Travel Oops

Travel humor and a celebration of travel missteps, mishaps and misadventures

Travel Oops

Do I Call it a “Homestay?”

Steph doing a shot

Northern Vietnam, near Sapa: May 2014

Sitting in a Hmong living room in remote Northern Vietnam with ten other freshly showered tourists doing shots of rice wine while cellphones charged and Eminem blasted from iPod speakers on the shelf above a cooler containing multiple cans of Coca Cola, bottles of Aquafina and six packs of Tiger beer, I wasn’t sure I could call the scenario a “homestay.”

The idea of a homestay, of course, is to stay with locals to get an idea of their culture and lifestyle. In all fairness, the Hmong family who owned the home was with us. Sa and Hang sat with ramrod straight posture and their one-month-old baby in chairs a bit away from the dinner table, which had become the station for drinking games. Crouched in a fairly well lit corner of the large open room, their 10-year-old daughter did homework by using a plastic chair as a desk.

Her long ponytail flitted back and forth as she divided her attention between her workbook and her answer sheet. Meanwhile, two of the tourists, César, a twenty-something Frenchman who wore a jaunty fedora, and Londoner Richard, otherwise known as “Trini” since he was born in Trinidad, fashioned a plastic two-liter 7-up bottle into a makeshift bong. They resorted to smoking pot since our Li, our 4’ 8” no nonsense Hmong guide – or rather, her elderly mother — couldn’t hook them up with the opium they had requested earlier on the 15 kilometer trek we all took to get here.

water buffalo hub

First Impression: Homestay or Hostel?

I’m not going to lie. After emerging Deet and sweat soaked from the bamboo lined dirt path that wound around multiple coliseums of mountainous rice terraces and intersected with water buffalo hubs, I was surprised, yes, but ultimately, relieved when I first saw a tiled bathroom, complete with a flush toilet and shower near the entrance of the Hmong home we had finally reached.

front area with bathroom

The bathroom opened to a cement patio that extended in the front of the house with several plastic chairs and stools like the kind found on most sidewalks of Vietnam’s cities. The interior of the house offered a dorm-like setup with an open communal space and a ladder leading up to a loft full of wooden bunk beds. Several electrical outlets lined the walls and the fully stocked cooler featured a beer sticker, resembling Pabst Blue Ribbon, emblazoned on the side. Clearly the home had been modified to accommodate several guests who leaned toward Western tastes.

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Priceless Products and Packaging: Truck Stop Treasures

Nebraska. This flatland is actually quite pretty.

Nebraska. This flatland is anything but plain.

Eastern Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, Southern Minnesota, USA:  December 2014

One may think that driving through the flat land of Eastern Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa and Southern Minnesota could be a mind and butt numbing prospect, I’m not going to lie. There are some stretches that certainly induce a conscious coma. However, someone dreading this drive in a minivan with the family during winter around the holidays simply isn’t looking at the positives.

Positive One: Reading! Kurt, my husband, decided to drive the entire route on Day 1, so I caught up on my reading, Marco Polo Didn’t Go There by Rolf Potts. It was quite pleasant, actually, at least for me. Additionally, I tweaked my knee after falling while skiing two days before our road trip (more to come on that in another post), so I had no choice but to stay off it while in a car.

The snow blizzard ghosts can be quite hypnotic.

The snow blizzard ghosts can be quite hypnotic.

Positive Two: Ground Blizzard Ghosts.  Also, when driving through Nebraska, you can enjoy the swirling of mini ground blizzards. The light snow churns up in whirls and patterns, and as a nerdy English teacher, I can’t help but think of Henry David Thoreau and a passage from Walden:

For the first week, whenever I looked out on the pond it impressed me like a tarn high up on the side of a mountain, its bottom far above the surface of other lakes, and, as the sun arose, I saw it throwing off its nightly clothing of mist, and here and there, by degrees, its soft ripples or its smooth reflecting surface was revealed, while the mists, like ghosts, were stealthily withdrawing in every direction into the woods, as at the breaking up of some nocturnal conventicle.

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On an Ao Dai High: Part II

Loan's stall

This story is a continuation of “On an Ao Dai High in Saigon,” and some of the information is repeated for clarity in the new version. 

