When I was a kid one of my favorite games to play is to run while crossing the street. Hence, I have always prided myself for being an expert street-crosser — humor me and let’s pretend it’s a thing — fearlessly crossing the street like a boss, avoiding oncoming cars with good timing and precision, sometimes leaving my companions behind if they are too afraid to take the chance in a road ruled by zooming vehicles. But my imagined skill as well as my goodwill has been put to a test in my recent trip to Vietnam. That’s right my dear readers, for the very first time I went on an out-of-country-trip. Here’s where the story begins.
Few days before this trip I couldn’t get a good night’s sleep; not out of fear but from sheer excitement that at last, my squeaky clean passport would be stamped. I am going overseas for the first time and the country that I’ve selected for this life event is Vietnam; specific destination, Ho Chi Minh, formerly known as Saigon. Originally, I booked this trip with three of my officemates but due to some circumstances, I ended up traveling solo.
Even so, my excitement cannot be contained. During my preparation, I tried to learn enough about the city just to help me get around but not too much so there’s still room for surprise.
A seat sale promo on Cebu Pacific scored me a cheap one-way flight to Ho Chi Minh. How cheap? Only PHP 1,670 ($ 35.30) baby! On the night of 28th November, I went to NAIA Terminal 3, carrying this huge and very pink backpack, so heavy I prayed that my spine won’t snap. Those who booked beginning March this year no longer had to pay the terminal fee, but travel tax I had to take care off, that’s PHP 1,620 ($ 34.21). As I waited in the check-in line, a woman with fair skin, chinky eyes, and curly hair smiled at me and started chatting me up. Because I was so stoked about this trip, I wasn’t in my usual one-question-one-answer mode; hence, I was able to communicate like a normal human being. Her name is Bing, an Engineer, and just like me, her travel buddy bailed on her so she’s going to HCM alone. As they say, you will never be alone even when you travel solo. Maybe the gods brought us together because we share the same fate. Just like that, we decided we are going to go on tours together.
Next task is facing the immigration officer. Now I’ve heard horror stories of people being offloaded so I made sure I brought the right documents, including a certificate of employment from my place of work. I rehearsed my lines in my head and I smiled. I was confident but still a little worried because anything can happen you know. A female immigration officer looked at my spotless passport and asked whether it’s my first time to go abroad or if my passport is new. I said both. Next question is when I will be going home. I handed her my printed itinerary receipt that shows my return flight from Cambodia on December 6. I was about to show her my COE when she returned my passport, already bearing a stamp. That was easy!
A little before 11, we finally boarded the Cebu Pacific flight to HCM. There was a bit of turbulence but I was able to manage my flying anxiety through meditation and music. The plane touched down Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport at 1:29 AM, Vietnam time (Vietnam is one hour behind Manila). [Read: 7 Tips to Conquer Fear of Flying]
Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport
It didn’t feel like I left Manila. Vietnamese people, though they look like Chinese, somewhat resemble Filipinos. In fact, some locals didn’t think I was Filipino until I told them so. The difference of our airport to their airport is also not striking; save for the free WiFi, which is fast and reliable even in the taxi lane outside the airport, Tân Sơn Nhất would remind you a lot of NAIA.
While we were in a taxi going to Bing’s hotel, I sorta had a feeling I was being Punk’d. Some of my friends made fun of this picture of a street that I posted on Facebook because there are many features in the streets of Ho Chi Minh that looked a lot like Manila.
The main mode of transportation in Vietnam is the motorcycles, and this my dear is the thing that challenged my street-crossing skill. The motorcycles are freaking everywhere and they go so fast it took me two days to accept that they were just normal motorists and that nobody is out to kill me. I swear to you it was stressful! I mean just watch the video below to see what I mean.
My Couchsurfer host advised me to be wary of the taxi scammers and to use Grab Taxi or Uber instead. I tried to use these apps but whenever I tried to book, the drivers would always cancel on me. The only reason I could think of is that they couldn’t contact me. The logical thing to do is buy a local sim card, but I couldn’t do that because my phone is locked in my network. Another option is to take a bus, but I didn’t take the time to study their bus system.
In Vietnam, there are two taxi companies; Vinasun and Mai Linh. Most of my friends told me to take only Mai Linh taxi; an advice I didn’t take seriously and paid dearly for; more on that later.
To save money, I signed up to Couchsurfing. Couchsurfing is a hospitality exchange and social networking website that allows members to “surf” on couches by staying as a guest at a host’s home or host travelers. You don’t pay a host to stay in her home but you should, at least, return the favor by cooking him/her a meal, treating your host to dinner, or bringing your host souvenirs from your country. I did bring some souvenirs from the Philippines and I also intended to treat her to dinner, but because I was scammed in a taxi, it hurt my budget and ruined my plan. This incident led to my decision to cut short my stay in my host’s home. After one night, I left her house and stayed in the hotel where Bing was staying.
The ruined Couchsurfing plan had me staying in two hotels and one hostel. I will make a review of these accommodations in the coming days.
There are three tours that I took in Vietnam; Cu Chi Tunnel tour, Mekong River tour, and the Siklo City Tour. But let’s save those for later.
