Sunday, January 4, 2009

A Series of Unfortunate Events -- Christmas 2008 Edition

Prelude – The Best Laid Plans

The following is a special joint blog from Glen and Elvina outlining some of the perils and pitfalls of their travel to Vietnam and Cambodia over Christmas. Before reading, be clear of one thing. Despite the number of setbacks along the way, this has been an excellent trip so far, and both of us would fully recommend a trip like this to anyone.

Glen’s Song: “Nowhere With You” – Joel Plaskett
Elvina’s Song: “Imitosis” – Andrew Bird

Glen: The plan was simple enough. Fly from Shanghai to Shenzhen, take a ferry to Macau, and overnight there. Afterwards, wake up very early and catch a cheap Viva Macau flight to Ho Chi Minh City. Hang out in Southern Vietnam for a few days before taking a riverboat up to Phnom Penh, Cambodia on the 24th, and spend the rest of the Christmas holidays in Cambodia.

John Lennon once said, “Life is what happens when you are making other plans”, and let me tell you, we were in for a dose of life.

Elvina: Where oh where to begin? The few weeks leading up to holiday have been busy, busy, busy – as I moved into another apartment, wrote 18 student reports and pre-planned for our trip. The geek at heart still managed to find time to draft a chronological itinerary of our plans in a spreadsheet. With all the stress at home and at work, it was comforting to know that a great time was waiting as the light at the end of the tunnel.

Early on, we decided that since we’d be let out of school at noon on Friday the 19th, we’d like to spend the night in Shanghai and fly out the next morning. We looked carefully at the Shanghai subway map and compared it to the addresses of hostels. We found and chose one that was within walking distance to the metro line that was two stops away from the Maglev to Shanghai Pudong airport, on the east side of the city.

Chapter 1 – The First of Many

Glen’ Song: “Escape is at Hand for the Traveling Man” – The Tragically Hip
Elvina’s Song: “Leaving On A Jet Plane” – Chantal Kreviazuk

Glen: It is worth noting at this point that we rejected a hostel that looked ideal, great rooms, good price, but it was in the wrong location. It was on the West Side of the city, and closer to Hongqiao airport. Yes, a city the size of a small country has two fairly large airports. Don’t forget that part.

Our night in Shanghai went without incident or omens. Nice dinner and drinks with good friends, many of who were heading across the Pacific Ocean for Christmas. We woke up the next morning and began making our way to Pudong Airport.

As we were crammed into the very congested Shanghai subway cars, a sudden realization came over me. I had forgotten my alarm clock in the hostel. I mentioned this, thinking that I would leave it. Really, I didn’t want to abandon my clock, since it was very handy to travel with, and I knew that we would need to wake up early the next morning to catch our flight out of Macau.

Looking at my watch, we decided that we had time to make a 10 minute backtrack to fetch my clock, while Elvina wait at the Maglev station to catch the super 430 km/h train to the Pudong airport.

Elvina: We were plenty good on time, so I wasn’t worried at all. We got off the very crowded train, crossed over and caught a similarly crowded train back to where we started. We decided I would stay on the platform with all of our bags while Glen make a quick run back to the hostel and fetch the alarm clock. There I waited, noting that the trains were coming every 5 minutes or so.

Glen comes back about 15 minutes later, explaining that getting the alarm clock was no problem at all but got held up trying to pay for the subway. Like most automated machines, the ones that sell tickets in the Shanghai metro prefer coins or near perfect bills. So Glen spent some time unsuccessfully feeding his non-perfect monetary note into several machines before someone eventually helped him out. And now we were on our way!

Glen: I’m sure at this point you may be getting bored of this, and wondering just what we are going to start complaining about. Well keep reading, because the first calamity occurred right after we got to Pudong.

We got to the airport with barely enough time. We knew that we had to hurry, so we quickly ran around the busy terminal and made our way to the Shezhen Airlines check in counter. We thought it odd that our flight was not listed, but thought little of it, and got in the line for a different flight offered by the airline, and assumed that they could sort us out.

After making our way to the front of the line, which is never an easy task in China, we presented our e-ticket to the woman behind the counter, and she looked very confused.

