Sunday, October 28, 2007

Reader Mail: Am I Cheap ? Nha Trang, Seaside Dump

Reader Inquiries

Several folks have asked about my choices in accommodations and travel. Am I just trying to save a few Dong or trying to inflict the maximum amount pain on myself. Actually both and then some. Here are my thoughts:

1) Traveling for 4 months is a lot different than vacationing for a week or two. I wouldn't think twice about spending $3,000 for a week in Corsica or the Alps. But multiply $3,000 by 16 weeks and you have almost $50,000. That's more than I can afford.

2) The popular travel guide books for budget/adventure travelers (Lonely Planet and Rough Guides) recommend trying as many modes of transportation as possible. On this trip, I've traveled by big plane, small plane, overnight ferry, and now overnight bus. Bus is by far the cheapest and most brutal and it's also how the locals travel. On my last bus trip, there was a little guy sitting in the seat usually reserved for the drivers when they want to sleep. I asked if he was a driver. No, he said. I'm a doctor. I guess doctors in Vietnam don't paid what they do in the U.S.

3) Once you realize that you're being charged much more than the locals for everything, it becomes kind of game to haggle and shop for prices. (I don't spend too much time on this, but just asking your hotel what, say, a cab ride should cost, puts you in a better bargaining position.

4) I'm frugal by nature. I always pay my way, give to charity, etc. But I'm just not a big spender and don't think we as U.S. consumers can keep spendig and wasting the way we have in the past. (anyone who is interested can check out Web site some friends and I started:

Another friend was interest in my French friend "Joe." Here are some more specifics.
- Appearance: full head of long gray hair. He wore traditional trendy European evening wear: black everything. Black polo shirt (no logo), open at the showing grey chest hair, long black pants, nice black dress shoes. He was dressed at least two clicks above the average tourist. (I would expect nothing less from someone who once lived in Paris). He looked older than 49. I would have guessed mid 50's.
- He said he didn't quite fit-in in France but wouldn't live anywhere else. Man after my own heart. (By not fitting in, he was referring to the fact that he never married, though he had two grown kids, he thought both politics and the media were a waste of time. He wasn't really into acquiring money and possessions.) He seemed to be pretty comfortable in his "skin" and with who he is.
- At one of the bars we went to he was very flirty with the teenaged boys who were the waiters. He tried to tickle them. He performed make-believe Kung Fu on them.
- He had "faire l'amour" with about 5 prostitutes since being in Vietnam. (Question for all the experts out there: does one "make love" to a prostitute? I guess if you're French you do.)

Nha Trang is the Last Straw

Vietnam is starting to get to me. Maybe it's the bus rides or this dumpy seaside town I'm holed up in. Or may be it's the water. Here are my current gripes:
- Weather
Naturally, I picked the rainy season to come visit. Though it didn't rain at all in Hanoi, it has poured in the two seaside towns I've visited. (Monsoon season in these areas is Sept - January)
- Bus
I'm done with overnight bus rides. I've done two in the last week. The second was even grosser than the first. The smell of sweat, lack of a/c...
- Smell
The town I'm in now (Nha Trang) smells like a mixture of wood smoke, incense, gas fumes, and putrifying squid.
- Street Hawkers
I understand that I'm rich and locals are poor (relatively speaking), but here in Nha Trang it is a little out of control. You walk down the street and one after another they will hit on you to buy books, post cards, art, scooter rides, food, and boom-boom. I was eating lunch in an outdoor cafe and hawkers would come up to me while I was eating. I'm always polite and say "No, thank you."
- This is the first town where I've seen rats eating street garbage in broad daylight.

Glossary: Vietnames hotel with 24-hour security
Usually this means the gates and doors are all locked by 1:00 am. The night manager is sleeping on the floor in the lobby on a cot or small mattress. To get in or out, you have to wake him up.
Last night, I wasn't feeling well, went to bed at 9:00 and slept till 1:30 am. At 1:30, I wanted some bottled water (you don't drink from the tap). The elevator had been shut off, so I walked the 6 floors to the lobby. (I usually walk instead of taking the elevator). I couldn't get out and I felt bad about waking the manager who was sleeping on the floor with his pregnant wife. (I had also pissed him off earlier by complaining about the bed pillows, broken bedside lamp, and missing top bed sheet)I watched them sleep and tried to decide what to do. First, I went into the kitchen to look in the fridge. No bottled water. I went to the cooler with drinks for sale. Locked. I tried to see if I could climb the gate. No luck. Finally, a white guy with a Vietnamese girl friend came downstairs and wanted to leave. The manager gladly woke up and let them out. I bought a bottle of water and now the elevator was working.

Vietnamese Submarine Sandwich
- take a sub roll; smear cheese (Laughing Cow fake cheese is fine); add slivers of something white (egg?) and something grey (pork?); finish with slices of cucumber, scallion, tomato. Add hot sauce. I ate two in one sitting, quite excellent.

Hotel room gross out
In Nha Trang I'm staying at a hotel called the Dong Phuong. It was recommended by a fellow traveler. She seemed to know her stuff. What was she thinking? I wasn't feeling well when I got off the bus, declined the first hotel the bus took us to, and just wanted a clean quiet room. Instead here's what I got for $10 a night.
- toilet paper was all wet
- pillow cases stuffed with concrete
- bedside light didn't work. (eventually, the manager came up and screwed the bulb in all the way and it worked. Honest, I tried fiddling with it before calling him. I tried to explain that Jewish men are genetically unable to repair things, but he didn't understand and just stomped off.)
- Neighbor blasting TV at 3:30 am. (I knocked several times on his door to no avail. He must have fallen asleep. I knocked harder. He partially opened the door, he was naked; it wasn't a pretty sight. He apologized and turned the TV off.
- When I awoke the next morning, my place had been invaded by black beetles about the size of Japanese beetles. They scuttled around on the floor and I killed them one at a time. I left for a few hours, came back and an army of ants was eating the dead beetle carcasses. I cleaned up the whole mess and flushed it down the toilet.
- I'm done with Vietnamese seaside towns and fly to Saigon tomorrow.