Sometimes when you are travelling, you have a few things happen that when added together make you want to be anywhere than where you are.
It always happens when you least expect it. Maybe you were relaxing at the train station- killing an hour before you board. You have two overnight trains from Ho Chi Minh to Hoi An in front of you.
You are having a beer and commenting with the locals about the vermin running around in the trees. All is right in the world.
It’s time to board, they only allow ten minutes at stops, so best to get to your carriage. That’s when it starts – right when the attendant tells you that the tickets you booked online months ago are for the wrong month and in the past.
Your friends look at you in a stare of, “Is this really happening?” Time stands still until you find out if there are spare beds.
Although you are lucky, three beds left, you don’t sleep well. You feel bad for intruding on the personal space of a German couple travelling with their young son. You worry about your friends in the cabin next door and how mad they are. You especially worry about the next overnight train. Will you be as lucky?
You wait at the next train station for over an hour. The attendants want to help the locals who need tickets for the next train. Fair enough.
You spend a lot of time sorting the situation out in broken English. We are lucky, sort of. Three beds left in the six bed hard sleeper. Not the private soft bed cabin you originally booked but you are pleased you are not stuck in Na Trang.
But it isn’t over. You then realize that the hotel you booked in Hoi An is for the wrong year. Your friends think you are joking but this is actually happening. You have never made such a mistake before but this time you are going down in a blaze of glory. One of your friends calls you a dickhead- rightfully so. She then tries to decide whether to punch you in the arm or stomach.
She decides that landing on your shin while getting down from the middle bunk on the way to Hoi An is sufficient. She especially laughs when the Vietnamese women sleeping above her did it, too. Justice has been served.
But, just when you think the stress and restless nights are behind you, you find yourself alone in the night markets of Hoi An. You are in search of Christmas presents. It’s dark with the exception of the lights from the stalls. There are motorbikes everywhere. Every ounce of concentration is needed to avoid getting run over. The drivers don’t seem to have the skills and elegance of those in Ho Chi Minh.
You have to look after yourself. In your head you are screaming, “Why are there fucking motorbikes in the street markets”. To add salt to the wound, the stall owners are hassling you to buy. You wouldn’t mind if they had bespoke goods but each shop is a duplicate of the other. Your anxiety has reached its limit. You want out.
You start walking back to the meeting point and notice a shop. It is different from all the others. There is old stuff inside. Some of it is dusty. The old lady sitting on the plastic chair just smiles at you. No hassling is required. You go in.
The goal is to find Christmas presents for your travel friends. You find just what you want. An old piggy bank with dirt and dust on it. Your friend saw one the day before in a store and liked it – perfect. The next is some old beautiful pottery.
The beautiful old lady shows you it is actually a pipe. Even better. She pretends to smoke it and get high. You laugh, she laughs. Maybe you and your friends can actually try them out-normal rules of life don’t apply when on holiday. Most likely they can just grow a succulent in them.
She speaks very little English but knows enough to say that everything you pick out is “good choice”. There is more smiling, more laughing. You use the few Vietnamese words you picked up to communicate. She is impressed and laughing at the same time. She teaches you how to say Happy New Year.
Then she gets her friend to help me remember my Chinese sign. She gives me a charm with a snake. It is a gift.
You now know the Vietnamese word for gift. You don’t want to go home anymore.