She spoke some incomprehensible words to Elvina. Clearly, my Chinese lessons were not progressing at light speed. I was more thankful than ever to be traveling with a fluent Mandarin speaker.

Elvina looked at me, laughed a bit and said, “We went to the wrong airport.”

I told you to not forget about the two airports. Clearly, I hadn’t given that same advice to myself.

Lucky for us, (Despite everything that we told you and are about to tell you, I am amazed at how many times that I start a sentence with that particular fragment) there were several flights a day to Shenzhen, and it only cost us around $40 each to change our flight to a later one. To help kill the time, we also had an hour-long bus ride to the other airport.

For the next several hours, both waiting in the airport, and en route, we would repeatedly laugh and say “We went to the wrong airport”, followed by “Rookie mistake!” Both Elvina and I have traveled a fair amount, and really should have known better.

We agreed that it was just a bit of overconfidence, and we would not make a careless oversight like that again for the rest of the trip. We were half right, but unfortunately, not the right half.

Elvina: We found this episode very funny, and our excitement was in no way deflated. We got on the bus to the correct airport and got all checked in once we were there. Waiting in line to go through security, we were fairly excited, being at the beginning of a great trip. I went through first, and as usual, made the metal detector go off. So while I’m standing up on the platform getting wanded, I notice Glen having some trouble at the desk where the security guard is sitting. I try to find out what’s going on but security just says he has to go back for something. Glen waves that everything is okay and he’ll meet me inside. Off I go, unclear of whether I should wait right there or go to the boarding gate. After some dilly-dallying and noticing that there are two security check points, I figure it’s best to go to the boarding gate. And yay, we found each other. Apparently part of his boarding pass had fallen off and he just had to go back for a new one. So we sit down with a big sigh of relief and Glen says to me that since these little bloopers happened to us early on, we were probably in for smooth sailing the rest of the trip.

Chapter 2 – Macanese Nights

Glen’s Song: “Pure Morning” – Placebo
Elvina’s Song: “Bottom of the Barrel” - Amos Lee

Glen: So, I was wrong about the smooth sailing bit, dead wrong.

Before I realized this, we got to Macau in need of a good nights sleep. Since, it was a Saturday, and the “Vegas of the East” is a bumping place on the weekends, it was hard to find a cheap place to stay. After doing a bit of research, we settled on what appeared to be a lovely and cheap place, pictured here.

Go ahead, take a few minutes to be captivated by the nice website. Don’t the rooms look great? Nice rooms, prime location, and cheap rates. What more could a traveler possibly ask for?

The truth.

After arriving at the place, we were shocked at what we saw on the website compared to what we saw in real life. Dirty is a word that gets thrown around so much that it tends to lose its meaning.

This place was freaking-filthy. The place looked like it belonged in a horror film. The narrow, I just imagined some hapless victim trying to run down the narrow and darkened stairs. A smell came over me, which I assumed was a cross between clogged sewage and dust from the 1960s. Brown water and tiny bugs came out of the tap when you turned it on, so needless to say, showering was out of the question.

Elvina: It was fairly easy to get from the Macau airport into the city. Taxis were waiting for us, without the need to haggle prices, as they ran the meter. The car doors were even automatic, the driver would push a button and the door would open for us. Armed with the address and directions that the hotel emailed us, and wanting to flex some Cantonese muscle, I showed/told the driver where we wanted to go. He was brought us where we needed to be and pointed into an alley that we’d need to walk into. He was funny, said he would take HK dollar, US dollar, Chinese Yuan, anything… so long as it was real.

We head into this alley and find the place up a narrow flight of stairs. I often judge things too soon, and have been working on that. So I told myself that it was an old building and would be better once we got there. We get the “front desk” and there is just an old man who only speaks Cantonese, none of the polite, English speaking staff that we had been in email contact with. He wants a printout of our booking, which I don’t have, and he proceeds to lecture me about not bringing it. He takes out a ratty old notebook marked in Chinese, numbers and letters. We see a GL and point at it, as our reservation. He keeps lecturing us, that without the printout, he really shouldn’t be giving us a room but since he has vacancies tonight, he will.

