and rice, people. Get on it.

We got back bone-tired and sunburnt and blissfully happy, full of adventuring and beer and delicious food.

And had to immediately get a taxi to the station for the Overnight Devil Train to Hanoi. We arrived at 5am, got scammed by a taxi to the hostel, slept on sofas in the lounge and used ALL the free internetz. When the others were still asleep I wandered into the city, got some new glasses made up – not as good as my old ones but so cheap I got some prescription sunglasses as well. Maybe now I can tan the little white line in the middle of my forehead from where I’ve been squinting into the sun so much. SHUT UP! IT LOOKS COOL.

The hostel’s great but the people look at you weirdly when you cut your hair in the sink with scissors you bought for 30,000 dong from an old lady in the street. JEEZ GUYS. We’re in a 12-bed dorm, but it’s clean as anything and the people we’re sharing with are ace. We went out last night and one of the girls almost hit on a guy who turned out to be 18. Laughed so much I thought I might be sick.

I heard an excellent conversation yesterday morning in which a girl was asked to name an artist from the 80s. Her response was that she doesn’t know any artists from the 80s cos she wasn’t born then. “I was born in the 90s, I don’t know any music before 2000”. Bestworst thing ever.

Staying tonight and then tomorrow I’ll leave the girls to go to Cat Ba island for ROCK CLIMBING ADVENTURES. Get in.

PS/ I don’t really know what you’re supposed to write about on a travel blog so let me know if there are things I’m not writing about that I should be. Don’t tell me to write about the history of places, though. NO. You can’t make me.

Day 27: Phong Nha

It’s my last day at Phong Nha Farmstay and, even though it’s broken my budget, I’m gutted to have to leave. I’ve already stayed for one night and one tour more than I’d planned but I couldn’t help it, they made me, so cruel.

The farmstay’s in central Vietnam, at the country’s narrowest point with Laos on one side, the Gulf of Tonkin on the other, and right next door to the UNESCO-stamped Phong Nha National Park with it’s jungle-covered limestone mountains and blue-grey rivers and dark caves. The farmstay itself looks out onto rice paddies and mountains. It has a pool, hammocks, romantic dorms with mosquito net drapery, a rooftop terrace from where you can watch the sun set, and a fridgeful of cold beer. The staff are dead friendly, the food delicious, and the atmosphere sociable, fun, relaxed.

I’ve been on two tours, met some wicked people, had ALL of the available amount of fun. We walked through jungle, up mountains, descended into the rock through caves so huge your jaw hangs open a minute before you realise, shut it, glance around to check if anyone saw. We climbed the 524 steps to Paradise Cave and talked only in hushed voices once inside, reverent. We walked the Eco trail, swum in a cool Jungle river in the sun, jumped into the water from rocks, used waterfalls like rapids. We ate a traditional lunch on a beautiful bamboo hut over a river. We went back to a free beer and free popcorn, and everyone sitting in the restaurant or out front, listening to guitar music and chatting, swapping anecdotes and recommendations about tours, places to go, things to see. The next day I set off again – I’d been easily convinced that it’s a waste to come this far and do only one tour, so I stayed an extra night and booked an extra activity. I met more great people, saw more beautiful places. We biked to the river – I got a puncture, had to have a new bike delivered by motorbike – took a boat to Dark Cave, swam outside in the river and tried to dive to the bottom but I couldn’t quite reach – the pressure was too great. Inside the cave we walked a pathway through huge chambers and narrow crevices with rock heavy overhead and on each side, and clay-like mud squelching between our toes, each step a little fart greeted with giggles. We swam through the cave river, first with the light of our headlamps and on the way back in the pitch dark, all headlamps switched off, the sound of splashing and quiet giggles enormous in the dark. Bloody magical. Bloody awe-some.

I met a crazybrilliant Aussie woman named Symph and had the same Vietnamese guide for both tours. Symph left home one day to come travelling, wrote a note for her husband but didn’t tell him, not exactly. She’s in her 50s, tiny, firey, excitable, with a million hilarious anecdotes that all end up with her getting furious and shouting at some tout or taxi driver or shopkeeper. I suggested she write a book about her adventures. Callie suggested she call it “Around The World In 80 Rages”. It’s a hit waiting to happen. Look out for it, people.

