Vietnam is addictive to travel to, and there is so much to write home about. Shockingly, $50 was all I had left after Dalat trip.
I had really longed to go to Mui Ne, a coastal resort town, in order to see Doi Cat, a vast area of sand dunes in Vietnam, and wanted to swim in the beach in Mui Ne. But $50 wouldn’t get me anywhere far, I reckoned. It is not every day that I could come to Vietnam and see so much of the country within a few days. This country always fascinates me. People are enterprising and competitive. Young and old all work hard, which is really admirable.
After 2 nights in Dalat, I returned to Hoi Chi Minh to work for the main office of a new company where I have recently been hired – for two days. I had to drag along a rather big suitcase a travelling friend asked me to bring back to Cambodia.
On the way to Binh Thuan in a stinking van. If I had to choose, I wouldn’t regret taking this one.
“Are you going to Mui Ne?” Zoey, my Vietnamese colleague, asked me. Feeling unsure, I nevertheless said: “Yes, I’m going there!”
Uncertainty can be fun.
But $50 was still in my mind. “How am I gonna manage to see Mui Ne for just $50?” I quietly asked myself. That night, I had to travel 7 km farther from the city centre to stay with a young Vietnamese friend, Minh Ngoc. I have known Ngoc for a few years already, and there is something about her that I like so much. She is more mature than her age, and we have a lot in common.
I paid $5 for the taxi for 7 kilometres. If I had a choice, I would take xe om (pronounced as se om), a motor taxi like in Cambodia, which could be half time less expensive. I think taxi in Vietnam was quite more expensive than Bangkok – but Phnom Penh’s taxi is the most expensive of all.
The next morning, Zoey asked me again. For sure, I gave the same answer. But, how am I gonna make it with just $45 in the pocket? Zoey saw my albums on Facebook and places I’ve been to. She noticed that I’m not a picky person, and I could chill out with her family in Binh Thuan, about 22 km from Mui Ne. Later that evening at work, she said she wanted to host me today and that her family in Binh Thuan could host me for however long I wanted to stay!
“Yay,” I felt like punching in the air.
I didn’t ask Zoey earlier to host me because I thought that Vietnam offers quite a lot of cheap hostels for $5 to $15 a night, so it wouldn’t cost an arm and a leg just to visit Vietnam for a few days, not to mention a few weeks. Street side food is even more affordable and, take my words for it, delicious!
Zoey took me to her place, and the next day, I took a stinking van which cost me 200,000 dong equal to 5 USD to Phan Thiet city (Binh Thuan province). It was an independence day, and all the buses including Phuong Trang and other bus companies, were all fully packed with passengers eager to leave Ho Chi Minh city for a few days for their hometown. Compared with 26 public holidays in Cambodia, Vietnam has less than 10 public holidays. In Vietnam, vans hire xe-om drivers to collect passengers who live close so a xe om driver picked me up from Zoey’s house.
“To Mui Ne?” I asked a guy whom I thought looked like the van driver. He looked at me from head to toe and nodded. Everywhere in Southeast Asia, people keep telling me that Cambodia is easy to travel around thanks to the fact that many people speak English a tad more. I witnessed it. Sometimes it involved a lot of gestures and facial expressions communicating with the locals. They are usually very helpful.
I hurried to be seated inside the van and smiled to myself at the thought of seeing Mui Ne for the first time. Suddenly a young female passenger, about 23 years old, came to sit next to me – who asked me to call her name in English, Teresa. We looked at each other at first, and then I decided to speak to her in English. She responded in a very good English.
Teresa looked around, and whispered to me that the van was not going to Mui Ne but Phan Thiet city. I couldn’t imagine Phan Thiet city as I had so far imagined only Mui Ne all this while. Feeling devastated, I asked Teresa to call my friend Zoey. The other lesson I learnt was to buy a cheap sim card quickly whenever I got to a new place. It could be cheaper than I would have thought.
Honestly, I was quite prepared by writing down Zoey’s family’s house address in my notebook in advance but soon I realized with grief that we were not going directly to Mui Ne, but to Phan Thiet city. I tried to think positively that something good would happen if I did something . Perhaps, there would be a plan for me. Then, I kept chatting with Teresa.
Teresa and I quickly became friends. Her brother, about 21, was later picked up along the way, and joined us as long as he got into the van. I suddenly realized at that moment that some young Vietnamese if not all have been struggling to have a good command of English for study and work. It reminded me of Khang, a 9 year old boy who impressed me and my travelling friends with his almost perfect English and quite a mature manner.
Both Teresa and her brother kept entertaining me along the way with their fun stories about their staying in Ho Chi Minh city. They talked with immense pride about their hometown. I felt that I could relate a lot to them: living far away from one’s family and having to juggle between financially supporting oneself and the family. It is the moment of each action that shapes who we are, I thought in my mind.
I preferred listening to them talking about their lives but the van had to stop because it was lunch time. Teresa and her brother opted for the cheapest lunch: two boiled eggs, veggie pickles and rice. However, when the bill arrived, the I was ashamed to order chicken with veggie pickles and rice. Teresa offered to pay for my lunch. I said no, for sure. As a visitor to a neighbouring country, I was struck overwhelmed with her kindness. Travelling on a short budget themselves, they still insisted on paying for my lunch. I said no the second time, but Teresa had already paid for the lunch.
On the way, I was excitedly thinking about Zoey’s family. Zoey told me that her mom works as a high school teacher. She teaches more than six hours a day. Her dad was a teacher too, but now he takes care of 200 dragon fruit plants. Pretty huge. I got to taste the sweet purple dragon fruit from their farm! Zoey’s sister sings like a little diva. And, I had so much fun for the two night and 3 day stay with Zoey’s family in Phan Thiet city. The place totally reminded me of dreamy Pondicherry (former Puducherry).
My host in Binh Thuan (Zoey’s mom)
My host mom cooked breakfast, lunch and dinner for me. She got up at around 5:30am to do some exercise and take a great deal of fresh air near the beach and while I stayed there, returned home with a bag of food. I really appreciated that!
Embarrassingly, I spoke not more than few words in Vietnamese. We mostly communicated through body language (body gestures) and Google Translate. Amazingly, they have very fast Internet connection at home, which Tram, Zoey’s sister, often uses to do her academic research. Thus, Google Translate saved me a lot of time and headache. That moment she understood my first sentence I wrote in English and translated into Vietnamese by Google Translate, I knew that Google Translate and I were gonna be the inseparable friends.