So he gives us a key and directs us to a room right near the desk. We unlock this room and just laugh. The walls don’t touch the ceiling so you are basically in a big cubicle. There is a sink in the corner of the room that looks as if it only dispenses rusty water, a fan, and some furniture from a yard sale.

We put our stuff down and go for a walk, trying to make the most of the Macau night. We had a nice stroll, after all. We get back to the hotel, knowing we have to leave at 4:30 anyway. I am scared of what I might catch in the bed, so I sleep in the clothes I’m wearing, not wanting to come in contact with much else. The alarm goes off and we get out of there pretty much right after.

Chapter 3 – Access Denied

Glen’s Song: “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” – The Clash
Elvina’s Song: “Help!” – The Beatles

Glen: We got to Ho Chi Minh City, and everything seemed to be going to plan. Our hotel was easy to find, and quite nice. We saw some museums, crawled in some tunnels, did some shopping and had a great time. But alas, this is a post about things not going well; so let me skip ahead to December 24th.

After seeing some of the Mekong Delta, and staying at the border city of Chau Doc, the plan was to take a boat up the Mekong River into Cambodia. We even met this great other couple and discussed the possibility of going out for a Christmas dinner in Phnom Penh, and possibly exchanging some tacky presents with one another. It seemed like the recipe for a Merry Christmas, a good thing for a Grinch like me.

So there we were, sitting on a boat, approaching the Cambodian border. The tour guide came around to collect everyone’s passports, in order to arrange visas for all. He takes mine, looks at it, and returns it with no problems.

Then, he takes Elvina’s and things start to go down hill.

Elvina: Yeah, yeah, yeah, so nice time in Ho Chi Minh City. Now, all of that seems a blur of tourist sites and being hassled by peddlers on the street. But fast forward to sitting on the “fast boat” to the Vietnam/Cambodia border. Glen has already set the stage.

The tour guide flips through my passport and I can see on his face something is not quite right. He looks at me and says, “You don’t have any more pages.” I flip to the blank pages but he points at where it says “Amendments and Endorsements.” A lot of gesturing to those pages and being gestured at other pages which say “Visas” up at the top.


“You can’t cross the border.”


My first instinct was to cry. My second instinct was to negotiate. My first lucid thought was that I was holding Glen back from going into Cambodia.

After gathering enough composure to ask the tour guide what to do next, we learned that I had to go back to Ho Chi Minh City to get more pages from the US consulate. It just took forever and a day to get here and we were going back?? So we get dropped off at the dock, where we eat lunch. Shortly after, we head back on the same boat, then a six hour bus ride back to HCMC. The night we arrive, Vietnam had just beat Thailand in a soccer match. The streets were insane – motorbikes everywhere, people clanging on pot lids and noisemakers and waving the Vietnamese flag. We got stuck in the kind of traffic that I would never be able to drive myself out of. I felt amused by this, but mixed in with annoyance and anger at myself.

There we were, dumped off at the main backpackers’ drag and found a hotel to stay at within a few minutes. I don’t remember what happened next, I just wanted to go to bed and wake up with the problems solved.

Glen: Yeah, I didn’t leave her and go to Cambodia by myself, as tempting as that may have been.

Chapter 4 – The Ghost of Christmas Plans

Glen’s Song: “Plans” – Bloc Party
Elvina’s Song: “That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!” -- Sufjan Stevens

Elvina: (ed note: please do not make implications from this song title, as this was NOT the worst Christmas ever.) I woke up on Christmas morning, but it turns out, the aforementioned incident was not a bad dream. We started strategizing and decided we would go to the consulate tomorrow and treat ourselves a nice Christmas. We spent the day wandering around the streets of HCMC, booked a flight to Siem Reap the next day, shopped for touristy stuff, found a vegetarian restaurant (actually found a bunch so we actually had choices) and then Glen got a haircut while I got a very strange pedicure for between $1-2. We had a traditional Christmas dinner: vegetarian Indian. The restaurant even had a Christmas tree outside. The waiter asked Glen if he would like it spicy. Glen answered yes and would regret this later.

