Posts Tagged ‘Vietnam’

Backpacking in the News: ‘The Faces of Travel’

Thursday, October 17th, 2013
Credit: Justin Mott for the International Herald Tribune

Credit: Justin Mott for the International Herald Tribune

I stumbled upon a great little slideshow from the New York Times yesterday, called “The Faces of Travel.”

“The people who help you during a trip often are the ones who make the journey truly memorable,” they wrote.

I couldn’t agree more.

And it’s not just the tour guides and tuk-tuk drivers, but also the random travelers you encounter along the way. Six years ago, My buddy Mitch and I met a 65-year-old Jewish-American guy named Howard in Vang Vieng, Laos. Spent two days with him. He was a real character and an amazing storyteller. He honestly made our Vang Vieng trip. We still talk about him to this day.

When riding a bus from Laos into Vietnam, I sat beside a Japanese guy named Kentaro who happened to be from the Gunma Prefecture. He assumed I’d never heard of it, but I informed him I’d actually visited Gunma on an exchange program when I was 16. He was floored. I spent a few days with Kentaro and we became friends. I ended up visiting him and staying with his family when I went to Japan a couple months later.

Come to think of it, Kentaro and I actually sat on tiny red stools, drank $0.10 beers and ate grilled cuttlefish in Hanoi — just like those two guys in the above photo. Good times.

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43. Reading the book about the place

Monday, August 2nd, 2010

alex-garlands-the-beachBackpackers are a pretentious lot. Actually, people who travel, in general, are full of shit. Some will tell you they’ve lived somewhere, but they were really just visiting. Or they’ve been to a place, but were actually just on a layover there, and didn’t leave the airport. These types of people insist they are into photography, global culture, art, film, music, and of course literature.

They’re remarkably insecure, which is why they constantly attempt to reaffirm their sense of enlightenment on all topics. “Have you see that movie?” Oh yeah, it’s fantastic. “Have you been to…” Yes, three times. “Have you seen Buddha?” Mm-hmm, when I was in Cambodia. “Are you better than me?” (Unspoken: Yes.)

Just as they will refuse to see the movie before they read the book, they won’t travel somewhere without having read THE book about it. Some will be leafing through the book while on the plane, train or bus en route to the place. But make no mistake, there is only ONE BOOK you simply must read before you go somewhere. Some examples:

Thailand: The Beach
No book has tickled the global backpacker imagination as much as this Alex Garland neo-classic, and the Leo DiCaprio movie didn’t hurt either. Poignant use of Nintendo metaphors amid differing interpretations of “paradise” and the “parasites” trying to find it ring true for anybody born after 1970. Ko Phi Phi has the movie to thank for the millions of parasites that descend upon it every year.

Spain: The Sun Also Rises
What Garland has done for Generation X, Hemingway did for young people in the 20s and 30s, members of the “Lost Generation.” His book is still doing it today. After all, the book is about love, partying and living overseas in France and Spain, so it should come as no surprise that it inspires countless readers to pack up and give it a go. Just as DiCaprio put Ko Phi Phi on the map, Hemingway informed the world of Pamplona’s frenzied San Fermin Festival.

India: Midnight’s Children
I tried reading this a few years ago and couldn’t get past the first 70 pages. If Rushdie were employing his own version of “magical realism,” I wish he would have used less magic and more realism. I didn’t know what the hell was going on. It was convoluted and senseless. Maybe if I finally get to India, it will all become clear… or at least I could find some enlightened backpackers who would be able explain it to me.

South America: 100 Years of Solitude
This book confirmed it for me: I’m not a huge fan of magical realism. Too much extraneous detail. But just like you have to try the chicken feet at the dim sum restaurant, you have to read Marquez if you want to do right by South American literature. Thankfully, the copy I bought didn’t have the Oprah’s Book Club logo on it. I’m pretentious like that.

Vietnam: The Quiet American
Like Hemingway and Orwell, Greene is a foreign correspondent-turned author who likes the sauce and in this case, opium. F.E.T. enthusiasts (i.e. white guys who like Asian chicks) will dig the protagonist, who locks down a primo local gal and enjoys the spoils of expat life and moral superiority during Vietnam’s French colonial war in the early 1950s.

The United States: On The Road
Garland to Generation X = Hemingway to Lost Generation = Kerouac to Beat Generation. The underlying theme to this wanderer’s journal is that it’s fun to hang with arty rich kids who drink booze like it’s water, listen to black music and drive wildly down the open highway. Sounds a lot like the backpacking scene to me. Oh and that San Francisco was the shit in the 50s. Still is today.

Any other geographically-specific books you’ve seen while traveling? There are tons. Please post comments to let me know which ones you’ve run into.

