What Did we Get ourselves into?
January 5, 2016
I was woken up first at 5:30 by Lee and Adam who were getting ready to head out. I stayed laying on my couch, feeling too sick and tired to even get up and hug them goodbye. I fell back asleep and got up again at 7 when Amy knocked on our door to wake us for breakfast and to say goodbye. We went down with her and ate. I was in a haze still but figured food couldn’t hurt, after all food fixes everything. We said goodbye to them and went back to sleep again. We slept until 10, which felt like a good time to finally get up. It was just Mary and I from now on and everything fell into a more relaxed pace.
We had already checked in for our flight to Vietnam and printed our boarding passes and visas. I was both nervous and excited to realize we would be in Vietnam tonight! We both showered and packed our bags before heading to the ceramics shop to pick up souvenirs we had picked out the day before. I got a fun little wooden bird that hung from the ceiling. I had tried to keep my souvenir purchases to a minimum for the last three weeks, knowing I only had a carry on size bag to get me through every leg of the trip. But I had spotted this wooden bird the day before and hadn’t been able to get him off my mind since. It was love at first sight. It was just too cute, and frankly, too me to pass up. He was only $6 and hopefully not too breakable, as I still had nearly two weeks of lugging him around inside my bag to go. I also got Natalie a ceramic lotus jewelry box and had them both wrapped tightly in newspaper and bubble wrap. The items were handmade at the shop and I thought they were a good way to remember Cambodia. I didn’t think I’d be getting anything for anyone else. I just don’t have the room or the ability to choose who would get what and who wouldn’t get anything. I hadn’t even gotten anything for myself in Thailand.
At 3:30 we checked out of our hotel and took a car to get to the airport by 4. For some reason or another we had to check in again at the airport and get new boarding passes printed. Presumably this was so that they could check and make sure we had obtained Vietnam tourist visas. There were backpackers in line in front of us that hadn’t gotten visas, a process that had taken Mary and I a couple of weeks. This is where my type-A self was patting me on the back for doing so much planning and research. I literally had Ziploc bags in my backpack that I had organized by county and had all of the information about my flights, visas, U.S. embassy phone numbers, credit card customer service lines anything you could think of. On the fridge at home I had left similar lists for my parents with my dog’s veterinarian’s phone number, address and hours. I even included a back up vet just in case.
*Now that I have made it home safe and sound I can laugh at the extensive precautions I took, especially when the Vietnam leg of the trip taught me how to relax a little bit and throw caution to the wind (Thanks Mary). But I'm certainly never going to be a stranded tourist at a Cambodian airport because I failed to prepare.
Again I was able to carry my bags on with no problem but when we got through security the food choices were limited. Disappointingly, no Subway and the Japanese dim sum restaurant didn’t have a vegetarian option, so we got Burger King. I wanted onion rings but they were out, so I just ate French fries and a power bar before we went to our gate. The flight was at 6 and got us into Vietnam a 7:40pm. Mary and I didn’t have seats together so I sat next to two very impatient Chinese women who spent nearly the entire fight bickering with two Indian women across the aisle. When we landed in Vietnam I was just as excited as I had been at the start of our journey. I had started to count down the days until I came home while we were in Cambodia but landing in Vietnam felt like a renewed excitement in traveling. That was until I remembered the labored customs process I had read so much about online before leaving for the trip. I had forgotten about it as the date drew nearer but as Mary and I walked off our plane into a hectic terminal we were wide-eyed. We had our pre-approval paperwork, our passports, our entry/exit visa form, and a additional photo to attach. There was no clear instructions, no lines, or signs. Just an open window in the wall people seemed to be walking up to. The man at the window spoke no English and didn’t say anything to us anyway. We handed him our handfuls of lose documents and we walked away with no further instructions. There were dozens of other people around us, waiting by the window, sitting on the floor, this looked like chaos, completely unorganized. What had we gotten ourselves into?
We took a seat on the floor next to some other people and leaned up against our bags trying to get a feel for how this was going to work. Periodically a name would appear on an overhead screen and that person would go to the window to get their approved paperwork back. Mary and I tried to relax but we were both clearly nervous. The people around us waiting were called up one by one until it seemed Mary and I would be the last ones left. I had read online that this could take up to two hours so we got out our books and tried to read but without much success. We were too anxious, scanning our surroundings and waiting for our names on the screen. I was called first, I darted up to the window and paid my $25 visa fee. The women handed me my passport back with a visa sticker inside and a pink receipt, she said nothing. Mary was called immediately after. We looked at our visa stickers and both agreed the permanent passport stickers are much better than just the stamps and that they were more than worth the wait. Although, it seemed momentarily that we had gotten ourselves in over our heads it was all working out fine, the way I know it would if we traveled together.
I had known Mary literally my entire life. This was not the sporadic, I met you six months ago lets book a trip to Egypt together, like I had done with Nate. Although that had also worked out better than I could have ever hoped, I knew traveling with Mary would at least feel comfortable. We had grown up less than 100 yards from each other and our parents still lived in the houses on Chokecherry, right next door to one another. The only houses Mary and I had ever lived in. This was 20+ years of knowing each other, I was pretty sure we could survive a trip together.
We walked outside and got a cab from the airport company, which cost $23. This was $6 more than we had expected to pay but it was safer and more reliable to use this company and pay in advance than to try and negotiate a price elsewhere. The drive to our hostel was 45 minutes and the driver never spoke to us. On the drive I realized how smoggy the city was. Even at night the smog was so thick that you couldn’t clearly see the lights along the highway. The amount of motorbikes was also notable. There were certainly more than any other country I had been to so far. It seemed the number grew the farther east I got. The city streets reminded me of Venice, except with a highway instead of a river. The buildings were tall and thin and right on top of each other, the way they look in San Diego. I’m using assumption here, as I never been to Venice or San Diego.
Our hostel fit the mold, it was thin and white, Hanoi Old Centre Hotel. When we arrived I felt completely at home. The lobby was nice and they offered us complimentary juice and rice crackers while we waited to be checked in. Our room was on the third floor and when we got inside I was so excited. I had pretty much let Mary book whatever so I had no idea what it was going to look like. There were two twin beds with flower petals laid out on them. Flowers must be abundant here because they were everywhere! I had noticed it as we drove down the street to our hotel. It seemed every street corner had a flower shop and now there were petals on our beds, and I loved it! The beds were hard, as per usual on this trip, but this would definitely do. From what I had read I was mostly just worried about being scammed or robbed. But if we could continue finding hostels that gave us our own private room I didn’t have to worry as much.
Around 11pm, when we had finally gotten settled in we went downstairs to ask the receptionist for dinner recommendations. Though it was late they suggested we try “Rainbow Restaurant” which was on the corner of our street. I had seen it on our drive in and it looked like a fun place. Luckily, it was open and we got a table. The wait staff, just like our hotel staff, was extremely nice and helpful. At the table Mary had taken out her phone to see the list of Hanoi specialties she had made and wanted to try. Our waitress noticed this, and assuming we were Googling what to eat, asked us if we needed help deciding. She helped Mary narrow down her options and suggested I try a vegetarian pancake. The pancake was a mix between a crepe and an omelet and was filled with bean sprouts and other veggies. Trying the traditional Vietnamese food was great. We ate and hung out at the restaurant until almost midnight. Our bill, total with drinks, was $11. When we got back to the hotel we watched North America on the Discovery channel. It was the deserts episode. Now, I love North America but I’ve been surprised with how quickly I’ve been able to fall asleep on this trip and by 12:30 I was passed out.