15 Hundred Dong

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“15 hundred is different from 1,500,000. 15 hundred is one thousand five hundred,” I explained. I thought the man was just poor in Math, but it didn’t seem so. Our conversation escalated into an argument with each one raising their voices. I saw two middle-aged Caucasians passed by and I had the slight urge to ask them for help. I could already feel my hand shaking and I was constantly trying to maintain a fair amount of space between me and the man to keep him away from the wallet I was holding and to protect myself from any possible physical injuries he might inflict on me. The male Caucasian looked like he didn’t want to be involved in what was going on so I didn’t bother. I kept walking backward while still having an argument with the man who was my motorbike driver.

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delicious Bánh mì and iced coffee at Charm Bakery

It was a beautiful morning in Ho Chi Minh City. I just had a satisfying breakfast of Bahn Mi and iced coffee in a bakery. I stopped in front of a central area and got my camera to capture the scene highlighting the chaos of motorbikes that filled the street. After a few minutes, a man riding a motorbike stopped near where I was standing and said hello. He was maybe in his 60’s. He reminded me of a grandfather which made him seem harmless. It was New Year. I was in a good mood. I didn’t have any reason not to respond to questions of a friendly local while I finished taking photos of the street scene.

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When the man found out I was planning to go to Ben Thanh Market, he told me it was still closed. I knew he was lying because I did my research about that place. His lie should have been the first ring of alarm but I disregarded it. He laid out a pamphlet with different tour options. I was enticed by his offer of a tour to three places for just 15 hundred Dong. I was wearing my flip flops and my feet usually ache when I’m not wearing the right footwear during a long walk. So why not grab the offer? The amount was considerably cheap but I thought maybe that’s because the mode of transportation was a motorbike. And besides, he has a notebook of testimonials from other tourists who availed of his services. Someone even wrote in my local language. And I made sure both of us were pristine clear that I was only going to pay him 15 hundred Dong.

He opened his motorbike seat revealing a storage space where he said I could keep my things. I told him I’d just hold on to my bag. He put the helmet on me and I took my spot and placed my hands on his shoulders. He got my hand off and instructed me to hold the back part of the seat to maintain my balance. Until now, it was the most valuable learning I had when riding a motorbike. I didn’t know that specific part is used as a grab handle.  The last time I was a passenger in a motorbike was five years ago. I told him not to ride too fast because I was afraid.

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After having gone to the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, Central Post Office, and Notre Dame Cathedral, we drove to a small park which offers a view of the river as well as the bridge. There were a few families with children playing in the playground. They were mostly locals. The area was supposed to be a point of interest but I hardly saw any tourists. And it made me wonder why the man did not drop me off in the playground area considering it’s the nearest. Instead, he drove to the farthest side of the park away from the people.  I took pictures and I pretended the view was worth something. There was nothing special about the bridge. The water in the river was brown and muddy. The buildings in the background weren’t even tall. I was disappointed but still wanted to look polite.

“Come here”, he motioned with his hand. He was standing under the shade of a tree near his parked motorbike. I had walked several steps away to take pictures. It hadn’t been more than 5 minutes when he called me to come to him. “In Ben Thanh, there are many mafias. It’s dangerous there. Don’t show your wallet when you are there.” I thought it was thoughtful of him. “Just pay me now. It’s not safe there.” That was when all the bells in my head rang. I tried my best to insist that I’ll just pay in Ben Thanh, but eventually, I gave in. “Don’t let this be a scam. Don’t let this be a scam.” I kept telling myself as I got the 1500 Dong from my wallet. When he rejected it, I knew I was in a bad situation.

I came to Vietnam as a solo female traveler. And there I was away from the busy crowd of Ho Chi Minh City. I was afraid of what he was going to do to me if I didn’t give him what he wanted.  He insisted on 1,500,000 Dong. I kept telling him we agreed on 1500 dong and what he was asking me was so expensive. He was shouting at me and I kept telling him to back off and not come any closer to me. I got my cellphone and did a quick search on how much a tour would usually cost. I stood my ground on not giving him more than a million. He eventually lowered the amount to 500,000 Dong, but I was still hesitant. He wouldn’t accept 100,000 or 300,000 Dong from me. As we kept arguing, several things kept running on my mind. Maybe I could hail a taxi and just run away. Or go to the playground area and let the people know what he was doing to me. But I was thinking I might endanger the children there since I didn’t have any idea what he would do.

