The Vietnam Diaries 2011: August 4th – Ha Long Bay

We have breakfast downstairs at the restaurant shortly after 7AM – mango pancakes with honey, because honey is the root of all good things in life. You can quote me on that.

It appears Mr. Tuan managed to arrange for another couple to join us on an overnight boat sleepover at Ha Long Bay, so we’re all set. A mini-bus picks up our “day group” at the hotel. Very soon we run out of space as we’re joined by a Vietnamese couple, two Italian guys, two Spanish guys, four French girls, an English couple and a lone English girl. Our luggage is stacked up at the front seat. Everyone knows riding shotgun is how luggage rolls. At the main pier we are all transferred to a boat that takes us out to Ha Long Bay.

Soon we reach a small bay with a few floating houses scattered around. Our boat is parked and we’re all given kayaks to use for the next hour. We do a few circles around the area through the majestic view of karsts and the arguably less majestic piles of garbage discarded by floating-houses residents.

Aaah, the untouched beauty of floating trash

One hour later everyone returns to the boat and we continue our journey through Ha Long Bay, taking in the scenery and enjoying the perfect weather with clear blue skies. After some time our boat stops again in another small bay, without any floating houses around. The water is a lot clearer and there’s no garbage in sight. Everyone goes for a swim, jumping into the water from the boat’s upper deck.

One of the French girls is stung by a jellyfish, which immediately prompts a drawn out discussion about whether or not anyone should pee on her hand. After a surprisingly urine-free resolution to the discussion we’re served lunch in the lower deck of the boat.

After lunch the boat arrives to Dau Go Cave and everyone disembarks to go on a cave excursion. The cave is huge and the walk takes us through its many smaller chambers. We make our way slowly through the cave, stopping to take pictures. One of the open spaces within the cave is filled with penis-shaped stalagmites. People linger long enough to exhaust their library of dick jokes.

“Look everybody! The cave is happy to see us!”

After the cave the boat makes a short stop at Viet Hai to pick up around 10 tourists travelling back to Cat Ba. They pile up on the upper deck and our boat starts to feel seriously crowded. Three of the French girls are happily living up to the “French smoke a lot” stereotype, chain smoking on outside area of the lower deck. We reach a place called “Monkey Island”, where we’re dropped off and told to enjoy ourselves for 30 minutes, while our boat leaves with all of our belongings. Wait a second…isn’t this how many horror movies start?

The only real cover from the scorching sun on this small island is a nearby cafe on stilts. Everyone immediately makes a beeline for it. Cafe is crowded so we stand around waiting for some tables to clear up. Katka and myself are waved over by an American couple and we join their table. Their names are Dax and Mary and they have apparently kayaked here all the way from Cat Ba. Show offs! After a brief chat they take their two single-kayaks and start making their way back to Cat Ba.

Once our boat returns Katka and I are transferred over to another boat that we’ll be staying on overnight. Here we are joined by the English – Ian and Angela. After leaving our luggage on the lower deck where we’ll be sleeping, we all grab a few lounge chairs on the upper deck and settle to enjoy what’s left of the sun for today.

Ian and Angela have been travelling across South East Asia for almost half a year, after having quit their jobs to embark on this trip. Angela doesn’t appear to be particularly enthusiastic about their travels. She’s continuously telling us horror stories about their experiences with thieves, scams, bribes and so on from their time in Cambodia and Laos. I can’t help but wonder how Angela got convinced to quit her job for this adventure, when she’s clearly so negative about it. Who knows, maybe she likes being upset about stuff?

“WORST trip of my entire life! Let’s do it again!”

There are two showers downstairs, but only one of them has sufficient water pressure. We all take turns to shower. Angela gets into an argument about the shower situation with one of the Vietnamese guides accompanying us on this overnight stay. Well, I guess this story is also going into her black book! Katka and I share the tiny shower booth, amazingly avoiding elbowing each other to death.

