Traveling in “developing countries” is all about choices. Sometimes you choose correctly, have an amazing experience and pat yourself on the back for your wonderful trip savvy. Other times you choose poorly, lose money, wind up in a dodgy situation, and beat yourself up for dropping the ball. Travel decision-making is like a muscle; your ability to make wise, safe choices gets stronger with practice. And, like weight-lifting, you have to go through some soreness and muscle strain before you can push the heavier weights.
Some years back while backpacking in Vietnam, my partner Jen and I are faced with the trickiest of decisions. Our goal is to reach a beach resort called Mui Ne, a popular weekend getaway from Ho Chi Minh City. The problem is, as we’re coming down the coast from Hoi An, we don’t see a Mui Ne-specific train station. Undeterred, we get off at our best guess for the closest station, assuming we can then catch a bus or taxi onward to our final destination. Sounds great in theory, right? Think again. Upon walking out of the station, we notice a complete absence of taxis or buses. This is a quiet little town! The only people in sight are these two young “dudes” with slicked-back hair and leather jackets, smoking cigarettes with attitude a la John Travolta in Grease. One of the “greasers” approaches and asks:
“Where are you going?
“We’re trying to get to Mui Ne.”
“We’ll take you on our motorbikes. $50.”
“That’s okay, we’ll take a taxi.”
“No taxis. We’ll take you on our motorbikes.”
And there we are, faced with a major dilemma. As Biker Boy accurately observed, there do not, indeed, seem to be any taxis in sight. On the other hand, do we really want to sit on the back of 2 dodgy motorcycles for the next few hours, escorted by guys we don’t trust, all the while balancing our huge backpacks on our shoulders? This seems like a recipe for disaster, but what’s the choice? Jen and I discuss it privately for the next 20 minutes, weighing the pros and cons while our two “guides” keep repeating, “$50, cheap, $50 cheap!” Given the lack of other options, I’m inclined to accept: Jen, perhaps more wisely, is pushing for us to get back on the train and go somewhere else.
Luckily for us, right as we’re about to make our final decision — out of nowhere – a taxi rolls up to the station. Before it can disgorge its passengers, we have a foot in the door and are stuffing our bags into the back seat. The best possible decision has been made: TAKE THIS TAXI! A few moments later, we’re on our way to Mui Ne, watching our biker buddies out the back window smoking their Marlboros, untroubled by the whole interaction. Undoubtedly another confused traveler will get off the next train, with the same tough decision to make, and our two young entrepreneurs will be right there, ready with their offer: “No taxies. We’ll take you on our motorbikes. $50!”
Mui Ne, by the way, is a lovely place. I don’t mean to treat it as an afterthought. Known for its kite surfing scene, Mui Ne is a classic, white-sand, tropical beach with palm trees and cute hotels. As we sit in our little bungalow with a patio on the sand, watching kite surfs sail overhead, we can’t help smile a little, knowing that we flexed the right decision muscle to get here.
(Are there really any “bad” decisions? If we had taken the motorbike ride, would it really have gone badly? Perhaps. But chances are it would’ve gone okay. The worst that I can foresee happening is that our escorts might stop half way and ask for a double charge. It’s unlikely that we would’ve been sold into bondage. My point is, don’t put too much pressure on yourself to make the “right” decision every time. Just make the best decision you can, mitigate risk as much as you can, and trust your gut. Nine times out of ten, you’ll choose correctly, and the rest of the time, you’ll have one heck of a story.)