a travel memoir
There comes a time in each life like a point of fulcrum. At that time you must accept yourself. It is not any more what you will become. It is what you are and always will be.
John Fowles, The Magus
Robert Dessaix, Corfu – a Novel
There is meaning in every journey that is unknown to the traveller.
Borders are strange places, and the borders of countries that don’t care about their image need to be approached with great care. It may not be dangerous, but it can certainly be very challenging, frustrating, irritating, annoying, demoralising...
On a previous visit, we’d flown into Vietnam and had been astounded at the spontaneous ease with which immigration officials randomly harassed incoming visitors – and that was the foreigners. The way they treated returning fellow Vietnamese was simply appalling, but we had been assured that things had changed. Maybe they had in Ho Chi Minh City Airport, but at a tiny border post at Moc Bai on the ‘road’ between Cambodia and Vietnam, word hadn’t got through.
I love those land borders between two countries that feel really different: between, say, Malaysia and Thailand, India and Nepal, or Cambodia and Vietnam. Few things help you feel more comfortable than seeing a good stereotype in action, and to be the recipient of two different bureaucratic and cultural styles within a couple of minutes can be a very telling and sometimes comforting experience. It depends which way you’re crossing. This was going to be one of the ‘telling’ crossings. As we said goodbye to Cambodia, the two men in the grubby cement immigration kiosk smiled and smiled and smiled and said ‘goodbye, please come again soon’, as if they really meant it. We tried not to cry. Really.
We walked the few hundred yards across ‘no man’s land’ with some trepidation, and crossed under the yellow star of the Vietnamese flag into a tall, spacious border post.
As the sort of person who likes to do things properly, I’d insisted on carrying our little yellow inoculation booklets with us this trip. No one had actually asked to see these for some years, but a lot of time and money had gone into collecting the stamps they contained, and you never know when someone wants to know when your latest yellow fever vaccination was.
Well, it turns out the man at the Vietnamese border post did. We filled out the necessary forms in triplicate, on the finest of tissue paper, and presented ourselves for harassment. If you didn’t have the medical evidence, you were harassed, made to pay a small fee, and inoculated on the spot. Clean needles? Sort of. As we arrived a European man was loudly (and therefore, to the Vietnamese, very rudely) protesting that he had already been vaccinated, and refusing to be injected here using ‘that awful equipment’. He was still there when we left - he may still be there now, brushing up on his ‘how to deal with Vietnamese border guards’ etiquette.
On the other hand, if you did have the evidence, if you could produce the little yellow books, then you were in real trouble. The immigration officer, in his pressed uniform and his hugely peaked hat, read and re-read and re-read the vaccination stamps, getting crosser all the time. The amount of money you had to pay for the vaccination was so small that couldn’t have been the issue, whether he pocketed it or not. No, there seemed to be a genuine disappointment that we weren’t to be given an injection. We tried not to look happy, made our way obsequiously to customs, who only emptied two of our bags, searching for who knows what. He said he was looking for money. I think he was looking for happy pills. He didn’t find any of either.
At the small drink shop we came to outside the Boc Mai customs hall, the relief among our fellow travellers was palpable, as was the frustration that needed venting. Communist or not, Coca Cola was on offer, and we shared a Coke as we shared notes on our how we’d fared with immigration. We waited quite a while for some of our fellow travellers to jump through the bureaucratic hoops, then boarded another bus for the final leg into Ho Chi Minh City.
We emailed from there.
Date: Aug 06 2000 05:59:45 EDT
From: "On the road with B, D and T"
Subject: Bouncing into Ho Chi Minh the latest from the travel trio
We arrived in Vietnam a couple of days ago at a border crossing that can best be described as desolate. With the journey that preceded it, it provided something of a contrast to the comfort levels we'd enjoyed in the Cambodian capital. We'd become accustomed to the relative order of Phnom Penh, and the wonderful hospitality provided by P and J.
After that, the trip by road to Vietnam provided a rude awakening. At seven in the morning, as we moved out of town, we passed a veritable sea of motorbikes carrying people into work - among them some of the city's 145,000 garment workers. But once out into the countryside, the traffic thinned only a little, but the road became desperately bad - and then got worse. Our top speed for the whole 220 kilometres was 80 kph, but we generally travelled at more like 20, frequently crawled to dead slow to negotiate 'pot-holes'. Much of the road was on raised dykes, and with the early flooding that is a major feature of life all over this region this year, we were often surrounded by water, and hundreds of small houses that sat not far above the rising flood.
An hour or so out from Phnom Penh we came to an amazing ferry, carrying buses, cars, trucks and us across the raging Mekong, where the driver had to aim hundreds of metres above his landing point in order to find his right place on the other side. The Danish government may have provided the ferries, but it was the Cambodian captain who made it look easy.
A few more hours brought us to the border, with all of those little forms to be filled in, and other things to be discussed at a later date, taking a fair bit of time. From there, however, it was a breeze. The Vietnamese (or was it the Americans) have created a very good road system, and although the congestion on the roads meant that we didn't travel very fast, at least we travelled in one direction - forwards - rather than up and down and around.
So here we are in Ho Chi Minh City, in the palatial Dong A1 Hotel, mercifully in the middle of a tourist ghetto, with the inevitable in-house internet access, air conditioning and all of those things that we really must give up very soon. Tomorrow may be the day, as we have booked tickets on the train to Hué - a 24 hour journey that will dump us in the centre of Vietnam, still without one confident word of Vietnamese between us. The things we do for fun!!
D, B, T and Gumnut, who is starting to look a little travel stained - she needs a good bath, but you know how koalas hate baths.