David and I are in the beginning stages of planning our trips for next year. Since we believe that tightwad travel dictates careful planning to ensure a favorable exchange rate, our first strategy is to decide on a destination—out of the dozens of places we'd like to visit—where our US dollar will receive a favorable exchange rate.
Since the dollar is doing so poorly in the UK and Western Europe, we have ruled out those areas. But, because we would receive a favorable exchange rate in Indochina, South America, Central America, Mexico, and Canada, those places are high on our list at the moment.
We've done some preliminary thinking about Vietnam and Cambodia since those two countries are at the top of our must-see list. One of our friends whose brother, a linguist, spends part of every academic year in Cambodia, told us, over a lengthy lunch, about the charms of that country.
When David and I were in Little Saigon on our December trip to Los Angeles, we stopped at a travel agency where we picked up brochures about escorted tours in Vietnam and Cambodia. While I have no intention of taking an organized tour, David is a bit more apprehensive about traveling such “foreign” countries on our own. I haven't quite convinced him—or myself--yet, that we can navigate independently, but I'm working on it. Still, even if we do not sign on for a tour, the brochures will come in handy for accommodation recommendations and travel itineraries.
I also just finished the remarkable book, Hitchhiking Vietnam, by Karin Muller. This intrepid 28-year-old spent seven months traversing Vietnam, top to bottom, by foot, motorcycle, train, and bus. She went off the tourist track as far it's possible to go and endured scurvy, arrest, bedbugs, flophouses, and dysentery. The country, through Karin's eyes, did not seem as enchanting as I'd envisioned.
Muller describes using the “toilet” in a remote village where the open-air apparatus, a plank set up over a stream, was designed to allow her waste to slip into the water. As she tiptoed out onto the plank, she heard the frenzied fish splashing below, anxious for whatever meal they might be able to wrest from the waste.
In yet another tiny settlement where she is a guest of a local family, Muller watches the mother fry two eggs in lard. She slips one of the eggs into an empty beer bottle for a later meal and arranges the remaining egg over the rice and green weeds that were collected that morning. This dish will be the only supper the five family members and Muller will receive.
Muller's book gave me insight into the country, but it made me question the lingering paradisiacal impression the lush movie Three Seasons had had on me. I can't remember the plot of that movie, but I'll never forget the Shangri-La it portrayed. Which is the true Vietnam? The squalor Muller found or the idyllic countryside portrayed in Three Seasons?
Obviously, David and I will have to do a bit more research to know if this country will be our next destination. We've been picking up Indochinese guidebooks and travelogues at yard sales all winter. Now it's time to do some more reading.
For more information about Vietnam and Karin Muller's trip, see this PBS site or this public radio show site, the Savvy Traveler.
Click for the New York Times review of Three Seasons.