We went back to the hotel to Skype our families to say Merry Christmas. First, we decided to call the US consulate so that I could be well-prepared in the event that they required any documents or information. I went to their web site, which we had just checked the day before. It said on the calendar of federal holidays that it was closed on Thursday, December 25 for Christmas. Sure, straightforward enough. Well, okay, tonight, looking on the page for their 24-hour serviced phone number, it had a special note saying that the consulate was closed also on Friday, December 26. That meant, given the weekend, we couldn’t get to the consulate until Monday.

Glen: Yeah, we really should have read that note about it being closed on the 26th, but I guess we figured that our luck was due to turn around by then.

So yet again, we were forced to make a plan in a hurry. In planning for this trip, we looked into a number of places, particularly in Vietnam, to go to, but did not think that we had enough time. Well, apparently we had a few more days to kill in Vietnam, so no point in standing still! We decided to go to Hoi Ann, since it seems like such a cool old place to go. But we had a few things to take care of first, namely the flight to Siem Reap booked for later that day.

We went to one of the many travel agents doting the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, and were able to change our flight to the 29th with relatively little hassle. Now, we just wanted to find a way to Hoi Ann. We figured a bus or train would be the best alternative, but we forgot one of the cardinal rules of traveling in Asia, distances can be deceiving.

While Hoi Ann looks close to Ho Chi Minh City on a map, Asian road and rail networks are nowhere near as developed as their Western counterparts, and it would take over 12 hours by train, and around 20 hours by bus to get there. This really would not have given us enough time to see the city at all.

So we did something that I you would never be able to do in the West. We went to the travel agent, and asked about flights to Danang (the nearest airport to Hoi Ann) that were leaving that day. He said that there was a flight going at 3:30pm. We looked at our watches, and noted that it was in fact noon. Surely, they could not sell a plan ticket to a foreigner with such little time, could they?

There was little time to ask them about the security concerns, so we said that we would take it. However, the only seats left were in Business Class. Sure it increased the cost, but it was still not that expensive, given that it was a forty-minute flight.

The travel agent, then called us a cab, and before you could say “Random Security Screening” we were in the Business Class lounge at the Saigon Airport.

Elvina: It all seems like a blur but in the course of one day (probably an extremely busy day at malls back home) we had changed a plane ticket, bought a new one, had lunch, and flew to another city for dinner. Speaking of dinner, we walked into a hole-in-the-wall place simply because it advertised vegetarian dishes. Upon sitting down, we quickly realized the lack of menus, save for a little piece of paper stuck the wall with less than 10 items. We used our limited Vietnamese menu knowledge to figure out what was what. We pointed, and got food. Pretty simple.

Walking around Danang was not much to write about. Yes, it was night time by then, but it is a dark and quiet little town, without much going on. We just slept off the surreal day and woke up early to go to Hoi An. It took a bit of searching to find the bus station. In the end, we never found it but some locals told us to just wait by the side of the road and they’d show us which bus to flag down. So we ended up paying way more than any locals, sitting in the back row of this very sketchy city bus, which we thought we’d fall out of every time the back door opened. The saving grace was meeting a nice Estonian guy who was traveling to Hoi An as well.

Glen: It should be worth noting at this point, that Elvina got sick. Nothing major, just the side effects of moving around crowded Asia so much. But we did have to make a quick (and painless) trip to the doctors. I mention this for one reason: had this been on any other trip, this would have been the biggest concern and downer, but not us.

Anyway, after getting very lost, we eventually found a guesthouse and enjoyed Hoi Ann. Really, it is a fabulous city, and well worth a visit for anyone who plans on going through Vietnam. After a great two days there, we hopped back on a flight and returned to Ho Chi Minh City, once more.

Chapter 5 – Panic on the Streets of Saigon

Glen’s Song: “I Predict a Riot” – Kaiser Chiefs
Elvina’s Song: “Bang” – Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Glen: Remember back in Chapter 2, Elvina said that the streets were crazy after Vietnam defeated Thailand in soccer? Well the night that we landed in Ho Chi Minh once more, they won again, moving them one step closer to the World Cup. So the streets were even more insane.