Once we return to the upper deck we’re served a delicious dinner. It even includes some western food – namely French fries and fried chicken. After dinner Angela’s not feeling well so she goes downstairs to sleep. The rest of us stay up for a while. The boat is anchored in open sea. We can see a few distant lights from the floating houses and the sky is sprinkled with lots of stars. We start identifying the constellations we know: there’s the Big Dipper, and there’s the…aaahm…yeah well, that was fun.

Around nine in the evening one of the guides brings a mattress to the upper deck – he’ll be sleeping here tonight. We return to the lower deck and are soon asleep, despite the snores coming from the boat’s driver sleeping nearby.

The remaining diaries will soon come. For now, remember you can check out Katka’s pictures of the whole trip on her Flickr profile.

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The Vietnam Diaries 2011: July 31st – Tam Coc, Mua Cave, Hoa Lu, Trang An

At 2:30 in the morning I wake up to find Katka sitting on the bed with her legs up, hugging her knees. The light in the room is on. This is either a popular Czech night-time game yet unknown to me, or something is wrong…

Turns out it’s the latter, namely a giant cockroach that Katka saw in the bed. Katka’s ability to spot bed monsters is evolving. I organise a quick “search and eliminate” mission, but can’t find the infamous cockroach anywhere. After a while we manage to fall asleep, even with the knowledge that a cockroach may be lurking somewhere in our bed.

At 7:30 in the morning we go down for breakfast. Trying to keep things as simple as possible for the staff to avoid yesterday’s breakfast train wreck we order the same dish for both of us – two pineapple pancakes. There are almost no people in the restaurant, so our breakfast arrives fast and without errors this time.

Afterwards the tour guy calls up his driver and we set off on what promises to be a busy trip. We’ve got a whole four landmarks to cover today, which is twice as many as the two landmarks we saw yesterday, if my math is correct.

Mathematical equation

Incidentally, the above represents the exact calculations I’ve used to arrive at that number

The first stop is Tam Coc-Bich Dong (make your own dirty jokes here, you pervert). Here we’ll be going on a boat trip through a bunch of karst grottoes and caves set in rice paddies. If you don’t know how that looks, it’s basically the rice paddy version of Ha Long Bay. If you don’t know how Ha Long Bay looks, then I can’t do much more for you, I’m only one man.

We’ve read some horror stories (thanks, Lonely Planet) about tourists being ambushed after the last cave by merchants aggressively selling everything from food to T-shirts to jewellery. Apparently the rowers sometimes even refuse to take you back until you buy something. In order to avoid ending up in a force-sell situation we only take 50,000 dong with us to tip the rowers. The rest of the stuff stays in the car with our driver.

We get one boat and two rowers…which is twice as many as one rower. OK, I’ll stop. It’s quite cloudy, although luckily it’s not raining (so far). As the boat winds through the rice paddies we’re hit with a beautiful view of different karst formations, temples resting atop mountains and…ducks. Lots and lots of ducks.

No, seriously. Like, many freaking ducks.

We also notice mountain goats perched at the top of the karst. How they get to the top without teleportation is beyond me. Our rower switches to using his feet for rowing. Many other rowers we see are doing the same. We’ve read about this technique in the Lonely Planet, but it’s much more impressive to witness in person, especially since they make it look so easy.

It’s just like riding a bike. Except it’s a boat. And the oars don’t have a fixed range of motion. And you’re on water. OK, so it’s not at all like riding a bike.

We reach the first (and longest) cave and dip into the darkness. Our rowers are skilfully navigating the narrow passage through the cave. The ceiling hangs only a few centimetres above our heads and it’s quite a claustrophobic experience. Soon we reach the next strip of the river before entering another cave. Why hello there, flower selling ladies, fancy meeting you here.

Women selling flowers from their boat by a Tam Coc Cave, Vietnam

Nothing unusual here. Just some women selling flowers from their boat by a cave.

As we’re heading into the 3rd and last cave we brace ourselves for the imminent ambush of the mad merchants. The “ambush” takes the form of an elderly lady unenthusiastically making her way to us in her boat. She makes a feeble attempt to sell us some water, but gives up without an argument. So much for the horror stories.

