Saturday, January 25, 2014

Vietnam Adventure D1: Lost! 길을 잃었다!

What an exciting experience (crisis) to end our first day in Vietnam~

Our next destination was Ben Tre, a town along the Mekong Delta where we had arranged a homestay with a local there. I found his homestay via a travel blog. Our host's name is Phuoc and he had given instructions on how to get to his home via email:

"You can take the minivan from Sai gon:( 78.000 VND) 70B Hung Vuong 9 ward,5 distrist, HCM city and tell them bring you to : 217C  Hung Vuong, 5 ward,  Ben Tre city ( My office)."

Okay. So I keyed in the address into trusty Google maps. It appeared to be quite a distance from the frozen yogurt cafe we were at beside Ben Thanh Market, but a rather straightforward route. We still had slightly more than a couple hours before we were meeting our host around 6pm, so we decided to walk to the minivan station. I assumed it would be reachable within an hour or more and for some reason I kept thinking that Ben Tre wasn't very far away from Saigon.

Oh and this is the reason why most people wouldn't really fancy travelling with us I think. We just walk and walk and walk and just looking at our surroundings while walking is interesting enough for us. :P

But to be honest I was a teeny bit afraid of walking a lot then, because my backpack was becoming heavier and heavier and my shoulders and back were getting a lil' sore. Still, I figured it would be interesting enough and that it would be a very good workout... haha

I was a little confused about where exactly we were because I was using Apple's (not iphone, my friend) phone and it had problems using GPS to track our location. My phone was running out of battery at that point of time, her phone too...

Finally I got our bearings right and I double confirmed with a middle-aged guy by the pavement. Turns out he was a taxi driver (or was it motorbike?) and he told us where we were going was really far away and he told us to take his cab (or was it his bike service?). We politely rejected his offer and set off on our way.

Walking along the forever busy streets of Saigon.
We walked and walked and walked. Somehow the little dot that showed our location on Google maps moved rather slowly towards our destination.. haha

Even modern cafes must come with a set of the Vietnamese style mini tables and stools~

It was getting dark already around 5.30pm and I was a little worried we would be very late. But when I spotted this sign I was so curious I had to go inside to look around.

Oh my gosh the shock or should I say the horror? I have eaten mock vegetarian hams/sausages/fish many times before, but they mostly looked rather plain and normal and were made simply from soy, mushrooms or gluten (which I usually don't eat).

This vegetarian supplies store was rather huge and filled with a shocking variety of mock meats, seafood, innards and basically almost anything a carnivore can eat. Yes that's "pig ears" above. The "frozen meat" section was quite scary because they really made the mock meats like real meat with the uneven bloody meaty colours and textures! There were even frozen whole chicken which imitated the "goosebumps" on the plucked skin of real chicken... (O__O)|||

Vegan snails.......... There were pig intestines and stomach and everything else too... I was seriously grossed out..... Not much pictures cos it was all sneakily taken, I don't think photography was allowed.

Not many Vietnamese are vegetarian and most only eat vegetarian twice a month or occasionally for religious reasons. I guess that's why they have such a scary variety of mock meats and seafood to cater to these occasional vegetarian's tastebuds... But I definitely would not want to try these. (><)

There were a variety of "normal", proper condiments, seasonings and sauces on sale too. Thank goodness.

You put your life at risk every single time you cross the road in Saigon. They have no traffic lights at the roads intersecting roundabouts, I have no idea why, and even if there are traffic lights, they're quite often ignored by some...

No kidding, we crossed many roads like this with a never-ending stream of motorbikes without traffic lights. I have learned that you need 2 crucial things to succeed crossing the roads of Saigon without dying: courage and confidence.

Courage to bravely put your vulnerable self out on the road full of steely zooming vehicles and confidence to walk straight without stopping or hesitating at all. Have faith in the motorbikers of Vietnam, somehow they manage to avoid the people crossing the road and miraculously you cross the road safely. Do not stop or hesitate at all.

