Travel Gone Terribly Wrong

Dearest fellow travelers, I wanted to start off the month of Vietnam research with a good book review, but instead Karin Muller’s Hitchhiking Vietnam made me more anxious. I was excited to read about her solo trip up and down the narrow Southeast Asian country in 1997. Muller envisioned traveling to remote villages on bike, making friends with the locals, and capturing it all on film for a documentary. She had a straightforward plan, a Vietnamese-English dictionary, and a lot of optimism, but instead of a thrilling adventure, she got a shitshow.

Vietnam in the late ’90s was still recovering from the war of the ’60s and ’70s, and corruption pervaded every level of government, which made traveling outside the rigid parameters of officially sanctioned tourism difficult. Muller wasn’t allowed to go outside the city limits of Saigon on her own, so she had to travel with two guides selected for her by the Communist Party. Her guides fleeced her for at least twice as much as the agreed-upon price, took her to suburbs instead of the villages she was promised, and even hid her shoes during their naptime to keep her from exploring on her own. Later, she shook off her guides and met up with an American with a motorbike, and the two of them went north off the beaten path. But the roads were terrible, the bike broke down literally every day, and they had to dodge any military personnel who might ask for the travel papers they didn’t have. Muller and her American companion didn’t get along very well, but she stuck with him because she needed someone to train the video camera on her for the documentary. She didn’t make friends, and until the last few weeks of her trip, she didn’t see any of the remote villages she’d flown to Vietnam to see. It sounds miserable!

I don’t have quite the same agenda as Muller, or the same desire to steer clear of any and all tourist locations, but I am traveling alone and looking for some adventure. What if my trip turns out to be a series of misadventures like hers, a succession of wretched missteps and broken promises, no one to trust or enjoy spending time with, frozen out by locals and cheated out of cash by officials? She tries to spin it as the exciting journey she was looking for, but her frustration burns through every page.

That’s the danger of travel; we say we’re looking for the unexpected, but we’re expecting a positive experience. We don’t expect to have a bad time. It’s worse than just having a bad few weeks in our day-to-day lives, because we’ve planned and anticipated the travel for so long that it’s a greater disappointment when it all goes wrong.

Yet that’s a risk I’m willing to take, over and over, each time I take off on a new trip. I’m certainly hoping for a positive experience overall, dare I say even overwhelmingly, but I know that statistically that can’t be true for a year and a half trip. There are going to be some bad times, but those times can’t be predicted, so I just have to do the old “expect the best, prepare for the worst.”

And hope to high heaven that it’s nothing like poor Muller’s months in Vietnam.

Image from here.

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10 thoughts on “Travel Gone Terribly Wrong

  1. When I traveled, I ran into some pretty wretched moments, like when I got ripped off for a few hundred dollars because it was after midnight and I really just needed to sleep somewhere. Or when the insanely leaky, intensely uncomfortable old bus I was riding through a deluge broke down in the middle of the night far from anywhere and it took the driver about two hours to repair it (small miracle he was able to fix it at all). I’d recently experienced Ayuvedic massage for the first time: they strip you down, put you on a wooden board, oil you up, and then twist you into the most uncomfortable contortions you can imagine. It’s supposed to be really good for your mind and body, even though it’s pretty intense while it’s happening. I looked at each instance of unpleasantness that came after that as the travel pro equivalent and viewed it all as lessons in letting go and being flexible. That perspective certainly helped a lot (although getting drenched on a dark, stationary bus still sucked).

  2. Colleen and I had a wonderful experience in Vietnam doing everything through the hotels (which is what the majority of guides tell you to do). Any of the Hotel Elegance chains in Hanoi are amazingly friendly and if you book all of your trips/tours through them, you will not get ripped off. Colleen and I stayed at Hotel Elegance Sapphire in the old quarter and it was great. We got the best tour guide in the world (Thanh, pronounced Tang) and there was a giant complimentary breakfast every morning (including french toast and omelets made to order!). Saigon has an equal number of good hotel chains with tour desks inside the hotel. Check trip advisor.

    You will be routed to the usual tourist trap souvenir places. Just like when I was in Moscow and the bus would stop at a few tables on the side of the road filled with crappy dolls and faux-commie stuff. The one that was the most blatant tug at american tourists’ heartstrings was the warehouse filled with crafts made by Agent Orange victims that was conveniently located halfway between Hanoi and Halong Bay. But, guess what? You don’t have to buy anything.

    Vietnam has the usual level of shadiness that comes with being a poorer country (though, surprise surprise, U.S. distribution of wealth is worse), but if you go through reputable companies (found on sites like trip advisor) you will be happy! In fact, I rarely made a move in Nam without first consulting a guide or website. Other general advice: have the hotel pick you up at the airport and never take cabs because they will rip you off or drop you off at the wrong hotel.

    And feel free to ask me more questions because I loved it there. SO MUCH.

    -Bill

    • I think I should clarify that I’m pretty sure I’m going to love Vietnam. Everyone I know who’s been in the last five years has raved about how much they enjoyed their time there. This book just happened to stoke my anxiety about the trip in general, and generally bad travel experiences.

      • Right, and that anxiety is natural in any new place. Also, it’s not 1991 anymore and you won’t have to be escorted by state officials. And I certainly hope you won’t be traveling in the mountains on a dinky motorcycle.

        I think I will write a guest post. It would be fun. I’ll keep you updated.

  3. Fear is your body’s way of telling you something exciting is about to happen. =)

    You’ll almost certainly encounter some challenges along the way, but you will meet them with all of the courage, humor, wisdom, and kick-assedness that make you Lisa Findley. The resourcefulness and bravery it takes to plan and pursue this trip will see you through the tough spots, and you have lots of people who love you and will be cheering you on (alebit from afar) along the way. I am so proud of you!

    Hugs,

    Jess

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