We turn around and start making our way back through the same three caves. Close to the end of the journey the female rower suddenly takes out some pictures and shirts to try and sell us. You’re never truly safe from salesmen when you’re in Vietnam. But then again, are you anywhere? No, no you’re not, it was a rhetorical question. We politely decline the shirts and pictures and instead leave both our rowers with a generous tip at the end of the tour.

Next on the agenda – Mua Cave Pagoda. Our driver drops us off near the 500 stairs that lead up to the top of the mountain, where Mua Cave Pagoda rests. Just as we step out of the car we get caught in the heaviest rainfall we’ve experienced in Vietnam. Instead of doing the rational thing and returning back to the car, we stick to our usual stubborn approach and proceed to the mountain.

At the bottom of the mountain we find a group of tourists huddled inside the Mua Cave itself, hiding from the rain. Ha, sissies! Or, sane people, depending on who you ask. After the first few dozen stairs we’re suddenly face to face with a mountain goat. He’s taking refuge from the rain, while simultaneously doing a great job of blending in with his environment, ninja style.

“Oh, don’t mind me, I’m just doing my best chameleon impression!”

The goat stands looking impassively at us, while Katka takes his (her?) picture. Then he quickly make his way up the stairs, while going “baaa” repeatedly. We hear other goats respond and begin to wonder whether he’s called up his posse to deal with the amateur paparazzi invading his privacy. When the anticipated attack by an enraged mountain goat gang doesn’t happen we continue climbing up the stairs.

After a while we get to the top of the mountain. By the end of the climb we’re completely soaked and discover that so is the Lonely Planet in my backpack. At the top lies a small covered alter to the Goddess of Mercy (Quan Âm). I say a silent prayer and ask her to have mercy on the poor book and help it dry painlessly.

We stay at the top for a while, enjoying a 360 degree view of the surrounding area. On one side we can see a multitude of boats making their way through the Tam Coc caves, just like we did earlier today. All around are rice paddies, pagodas and temples.

Once we’re relatively dry we make the journey back to our car, meeting no more goats or hiding tourists on the way. Hoa Lu, here we come! (CONTINUE TO PAGE 2)

Vietnam 2011: General Observations (Part III)

This is the third instalment of my observations from summer’s trip to Vietnam. Before reading, see Part I and Part II if you haven’t done so already. The rest of you – thanks for following! And here we go.

Observation 7 – Got Milk?

Quick, think of a rare liquid that is expensive and hard to come by. If you’re thinking of oil, nice try Einstein, but you obviously haven’t been to Vietnam. The answer is milk. You know, the stuff that comes from a cow and is used for all sorts of healthy and nutritious meals like Kellog’s Frosties and McDonald’s milkshakes? It’s a rare Vietnamese restaurant indeed that will serve this delicious treat in its “normal” form. Sure, you’ll have no problem getting a cup of coffee with sweet condensed milk in it. However, try ordering some fresh milk and you’re soon going to lose your mind as you attempt to explain to the bewildered staff what it is you’re looking for.

Unidentified substance known only by its codename: “Element M”

This hasn’t really been a problem for me, since I’m a sugar junkie. There’s a good chance that sugar represents around 75% of the content of my arteries at this point. Therefore, I quite like the sweet condensed  milk. Katka, on the other hand, doesn’t take sugar in her coffee or tea. But she does like to have milk in it and that’s where troubles start.

As you will see from my upcoming travel notes, there were many episodes where we struggled in vain to get regular milk in Katka’s coffee. We’ve tried any approach we could think of – writing our request down, using words like “fresh”, “ordinary”, “regular” and “just” in front of “milk” and otherwise doing everything we can to get our point across. At some stage I believe I actually pantomimed milking a cow, which was quite uncomfortable for everyone involved (including the invisible cow).

By now I have a sneaking suspicion that many Vietnamese assume milk leaves a cow’s udder in a sugary condensed form. As awesome as that would have been – alas, we’re not that lucky!

