I’m writing this from a place where I feel very safe and have had a relaxing day. However, I’ve been thinking about this idea now for a while, so I’ll attempt to convey what it feels like to feel safe as a single mother with an 11-year old daughter traveling and what it is like to not feel safe. I believe there is a big difference between feeling safe and actually being safe. We’re never in one place long enough to understand the unwritten cultural rules necessary to understand what really is safe and what is not. I can only guess and go with my gut instinct.
We left Thailand and flew into Hanoi, Vietnam. Our 2 1/2 months of travel had, to this point, felt very safe. I’m always watchful, but we did feel safe. Hanoi was different for us. We stayed in the Old Quarter. It is a smaller part of Hanoi, and is exactly as described…very old. The streets are very narrow and crowded. The sidewalks are filled with people, parked mopeds, shop paraphernalia, and people. So, walking along the street, we were competing with mopeds, other people, garbage, puddles, cars, and buses. There were traffic rules, I think, but we didn’t know them. There were no stop signs nor traffic lights (at least that anyone obeyed). So, we went from fairly small uncrowded places to this. It felt like a nightmare. Most of the time, I would negotiate the obstacles, and Maritza would follow behind. Many times, mopeds or cars would zoom right up to her, feeling like they were going to hit her. Other times, we’d cross a street, hand in hand, trusting that the traffic would move around us as we walked. It did, but halfway across the street, Maritza was on the oncoming traffic side. Every time, I would grit my teeth that she wouldn’t be hit.
Walking the streets, we noticed a more aggressive sales style compared to our travels so far. We had gotten used to smiling and chatting for a minute with salespeople. Here it wasn’t the norm. When we would smile, the salespeople must have assumed we were easy targets. One lady carrying a heavy basket-load stopped and put her load right on Maritza’s shoulders as we walked and then plopped her hat on Maritza. She wanted us to buy her wares and take a picture. Maritza felt quite badly and a bit scared. So, to take a break from the city, we went for a walk in the park and again were accosted by people wanting to take a picture with us and talk to us. Of course, they didn’t know we were attempting a break from the traffic and salespeople. But, we didn’t feel very safe.
Also, in Hanoi, I felt “ripped off” for the first time on this trip. We took a lovely ‘cyclo’ ride to the Women’s museum. We had agreed for a two hour ride. When it was nearing two hours, I indicated that he should be taking us to our hotel. However, he kept going. I wasn’t sure what was happening. So, I assumed I had gotten the time wrong. I didn’t want to try and find our way back to the hotel alone, so we stayed on the cyclo. Our driver took us to a church, a tourist spot, but we weren’t very interested. By the time we got back to the hotel, more than three hours had passed! He asked for three and a half hours’ worth of money. Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem, but it was quite a bit of money on my limited traveling budget. A lady sitting on the street began to yell at him, and he capitulated, so I gave him more than he’d asked for, but less than the total.
I was frustrated. Although, it does bring me to another point. Women in SE Asia have watched us and looked after more times that I can count, and those are only the times I know about. We have had grandmothers join us at airport, train, and bus waiting stations. They sit right down by us. I’m pretty sure to help protect us. It is truly wonderful. Somehow, there is a connection between mothers. It makes me feel safe.
We took the boat to Halong Bay, which was nice. There was another French family, three Vietnamese ladies, us, and a variety of young backpackers. When we docked, we were given a choice to move to the ‘party boat’ with free beer, or stay on our boat and pay for our drinks. The French family, Vietnamese ladies, Maritza and I opted for the ‘pay for your own drinks’ boat. We had a beautiful cabin and felt very safe. The boat next door began to get quite loud. Then next day, we were taken to a cave and trekking up a mountain. Both were a bit of a surprise to us. Many of our fellow travelers were rather fed up with the level of service. Of course, with hangovers, I could understand. We were given lunch following the trekking in a rather horrible hotel lobby. Two fellow travelers had checked in and were horrified at the conditions. Maritza and I were told that we’d be going to a different place. So, as I ran across the road to buy a few things, the driver became rather upset at me and motioned me to hurry. He was probably the rudest person I’d met yet. It surprised me. My feelings of being safe were being challenged in Hanoi and Halong Bay. We did end up at a beautiful bungalow, but knowing we had paid less than others on the same trip, it was strange. Never-mind, we enjoyed it.
The next day, there were a group of travelers who we saw the previous day attempting to maintain a drunken stupor and climb the mountain. They got off the bus in the morning and drunkenly hugged a poor saleslady. It was disgusting. I hoped we’d not bump into them again.