Hoi An, Vietnam, May 2014 

In a frilly, white top, tight jeans and slip-on kitten heels, Loan hoisted her tiny self up on to a worn wooden shelving unit in her tailoring stall, No. 7 “Cloth Shop.” Like a librarian on a sliding ladder, searching a dusty floor-to-ceiling bookcase, her hands moved from shelf to shelf pulling various reams of silk and cotton fabrics. After lowering herself down like a gymnast, she showed me the selections for closer inspection. Easily a few feet taller than Loan, I felt oafish — like a 1980s burly and brutish East German swimmer named Helga. I doubted whether her Vietnamese measuring tape would even have enough units to assess my broad shoulders.

Loan measruing my biceps

I am Helga. Hear me roar!

Loan whipped out her measuring tape and, surely, released more of the white tailoring strip than was usually necessary. While lifting my arms straight out, I scanned the interior of the Hoi An marketplace, which was crammed with tailoring stalls like Loan’s, a food court and several souvenir stands with lanterns, fans, conical hats, trinkets and inflatable toys. Bored shopkeepers sat on plastic stools, playing cards. Their laughing children instigated a game of tag in the tight confines. A grungy backpacker couple in the tailoring stall next to Loan’s spoke to each other in German while holding a rather shapeless linen dress. The German man, in a grimy, ripped tank top, haggled in English with the Vietnamese tailor over the price of the linen garment.

Meanwhile, Loan gently wrapped the measuring tape around my damp neck, which glistened with a permanent necklace of perspiration. The day had been heinously humid, and I wondered how Vietnamese women could even bear to wear an ao dai, the beautiful traditional high collared, fitted tunic dress with side slits that is sported over silk trousers. The heat, however, would not deter me. I had come to Loan specifically for an ao dai.

But, somehow, I thought a fitting for the elegant dress that symbolized Vietnam and was emblazoned on everything from keychains and magnets to lovely embroidered wall hangings would be more…glamorous. I don’t know what exactly I was expecting.

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The Travel Ahh….The Phenomenal Conical

I think this woman felt bad that I was such a sucker, so she gladly posed for photos and gave me a lighter for the incense.

At Marble Mountain, near Danang, this woman sold me two packets of incense for five dollars. I didn’t even bargain with her.  Feeling sorry for me that I was such a sucker, she gladly posed for photos and gave me a lighter for the incense.

On my recent trip to Vietnam, it was a thrill every time I spotted someone wearing a Nón Lá, the traditional conical hat made out of palm leaves and a prevalent symbol of Vietnam. And, after sporting one in both heinous heat and pouring rain, I soon discovered it is the ultimate all-weather hat. Not much has changed with its design over the centuries. Nothing is more effective than combatting the blistering Southeast Asian sun and tropical monsoons. Here are some photos I took of the phenomenal conical.

Women run the show at the Hoi An market.

Women run the show at the Hoi An market.

Hoi An

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Using “the force” to cross the street and yielding to Yoda in Vietnam

Line up of scooters

Ho Chi Minh City, May 2014

Ever so cautiously, I put a flip-flop anchored toe in the crosswalk, but yanked it out immediately. It wasn’t time. Instead, I stood, watching the motorscooters swerve in tumultuous tentacles, some revving up the wrong side of the street or even up on the sidewalk itself. As the riders whizzed by, I could’ve easily reached out and pulled down the ever-present facemasks that many of the commuters wore to ward off pollution and the sun. They were that close. So, when is the right time to cross the streets in Saigon?

Starbucks on the corner

During my first few jetlagged hours in Ho Chi Minh City, I wanted to leave my hotel on a mini expedition to find a cup of coffee — never mind that a Starbucks was just across the street. I saw a few promising mom and pop shops, but like Starbucks, they were located on the other side of the death zone. I knew what I had to do.

And it wasn’t jaywalking. I don’t do it. It doesn’t even happen in the small Colorado mountain town where I live. My lack of daring may stem from being the subject of a Teutonic tirade in East Germany. It was during the Cold War and a crumpled old man in a long wool coat and furry hat berated my college friends and me in angry German for crossing a completely empty intersection against a red light. He even shook his cane at us.

