Expect the Unexpected
We've all heard this many a time and every time the unexpected occurs, it catches us by surprise. We feel like we've lost a bit of control (if only for a short moment) because we were so meticulous about our planning and we wonder how we could of found ourselves in such a situation. This is especially true when you're on the road; sometimes the unexpected can become a pleasant surprise, where you get lost in a city, but are still able to maintain a sense of calm, as you explore a side you never would have seen otherwise. Other times, the unexpected can leave you in wide-eyed surprise and set your mind racing to sort through this unforeseen situation and figure out a way to put yourself back on track.
For my fellowship, I am working with three different micro-finance partners in Vietnam who are based out of three different cities. As I did my research to figure out how I would travel to my next destination (where I would be working with my second partner), I found that the city that I would be moving to is located within a province of the same name. I found that the bus was faster than the train and decided to grab a bus from Hanoi, where I had been living for my first assignment. To best equip myself, I read thoroughly about the next city I would be going to and the journey that I could expect to get there.
I grabbed a taxi from my apartment in Hanoi and arrived at the bus station. The bus station was chaotic, but this was expected. There were taxi and mototaxi (motorbike) drivers calling out, sometimes reaching for my bags, touting for business. Standing out as a foreigner is enough to draw attention, and a backpack certainly doesn't help. Firmly telling numerous people "No", I tried to make my way to the correct ticket counter. (Navigating can be difficult when you can't speak or read the language!) Once I purchased my ticket, I made my way to where the long-distance buses were parked, traversing yet another swarm of hawkers, this time offering services such as carrying my bags for me.
I found and boarded my bus, and once we started going, I had a brief exchange with another passenger on the bus. He spoke limited English but was able to communicate that the bus would be making multiple stops so I needed to specify exactly where I needed to get off (awesome example of a stranger helping out without asking for something in return). This, I had not planned for. I knew the bus was going through the province of Thanh Hoa, but I mistakenly thought that Thanh Hoa City would be it's final destination, as that was also what the display board leaning against the windshield read. After numerous texts and calls with a contact at my new partner, whom I would begin working with, we figured out where I needed to get off. A few hours later, I was told to gather my belongings and prepare to get off. (All these interactions were happening with limited English and a lot of hand gestures- you can imagine the level of stress in deciphering all this!) The bus eventually pulled over to the side of the road, I got off and was handed my bag. The driver pointed straight ahead, said some things in Vietnamese, which I did not understand, and the bus pulled away, eventually reaching a fork in the road, going one way and I was supposed to go down the other? I stood by myself at the side of the express way, flabbergasted, with some cars passing by, dense brush to my side and no sign of a town or city nearby. Further, my contact was supposed to meet me at the stop and she was nowhere to be seen...this had to be the wrong stop. Worry set in.
As I fumbled for my phone in my bag, two taxi and three mototaxi drivers were congregating around me to offer a ride. This made me nervous, as I was by myself, not knowing exactly which direction I was heading in and couldn't communicate with anyone. I finally got a hold of my contact on the phone and told her about the situation I found myself in. I randomly selected one of the taxi drivers and handed him the phone so she could explain to him where I needed to go. As he spoke with her, I examined the interior of his cab to make sure he had a meter and other signs that would prove him a legitimate driver- he passed. It turned out we were on the outskirts of town and Thanh Hoa city was a few kilometers away.
Eventually, I made it to my hotel and with great relief, called it a day.
...I wish the story ended here. However, there was a karaoke bar right above my room. Amplified
An unexpected journey always makes for an interesting story, and you walk away having learned that much more. My take-away? Depending on the level of security of the area you're in, travel by day, especially as a solo female traveler. Or if you're over-nighting it, arrive at your destination in the morning. There will always be something that is out of your control and could not have been predicted, no matter how much research you do ahead of time, so be flexible...What else can you do, but accept the unexpected as it comes and figure out a way around.