I handed the 500,000 Dong and we walked away in opposite directions. Just after I had taken a few steps, he called me and showed a 200,000 Dong saying I gave the wrong amount. “No, I gave you 500,000 Dong!,” I shouted and surprisingly he walked away quickly. I kept walking until I reached the farthest side of the playground where there were benches. I decided to sit for awhile to calm myself. My hands were still shaking from the whole incident. I stayed for 30 minutes and then I crossed the street and got myself out of there.

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spring rolls with peanut sauce in Bến Thành Market

Many travelers often say to meet with locals and engage with them so you can have a rich cultural experience. It was unfortunate that in one instance when I chatted with a local, I was scammed. People go on a trip for various reasons and I realized I don’t have to force myself out of my comfort zone just because of other’s view on what a real meaningful journey is. I am a very introverted traveler and a cautious one. Never was it a hindrance in my enjoyment abroad. I have to say that in my future travels, I would definitely stick to my own rules. I thought I’ve read enough and prepared myself for any travel scams I might encounter, but I still made a mistake.

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inside Hồ Chí Minh City Museum

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Ho Chi Minh City Hall

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Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts

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my first taste of Phở at Tan Son Nhat International Airport

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Shōsei-en Garden, Kyoto

I wanted to go to a less touristy place in Kyoto since my family still had time to kill before our scheduled afternoon bus ride to Nagoya. I found this garden and appreciated how it’s much more relaxing and peaceful than the other spots in Kyoto.

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Kamezaki Shiohi Festival

I sat on a lawn facing a man-made beach. I had takoyaki in a plastic container and a small bottle of Coke. I wished I brought a book to read while I waited for the event to start. It was 19 degrees Celsius on a windy day in Kamezaki. Sometimes the sun would show up, sometimes it would hide behind the clouds. I still had 45 minutes to wait before the event started.

It was the 4th of May and the last day of Shiohimatsuri in Handa City, Aichi. I was waiting for the five parade floats that would be drawn to the beach. Each float has intricate sculptures and embroidered curtains.  According to a legend, the Shiohi beach is the area where the first emperor of Japan set foot on from the ocean. The tradition of the Kamezaki Shiohimatsuri has been passed on for more than 300 years.

I heard chanting from afar which was a signal for me to get up from my waiting spot and head on to where most people had been standing.  I saw men in traditional garment.  This is actually an all-male festival.  I noticed that almost all of them were wearing the jika-tabi footwear. On top of the floats, there were some children aboard. It took a long time before all the floats came together.  When all five were in view, the main event started.

The drawing of the floats to the beach was the main attraction. The men assigned to each float started pulling it to the beach. At one point, the men couldn’t get it to the sea border as the bottom part of the float got stuck deep into the wet sand.  The other groups rushed to the rescue. The crowd cheered when the float successfully made it.

The shiohimatsuri floats have been considered a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage. The unity the men showed drawing the floats to the beach was an attractive sight.  Most of my travels would usually focus on sightseeing, but this time I kind of missed watching Japanese festivals and seeing the locals in action. Witnessing this kind of festival gives me a deeper look at Japan’s traditional culture.

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Spring Blossoms

“Is pink and red a strange combination,” I wondered.  I’d been getting a lot of stares from people I passed by while finding my way out from the Mizuhokuyakusho subway station.  When I was walking along the Yamazaki River, there was a middle-aged couple walking in the opposite direction. The woman was looking at me. “Why can’t they just focus their gaze on the sakura?” I complained to myself. Her husband had not even walked past me yet when he uttered “おしゃれ です ね.”

