HA NOI, North Viet Nam
HO CHI MINH CITY, South Viet Nam
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia
March 14, 2010
When I embark on an adventure, I either have people rooting me on or persuading me not to go. The latter is afraid that because of my two disabilities, I’d get hurt, killed or kidnapped. The countries I choose to travel to mostly aren’t by Western standards. My life in Nigeria not too long ago drew praise and worry. But deep down inside, I knew, with my survival skills, open communication, easy cultural adaptability and empathy, I could do this either with a travelling companion or by myself. By myself, I mean, for now. I don’t think I can do what I did in the past, or in Viet Nam, if I were fully blind. So I decided that this is the time now to come, to see, to conquer – as a solo traveler. This is my story how I conquered Viet Nam on the last day in that land.
It was Saturday, March 13 at 7:00AM in the old quarter of Ha Noi, North Viet Nam when my alarm went off. After only five hours of sleep and a night of delicious Singapore Slings and MaiTais and impromptu karaoke with my sometime travelling companion Thomas, I slowly dragged myself out of bed. My mind came out of its slumber and realized I had set the alarm on wrong. I was supposed to get up at 6AM, pack up my toothbrush, shower and jump into clean clothes, and enjoy an omelette and coffee breakfast in the basement of Friendly Hotel. That easy morning was hastily dropped, with me jumping into my clean clothes without a shower and running down to the lobby. Thomas, my Deaf German companion, slept on the other bed. I woke him up, said our goodbyes and I closed the door behind me. Thomas would meet Antje again the next day and depart for Singapore from Ha Noi.
My original plan was to hitch a motorbike to the airport ($5 for 45 minutes) but the pouring rain put a damper on that (pun intended). The travel agent that helped me book my Jetstar flight from Ha Noi to Ho Chi Minh City yesterday shook his head. He had tried to convince me to take a taxi to the airport ($10) but I was quite the penny pincher and said I preferred to pay $5 for a quick ride. Now it was raining and of course anyone travelling 45 minutes with bags and no rain coat should have some common sense and get a taxi.
Swallowing my pride, I turned to the travel agent (who happens to have an office in the lobby of the Friendly Hotel) and wrote to him that I needed a taxi – stat.
My flight from Ha Noi would leave at 9:15am, arriving in Ho Chi Minh City at 11:30am. Then what would happen is I take my bag at the HCMC airport, show the taxi the note from my travel agent with instructions to take me to SORYA Transport, a bus company that takes passengers from HCMC to Phnom Penh, Cambodia in 6 hours. Once I get to Phnom Penh SORYA bus office, I will ask someone to text Meng to come pick me up in the tuk-tuk. Easy said, not easy done.
It was now 7:45am. I absolutely have to be at the airport by 8:40am. But it is a 45-minute drive. I’d have to get there in the nick of time to grab my ticket, whizz by the security, swoosh through the gate and plop in my airplane seat.
After some failed attempts, the agent tells me he has contacted a cab driver. He’ll be here at 8AM.
Gulp. Be cool, Coco. There’s a 10:15am flight if I miss this one. But missing the 9am flight would mean I’d have 5 minutes to spare before I catch my bus in Ho Chi Minh City. Can I do this?
My eye (remember, I don’t have vision in my left eye) kept itself fixated on my watch. Tick-tock. 7:58am. 7:59am. 8am. Then it became 8:05am. This wait was becoming annoying. The agent smirked – he knew he was right. (But hey, mister, if it wasn’t raining I would be out the door 15 minutes ago… oh, I need to blame myself instead of him or the rain or other things…)
The silver cab gets here. The driver literally throws my bag in the trunk and the agent grabs my cane. I’m left cane-less on top of the stairs and there’s tiny hands on my buttocks pushing, swiveling my hips. This is the Vietnamese version of supporting a blind person, don’t forget. Grabbing canes and pushing. I bark to the agent to give me my precious cane back which he does, and shoo the little old lady away so she could stop pushing me down the stairs. I walk to the taxi and the driver tells me to buckle up. What a ride I was going on.
It was pouring hard and hundreds of motorcyclists whizzed by us. The driver honked so loudly, flashed his lights, screamed at the bikers to get out of his way. Spoken in colorful Vietnamese curse words, I’m sure. He continued this all the way to the airport, honkling at big trucks and buses – he expected them to just get the heck out of the way – and nearly colliding in cars, bikes and pedestrians.
This driver was the cabbie from hell.
But he got me to the airport at a miraculous time. 8:50am. Would I be allowed to enter the gate with only 20 minutes left?
Jetstar Airlines ticket agents saw me coming, grabbed my bag, handed me my ticket. It was as if they knew I was coming. Perhaps the Friendly Hotel agent called ahead?
I was supposed to bring my bag under the plane, but with no time to spare, my duffel bag came with me through security. I was allowed through security and before I could blink, I was at Gate 3. I was passed on through four different airport attendants, using the very bothersome Vietnamese way of handling the blind, and I was escorted on a passenger bus. It was full of airplane passengers for Flight 776 – HCMC bound.
In 15 minutes from my arrival at the airport, to the plane, I was seated in Seat 2C and buckled up.
What made it even more strange and amazing was that I had two big containers of liquid in my bag, as well as scissors and a lighter. My duffel bag sits on top of me, safely stored. With lax security like that, anyone could bring dangerous arms or…
It was a smooth 2 hour flight to Ho Chi Minh City, South Vietnam.