Back to the main story, we were nearing the location after about 1.5 hours of walking. We passed by little park areas with people playing badminton and exercising. Badminton is super popular there, I kept seeing it around. And then finally we reached the stretch of Hung Vuong street where number 70B, the minivan station was supposed to be.

We squinted carefully at the door plates of the shops along the street, 63, 65, 67, 69, 71... Oh it must be on the opposite side of the street then. We crossed over hurriedly and 74, 72, 70B..... Uhhhhhh. It was a shop selling phone gadgets (I think?). Huh??

We walked back and forth around that stretch and we couldn't find anywhere that looked like 70B and arranged for minivans and buses. Consulting my dangerously-low-on-battery handphone, we were at the exact location we were supposed to be as indicated by Google maps. What exactly was going on?

I double checked the address in my email, it was right. Unfortunately I didn't have Phuoc, our host's phone number because he forgot to reply my email requesting for his number. Frantically I sent him a few emails telling him about our situation and could only pray he was gonna check his email soon.

We showed the shopkeepers at the shops around there the address and all of them directed us to walk much further ahead along the direction we were initially headed towards. We found it very weird because the door numbers of the shops were increasing as we walked further away... But we could only trust the people and walk ahead because we had no other clue of what to do.

We asked another shopkeeper again and there happened to be a security guard there buying stuff too. Coincidentally he could speak a tiny little bit of very accented Chinese and he exchanged a few words with us. It felt so relieving to find someone who shared a common language, however little. ^^ He directed us in the same direction too.

We hurried on with an increasing sense of worry for around another 30 minutes, door numbers increasing to 200, and passing by shops selling display cases for food. Then we reached the end of Hung Vuong Street, which was the address Phuoc had given us. No 70B or minivan in sight.

Asking the shopkeeper of the shop there, they also weren't able to tell us where the address was. Desperate, we asked if it was possible to catch a bus or taxi to Ben Tre. Then we found out Ben Tre was at least 2 hours away... Oh. my. god.

Suddenly it struck me that the blog where I had found out about the homestay might have details about Phuoc! Using the precious battery left in my phone, I searched for the blog and voila! Phuoc's phone number AND directions to the place to board the minivan was stated there! We were saved!!

I called Phuoc immediately but unfortunately he didn't pick up the phone even after a few calls and obviously there was no email reply... Frankly I felt rather speechless at the situation and was a bit annoyed at him for giving us the wrong directions and not picking up the phone and all.

It was dark and we were quite exhausted from walking for so long with our heavy packs and our phones were going to be flat soon while we still did not have a clear idea of where to head to in the foreign streets of Saigon. We were contemplating if we should just walk back (or cab back) to District 1 to find some random accommodation and give up on the homestay and seeing the Mekong Delta. But I decided firmly no! I didn't want to give up the prospect of experiencing the life around the Mekong river. Weirdly or perhaps a little madly, I didn't feel panicky or very worried despite our stranded situation even though I think Apple was worried already, I actually felt a bit excited being lost. Crazy woman.

The blog stated that the minivan station was called Thao Chau and was near Windsor Plaza Hotel on Su Van Hanh Street (not Hung Vuong like Phuoc told us....). Thankfully, the passerby we asked could point out the hotel to us immediately! It was only a street away and we quickly walked towards the direction. Yay! There's hope for us!

Thao Chau, Thao Chau, Thao Chau. We scanned the area around us carefully looking for this name. Windsor Plaza Hotel was still further in front when suddenly Apple stopped me, "Chen Xi, look!!", pointing to a minibus parked by the side of the street. 'THAO CHAU' was printed on the bus!! Ahhhhh the ridiculous coincidences that could happen in this world...! We were saved!!

We peered into the dark bus and saw the bus driver sleeping in his driver's seat so we rapped on the window to wake him up. The bleary eyed bus driver awoke with a start and we quickly showed him the address in Ben Tre that we wanted to go to. He couldn't speak much English but he could understand that we wanted to go there and called someone to make arrangements. The relief~~~!

