Wednesday, April 17, 2013

That time I got mugged, and other stories from Vietnam

When you're crying in a foreign police station at 5am to an audience of jaded officers and awkward strangers, it's hard not to review your life choices. How did I let this happen? How could I have been so stupid? How am I going to get home? How much do I hate this city? How many people are going to have a smug "I told you so" ready and waiting the next time I see them? There aren't really any answers to these kinds of questions. There are answers to the questions other people are asking you, though. Where did it happen? What did you lose? How much did it cost? Are you in pain? Do you have insurance? I answered them as best I could, while fighting down hysteria and fear and trying to process the fact that I had lost everything. My computer, my phone, my camera, my money, my passport. Oh god my passport. I oscillated silently between terror, self-pity and anger for hours, while the uncaring and generally inept police department of Ho Chi Minh City processed my report, until I finally latched onto one thought: There is absolutely nothing I can control about this situation except for the way I react to it.

My bus got into HCMC at 4:30 in the morning. I was tired, not having slept much on the trip, and confused. I wasn't supposed to arrive until 6, by which time the sun would be rising and the streets would be populated. Still there wasn't much I could do aside from get off, get my things and find a moto-taxi to take me to my hostel.

Later, when I got back to Australia people would ask me why I had gotten on a motor bike with a stranger. To people who haven't been to Asia it sounds like asking for trouble. But it's what you do. The streets are narrow and winding, and a car can't take you where you need to go. And I am careful. I travel alone a lot, and rape and murder aren't exactly atop my list of things to experience. I might be flippant about safety when people express concern, but I'm not flippant in reality. All of which is to say that I didn't feel unsafe until it was too late. I was completely fine until the moment I wasn't. Maybe I had let my guard down a bit, because up until then I had never felt unsafe in Vietnam. But I didn't do anything out of the norm. It was just bad luck.

My driver took us the long way round. We wove through tiny streets until I completely lost my bearings, but I figured it was just so he could overcharge me when we stopped. Then suddenly we were in a dead-end alley, and he was turning the engine off and backing up towards the mouth of the street. I held my handbag tighter to my chest and tried to get off, but the motion of the bike and the closeness of the walls made it impossible until we were at the start of the alley again. I jumped off and turned around just in time to see a second man blocking my way before he grabbed me, threw me to the ground and yanked my bag towards him.

It's nice to know from first hand experience that when in a tight situation I'm more inclined towards fight than flight. The straps of my bag were still around my arm. I grabbed at them and pulled, kicking and screaming and fighting desperately to both get to my feet and save my belongings. There were people all around us, but none of them moved. I learned later at the embassy that it was probably because muggers are almost always armed, and wouldn't think twice before slicing someone who got in their way. After what was about 30 seconds of fighting the straps snapped, and the man bolted. I jumped up and - in a completely illogical moment - screamed after him "My passport!". As if he might take the time to rifle through and return it to me before making his getaway. When that didn't happen I realised I had about 2 seconds to make a decision - follow the mugger, in the dark and through a warren of streets that he definitely knew better than I did, or stay and try to get my backpack full of clothes back from the moto driver, who was still on his bike and trapped behind me in the alley. I was shaking and trying not to cry, and probably couldn't have run if I tried, so I stayed. Thankfully I was still full of adrenaline and to angry to be afraid yet. I faced the driver and said something along the lines of "I have nothing else. Give me back my fucking backpack." He threw it at me and I found my way back to the nearest main road, where I ran into a western man and Vietnamese woman, who were kind enough to become my interpreters for the morning.

Which is how I ended up sitting, bruised and dirty and dispossessed in a Saigon police station, nursing an iced coffee and telling myself that I wouldn't let this one thing ruin my trip. Because until then, I had loved Vietnam.

I'd wanted to visit Vietnam since I was 17. When people asked me why I was spending an entire month there I would tell them that everyone I knew who had been before me came back raving about the country. The people are lovely, I'd heard. The countryside is beautiful, the history is rich, and there's something about Vietnam that grabs you and just wont let go. But when I arrived I realised I didn't really know anything tangible about the country, didn't really know what to expect. 'It's amazing' is a great endorsement, but it doesn't lend itself to practicality.


Not that it mattered. For all that it ended up making me an easy target, I still think travelling alone was the best decision I made. From the start I met people who had already seen a lot of Vietnam, and I took their advice and ran with it.