Because I arrived in Vietnam at around 1:00 in the morning, my CS host and I agreed that I go to her house at 5AM. My initial plan was to kill the time in the airport but I met Bing and she suggested that I wait in her hotel, Elegant Inn. When she mentioned that she would be taking the Cu Chi Tunnel tour at 8AM I decided to go with her. My host lives in District 7, a bit far from District 1 where Elegant Inn is. Because the tour is set at 8AM, I thought it best to meet my host after the tour so I didn’t have to go to her place just to leave my things and then go off again. I communicated with my host through Viber and told her of my plan. It seems wise but my host didn’t like it. She didn’t like that I changed my plan and she didn’t like that I wasn’t able to go to her place at the time expected. Because she was waiting for me, she was 1-hour late to her dinner with her friends. Of course that was a bad call on my part so I was apologetic.
Anyway, so I went to her house via a taxi from Vinasun, which the receptionist from Elegant Inn booked for me. The estimated fare from District 1 to District 7 is only around VND100,000, that’s only PHP200 or $4.44. But do you know how much the taxi driver charged me? He made me pay, VND 900,000, that’s over 1,889.71 in pesos or $40. I cannot say that I am not to blame that I lost a lot of money because to be honest, I didn’t use my common sense. It was my first day and I was confused about their money because of the too many zeros in there. You see, Vietnam notes start with VND 1,000. If you want to know why, here’s a link. But to give you a gist, inflation happened, then the global financial crisis and Vietnam responded by printing more money. Instead of resolving the issue, it made things worse. To cut things short, Vietnamese dong has been devalued, hence the number of zeros.
Now back to the story, I took out my wallet and tried to pay the driver VDN 100,000. He said no, which made me more confused than I already was, and it led to my mistake number 1: showing him my money. Just to make things easier for me I arranged my money from the lowest bill to the highest. The picture below shows all of my money and this was taken as soon I arrived in Vietnam.
The biggest bill that I had is VND500,000 and they are in the bottom of the pile. And did you know what this driver took from me? That’s right, two freaking 500,000 dong, which leads to my mistake number 2; I knew it was too much, but I didn’t say anything. If my bill is 900,000 then he should have given me 100,000 change, right? But no, he only gave me a change of VND10,000, this is already enough a clue that he was taking so much from me. When I came looking for the house of my host I was in complete shock, I just freaking lost VND 900,000 and I can’t believe that I’d been so stupid to let it all happen. I told this to my host and she couldn’t believe how careless I had been. I couldn’t believe it myself so I was feeling lost and listless the rest of the day. I took out all of my money just to make sure that I’d been cheated, the picture below shows that I’d been duped indeed.
That night, I messaged Bing about the incident. She then informed Eddie, the receptionist of Elegant Inn who called the taxi for me. Eddie reported the incident to Vinasun. The next morning, my CS host came to my room in a foul mood. She berated me for not putting the remote of the aircon in its right place, she berated me for not closing the door of the bathroom. That day I was ready to leave because I didn’t want to upset her further. I said sorry and tried to give her my “pasalubong.” She ignored me, went out of the room, and moments later, she came back asking me if I was sure that the driver swindled me. I looked at her and said yes. She then asked for a proof because the said driver was outside her gate, waiting to confront me.
I went out and saw the driver, his face is contorted in rage. In his broken English he told me that I remembered it wrong and that he only took two pieces of VND50,000 from me. Now I know that I didn’t have a proof and didn’t use my brain that last night but I knew how much money I was carrying and I knew that he didn’t take VND50,000 but VND500,000. You see, the color of VND500,000 is blue while the VND50,000 is pink. And seriously, I wouldn’t be this upset if I only lost 100,000, but no, I lost almost 1 million dong, I didn’t remember it wrong, that’s a lot of money!
I was so overwhelmed with emotion that I started crying. If this happened in the Philippines, I’d probably bite his head off, but I was in another country and the last thing I wanted is to cause any trouble. So I went back inside the house and resolved to leave because my host is already upset with me and I didn’t want to make it worse. She came to me and offered that we go to Vinasun’s office and formally file a complaint. I said that it would be pointless because I didn’t have an evidence, it would just be my words against him and I’m not sure if it would matter. She told me not to cry and to be strong. She also convinced me to stay, to go to my tour on that day and when I come back, she would accompany me to Vinasun. I gathered myself and agreed to her suggestion.
That night after the tour, Eddie asked me to tell him the entire story. He said that I should be sure because the driver is suspended for 15 days. And so for the nth time, I recounted the story of my misfortune. I then messaged my host that I don’t want to pursue the complaint anymore. It’s okay if I didn’t get my money back, what’s important is that Vinasun did an action against the driver who wronged me. I am also quite thankful to my host, not only for accepting me to her home and introducing me to her friends, but also for trying to help me when this bad incident happened. I’m sorry that my first Couchsurfing experience did not go so well because I caused my host so much stress, but I am still thankful that at least for a night, I was able to stay with a local.
In Ho Chi Minh, if you don’t take courage, you will never get to the other side of the street. It’s kind of the same when you try to deal with some troubles in life. If you don’t take courage, you will never be able to move on and you will never know the good things waiting for you on the other side of adventure. In light of what happened, that’s what I try to remind myself with. Had I not taken courage, the scamming incident would have ruined my entire trip.
But this is just a prelude. And I’m excited to continue the story of my first out-of-country adventure in Vietnam in my next post.