The crazy wiring of HCMC

The crazy wiring of HCMC

A traffic light existed at the main intersection of Hai Ba Trung and Dong Du. But after a few minutes of studying the patterns of traffic, I decided the free-for-all of cars, motorscooters, buses and taxis was as much of a twisted, webbed cluster as the intertwined telephone and cable wires that gathered, looped and tangled on the city’s telephone poles located along street corners.

Finally another pedestrian came along as the light turned green. Following in synch with the local, I proceeded. Jerking about while looking right and left at traffic, I flinched as scooters beeped at me and came dangerously close to toppling over my nearly paralyzed body.

I don’t know how, but I made it across the street. The caffeine I had so desperately wanted wasn’t necessary anymore. Surging adrenalin took care of that, and made me more alert than any jolt of java could.

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The Spirit of a Divided Berlin

guard tower

East Germany, April 1989

When East German border guards tromped through the tight train corridor, stopped my study abroad program director and pantomimed the click of a camera, I knew I had messed up. Big time. Standing enough feet away, I pressed close to the passageway window, and inched my camera down into my coat pocket.

Moments earlier, as the train slowly rolled across the border from West Germany into East Germany and communism, I had snapped a picture of a patrol tower. Really bad move. It was 1989, during the Cold War, and I had left the flash on.

After watching the corridor confrontation, I panicked. Clearly, someone in the tower had seen the flash. Would the guards figure out I took the photo? Would they take my camera? Worse, would they take me? Did East Germans send people to Siberia? Could my parents wire a “border crossing fee” to a checkpoint behind the iron curtain?

Ultimately, nothing resulted from my major lapse in judgment. Since it was just seven months before the “fall” of the Berlin Wall, I’m guessing the East German government had more pressing matters than throwing me in a gulag.

East German flag

Realization in East Germany: The photo faux pas confirmed that it didn’t matter that I was an American and guaranteed unalienable rights in the US. I was an American in a communist country, and border guards in East Germany didn’t have to acknowledge my freedom of expression or any other US First Amendment rights.

However, that moment, along with the idea of traveling to a region that was constantly presented to Americans as threatening, dangerous, and essentially evil, enticed me, and I couldn’t wait to see more.

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On an Ao Dai High in Saigon

beautiful woman in Ao Dai

beautiful ao dai woman 1960ishShe was stunning. And, for all practical purposes, I was stalking her. Moving past a lineup of tarnished, stationary yet imposing tanks and helicopters leftover from the Vietnam War, the woman wore a long sleeved neon yellow tunic dress fitted over flowing white trousers that barely revealed the tops of pointy kitten heeled shoes. Although in full 2014 vibrant color, she looked like she came straight from a black and white photo shoot for a 1960s Life magazine pictorial of Saigon.

This was my first up-close sighting of a woman wearing an ao dai, Vietnam’s traditional, elegant high-collared dress with slits up the sides that is typically worn with silk pants.

tank

In the courtyard of Ho Chi Minh City’s War Remnants museum, I first pretended to be examining a tank, US Army 09A78969, and then moved closer to a wall displaying bold primary colored propaganda posters. I scrutinized one featuring Ho Chi Minh as if I was completely literate in Vietnamese. Really, I was just working up the nerve to ask the woman in the ao dai for a photo.

She was standing with a man who wore a polo shirt, khakis and had a camera dangling from his neck. Since we were at a museum, I assumed he was a tourist and the woman was possibly his guide — especially since she gestured toward the tank while she talked to the polo man. In a quiet moment, I finally approached her and asked if she spoke English.

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Getting Karaoke Confident

View of Ho Chi Minh City from the banks of the Saigon River in District 2.

View of Ho Chi Minh City from the banks of the Saigon River in District 2.

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. May, 2014

For some reason, when my new Vietnamese friend, Ivy, kept prodding me to sing, the only tune that came to me was “Timber” by Pitbull and Ke$ha. My seven-year-old daughter, Kasey, had recently downloaded the song on my iPhone and it’s one of those ditties that stations itself in your brain for an indefinite period of time.

© Becky Sullivan

Ke$ha © Becky SullivaMy seven-year-old daughter, Kasey, had recently downloaded the song on my iPhone and it’s one of those ditties that stations itself in your brain for an extended period of time.

“It’s going down; I’m yelling timber. You better run; you better dance.”