Observation 8 – Houses & Paint Jobs

The majority of houses in larger cities are narrow, long and tall. They are often nicknamed “tube houses” (someone had pitched “elongated constructions with disproportionate sides”, but it didn’t quite catch on). One of the reasons for this odd form is believed to be the fact that houses used to be taxed based on the amount of space they took up at the street level. These narrow houses are usually huddled together, which makes for some pretty eclectic sights like this one:

Builders go through great lengths to decorate the front of their house and give it festive colours. It is quite odd, then, that usually no effort whatsoever is spent on making the sides of the house look remotely presentable. There are houses that stand proudly alone and have elaborate designs on the front, yet as soon as you pass by and look at their side you’re staring at an unpainted grey wall.

Sure, I understand the logic. Why bother painting the side of a house if in a few years there may be others growing up right next to it? Still, it’s quite bizarre to witness such contrast between different sides of the same building.

Observation 9 – Noise

I think Vietnam is one of the loudest countries I’ve ever been to. And this is coming from a guy whose regular speaking voice is volume-wise on par with jet plane take off. There’s a sustained level of noise in larger cities, that never seems to subside. Kids playing outside communicate via a series of intricate and deafening shrieks. Cars and motorbikes use their horns to signal anything from “I’m coming through” to “WATCH OUT” to “I’m bored, are you up for some Karaoke?” – it’s often impossible to tell. One usually learns to just tune out the constant beeping.

This neat Vietnamese mobile phone has intuitive buttons and sleek design

Also, it appears that many people don’t quite trust modern technology yet. They just find it impossible to believe that a mic on their mobile phone can pick up their voice and carry it over great distances. This prompts people to raise their voice significantly when talking on the phone. Therefore, every single mobile phone conversation we’ve heard in Vietnam sounded like Christian Bale having a breakdown (minus the constant swearing…I hope).

This part wraps up my general observations. Starting from the next Vietnam post I begin a day-by-day account of our adventure-packed trip. For now, remember you can still enjoy some great pictures from this trip at Katka’s Flickr page.

Vietnam 2011: General Observations (Part II)

You may recall that a few days ago I’d started the process of converting my Vietnam travel notes into blog posts. 85% of my 3 currently active subscribers were overjoyed and screamed “more please!”. Since in all the years of high school I’ve never truly learned to resist peer pressure – here goes the second instalment. It will pick up right where Part I left off, so if you haven’t read that part yet you may want to do it first. While my blog isn’t strictly a travel one, you’ll probably see these Vietnam posts pop up rather frequently over the next months – for better or worse, but mostly for better. Onwards…

Observation 4 – Rats

Granted, Vietnam is home to a lot more exotic and noteworthy animals than good old common rats. However, it’s the rats that live in shadows close to most bodies of water. They come out at night in swarms to hunt human prey…or just, you know, hang out and mind their own business.

The first time we started paying attention was one evening in Hue. Katka was taking some night shots of the Truong Tien Bridge. The bridge had been wired with more lights than a Christmas tree at Central Park, which made for a pretty mesmerizing sight. Somewhere between setting up the night program and trying to find a good angle Katka let out a muffled shriek and jumped a few good metres to the side (Olympic athletes – take notes!).

Because she wasn’t in the habit of performing this sequence of actions on a regular basis, I figured that something was wrong. Oh yeah, I’m excellent at spotting subtle behavioural patterns. Upon a more thorough inspection, i.e. walking closer to the water and squinting my eyes against the dark, I discovered dozens of rats running sporadically back and forth along the shore.

Since then we have noticed this being the norm anywhere around lakes and rivers during dark hours. Once while sitting in an outside cafe in Hoi An and then later again in Dong Hoi. Here we were in a somewhat fancy restaurant, which had its own artificial lake around the perimeter. Rats were sneaking near this lake and paid occasional visits to our table. They were basically co-existing peacefully with the restaurant staff, Ratatouille style!

“Hmmm, is it just me or are these eggs a tad undercooked? Anyways, what brings YOU to Vietnam?”

Observation 5 – Propaganda Speakers

Mostly in the Northern part of Vietnam you still find propaganda speakers scattered around. Some of them don’t seem to serve any function at all, other than looking like outdated relics that they are. But in certain places the speakers are very much alive.

