Friday, March 19, 2010

Good afternoon Vietnam

The first thing I’ll say about Ha Tien in Vietnam, just across the border from Cambodia, is that it plainly couldn’t care less what Westerners think about it. This has been a terrible shock to me, I can tell you. Most of the places I’ve been to this year have either absorbed Western culture in some way (shopping malls, burger bars, MTV Asia etc) or blatantly set out to attract tourists and by extension the Yankee dollar. By contrast, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam doesn’t seem remotely fussed about all that.

Getting here on the bus from Kampot was the easy part. Getting sorted and settled was another matter. To start with, almost nobody speaks English, not even hotel receptionists. And although Vietnamese is written in Latin script, rather than the unfamiliar squiggly symbols of Thai, Lao and Cambodian, the kind of translations I’m used to on shopfronts and the like are almost entirely absent. So there I was, lugging my stuff around in the midday heat in a largely alien environment and almost wishing that a tout would come over and hassle me in my native language.

I can’t believe I just wrote that.

Actually, something a bit like that happened when a moto guy gave me a lift to a nearby hotel, although his English was extremely basic and the receptionist’s wasn’t a whole lot better. At this time, I didn’t even know the exchange rate between the US dollar and the Vietnamese dong, which meant every time I was quoted a price I had to ask: “What’s that in dollars?” (That’s another thing: for the past month I’ve been using dollars and Cambodian riel interchangeably. Vietnam, not surprisingly given its recent history, doesn‘t dance to the same tune.)

I was shown a room, and very nice it was too, for the price. Then the receptionist asked for my passport and said he’d be keeping it until I checked out. At this, I positively baulked.

Taking my passport back, I went outside and sat down sulkily. I was hot, desperately thirsty and sweating profusely. The moto guy followed me out, phoned a friend who spoke English and passed me his mobile. I explained to his friend what my problem was. The friend said that all hotels in Vietnam did this: it was something to do with the police.

Feeling fed up and confused, I went in search of a bank. (In my two previous destinations I either ‘got some kip’ or ‘got riel'. Somehow I don’t think I’ll be making a similar joke about the Vietnamese currency.) On the way I ran into this young guy who runs a travel agency in town. He’d joined my bus at the border, enabling the bus company’s Cambodian representative to return home. Anyway, he told me that hotels in Vietnam always retain passports so that they can inform the police how many foreigners they have staying each night.

That settled it. After visiting an ATM, I returned a little sheepishly to the place I’d walked out of and checked into my rather swanky, extremely good value room.

Ha Tien, which lies on the Mekong Delta, isn’t anywhere near as pretty as my guidebook makes out but I’ll be staying here another day as my hotel room seems like a great place to knuckle down, prepare a new CV and think about my next job. I’m delighted to report as well that the wifi here is about five times faster than anything I encountered in Cambodia. (Interestingly, the one other person I’ve met in this town who speaks fluent English is a boy of about 13 who was using the computer in the lobby as I endeavoured to prise the password out of a receptionist. The lad ended up translating for us, bless him.)

There’s one snag, though. I can’t access Facebook unless I do something technical and sneaky that I don’t quite understand at the moment.

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