Even I could hear my pubescentesque squawk in “Timber” as I sang for Ivy and her enthusiastic boyfriend, Danny, while we stood on the banks of the Saigon River in District Two of Ho Chi Minh City. Although it was dark, I still looked around, hoping no one else was watching or, worse yet, listening. Usually, a few alcoholic beverages are required before I can do this kind of thing.

Completely sober, I cringed since we were at a spot where many couples came to gaze at the well-lit nighttime cityscape while they held hands and probably crooned in-tune love songs to each other. I knew karaoke was big in Asia, but a request for impromptu singing with no backup music and no reliably scrolling lyrics on a screen?

Here I am with Ivy after my solo.

Here I am with Ivy after my solo.

“Steph, that is wonderful!! Keep going,” Ivy said and hugged me as she did when, as a tour guide, she took me out sightseeing the first day I arrived in Saigon. Danny also praised my discordant vocal talents. “You sing very well,” he said nodding with what appeared to be one of the most sincere smiles I had ever seen. I couldn’t remember any more of the lyrics aside from the lengthy series of “oooooohs” in the chorus.

When I told Ivy I couldn’t recall the rest of the words, she said, “Sing another song!” Oh man, what was I in for?

Ivy and Danny, my new friends, and apparently, fans.

Ivy and Danny, my new friends, and apparently, fans.

Earplugs and earlier scarring

I’m a bit concerned about the Vietnamese. Frankly, I think they should focus less on wearing face masks to ward off air pollution while in motorscooter traffic, and instead, invest in some earplugs. Clearly, there is some hearing loss going on.

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A “crazy dog” and roasting marshmallows with chopsticks in Sapa, Vietnam

 

Li takes a rare break from our trek and checks her cell phone.

Li takes a rare break from our trek and checks her cell phone.

Outside of Sapa, Vietnam, May 2014

Along the 15 kilometer trek to a hilly homestay in Northern Vietnam, our 4’8″ Hmong guide, Li, insisted that 11 other tourists and I did not need to stop for water and that we would slow the whole group down by taking too many photos of the rice terraces.

One view of the stunning rice terraces around Sapa, Vietnam

How could we not take photos? One view of the stunning rice terraces around Sapa, Vietnam

Li was a tad hardcore. After all, she and other Hmong guides probably cruised that route at least twice a day while wearing what amounted to shower slip ons. So when Li told us she had news, and we better gather around to listen, the twelve of us did. Right away.

“There is a crazy dog in the village. It has killed four people,” she announced as she sat cross legged in the traditional Hmong black leg warmers on the cement patio floor of the homestay abode we had finally reached.

“Is she talking about a rabid dog?” I asked my friend Debbie in a hushed tone so I wouldn’t get reprimanded. Seriously? And I had been worried about the mamma water buffalo that seemed irritated when I inadvertently cut off her baby on the rice terrace trail.

“Do not go into the village. If you walk in the village and the dog bites you, it is your fault not mine. I tell you now,” Li said.

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Being Followed by a CaoDai Deputy

Slapping a closed silk fan into his outstretched palm, a slight, elderly CaoDai devotee wearing a white tunic, white trousers and sporting a low, jaunty black turban, fires off loud Vietnamese to Binh, our interpreter and tour guide. The devotee follows us as we pad barefooted through the sanctuary of the largest CaoDai temple in the world, located in Vietnam’s Tây Ninh Province.

According to Binh, who occasionally glances up from reading the CaoDai reference book I brought from the US, the old man is with temple security. He wears a yellow, blue and red striped armband (oddly resembling the Colombian flag), which indicates his position. The CaoDai bouncer continues his lecture as he walks with us, making a whapping sound every time he bangs the fan into his hand.

I’m fairly certain my friend, Debbie, and I have upset him. It could have been the photos we took earlier of worshippers kneeling and holding their bent arms in a triangular formation with their hands clasped together at their foreheads.

The trippy temple.

It’s tempting to document everything in the “Holy See,” the headquarters of CaoDai, a blended religion that incorporates primary tenets of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and Judaism. According to University of Southern California anthropologist and CaoDai scholar, Janet Hoskins, the syncretistic sect attracts more than six million followers worldwide.

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Gone Once Again

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