Feeling much like the Vietnamese street vendor above, basic laziness kicked in when it came time to plan our recent trip to Vietnam. Bucking Experimental Expat tradition, we clamored over the big decision on how to plan the adventure and although Vietnam is both inexpensive and relatively easy to self-plan, we gave in and went with a customized private tour option. As one of the last places on our to-do list in Southeast Asia and knowing our time in the Eastern hemisphere is limited, we couldn’t decide between Hanoi and the north, Danang’s central beach region or the big city insanity of Saigon (nobody here calls it Ho Chi Minh City except the airlines so don’t correct me). So we gave in and let the experts at a German-based company come up with a regional vendor specializing in the area. While certainly not inexpensive, it’s easier than planning individual trips on planes, trains, and automobiles.
Clearly not the best or worst travel decision we’ve made since starting our experimental overseas early retirement, I’m 50/50 on booking a private tour for Southeast Asian destinations. While not quite good enough to endorse, it was very well organized. On paper, anyway. No strangers to private tours, we’ve had a host of professional guides enhance our best vacations with their expertise, great personality, and local knowledge. From rainforest expeditions in Borneo to wildlife viewing in Ecuador’s jungles, we’ve made lasting friendships with our guides and remain Facebook friends with all of them to this day. Usually taking Experimental Expat Destination Vacations where we’d combine bucket list hot spots with a potential future early retirement home, we often paid a premium when the income was still rolling in. And if you have the means, I’d highly recommend not skimping when it comes to specialized trips like our Galapagos Island trip on a luxury catamaran. But alas, things change drastically once you’re living on a fixed income and especially so when you’re potentially looking at a 40-year retirement. So I’ll focus a bit on the pros and cons of our Vietnamese guided tour.
Always enjoying TV series’ that combine travel and cooking in Southeast Asia, Diane and I recently watched an episode of Gordon’s Great Escape, a show featuring famed chef and TV star Gordon Ramsay. Specifically, the episode traveling through Malaysia caught our eye. Compared to the other ASEAN nations he visits in the series, it’s obvious from his comments that Malaysia’s lack of “developing world atmosphere” surprised and even disappointed him. Relative to neighboring countries like Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, it’s true that Malaysia ranks higher in the economic scale and modern western conveniences are more likely to be spotted than small villages still using traditional fishing or farming methods. One of the primary reasons we chose Malaysia, this sometimes creates a good news/bad news situation like the other day when we traveled an hour on the bus intending to buy train tickets to Bangkok for our upcoming Hari Raya Escape Trip.
The “old” Train # 36
Having traveled on one of Asia’s most convenient overnight sleeper trains that departed Butterworth at 2 PM and arrived in Hua HIn, Thailand at 7 AM the next morning, we looked forward to an inexpensive and not so uncomfortable journey. (Butterworth is across the channel from Penang Island on the mainland). Unfortunately, Malaysia’s economic advantage changed our plans unexpectedly. Bringing the nation closer to Europe’s modern and fast train network, they’ve been upgrading the tracks of Malaysia’s rail system to facilitate new high-speed trains. Originally constructed by colonialists decades ago, all of Southeast Asia’s railway tracks are different from those used for high-speed trains in Europe, China and Japan. Having just completed the last stretch of tracks, KTM (Malaysia’s national rail system) announced revisions to the national trains system last month and began using all high-speed trains throughout the network. While this is great news for commuters, budget minded travelers and Malaysian families visiting relatives during Hari Raya, it also means the end of the one train direct connection to Bangkok that combined the services of the Malaysian Network with the Thai National Railway utilizing a quick 30 minute border stop with no transfers. Crap. On to Plan B.
Known for its reputation as a foodie haven where dozens of styles mix and match, Penang misses the boat entirely on one count as far as I’m concerned. With all the amazing noodle soups including Hokkien Mee, Laksa, Wanton Mee and various others, trying to find a simple bowl of Vietnamese Pho is like searching for water in the desert. One of my favorite styles of food, Vietnamese is unknown and sadly lacking everywhere in Penang. Unsure why a nation so close to Malaysia remains absent from the local cuisine, I’ve seen bizarre food outlets like “authentic Mexican cuisine” a handful of places calling themselves “New York style” pizza and “western style” pub food where they don’t understand that only Europeans put mayo on burgers and fries. Desperately looking for my fix of Bun Rieu, salad rolls, vermicelli noodles and grilled pork served with that delicious simple Vietnamese sauce, I recently scoured the Internet and came up with a whopping three choices when prompting Google for help. Ruling out the first option, a place known as No Eyed Deer because they serve only an average tasting bowl of Pho for weekend brunch, that didn’t leave much more considering the island has over 8,000 choices for food.
Noticing one of the remaining two eateries was near the strangely named Penang Times Square Mall, we saw there was an annual book fair across from a hilariously named hotel (see the picture) so we asked our favorite neighbors if they wanted to make a day trip that included lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant. Known as Huong Que, we drove up the umpteen circular levels one drives up in Penang to get to the parking area of the mall’s garage and found our way back down five levels to the street. (I’m unsure why engineers decided that the top four floors of every mall should be dedicated to parking but I know they tend to be empty because there’s usually a “premium” basement level parking option. Most pMalaysians would rather shell out a ringgit of two than walk an extra fifteen steps). Crossing the street in the world’s most pedestrian friendly nation (sarcasm intended) took some skills that car-less expats like us eventually pick up like holding your hand up and running between packed traffic. Entering the small restaurant we found about six small cramped tables for four with little stools designed for people even shorter than me. Seeing that every employee was of Malaysian descent and understood zero about anything Vietnamese, the initial vibe wasn’t the best.
With escrow closed and all the money where it needs to be (for now), Diane and I turned our focus to the remaining issues of getting outta here. Desperately trying to violate the terms of the contract they wrote, the buyers of our house had their rather audacious real estate agent present us multiple requests to vacate ahead of the 29 day “rent-back” they wrote in the offer that gives us an extra month in the house as tenants. Ignoring them, we simply had our agent explain that while we understand their situation (the wife is pregnant and almost due), our move is a complicated issue due to our MM2H filing, liquidating all our possessions, exporting our car back into Canada and scheduling various medical appointments. Squatting comfortably in a practically empty house rent-free, Diane continues to work until Friday, May 15th and my job is to sell whatever else I can on OfferUp.com before donating whatever remains to the local Hospice store.
Anxiously looking forward to a cornucopia of delicious food the likes of which we’ve never experienced, I grew impatient yesterday and made a side trip to my favorite Vietnamese Noodle shop after selling an entire box worth of used CD’s to Half-Price Books for $47. Sadly, Diane recently discovered that all her CD’s, DVD’s and video tapes are subject to a Censorship Fee of USD $5 per item. In addition they’re subject to approval by the Film Censorship Board that physically views and inspects every item shipped, causing delays of 2 to 3 weeks to censor and no guarantee of return. With over 200 CD’s packed in a U-Haul Box it made no financial sense to attempt importing any media materials. Renting a storage locker last weekend, we don’t plan on shipping anything anyway until they complete our visa and we’re confident we like life in Malaysia.