On several occasions we were woken up at around six in the morning by monotonous chatter of some anonymous dude. I assume he was talking about the latest achievement of the Vietnamese government and encouraging people to work harder for the common good. However, I know very little Vietnamese. Now that I think of it, “arigato” might actually be Japanese, which means I know zero Vietnamese. So the “propaganda man” may actually have been telling jokes, in which case he may want to work on his delivery.

These speakers were even present in a tiny village of Viet Hai tucked away on a remote part of Cat Ba Island, reachable only by boat or a super-human trek. We had rented a basic bungalow there, in the hope of having some peace and quiet for a few days, but the joke-telling speaker guy had other plans in store for us. Each morning he launched into almost one-hour tirades and every 15 minutes his comedy routine was interrupted by a song, usually involving a high pitched female voice singing something vaguely patriotic.

“All day, all night, all day, all night, all day, all night…..WHAT THE *BEEP*?!”

And speaking of singing stuff…

Observation 6 – Karaoke

No Asian stereotype is complete without an image of a man/woman singing on stage at the top of their lungs in a crowded Karaoke bar. It’s as typical as the image of a Russian/Ukrainian wearing a fur coat, fur hat, felt boots and zig-zagging through the streets drunk with a bottle of Stolichnaya vodka sticking out of the coat’s pocket. Now, this may be exactly how I look on some festive occasions, but that doesn’t mean it applies to all of us all of the time. What I’m saying is – beware of putting people into boxes or putting labels on them (Not literally of course. If you’re literally putting people into boxes and putting labels on them, I’m quite sure the police will catch you soon enough, you sick bastard).

However, it seems Vietnam is quite happily living up to this particular stereotype. We’ve seen a multitude of places with live Karaoke performances during our three-week long visit. Our hotel room in Hue was actually right next to a massive multi-floor Karaoke establishment. That specific night was “amateur night” of some sort (when is it not “amateur night” when it comes to Karaoke?) with many hours of performances from audience members. Performances ranged from “utterly tone-deaf” to “almost not horrible”, with the audience cheering for each and every one of them. I’m guessing the winner was whoever made others bleed from their ears the least.

Above: NOT a typical Vietnamese Karaoke singer

Although I must admit there’s something heartening about so many people coming together to celebrate out-of-tune singing (this also goes for Katy Perry’s live performances). I dare you to find a Karaoke bar with a depressing atmosphere and lack of energy in the air. It’s impossible! You have better chances of seeing a Justin Bieber concert that doesn’t end with bottles being thrown at his head.

In Dong Hoi, a city that is otherwise nondescript, there was a street with no less than five Karaoke bars right next to each other. I’m no expert, but it sure seems like overkill, even if you’re really into Karaoke. It would be like having a coffee shop on ever damn corner, it just doesn’t make…wait a minute…well played Starbucks, well played!

The final part of the general observations is now available here. Remember to check out Katka’s awesome pictures from this equally awesome trip! Also, remember to follow me on Facebook or Twitter or even subscribe via email, if you want to stay updated on all of the latest.

Vietnam 2011: General Observations (Part I)

This summer my girlfriend Katka and I went on a three week trip to Vietnam. More specifically we went from mid-July to beginning of August. Even more specifically we went to Northern Vietnam with a “minor” detour to Central Vietnam and then back.

It just so happens that in exactly Northern Vietnam the travel period we’ve picked is considered monsoon season, also known as “holy fuck that’s a lot of water, let me go get my umbre…gulp gulp gulp”. It is essentially the worst possible period to travel through Northern Vietnam, but a great period for local raincoat peddlers – sales are up 247.51% (give or take). Check out the encouraging chart from VeloAsia.com:

“Soooo, those dark clouds are a good thing, right?”

For the record, Katka and I are not clinically stupid travel planners. And no, we’re not weirdos with an overdeveloped rain fetish. Although that last claim is on shaky ground, seeing how we live in Copenhagen – the place where Europe’s rain clouds come to hang out and throw parties. It simply was the only real window in our work schedules for this kind of trip. I know, stupid work. Stupid source of all our income.