I started in Hanoi and Halong Bay, before making my way to Hoi An via Hue, with it'a ancient citadel and beautiful perfume river. An American couple I met up north had told me amazing things about Hoi An, and after I arrived I completely lost track of time. Between the beach and the city, the cooking classes and the Why Not bar's policy of 'buy one drink, get vodka and redbull free for the rest of the night', I began to feel like I could stay forever. And although I unwittingly overstayed my booking the hostel staff let it slide without a word, so that when I went to check out I was shocked to find I'd been there for over a week.

I moved on to Nha Trang, where I met an Australian girl and a group of from Hawaii, and completely gave up on the vague timetable I'd built for myself. I spent my days inexpertly riding a hired motorbike through the breathtaking countryside (to the wide-eyed concern of the hostel receptionists, who reacted to my casual enquiry of "so, how exactly do I make it go? And stop? Oh It'll be fine" with an understandable level of alarm) and swimming in pristine waterfalls, and my nights combating the ever-increasing heat with the plethora of free drinks at my disposal. Then, with a week to go and after a day-long detour through Dalat, I finally made my way to Ho Chi Minh City.


Amazingly, after I got over the initial shock (which, admittedly, took most of the day) I really did feel like I would be fine. When I finally made it back to my hostel I was invited to have dinner with a bunch of other travellers, and despite wanting to crawl into bed and feel sorry for myself, I went. And I had fun. And the next day I spent my time with two American's who told me they were amazed by how well I was handling my situation and then bought me lunch. And dinner. And drinks. And I realised the more I pushed myself to actually go out and do the things I wanted to, the better I felt. It wasn't the same - I was frightened by things that before I could just brush off, like the aggressive offers of moto drivers or the leering of local men. But I was ok. I channelled my anger and nervous energy into things like crawling through ex-Viet Cong tunnels and shooting assault rifles. Occasionally I would remember something else that had been in my bag, things with no resale value but which meant a lot to me, and I would wish the Australian embassy had just deported me like I'd originally (and tearfully) asked them to. But most of the time I felt like the things I lost were just things. Yeah, it sucked. But I've still been everywhere, even if I don't have the photos to prove it. Aside from an irrational fear of Asian men on low-powered motorbikes, I've come away pretty scot-free. It could have been much worse. And it's a hell of a story.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Why do you travel?

Last night I was in a bar in Hoi An talking to a guy from Texas when he asked me why I travel. I opened my mouth to answer and realised: I don't know. It threw me for a loop because, as someone who has technically been travelling for a long time, I thought it would be easy to give a reason. Instead I laughed nervously and gave my stock-standard reply.

"Well, for the last two years I've basically been running away from my responsibilities."

He grinned and nodded, and said he always asks people who have been on the road for a lengthy period because he finds the concept fascinating. I thought for another moment, then retracted. Maybe when I first left Australia it was because I wasn't ready to dive straight into the industry where I'll likely spend the bulk of my adult life. But that's not why I travel. That was just the push I needed to get out. I stumbled around for a better answer - to learn, to meet people I wouldn't normally have the opportunity to meet, to see as much of the world as I can in the short time I have to do it - but every time I said something I immediately feel that it was wrong.

For me, travel is something I've always wanted, and because of that I never questioned my motives. But now I can't stop. In my case there is no hard and fast reason. Every answer I gave felt reductive. I do love all those aspects of travel, but that's not it. There's something ineffable that spurs me on to see more, to do things I've never done. It's why I never feel I've seen enough.

Can anyone give a straight answer? That's not a rhetorical question. Do some people have a simple reason for travelling? And furthermore, what drives some people to go out and see the world while others are happy to stay within a much smaller radius? Is my lifestyle as perplexing to them as theirs is to me? Horses for courses, I know, and I'm in no way implying that buying a house and settling into a stable life is a less valid choice than running off in search of adventure, it's just a concept I struggle to get my head around.