Today we plan to go to The Chicken Place, which is all I heard about when I first arrived. You bike there, to a place called “The Pub With Cold Beer”. You choose your chicken from the yard then they kill it and cook it while you swim or go tubing in the river.

Tonight we get the night train to Hanoi. I, being stingy and off budget (mostly thanks to being ill – very costly in a country with no NHS), am getting a soft seat ticket whereas the American girls who’re also going are getting a sleeper. They’ll have a bed and some dinner and be able to sleep before we arrive in Hanoi at 5am tomorrow. The more I think about it, the more sure I am that I should’ve paid extra to get a bunk. Damn my stinginess.

So, the next stop is Hanoi for a night and then to Cat Ba island for some rock climbing and a boat tour, and maybe Halong Bay. Not sure. See how it goes.

After that, I’m headed back to BKK. Then to Chiang Mai for Real Life and the CELTA, the reason I came in the first place. I worry. But first to enjoy some chicken.

Happy Wednesday folks.

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Day 23: Hue (pronounced Hway)

Saturday in Hue (pronounced “Hway”). It’s slightly above the normal amount of sweltering as there’s very little haze today so the sun’s almost fully out. If it ever DID actually came out, I imagine we’d all simultaneously burst into flames, demon-style. Scorchio. Done.

Hired a bike from my hostel for less than a pound and spent all morning pootling up and down the Perfume river to pagodas and other assorted Points Of Interest. The way you know that they’re points of interest is not because they’re pointy or – sometimes – interesting, but because they’re marked out on a badly-drawn map, and they’re teeming with tourists and people trying to sell stuff to tourists, such as embroidered conical hats and Lipton’s Lime iced tea. Tried to explain roller derby to a Vietnamese girl who kept smiling and saying “Yes, yes” even though she had no idea what I was talking about. Ate mostly in restaurants in the main backpacker area, or back at my hotel where they served cheap beer and even cheaper ice cream.

I’m staying at the Google Hotel, a 10 minute stroll to the backpacker area. The staff are friendly (I get high-fived every time I come back) and my upgraded room’s a dream, so long as the dream is of a neat double room with clean linen, antless walls and a warm shower. There’s even a mini fridge to keep my water cold, except that the electricity turns off to save energy when I leave my room. I like the idea, but maybe I like cold water on a hot day even more.

Cycle hire is cheap and a good way to get around, even if it means risking death by using the terrifying roads. The driving in SE Asia is entirely outside-the-box. There are rules, but they’re often deemed not to apply. You drive on the right, for example, but that’s unless it’s more convenient to drive on the left into oncoming traffic, or on the pavements into unsuspecting pedestrians. At traffic lights red means stop, obvs, but not if the road ahead is clear, or if you think you’ve got a chance of punching through the flow of traffic, or if you’re in a rush, or if you don’t really want to stop. Motorbikes drive 3 abreast in each lane which makes crossing the road a real adventure. There’s a knack to it: you’ve gotta be assertive, step out into the road, own your spot. The traffic parts to accommodate you, the red sea motorised and terrifying. But it DOES part. They may drive in crazy paving ways but also this driving style is normal and everyone’s used to it. They’re not over-fast or aggressive drivers like in Thailand or at home and they’re always ready to swerve out of the way should anything go amiss (unless they’re texting or cooing to the baby on their lap or chatting to their mate on the adjacent motorbike). I saw a tshirt in Hoi An that had traffic lights and the slogan “Green = I go. Amber = I go. Red = I still go.” Sums it up.

Hue (still pronounced Hway) has a lot to recommend it. It’s the honeymoon capital of Vietnam. It’s got a pretty river, a crumbling citadel and a buzzing night market that catera mostly for Vietnamese tourists. It also has Matthew, high-powered banking type with a flexible budget, a wheeled backpack and a taste for valium (you can buy it over the counter here, apparently). Matthew is concerned that his Clinique facewash will run out before he can replace it in Singapore, is troubled by the bastardisation of the English language, and can give you a step-by-step breakdown of your personality into Myers-Briggs categories at 20 paces. Makes for interesting conversation. And people-watching.

Hue was a nice place to be but for the traveller with time constraints, it’s a two-day kinda place. A city is a city is a city, right? The citadel – a walled complex of the remains of the old royal chambers – is interesting and atmospheric, but it only takes a day and us tight-on-time people can’t be hanging about, especially when we’ve got PHONG NHA FARMSTAY waiting for us!