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37. Passport/Visa Stress

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

I had a Run Lola Run day a couple weeks ago. It was horrifying.

Cold sweat runs down your back. Your heart rate increases. It feels like the second hand is advancing in a smooth and rapid motion, rather than its usual ticking. There aren’t enough minutes in an hour; not enough hours in the day.


Just like Manni, in Run Lola Run, I called my girlfriend in a fit of panic. Short of breath, my world was caving in. I had to fly out of the country in a week and even though I’d sent my passport renewal application away a month ago, it still wasn’t processed (I found out later it takes 20 business days to process, not 20 days). The passport office didn’t even know where my application was. And since I’d sent it by snail mail — rather than by registered mail — it couldn’t be tracked. Like Manni, I was freaking out ‘cuz I fucked up.

I hopped on my bike and pedalled violently, until I couldn’t feel my legs. The passport office requested I provide proof of travel (i.e. a printed flight itinerary) within the next couple hours, so they could put a rush on my application (if they could even find it among the stacks of passports awaiting renewal) and issue me a new one in time for my flight. If it was lost, I’d have to re-apply from scratch (with new photos, a guarantor and all that other bullshit), also on a rush.

I got to my office, printed the itinerary, told my boss I was taking the rest of the day off, hurried home, dropped off my bike, and drove my g.f.’s car back to the passport office and delivered the proof of travel. The back of my shirt was soaked with sweat. “What’s next?” I asked the passport officer. “We’ll see if it pops up on the system tomorrow morning. If not, it’s Plan B: re-apply for a new one.”

Luckily, they found it and I didn’t have to go through the added stress of re-applying. It was over. But I didn’t exhale until my new passport was in my hands, three days later. Hats off to Passport Canada: Their staff was patient and helpful, and putting a rush on it only cost me $30.

Czech Visa in Bratislava: It wasn’t the first time I’d had a day like that. Back in ’02, my buddy and I arrived in Bratislava, Slovakia on July 31. We understood that we needed to get a tourist visa to enter the Czech Republic*, but we didn’t know it would take five to 10 days to get it. Since, we were scheduled to fly from Prague to Amsterdam on Aug. 5, we frantically ran around Bratislava trying to get passport photos and reschedule our flight. When the dust finally cleared, we changed our flight to Aug. 11. So, instead of heading to Brussels and Paris from Amsterdam, we spent the rest of our trip in Slovakia and Prague. Turned out to be more fun (and more affordable) than we’d expected.

*Apparently, as a couple of Québécois guys informed us, the CR imposed a visa requirement for Canadians in 2001, as a reaction to a 1997 Canadian policy that required Czechs to obtain visas to enter Canada. They told us a Czech film (it was actually a TV report on Czech Roma in Ostrava) had showed a family of Czech immigrants flourishing in Canada, which caused an influx of Czechs immigrants and led to Canada’s imposing a visa requirement for Czechs. The Québécois guys were right.

Vietnamese Visa in Bangkok: In ’07, I had another stressful, fun-filled visa day in Bangkok. It was my second-last day in the city and I knew I wanted to go to Vietnam (via Laos). What I didn’t know was that I had to get the visa while in Thailand. It takes at least a day to be processed. Fuck. So I sprinted from my Khao San-area hostel to take pictures of the Reclining Buddha and knock it off my checklist, then I jumped in a metered cab to rush to the Viet Embassy. The traffic was unbelievable; my stress level was climbing. I asked the cabbie how far. He said 20 minutes. I offered him a 50 baht tip if he could arrive in under 20 minutes. He hit the gas and suddenly we were flying, taking all kinds of short cuts on backroads. We got there in 17 minutes.

Once there, I had to fill out the the visa form (among other backpackers who were also tearing their hair out), run to an adjacent business to get my photo taken, submit the form and think on my toes. The visa officer showed me a price list. In order of increasing cost, I had to choose between: single-entry visa ready in three days (no), single entry visa ready tomorrow (?), multiple entry visa ready in three days (no), multiple entry visa ready tomorrow (?). Option 2 cost 2,500 baht (or $77 USD), which was half as much as Option 4. The officer grew impatient. She started tapping her pen on the desk. I picked Option 2 and decided I’d just see as much of Vietnam as possible in one fell swoop.

I picked up my visa the next day, in time for me to catch the night train from Bangkok to the Lao border. Another bullet dodged. When I boarded the train, my back was still drenched with sweat. But maybe it was just the humidity. Yeah right.

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29. The Local Hustler

Saturday, December 12th, 2009

There he is. Waiting for you at the dock or train station. Smiling a toothless smile, chewing on a stick or something. He’s smiling because he already knows he’s got you, right from the moment your eyes meet. He’s your local hustler. He and his counterparts are encircling you like vultures.