Despite the bad timing, we have been immensely lucky to dodge most rain. The trip has been fantastic and full of adventures. Vietnam’s nature is breathtaking and there are stark differences between Northern and Central Vietnam, which made every day of the trip a unique experience.

Over the next few months you will see my extensive travel notes from the trip gradually appear on this very blog, complete with a good doze of unhealthy rambling. These will be in chronological order, because I am both annoyingly structured and not-Quentin-Tarantino.

Today I want to share with you some general observations about Vietnam that I find curious or amusing or…wait for it…both. So, without further ado (and in no particular order):

Observation 1 – Motorbike Safety

There are many, many motorbikes in Vietnam. Without any attempt at applying such concepts as “math” and “logic” I’ll put the number of motorbikes per person at around 5-6. Seriously though, motorbikes are as common in Vietnam as lack of quality acting is in any movie starring Keanu Reeves.

With such a copious number of motorbikes on the country’s busy roads, it is no wonder that safety is taken so seriously. Virtually every driver wears a helmet and many shops sell the latest advances in brain-saving gear. Case in point:

This helmet boosts your social standing AND protects your head from injury!

Thus, everyone’s head is always inside a protective hemisphere! And by “everyone” I mean “everyone over the age of 6”. Wait, what?! That’s right: while seeing a whole family with multiple kids on a single motorbike is a common occurrence, seeing those kids wear helmets is very rare indeed.

There are studies on the subject, showing that while adults wear helmets in 90-99% of the cases, children under the age of 7 only do so in 15-53% of the cases (depending on the study). From my observations the 15% figure is way closer to reality.

Wwwweeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

A Dutch couple we’ve met at the end of our travels asked some locals about this. Turns out the main reason this happens is because it’s not mandatory for children under the age of 6 to wear helmets! And if the government doesn’t care enough about your child’s brain to make protecting it a law – why the hell should you?! I can only assume that the price of a kid’s helmet in Vietnam is more prohibitive than the cost of simply making another kid if necessary.

Also, apparently some Vietnamese sincerely believe that wearing helmets is outright dangerous for the kids, because it can “affect their necks”. I would think that head trauma from a traffic accident is a bit more damaging than some unproven voodoo effect helmets have on necks. But hey, I’m no brain surgeon (in case you thought I was).

(click here or on the “2” button to get to the next page)

Travel Oddities

In the past few years I’ve been doing a fair amount of travelling. Travel broadens our horizons and improves our cultural sensitivity. But more than that – it gives us ample opportunity to come across some odd and occasionally hilarious stuff. Below I bring to you a few things I’ve found curious and/or funny during my travels.

 

 

Amsterdam (February 2009)

I was in Amsterdam visiting a friend over a weekend. Armed with a cell phone camera I snapped these photos:

“Sorry buddy, you gotta be at least 18 to get in – and since you’re a dog that’s pretty bad news for ya!”

 

They’re either missing a few letters or their entertainment program is pretty awesome!

 

Thieves besneaking…

 

Awww, just when you get my hopes up!

 

India (Spring 2010)

In April-May 2010 I was in India (mainly Bangalore and Delhi) visiting a friend. Despite a somewhat rough start (read more about that here) it ended up being a fantastic trip and I’ve met many great people. Here are some interesting shots from there:

Someone’s been traumatised by “Planet Of The Apes”

 

Emergency fire-extinguisher – check!

 

Pedicole AND Menicole?! SOLD!

 

A whole pizzeria, just for me? How can I lose?!

 

Special cabin facility with STDs? Not the most reputable brothel!

 

Vietnam (Summer 2011)

This summer my girlfriend and I have spent three weeks travelling in Vietnam. I will soon be posting some detailed travel journals from that trip. In the meantime, enjoy these oddities:

Happy hour must be insane in this place!

 

Wow, you guys are pretty forward out here…

 

Warning: Mailbox almost full!

 

Watch out for falling tires…

 

This one speaks for itself…badly

 

Really going (swimming?) the extra mile for your customer!