A man on a motorbike came shortly and motioned us to get on the bike. I was a bit unsure at first, was it right to just trust the person without knowing exactly whether they were from the bus company and I felt unsafe being separated from Apple especially because our phones were almost flat (we had to go one by one because obviously the bike couldn't fit 3 people and 2 big backpacks). In the end of course we just decided to go. It was quite fun and exciting riding the motorbike on the busy streets, maneuvering around all the other vehicles, quite an exhilarating experience!

I reunited with Apple again at the minibus companies' office and pick-up place, which was NOT 70B Hung Vuong Street and what's more also not exactly that near Windsor Plaza Hotel as stated in the blog. What on earth happened exactly I would love to know...

I boarded the waiting minibus and plonked my very worn out self on the seat beside Apple, smiling. We're heroes!!! Just kidding but it really felt something like that after the whole fiasco. :P Looking back, we were really lucky that there was a bus that was just leaving for Ben Tre at that time too.

As the bus started on our 2 hour journey, Phuoc called my dying phone!! I picked it up with immense relief and explained the whole situation. He sounded very friendly and sincere (even though I was still a bit annoyed at him lol) and he talked to the bus driver to tell him where to drop us off.

Finally, we blacked out and slept after our very "exciting" incident.

After approximately 2 hours, we were dropped off at a quiet little village road in Ben Tre with only a few shops open. We waited there for 5 minutes or so and our host finally appeared! He came with another friend to fetch us on motorbikes to his home.

Phuoc was a skinny man with very bright eyes and a friendly tone. He greeted us enthusiastically and asked if we were tired or hungry and assured us there was a delicious meal waiting for us back at his home. Oh and his English was quite good. I felt it hard not to like him and his happy smile despite still being annoyed at his giving of wrong directions.

The bike ride through the kampong village was really cool. There were no street lights, only the motorbikes' lamps and we weaved through narrow winding paths in the dark surrounded by trees and overhanging plants that were within hand's reach. It was a surreal and breathtaking ride through the dark. (:

And finally, really finally, we arrived at Phuoc's home, the place we were trying to reach since 5 hours ago... It was around 9.30pm.

It was a true blue village house made out of wood and straw and we had to walk a little stone path and cross a little wooden bridge before reaching it. Dinner was waiting for us in an open-air pavilion/shelter beside the house. I was ravenous.

There was another 2 French guys at the dining area who were also there for homestay. They had already eaten of course but they hung around to chill and chat with us for a bit.


This might look very ugly and even a little gross but this fried banana was very yummy albeit being a little too oily~! Different from the goreng pisang in Singapore.

I requested for vegetarian meals prior to the homestay and Phuoc readily accepted my request! ^^

Phuoc's wife was the cook and we were both very impressed! Our first homecooked Vietnamese meal and I must say it was absolutely lovely. The soup was very fragrant and comforting with delicious carrots inside that incredibly melts in your mouth! I love the middle dish which was stir-fried french beans, a very common Vietnamese dish.

They like to eat rather strongly flavoured and salty foods here, because look, the little dishes of soy sauce were served together even though the dishes themselve were quite salty already,

This was a very unique dish, savoury, sweet and sour at the same time because pineapples were added! Realised a few days later that pineapples were a common addition to many Vietnamese dishes~ There was vegan "fish" in this dish (not the disgusting type) and it was so yummy.

It was a very satisfying meal to end our extremely long and tiring but quite exciting first day in Vietnam. (: It was gonna get a lot more exciting...

What I learned from getting lost that day:
1) Bug the host/friend/person you're gonna meet in a foreign country for their number persistently and make sure you get their number.
2) Check the address given on Google maps prior to meeting and double confirm with the person the address.
3) Research for alternative options to travel to the intended location.
4) Make sure portable chargers are working (mine wasn't LOL) to keep your life-saving phone alive.
5) DON'T GIVE UP~!!! (^0^) Try a bit more to find your destination even if you are lost, you might be lucky!

We're so glad we didn't give up and just stayed in Saigon. We would have lost the chance to experience the beautiful village life along Mekong Delta. I'll share about the village there in an upcoming post~ ^^

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