I got through the airport on my own, because no one from Jetstar was there to escort me as I’d requested a day before. But with the pressure of time, it came to no surprise that this was overlooked. I walked slowly, following the Vietnamese/English directions to Baggage Claim and then through to the arrivals area. I had to walk 10 minutes from the area to departures, where the taxi company was.
I showed the driver my note, and he nodded. He gestured “$5”. I got in the car and we headed to the city hub, where SORYA HCMC office was located.
A surprisingly short time later, the driver brings me to a nearly empty bus lot. I could see red coach buses in the distance. SORYA was the bus line Thomas, Antje and I used to travel from Phnom Penh to HCMC on March 2nd. SORYA buses are red, so I figured we were in the right place. With 45 minutes to spare until my 1pm departure, I spied a noodle soup cart on the street and decided that it was my lunch.
The bowl of noodles was not so bad. I missed the Khmer noodles – it reigned supreme over Vietnamese Pho (much, much to my surprise).
I walked over to the bus office and sat down. I wrote to the secretary to look up my booking (Friendly Hotel said they booked me) and the secretary says she will get my ticket. However, when I look around, it isn’t SORYA. It’s SAPACO Bus Lines. Not the bus company I had asked Friendly Hotel to book me on.
I was confused. Did the agent book me on a different bus? Or did the taxi driver mistakenly bring me here? I asked the lady how far SORYA office was and she replied: 30 minutes drive.
Oh man. I had 10 minutes left til the SORYA bus left. Abandoning the idea of going there, I asked if SAPACO had buses to Phnom Penh.
My lucky Buddha, yes, they did. One leaves at 1:30pm, and the other at 3pm.
Feeling relieved but still a little confused, I napped on the leather couch until my bus came to pick the group up.
The bus was full. I could spy six white people, and the rest were either Vietnamese or Cambodian. I sat right in front, Seat 1D, and there was a large LCD TV in front of me. Subtitled in English. I had such a thrill watching Japanese horror films nonstop – the Vietnamese seem to have a thing for Japanese movies. It’s shown on basic cable, on television sets in shops, and in ordinary Vietnamese houses. Even Mr. Khan’s nail and beauty shop in Cat Ba Island.
Three hours passed. We were nearing the Vietnamese/Cambodian border. I had obtained a temporary re-entry visa from Friendly Hotel ($30) so that I would not have to endure the hassle of filling out forms at the border.
The bus company guides collected our passports, and we went through the first border pit stop. Customs. Then we got on the bus, and had to get off at the second stop. One of the Communist military officers in his elaborate uniform walked on the bus. I showed him my used Vietnamese visa, new Cambodian visa and my pretty mugshot. Once the dude was done with all of our passports, we headed to the last border pit stop. This time, it was the Cambodian border where we had to get off the bus. I had no clue what we were going to do, but I tried to follow. Apparently my line of sight lost the group and I wandered off to the left. I saw a house that had a roof decorated like a Buddhist pagoda. Very Cambodian. I looked in the door, but it seemed too dark. I turned around and was startled to see who was standing in front of me.
Five tall Vietnamese Communist military officials stood, very stoic and expressionless. The middle one, whom I presume is the General, had his uniform adorned with so much gold it overshadowed his Communist red and olive green cloth. The highly decorated officer stepped ahead of his four other comrades. He started to speak English but I stopped him. Boldly, I covered my ears, eyes and mouth – giving them the hint I was Deaf, Blind and mute.
The left eyebrow of the General arched up in curiosity. He looked over on his left, said something, and one of the comrades stepped forward, more closer to me. He gestured, You hear none? See none? Speak none?
With a smile that could rival the sunshine, I nodded my head.
An extraordinary thing happened. Not something you would see in movies depicting the stone-cold, dark Communist military regime. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought this would happen.
The General smiled very broadly, tipping his enormous hat (so close I could see the hammer, star and machete) and slid his hand through my arm to guide me back to my bus. Behind me, the four comrades smiled slightly, following me as if I were the Queen of their regime.
The people on my bus, most especially the white foreigners, had their eyes bulged out and their jaws wide open. Some shut up theirs suddenly, out of fear and nervousness – the presence of the menacing Communist militia on their bus.
It turns out that – I have to chuckle – I was the only one on a bus of 45 people that had a visa ready. Even the Cambodians have to fill out a form to document their return to their land. The Vietnamese and the white folk waited until they were at the border to pay for an entry visa. I thought to myself, come on, I’m disabled but I’ve got it all organized….
Three hours after the border crossing, I found myself at the end of a forest-themed Japanese horror flick, at the end of the day where the sunset had disappeared, and at the beginning of the city of Phnom Penh.
I arrived at the bus office of SAPACO, asked them to call Meng, and he was there at door’s step in 10 minutes.
Meng said it all:
You’re Deaf and Blind. You travel from North to South Vietnam to Cambodia in one day. Brave.
Realizing the feat I’d pulled off, I sat down in his tuk-tuk throughout the city stumped and feeling naturally high from the euphoria of having had done this on my own.
I know that one day in the future when I lose all of my sight, I will need an Anne Sullivan (support service provider, intervenor, respite, patron, assistant, escort, whatever you call it) to escort me through countries like Vietnam, Cambodia, Africa, South America…
But for the past week and half, especially the last day in Vietnam, I did not need an Anne Sullivan. I traveled over 1,500km on my own.
May this be a lesson for those, with sight, partial sight or no sight: If you dream it, find the determination to live it out. Dare to challenge yourself, the public, the system and doubts. Prepare to be let down, acknowledge what can be changed, and live out your adventures.
I came, I saw, I conquered.
Tactile the world.
You, me and everybody else.