We took the train down to the next city in Vietnam. The train felt a little disconcerting at first. We bought our two ‘soft beds’, and waited to see who might be our other two ‘berth mates’. As we sat there, with crossed fingers, a lovely male tour guide showed up. Of course, he could see our trepidation, and assured us that he was a professional tour guide, and quite kind. An elderly gentleman got in a few stops further and also seemed to be safe enough. Of course, recent events had made me a bit jumpy, so I slept on my bag, and Maritza slept on the bottom bunk with me. It was a tight squeeze, but we slept.
The rest of our travels in Vietnam were quite opposite (minus one incident). We had an amazing stay in a peaceful quiet resort for Maritza’s birthday, quite spoiled actually.
We enjoyed the small town of Hoi An where we went walking on a night market walking street with no traffic allowed. A beautiful lady sold us candles to float in the water as a wish or prayer. She intercepted a man who was aggressively trying to sell us a ride in his boat. Told him off. Later, she saw us and gave us big hugs. Again, being watched out for by women on this trip has been an experience that is hard to describe.
The last stop in Vietnam was Ho Chi Minh. I had heard stories of the busy, crazy big city, so I thought I was prepared. Girded up with the right knowledge to keep us safe. We arrived at 3:30 a.m. So, we’d been awake most of the night. It was difficult to find a taxi, and when I asked, I was shunned at the airport. So, I spent a little time on my phone trying to call the hotel, but no one answered. Our hotel pick up never arrived. We did see a sign saying TAXI, so off we went. A nice young man saw us and helped us carry our luggage. I knew it wasn’t far, so I didn’t worry. Of course, I looked for a meter, saw it running properly, so I thought we were fine and relaxed.
We arrived on a bright street lit up with neon signs and tables full of drunk tourists, piles of wet garbage, and a closed hotel. I panicked…just a little. The driver pointed across the street at the closed metal door, saying that was our hotel. I looked at the meter, and it read One million, four hundred thousand Vietnamese Dong, about $63. But, I was more concerned about where we would stay! The image of Maritza and I sitting on our suitcases outside the hotel, in the middle of the drunken mess was a bit worrisome. I found a doorbell, and such a kind attendant answered and let us in. I paid the driver..without thinking. It wasn’t until the next morning that I realized that the driver had somehow tweaked the meter. It should have been One Hundred and Four Thousand Dong…about $7.
The people at the hotel were horrified but couldn’t do anything. Later when we left, they skilfully intercepted a scam and got us on the right but to Phnom Penh. They booked the greatest motorcycle ride around the city with two knowledgeable guides. Maritza made good friends with the people working in the hotel, restaurant, and spa there on the block. They always knew where she was. She bounced from place to place. She was even was taken out for ice-cream the night before we left by one of her friends.
I’m not sure if you can read the differences. It was really quite up and down in Vietnam. We felt safe, then felt unsafe…from crazy tourists and from scammers. Most people are truly trustworthy. It takes some patience to be trusting and some strong powers of observation to see the systems working sometimes, but to be scammed only twice in nearly 4 months of travel really does make me, a single mother, feel safe most of the time. I think that women play a large role in this. They watch us. I know they do. Most men have gone to great lengths to help me to understand that they can be trusted.Only the cyclo driver and the taxi driver in Vietnam saw that we could be taken advantage of, and did. I will not let them destroy my memories of our time in Vietnam.
I’ve felt more safe traveling in certain circumstances that I would in the United States. We have walked many streets at night passing other single women also walking alone. We have participated in buying and selling adventures, many forms of transportation, and stayed in many different hostels, guesthouses, and hotels. Every one has been a safe place to stay. We have had nothing stolen. We fended off aggressive sales people, but for the most part, have only once in a demanding voice asked the salesperson to please stop. Others have always backed away and often smiled and moved along.
I write in part because of the fear that is instilled in so many people in the U.S. I find myself horrified that most of my students carry guns in their cars to college. I talk about having dogs to live in the middle of the woods, not for protection against wild animals, but protection against intruders. I would never walk down a street in Mpls or St. Paul with just Maritza alone at night. People warned me to be careful in that big bad world I was going to be traveling in…and we haven’t found it. I felt unsafe when I was scammed, but I have, for the most part, felt more safe here than I do in the U.S. It really is a shame not to travel because of a fear of being unsafe. I pay attention, of course. But to trust and find trustworthiness has been the norm.
Signed, A Single Mother with an Eleven Year old daughter…A Duet in Discovery safely in South East Asia