You’re conflicted, because you don’t want to be a sucker, but The Lonely Planet recommends hiring one, if only to keep the other would-be hustlers/tour guides/drivers at bay. You’re a foreigner here, a bona fide target. You’ve got dollar signs flashing in your fair eyes.

You need him just as much as he needs you. Together, you’ll develop a truly symbiotic relationship. Yet, like the bird that cleans the crocodile’s teeth, it will be awkward at times. But what the hell, you bite the bullet and agree to let the local hustler show you around a bit.

This is where it really gets interesting.

There’s a constant battle of wits. A feeling-out process whereby the local hustler figures out what kind of traveler (and spender) you are. He teases you and goads you with a bounty of food, souvenir and leisure possibilities.

“Up to you,” he says encouragingly. You say you want to see “the real [insert destination here].” He says, he’ll show it to you. You both know he won’t. He asks you if you will eat [insert disgusting local delicacy here]. You squirm inside but keep a straight face. “Maybe,” you say. You both know you won’t.

He can be such a fucking pest. As your link to local tourism, dining, souvenir shopping, entertainment and — in some cases — drugs and prostitution (those are the real hustlers), he’s holding all the cards. In Morocco, at some point during the tour, he’ll be taking you to buy extravagant and outrageously priced rugs. In Thailand and Vietnam, he’ll drag you to buy a tailored suit. In Indonesia, he’ll insist that you buy a batik painting you don’t even want in the first place (see photo, below).


"You like the art? You drank my tea. Now you buy."

Invariably, the local hustler will take you to the usual tourist attractions, which annoy the hell out of you, so you to ask him to show you the real thing. Problem is, the real thing consists of him bringing you to the restaurants and shops that pay him a commission. Most of the time, they’re not bad. They’re seldom the best. And unfortunately, sometimes they just plain suck. They employ all kinds of guilt trips (e.g. serving you “free” tea or booze while you browse) to force you to buy, only to waste your precious sightseeing time. Besides, you’re backpacking — what use do you have for an 85-lb. Moroccan rug?

Nevertheless, it’s a necessary evil. You’re a fish out of water here. It can be exciting to deal with somebody who has personal ties to the foreign wonders around you, to meander off the beaten path, through a city’s  hidden streets and back alleys. But he may also have ties to the seedy local underground. But because you’re forced to trust him — he’s already driving you around, eating with you and smoking your cigarettes — you try to ignore the possibility that, at any moment, he and his thugs could pull out a gun, rob you or hold you hostage. Such possibilities become significantly more likely if he’s taking you to drug dealers, strip clubs or worse yet, brothels.

My buddy Ben was in downtown Dakar, Senegal when three guys approached him and said one of them just had a baby. “They’re happy as shit and I’m happy for them,” says Ben. “Then one of them gives me this golden-looking piece of metal, says it’s gold from the Congo and that it’s good luck to give it to a foreigner. Sure, why not?! Then they ask if I want to join them to celebrate. Always up for an adventure, I go.

“They take me to the top floor of a two-storey restaurant. No one else is around. Then they start pressuring me for money — for food, for the celebration, of course. Enough for a bag of rice or some shit. I’m trying to figure out how to get the fuck out of there because it’s getting real sketch, real quick. In the end, I pay for their cokes and get the fuck out of dodge.

“It’s funny because in hindsight I seem like a real dick, but the thing is, sometimes you follow these people around and it works out,” Ben concludes. “And I guess I was willing to take the chance. Oh well, makes for a story, right?”

To scenarios like this, my buddy Sid, another seasoned backpacker,  says, “Lesson learned: Never get cornered in a situation where you feel compelled to pay just to get out of it.”

Sid recently visited Egypt, where the hustlers are notoriously tireless. “When we first arrived in Cairo, we decided to take the local bus, because it cost $2 instead of $70, but it was nearly impossible to find the right bus into town,” he says. “An Egyptian guy, about 30-years-old, was happy to show us the right bus, as he was also taking it into town. We get off at the center of the town and he gets off with us, grabs my bag and refuses to let me carry it myself. Then he points us in the direction of our hotel, but also suggests a very good one nearby.

“That’s when the intial hustler alarm bell went off, but at this point, we totally trusted the guy. I even gave him my Egyptian phone number. We end up finding our hotel and decide to stay for one night, and tell the guy we’ll give him a shout.

“Early the next morning, he calls and I don’t answer. Then he calls another 15 times and I still don’t answer. At this point, we realize something’s up and I swear he called me constantly for three more days. Lesson learned: Never give your phone number or any other details to anyone you don’t know well.”

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