Two days into our travel, I tell Liz, ‘You remind me of Joanna Lumley.’ She smiles. ‘Funny you should say that, we used to know each other, you know’. Liz and Joanna may not have been best buddies, but they certainly rubbed shoulders as they both worked for the same modelling agency, quite some time ago… Glam chick, down to earth explorer of an abandoned island, and of course Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous… Liz does not ask which guise of Joanna I refer to .. Truth be told, as our travels unfold, she fits all of them, although it is the ‘Patsy moments’ of those first few days that are the most memorable…
Being an intrepid traveler by now, it is refreshing to travel with someone who is experiencing ‘adventure travel’ for the first time. Not that I am that adventurous…. But I have become quite blasé about hopping on planes and this time, we are sampling budget travel. Using trains and buses, negotiating border crossings rather than queuing at immigration at busy airports, and leaving quite a few of our arrangements to the last minute and to chance. Travel flashpacker style. Minimalist, taking just the bare minimum. Laptop and smartphone, what else can we need? ‘Remember,’ I warn Liz, ‘We have to be able to carry everything’ as she lists the essentials she will be cramming in her suitcase. Pop-up over-the-bed mosquito net. Mosquito repellent impregnated jungle-ready trousers. Mossie/bug/midge proof jacket, complete with zip up face covering. Instant camera (do they still exist?) and the obligatory selfie-stick….
After just three days in Vietnam and hauling her heavy suitcase along the full length of the platform at Quang Ngai train station, Liz decides that maybe she can dispense with some of the less important items in her suitcase. To her defence, the platform in Quang Ngai is actually non-existent as all the pavement slabs have been removed and the area next to the rails looks as if a digger has been having a whale of a time mixing stones and sand and depositing it in huge, uneven clumps. Whilst I spend my last night at the Language Centre teaching my last two lessons – a minor interruption of my holiday – Liz spends her evening repacking her suitcase and selecting items and souvenirs to be dispatched to a place of safekeeping in Hanoi, the last stop on her trip.
We finally start our real holiday the next day, with a six-hour bus journey to the mountainous inland area of Kontum. A little of the beaten track, public transport and bus services to Kontum are still somewhat lacking in luxury. Our bus turns out to be a 16-seater to be shared with about 20 people and doubles up as a parcels-and-packages delivery service. Boxes on the roof, in the boot and under every seat and crevice in the vehicle. Still quite comfortable compared with the sardine travel I experienced in India and it looks like my backpack will be perched on my lap for the duration of the trip. Liz is not impressed and desperately tries to defend her personal space in the van… With all the seats taken and only a little bit of standing room near the sliding door in front of her, the van stops to pick up yet another passenger. He squeezes into the narrow space between Liz’s anguished face and the window. She explodes with British ‘Patsy’ indignity. She furiously waves her fan – newly purchased in Hoi An – in the direction of the ‘bus conductor’ and implores, ‘Excuse me!! Excuse me!! You cannot be serious!! I cannot look at his butt for six hours… Excuse me!!’ Her cries fall on deaf ears. Luckily the man only needs a short lift and soon Liz can breathe a sigh of relief, until the next stop… But by then she has accepted the inevitable… the constant ebb and flow of extra passengers on the bus. And let’s face it, tiredness kicks in and sends everyone to sleep.
Another issue that causes consternation is money, Vietnamese Dong in their millions and the ubiquitous US dollars Liz has been advised to bring on her travels. Currency is not a problem for me, having worked in Quang Ngai for the last year means I have a Vietnamese bank account and do not yet have to worry about exchanging money. And further afield I wield my currency card: topped up with small amounts at a time to be used at ATMs, in local shops and restaurants and even for online payments. An essential travel companion: I carry very little cash and there is very little risk if the card got stolen or lost.
It isn’t until we reach Kontum that Liz needs to replenish her supply of Dong. In cities such as Danang or Hoi An, which are on the regular tourist route, dollars are common currency, but Kontum has not yet reached this level of international interest and dollars are pretty much alien. As dollars are not accepted in our hotel, we venture to a bank. Surely, we should be able to exchange dollars in a bank. It’s Saturday morning and the bank is quiet. We are quickly motioned to sit down with one of the tellers. Liz produces her notes. She tries her luck with a wodge of Hong Kong dollars first, left-overs from a previous life. ‘Can I have some Vietnamese Dong, please,’ Liz enunciates, slowly accentuating each and every syllable. . The bank employee looks terribly confused and studies the notes. I point to the board behind her, ‘HKD… Hong Kong dollars… You clearly know about them, you are giving an exchange rate on the board.’ The girl shakes her head, uncertain about what to do. Liz decides to leave the HKD for another time, and puts the big guns on the table: US dollars… The girl counts the notes, studies them, checks the pictures, calls her supervisor. The process is repeated, only this time both sides of the notes are under scrutiny.. The supervisor is at a loss and turns to her boss for advice. No joy there as her boss angrily swats her away; she clearly has more important things on her mind than tending to the needs of customers, picking her nose for instance… The girls revert to their task and sort the notes in piles of the same denomination, and discard any ‘unclean’ notes: the ones with writing on them, or other marks. ‘Hello, the exchange rate is on the board behind you…’ Liz is beginning to see red and it does not take long for the situation to evolve into a Patsy moment… Fed up with the lack of any progress and the inability of the bank staff to make sense of our language – both verbal and body – she snatches her crisp dollar notes. ‘These are perfectly good bank notes, dispensed by a BRITISH bank!! We are British and this is good British money!! I will go somewhere else…’ Liz stomps out of the bank… Luckily, the ATMs around the corner are more forgiving and willing to accept bank cards that have not been issued in Vietnam, albeit at a nice commission for them… And when we reach the more popular tourist destination of Dalat, exchanging dollars becomes child’s play.
Hmmm… if ever Joanna Lumley and Jennifer Saunders are looking for inspiration for a new Absolutely Fabulous… How about ‘Patsy and Edina go trekking in Vietnam’… we could provide them with plenty of original materials… We haven’t laughed so much for a long time…