Saturday, 04 October 2014
In hindsight, the little waiting game I had with taxi drivers in Makati was, in a way, a good thing for I didn’t have to wait eons in at NAIA for our departure. Our airplane arrived in Ho Chi Minh City at about 3 in the morning, 3 hours later than the supposed arrival time. I was kind of startled seeing ours was the only plane taxiing towards the gate, none was also leaving any gate. And I thought airports in Vietnam were always kind of busy.
Weeks before the trip I already arranged for airport transfer with Saigon Backpackers Hostel but since our flight was delayed for hours it wasn’t really a surprise that none of the few drivers outside the airport was holding a plastic-covered paper bearing my name. I walked away from the drivers forcing myself to decide fast what to do next, groggy from the restless 3-hr sleep on the plane. Then a guy sitting on the bench to my left started talking to me in Vietnamese. At first I smiled at him hoping he’d realize that I had no idea what he was saying but the way he looked at me as he spoke creeped me out. Maybe I was just paranoid that he was leering at me instead of just looking. Leering or just looking, I walked away towards the taxi stand and prepared myself to get ripped off.
I lined up for a taxi along with a few passengers whose nationalities I already stopped guessing. The dispatcher at the taxi stand asked where my destination was, first in Vietnamese then in nasal English. I thought I was doing well in Vietnamese English until he asked the next question which involved dongs and dollars. He asked me about four times with an impatient tone on the last time before I made out the word dollar and dong from the gibberish he was saying. He asked what currency I would pay my fare in, dollars or dongs.
There were two recommended taxi operators in Vietnam, Mailinh and Vinasun. I was hoping I could get into one of them but since I wanted to catch some sleep so bad I couldn’t afford to be overparticular this time. The dispatcher quoted the fare at 300,000 VND and my ripoff alarm went off. I still said yes to the price because I was tired and to be fussy would make me the last passenger left at the airport.
The old man who drove the cab to Saigon’s backpacker area in District 1 did not speak English so we communicated by hand gestures and head shakes and nods. The ride didn’t take long, roughly about 20 minutes only. I was lucky the driver knew where the hostel was located after I showed him the address. I If not, I might end up dragging my luggage along the streets of Ho Chi Minh and find my way to the hostel on my own with the Google map saved on my phone.
The streets were nearly empty. And for the whole duration of the trip I forced myself not to doze off for fear of being taken to an empty warehouse, waking up in the middle of a drug-trade-gone-bad. I was dropped off unscathed at the corner of Pham Ngu Lao, the main street of the backpackers’ area, and the unnamed alley where the hostel was located. I checked the cab’s meter and the numbers read 147.000, less than half of the fare quoted by the dispatcher. When I got off the cab I initially gave the driver 200000 VND then he shook his head, raised three fingers and grumbled in Vietnamese which I could only guess was laden with profanities. So I pulled out another 100,000 bill from my pouch and handed it to him. I thought I could pull a fast one on the cab driver. Well, at least I tried.
The alley reminded me of Krus na Ligas, the boarding house district of the University of the Philippines, from establishments that stood side by side to the cockroaches scuttling across your path. With the printout of the address and confirmation email from Booking.com on my hand and dragging my luggage with the other, I looked for 373/20 on every building I passed along the dark alley. About 50 meters from the main Pham Ngu Lao street, I found the huge but faint sign that said Saigon Backpackers Hostel. Great. The gate was closed and so I rang the doorbell. One, two, three seconds. No answer. I leaned closer to the gate trying to see if someone inside was coming to open the sliding glass door. No one. I rang the bell again. Still no answer. It was almost 5 in the morning and I was starting to get a little dizzy and a little hungry.
While camped outside the hostel premises, I passed the time playing Candy Crush on my iPad and explored the features of my new phone, ringing the doorbell every once in a while. Convinced that the hostel doors would not open until about 5 or 6 in the morning, I tried to keep myself busy and prayed that the receptionist or someone from the hostel reports for work earlier that day.
The alley was slowly waking up. Hostel gates were opening one at a time, vendors passing on their bicycles or motorbikes, some on foot. For the second time in this trip I was close to crying.
I distracted myself from destructive self-pitying thoughts by re-reading the last chapter of Wild when the doors behind me slid open. A guy probably in his late 20s asked, Can I help you? Yes. And in one breath I told him about the delay, how I missed the airport transfer and how long I was out there sitting on my luggage waiting for the doors to open, not a care if he understood or even heard me. I needed to let out all my mishaps to someone. He apologized for the long wait and carried my heavy luggage to the lobby then we proceeded with the check-in process. As we went inside I smelled a faint stench of alcohol coming from the guy and had me thinking that it must be the reason why he couldn’t hear the numerous doorbell rings in the past hour.
I was given a room in the 3rd floor which was actually the fourth floor because in Vietnam the lobby or ground floor was not considered the first floor. The second storey of the building was the first floor, third storey the second floor and so on. The guy went back to sleep on the hostel lobby’s couch after he showed me where the stairs and the breakfast area were, allowing me to have an early morning lifting exercise on the stairwell towards my 3rd floor room. He didn’t even help me with my luggage after making me wait outside the hostel for almost an hour. What a gentleman.
There were two other occupants in the 4-bed ladies’ dorm, both in deep slumber, when I reached the summit that was Room 302. I opened my luggage and took out my toiletry bag and jammies as quietly as I could and got inside the bathroom to change and wash all body parts that needed washing. And finally, a few minutes after 5 in the morning I was ready to say goodnight to the world.