For me there was never any question of whether I would travel, just a question of when. There are probably deeper forces at play here than just a desire to see beautiful things. I'd rather leave than be left. I feel like I have to prove something, though I'm not sure who to. Maybe when I stop travelling - if or when I find something that is more important to me than riding a motorbike through Asia or trudging through the snow-blanketed streets of a European town - I'll know why I wanted to keep moving so badly.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

I'll be yours and you'll be mine

Happy valentines day! Here's a fun fact for you all: I have never been anybody's valentine. Shocking, I know. This is probably because I have also never been anyone's girlfriend, which in turn is probably because I pretty much hate everyone (kidding. Mostly). This is no pity party though, and despite not knowing anyone I want to spend that much time with (full disclosure: I don't actually know how much time you're expected to spend with your significant other, but I'm going to go ahead and assume it's ALL of the time. And before long I would be telling them to back their face up and let me watch some internet television), I am not anti-valentines. The reason for this is in two parts: 1) Any holiday, as Hallmark-y as it might be, that suggests we take time out to lavish love and attention on those we care about is ok by me, and 2) Woo chocolate, yeah! I might be single, but any excuse'll do to eat some delicious, gooey-centered hearts as far as I'm concerned.

I'm also cool with valentines day because I like the idea of (romantic) love waaay more than I like the reality of it. Like, I'm not going to sit around and cry at The Notebook with you, but I do love the concept of big, complex love stories. Sure it's nice for you if you married your first love and had a bunch of kids and/or successful careers and you still love each other as much as ever, but I enjoy a little drama in my (non-existent and totally voyeuristic) love life. My own mother, for example, once she got done procreating with my father, ended up marrying a man she'd known almost her entire life. He was the older brother of her childhood friend. Their mothers were in the same church group. They moved in the same circles and went to the same parties. Their paths crossed literally hundreds of times before they got their shit together years down the line and decided they loved each other. And even then they waited a good decade before they actually got married.

So. Thus far we've established that I hate people and my role models for a healthy romantic relationship are a divorcee and a commitment-phobe. However, contrary to popular opinion I am not, in fact, an emotionless drone. It's true that I sometimes am slightly inept (read: totally shit) when it comes to conveying how I feel. And I can also be a pretty terrible friend. I'm hopeless at keeping in touch, and given that wherever I go now at least some of the people I care about will be half a world away, this is an unfortunate trait. But it's that time of year, and no matter whether I last spoke to you two days or two years ago, I just thought I'd let you all know that I do love you. You can all be my valentine.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The good life

When I was in Bratislava I met a guy from The Netherlands who told me I was brave. Brave for leaving home, brave for starting a new life with no safety net, and then brave again for leaving to travel alone with no real plan. And I told him he was wrong. Because from where I'm standing, nothing I've done up to this point has been an act of bravery. It's just part of who I am. It's partly my personality, and it's partly how I've been brought up. But a big part of it is also the knowledge that even if everything went completely tits-up, I would always be able to go back to Australia and start again. And starting from scratch is a sucky thing to have to do - a reality that I'm finally having to face - but it's also an incredible luxury, and one that comes with a huge payoff.

My love for London is well documented. I will wax lyrical on the topic given even the slightest encouragement; I get jealous of friends who just talk about moving to London. But if London is my favourite place I've spent an extended amount of time in, Prague is a strong contender for the title of favourite place briefly visited. God I loved Prague. So much so that I extended my stay there, left, then went back again.

It wasn't just that the city was beautiful, or that my hostel was amazing, or that there was always something to do. It was all of these things, of course, but it was also the people I met there. I think, especially when travelling alone, the people you meet shape the way you experience each new place. I had been told before going that Prague was amazing, so I booked a (relatively) long time there, and I think I would have thought it was a wonderful city regardless. But everything that happened while I was in Prague made me remember why I enjoy travelling by myself so much. I was able to stay longer; I was invited on day trips by people I'd met hours prior; I had a drunken snowball fight, visited a church decorated by 17th century artwork crafted from human bones, and went to a gig played by an American-Czech guy one of my roommates met on the internet. I was able to choose when I wanted to be alone, and whenever I wanted good company it's been at the ready. It was the epitome of what solo travel should be like.

The more I travel, the more I realise how unbelievably lucky I am. Not just that I come from the kind of socio-economic background that allows me to take two years out after university to run around the globe, or that I have a family who support said running around, but also that things have worked out the way I imagined. And continue to do so. I know people who have moved overseas or gone travelling only to find it was nothing like what they wanted. For me, everything has been so easy (touch wood).