 

Do you have some curious shots from your trips? Can you find more interesting captions for the ones above? Drop me a comment!

My first day in India

Welcome to India! My first time here and during just a few short hours in Delhi I’m already exposed to a few crude scams.

Walking around the airport I must be one giant question mark. This makes me easy pray for anyone offering “advice” or “befriending” me. The guy at the drink stand shakes a bottle of water at me and yells “Come, come!” from across the terminal. Even though I already have a full bottle of water in my bag leftover from the Finnair flight and I have no intention of buying a drink, I decide that he’s the right guy to come up to and ask for directions to the Domestic flights counters. After giving me a few somewhat useful tips he proceeds to make me feel bad about not buying anything from him despite his generous advice. “I thought you are my friend…”, he says with a sad face. Whoa, how did we get from water to friendship in the space of 10 seconds? As far as I’m concerned we’re not friends until Facebook says so in the news feed. Nevertheless I feel bad since I don’t even have any change on me at this point, otherwise I’d consider buying a bottle of water from him just to be polite. This isn’t strictly a scam of course, more of emotional blackmail appealing to my feelings of guilt. Thankfully, I have none – muahahaa.

Next, being clever I find one of those prepaid taxi booths and pay for a cab to the Domestic Terminal. Being less clever I walk out onto the street waving the prepaid cab slip in my right hand like a red flag: “Clueless foreigner over here, scam me please?”. Immediately a guy runs up to me and points towards a cab, grabs my bag and throws it inside. After I’m settled in at the back seat he looks at me expectantly and says “Tip for me?”. Being the dumbass that I am, instead of pulling out a 5-10 rupee note I ask him “How much?”. To which he immediately replies “50 rupees”, managing to both keep a straight face and not break a sweat. At this point I know this is too high a price since my whole prepaid trip is worth 150 rupees. Nevertheless, I continue being a dumbass (why change my image mid-game?) and hand him a 50 rupee note, which is probably more than he normally makes in a whole day without clueless first-timers like me. He doesn’t even try to hide his face as he turns to his friend outside and shows him the note with a huge gloating smile. In retrospect I actually didn’t have it all that bad. Apparently a number of less fortunate first-timers got taken to entirely wrong cabs and charged 1600 rupees – ouch!

The driver, who speaks terrible English, asks me the same question a total of what seems like a thousand times and I repeatedly fail to understand what he’s saying. Finally via combination of deductive logic worthy of Sherlock Holmes himself and some latent 6th sense I figure out that he’s asking which airline I’ll be flying with. I pick a random one (Indigo) just to ensure I get to the airport at all and not end up stranded in the cab running circles until we have an unlikely breakthrough in communication. Upon arrival he lets me out of the cab and then stands next to me uttering (this time far more clearly) “Tip?”. I respond with “I’ve given your friend 50 rupees, that’s all I’ve had”. This may be unfair to the driver as the kid who took my luggage may not even be working with him, but it went some way toward making me feel less taken advantage of.

Later on, as my Indian friend who was supposed to meet me in Delhi fails to show up or call, I get restless and decide to not waste the day completely and to head into the city center, having booked an evening flight in expectation of spending time with her. I avoid a few random cab offers from lone guys walking over to me and whispering “Taxi?” like they’re selling drugs. From now on I’m playing it cautious and only want to deal with more official spots. I find another prepaid taxi booth and get a quote of 185 rupees for a trip to Connaught Place. I hand the guy at the counter two 100 rupee bills, at which point he distracts me with filling out the paper form, asking for my name to put on the form, and directing me urgently to taxi number 12. By the time I’m sitting in taxi number 12 and speeding away I realise I just got scammed out of 15 rupees more, since he never gave me any change back. Official spots my ass! Strike 2, Daniel!

Sadly, and surprisingly (as pretty much all Indians I know are very capable when it comes to English) this cab driver is equally as bad at English as my previous one. He insistently asks me a question that doesn’t register as comprehensible words in my mind and even gets frustrated after having repeated it a number of times without me catching on. Finally I just re-iterate the destination to him and hope for the best. (CONTINUE TO PAGE 2)