Border days are the final exams of the traveller’s world. If you don’t revise, you won’t be able to move forwards.
Misplaced confidence, poor planning and exhaustion left me high and dry at Cambodia’s southern border with Vietnam. As my bus pulled into the sparse carpark, the sun was already drooping in the sky. Its yellow dulled into a faded cream. Nervousness crept in. An internal wave of acknowledgement as I shuffled forwards in the passport queue that I didn’t have anywhere to sleep that night.
Still, I reassured myself that although this was the first time on the trip that I would be arriving anywhere after dark, I had options. My destination was Ho Chi Ming City. How hard could it be to find a hostel bed? I sought justification of my approach by gripping my already haggard Lonely Planet. The answer would be in there, surely.
By the time we hit the city’s suburbs, it was pitch dark. A black night that made the neon lines of karaoke bars and bluish tints of roadside cafes pop into view like a kaleidoscope of garish publicity posters. Another wave of worry as I searched for a kindred spirit around the bus. Nothing.
I was about to break my number one rule: Don’t arrive anywhere new alone, after dark.
My lack of accomodation was my main concern but it was the journey to the earmarked street in my traveller’s bible that proved challenging. It was only a 30 minute stroll on the map but a taxi would be safer at this time of night, right? As long as I got the negotiation right. On a daily budget of $20, a little mistake went a long way.
I held my ground with the driver through the window until we decided on a fare of 20,000 Dong. That seemed cheap but he seemed happy. I bundled into the back and the station lights disappeared from the rearview mirror as we turned left, then left again. When we completed a full circle I leant forward. “We need to go straight for three blocks on my map”. My hesitant statement was answered by the click of central locking. The closing of a prison door.
As the fare gauge jumped from 20,000 to 200,000 my tired heart sank.
It was after midnight by the time I found myself staring at a mouldy ceiling fan whirring above my bed, musing that I was lucky my mistake hadn’t cost me more than the contents of my wallet. I carried a ‘fake’ purse with only that day’s cash in it – roughly $20. The locks had gone up once it was handed over. I had grabbed at my packaged world and stumbled out onto the curb.
The dirty hostel felt like a haven from that chaotic night. From the pitfall I hadn’t managed to dodge. I promised myself that it wouldn’t taint my time in Ho Chi Ming but with hindsight it definitely did.
It’s still the most memorable story from the two days I spent in Vietnam’s melting-pot southern metropolis.