Sometimes I worry that I'll get back to Australia and I'll get a job that is ok, and I'll date people who are ok, and I'll be pretty happy and comfortable, and that my life will fall into the yawning chasm of mediocrity. I mean, I'm fairly smart and articulate, but there are thousands of other smart, articulate people out there. And even though Australia is doing well in the grand scheme of things, we are in a global economic downturn, and I'm now two years behind the people I graduated with. In my more lucid moments, though, I seriously doubt that will happen. For one thing, I'm stupidly ambitious. Plus I'm not even close to finished travelling. The world is so big, and I only have -what- another 60-odd years to see it? But most of all I'm not afraid of taking that leap of faith. So many people sit around and talk about the things they'd like to do. I have enough experience now to know that if I want something enough, I'll do it. And if that means starting from nothing again (and again, and again), then that's fine with me.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Budapest By Land And Water

At some point in the last 6 days the desperate, all consuming homesickness I felt from the moment I got up on Tuesday morning seems to have faded. Not left, not at all, but definitely subsided. So now instead of feeling lost and wanting to cry all the time, I'm just occasionally blindsided by a constricted chest and a feeling akin, I would assume, to that of being hit in the stomach. Usually it happens when I'm alone and not doing anything, or when things don't seem to be working to plan. I'll have these moments when I feel way out of my depth and worry that I was wrong and that I'm not as strong as I thought, not strong enough to do this. And I'll want nothing more than to go to the airport and take the next plane back to London. But eventually I'll remember that I wanted this, and that things always work out for me, and that you can't feel too sorry for yourself when you're standing in the snow looking at this:

I knew leaving London would be hard, and the amazing send off that some of my closest friends gave me made it even harder (I cried openly and sporadically from the moment I got on the coach to the moment my plane landed and I had to suck it up enough to find my hostel). I knew it would suck, and that's why I decided to start in Budapest. 

The first time I went to Berlin I met an Australian girl who had just got off the night train from Budapest, and she raved so much about the hostel she had stayed in that the name stuck in my mind. Knowing that I would be likely to sit around and feel sorry for myself if I wasn't constantly distracted I booked 5 nights at Carpe Noctem, and found myself in the most ridiculous, fun, amazing hostel I've ever stayed in. It reminded me of being back in my uni dorm, not least because you're never really sure whether even the staff know what's really going on. The hostel itself is tiny, 22 beds, and located in the topmost flat of a heritage listed residential building. Because it's so small you have no choice but to become friendly with everyone staying there. And in terms of distraction, it delivered with panache.

I had heard wonderful things about Budapest from everyone who had been there, but I was desperately under-prepared. On my first full day in the city I found myself several miles underground, army crawling through century-old caves with a bunch of Australians. I hiked up the tallest hill in Budapest (twice, in fact, because the first time was in the evening in heavy snow, and I needed to make sure I got 'my life is more exciting than yours' pictures). I spent hours lazing in traditional Hungarian baths, and drank pots of tea with my new roomies at a tea house that was basically a giant labyrinth of pillows and mirrors. And the people I met were absolutely wonderful. At one point I had tea with three of the people I was staying with. When one of the guys left to get his train he quietly paid the entire bill and left without saying a word. It's simple little moments like that which restore my faith in humanity.

And of course I drank. Carpe Noctem is one of four party hostels in Budapest, and every night there is a different, alcohol-related activity. I pub-crawled through the Jewish quarter and visited an amazing bar voted as one of the top 5 in the world, but my favourite (read: messiest) night was far and away the booze cruise. Whoever thought putting 100-odd young travelers on a ship, giving them each a bottle of champagne, cruising down the Danube and then letting them loose in a club was a good idea was definitely a genius. Or at least that's what I was probably thinking while accidentally co-ordering 8 beers with yet another Australian I'd befriended in my room. And in the morning I felt like an idiot for a total of about 30 minutes before I realised every single person in my hostel had been at least as ridiculous as I had.

To be honest I keep swinging wildly between feeling like king of the world (Example text conversation between me and my Soulmate #1: Me: There's a chair in this bar made out of an old bathtub. Her: You are literally the luckiest bitch on the planet right now I swear), and completely freaking out about my total inability to plan my life (Example text conversation between me and my Soulmate #2: Me: Can I come home now? I hate everyone, even in Europe). When I was leaving London I felt like I had a red and silver bracelet, a napkin with 'I love you' written on it in 8 languages, and that was about it. Vague promises about Brooklyn apartments and Vegas weddings are all well and good but life tends to get in the way. Still, on my way home from my last night out in London I met a very drunk man, who told me that his ex-boyfriend/love of his life had called him out of the blue that night after 7 years apart. In his words, "You seem like a strong bird, and you just never know what might happen."