Wednesday, March 27, 2013

3 Tips to Avoid Beginner Travel Mistakes

It was one of those very late, very last minute, very unorganized packing jobs the night before I flew to Vietnam. On the plane I remember jotting in my journal, “Hanoi in 3 hrs! Let’s hope luggage transfer goes smoothly. 90 minute delay :(  free wine :)” What unfortunate foreshadowing for the rest of my day. 

I thought I had prepared for my trip by researching and booking a hostel for my first couple of nights and even arranging for pickup from the airport. Sounds reasonable enough, right? Well, turns out that 90 minute delay meant that the driver decided not to stick around, a possibility that I started stressing about it once I turned the corner of the airport and saw the customs line a mile long.  

Another wait for my suitcase then I was finally ready to get through the gates and see if, by the smallest faintest glimmer of hope, my driver was still there.  After a few rounds of searching and unfortunately getting the attention of several taxi drivers, I clearly had “lost girl who has no idea where she’s going” tattooed on my face.  This brings me to my first tip...
Tip #1: Fake It Til You Make It. As a solo female especially, take a minute to compose and collect yourself. Embrace an air of confidence, especially with cab drivers and merchants, which help you avoid getting taken advantage of. Sometimes all it takes is an extra 15 minutes of sitting when you first arrive at your destination. Grab a drink, observe what other travellers are doing, maybe take a look for the information desk, then once you've collected yourself go off to find your transportation. 
I was approached by a taxi driver and once he said he knew where my hostel was I agreed to take a ride. As I got in I remember thinking, “Hmm... white SUV, I don’t think I saw a light thingy on top, what colours are taxis in Vietnam again?” 

The driver said, “I just need to get my friend,” so I waited in the backseat searching through my notebook for the address of the hostel. A slew of curse words flew through my brain when I realized I could not find this address anywhere. The driver returned with two other men, his friends, who also needed a ride into town.  

As you can imagine I had an immediate sinking feeling in my gut telling me this was not right... I requested to see the taxi driver's licence and identification, which he produced, then cautiously agreed to continue on.
Tip #2: Prepare for travel. I don’t mean go overboard with planning an itinerary or anything, but write down important details, like booking confirmations and phone numbers, in one easy to find spot (don’t just rely on your smartphone). Have a backup plan in case airport transfer doesn’t go well. Try to get addresses written in the local language. Know the approximate currency conversion. Learn what to expect with local transportation, whether it’s catching a cab, tuk tuk, or the metro, so you don’t accidentally take an illegal taxi ride and have butterflies and kidnapping scenarios running through your head for the entire drive.
I am so grateful that taxi ride didn’t turn into anything more dangerous because I remember justifying shared taxis as a common practice in other parts of the world. They did it in Korea – why not Vietnam? Fortunately the ride was uneventful and we reached the capital city of Hanoi. 

The Old Quarter, Hanoi, Vietnam
As we closed in on the city center, the driver couldn’t find my hostel and he insisted that I was the one who was wrong about which hostel I'd booked at (I later learned that saving face is a big part of the Vietnamese culture). Clearly this man had no idea what he was talking about and clearly I was an idiot for not writing down the address and number of where I made my reservations so I sucked it up, paid him, and got out alone.

As I passed through a cobblestone alleyway I accidentally rolled my stupidly heavy suitcase over my left foot which broke my sandal strap in half. I started to curse myself for the second time then who should magically appear but a seemingly kind Vietnamese man with a basket of shoe fixing supplies! I am not even kidding – he literally stepped out of a doorway a few paces away and gestured me over to his stool. 

After we agreed on a price (20,000 dong, or $1 USD), he proceeded to glue/sew the strap then started doing something to the sole of my sandal.  He insisted on doing the other side too and after I finally got both sandals back on my feet he told me the price was now $20! 

I’m sure you can imagine my indignation when I refused to pay. I held out a $1 bill but he refused to accept it and started to get louder. I pulled out another dollar but still he refused. After trying another few times he pushed my hand away and spit off to his right. I viewed his spitting as a sign of aggression and did not have the patience to deal with this shit at this point in the day. I was fed up but didn’t want to just throw the money on the ground so I turned and walked away. If I had just followed my next tip, this probably would not have happened.
Tip #3: Agree on a price before you proceed. Take it one step further and get out the money in advance of the service so both parties can see how much is on the table.
Shoe man came after me, spitting and yelling, accosting me down the rest of the alleyway. He caught up to me and eventually snatched the money out of my hands. When I finally plopped myself into a legit green and white cab with a polite driver who 100% knew where he was going, all I could do was breathe a sigh of relief as the cool AC washed over me.

Hopefully you don’t have to learn the hard way too and can take advantage of these 3 tips to avoid easy beginner travel mistakes. 
1) Fake it til you make it – adopt an air of confidence, especially when dealing with taxi drivers and merchants
2) Prepare for travel – have a backup plan in case airport transfer doesn’t go well; make sure hostel arrangements are written down and easy to find (ideally written in the local language)
3) Fix a price in advance – take it one step further and get out the money in advance of the service so both parties can see how much is on the table
Finally settled for the night and ready to have a drink. Alcohol very much appreciated by this point!
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