No, scratch that, the streets were absolutely bonkers with excitement.

As we hopped in a cab and drove to our hotel, people everywhere were cheering, flags were being hung from the many (MANY) motorcycles going all around us. Every intersection was like a mosh pit, as people everywhere were reveling in nationalistic fervour. Say what you will about how much athletes get paid, and how the purity of sports has been lost somewhere between all of the Coca-Cola Sponsors, but there is little that has the power to get people together more than a good sporting event.

After about 40 minutes of slow rides, and fast riots, things started to kick up a notch. We got to one of the main roundabouts in the city, and there was a whole mob of sports fans there. Flags were being waved all over the place. When people noticed me (the token white guy) in the car, they started to cheer at me and give me the thumbs up, all well and good I thought. Then things got a bit more out of control.

First people started pounding on the car in some sort of a game. Then, someone jumped on the back of the taxi to wave his flag from a higher point; a few people jumping on the hood of the car to cheer followed this. While I found the joy enticing at first, I was starting to get a little scared at this point.

To his credit, our driver calmly opened the door, and got the guys off of the hood. A few voices of reason emerged from the cheering masses, as some total strangers helped escort our car out of the crowd and on to safety.

We got to our hotel, and probably paid too much for too little, but at that point we did not care. We certainly had no plans to go outside, and all we needed to do was get to the Consulate the next morning, and be on our merry way.

Elvina: I really loved Hoi An, and considered it a bonus at this point. I might even like to go back at some point. But, Glen summarized all of it quite well so I’ll leave it at that and just move on to the good stuff.

Chapter 5 – Lucky at Last

Glen’s Song: “Lucky Day in Hell” - The Eels
Elvina’s Song: “Beautiful Day” – U2

Elvina: I woke up on Monday morning rarin’ to go. I remember we both said, “Today is the day!” That is actually quite funny because I woke up on the Friday we began the trip thinking the same thought. We got out of the hotel, with the only priority of finding a bite to eat before we were onwards to the consulate.

We found the consulate without any problems, but Glen couldn’t go inside since he didn’t bring his passport. He headed to a coffee shop type place across the street. As I entered through security, I felt a strange sense of relief, as cliché as it sounds. The whole experience was oddly American-centric but also very Asian as well.

Upon entry, you are greeted by a sign that points immigrants, visitors, etc, to the left or right. American Citizens, it says in bold letters go straight ahead to a big scary iron gate.

I go up to take a number, as the sign says to do. I see that blank forms are along the back wall so I pick up the appropriate one and complete it. Just as I finish and look up to see how far they are away from my number, I see a sign that says:

Go directly to window 3 for any of the following:

  1. Additional visa pages in your passport.

I didn’t need to read any further. I went immediately, as directed. No one was there and I tried to make my presence a bit more known. A woman came by and I asked if I was at the right place to submit this form, which I held up. She looked at the form, my passport, and disappeared. I waited. Another woman came over and asked if she could help me. I told her that I was waiting for my passport from the previous woman. She said, “Oh it will take about…” In my mind, I heard her say “… two week.” In reality, she said, “… half an hour.” Gleefully surprised and relieved, I asked her if I’d need a receipt to claim my passport later. Oddly enough, there wasn’t. And, there was no charge for this service. I go across the street to join Glen for a glass of fruit juice. Soon, I have my new thick passport in hand! We go back to the hotel to get our stuff and we are on the bus to the airport we know so well.

Glen: We finally made it into Cambodia, and it was fantastic. Angkor is completely mind blowing, and Phnom Penh is completely soul sapping. Just what we were after.

Things in Cambodia were fantastic, as our luck really got turned around. I guess we had to go through a bit of karmic overdraft, but things worked out in the end.

So I guess if we could impart some advice to anyone out there it would be the following three things:

  1. Carefully read all plane tickets

  2. Know how many pages you have left in your passport at all times

  3. Never, and I mean NEVER travel in a country when they are playing important soccer games.

Hopefully you can learn from our mistakes!

Until next time,