It’s already springtime and I missed my bright colored outfits that had been kept in the closet for four months. I was wearing a pink jacket and red palazzo pants with floral print. I didn’t plan my clothes to be in theme with the season. I just felt like it.  In the last week of March, the sakura trees in the city where I live had already blossomed. I had to wait for the weekend to travel to one of the best cherry blossom viewing sites in the nearby prefecture since I still had work.  Traveling by train after office hours would be inconvenient because it’s rush hour and I would probably not have enough time admiring the flowers. It rained most of the week and the only thing in my mind was for the sakura petals to cling to their receptacle.

I was walking a long stretch of the river lined with cherry blossom trees.  The place was teeming with the whiteness of the Somei Yoshino flowers. On a closer look, almost all the trees I saw had the combination of the flowers and leaves already. My heart, which was initially filled with excitement, was disappointed. The presence of the leaves signify one thing — the cherry blossoms were past their prime.

It was my last hanami and I wanted to capture the flowers in their most beautiful state. But nature is unpredictable. You’re the one who’s supposed to adjust if you want something from it. I kept walking onwards, stopping most of the time to get some good shots.

It was probably because of the disappointment I was feeling that my mind wasn’t thinking properly. Even though I was already tired of walking, I still went on. I didn’t give it a thought that I had to walk the same distance to get myself back to the subway station.  The number of people was dwindling as I walked further on the bridge along the Yamazaki River. Most of the people were going opposite my direction.

After quite a while, I noticed something. There was a change in the trees. The leaves were nonexistent.  I realized that the last few meters of the river were lined with cherry blossom trees which were still in their perfect glory. It was an unexpected turn of event but I was happy.

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Weeping Plum Blossoms

I love the different flowers that grow in Japan every spring. They don’t exist in my tropical country. More than that, there’s always a wide area or field where you get to see a bunch of those flowering plants.    To mark the start of the season, ‘ume’ or plum blossom is probably the first type of spring flower that you can see blooming. And for me, it means it’s time to visit a garden or a flower field again. Well, who wouldn’t get excited after the long cold dark winter? For this flower viewing, I opted to see the weeping plum blossoms at the Nagoya Agricultural Center.

To avoid the crowd, I woke up early but not early enough to make it in time for the train schedule I was aiming for. So, I took a taxi to the nearest station in my city which costed me around 1,000 yen. After that, I was off to Hirabari station which was the nearest station to the Nagoya Agricultural Center. From there, you can walk for 18 minutes to the area.  I decided to take the bus. I believed it was the right bus because a bus driver pointed me to that particular bus stop when I inquired. I usually make sure I got my transportation info right, but it’s been a few months since I traveled. My planning skills must have gone rusty. While aboard the bus, I kept checking my distance to the Agricultural Center through Google map but I seemed to be getting farther.  The walking distance extended to almost an hour.  I decided to get off and rode another bus back to where I came from.  Unfortunately, I took another wrong bus.  I wasted two hours riding multiple wrong buses when I could have just walked to the area for 18 minutes.  I got so frustrated because my encounter as a lost person was not positive. The first person to whom I sought help was not helpful and I didn’t think he was trying to understand me.  The second one was kind and his information led me to a turning point! He pointed me to the bus station where I was supposed to ride. I was thankful that the bus driver was nice.  He even called me out when the bus reached the bus station where I needed to ride another bus. It was exhausting being in the wrong places!

My spirit was already down when I returned to Hirabari Station. But I wanted to try again given that I already traveled far from my place just to see the flowers. So I went to the same bus stop again. But this time there was a station employee guiding local tourists who wanted to see the plum blossoms. I guess I must have arrived way early awhile ago. I found out the first trip to the Center was after 9 am. I arrived some time 8:30. The queue was now long but I patiently waited because I was pretty sure that I’d be getting on the right bus with the other tourists headed to the same place.  The trip took 10 minutes.  There were already a lot of people in the Agricultural Center. Well, it was almost noon. The taxi ride that I took from home just so I could wander around with less crowd was all for nothing. Well, not entirely.  I managed to take a few good pictures. The place was filled with weeping plum blossom trees.  There were families who had set-up their blankets on the ground to have a picnic.  Different food stalls were scattered selling traditional Japanese sweets, fruits and vegetables, and other international food like Tacos and American burgers. Probably my biggest regret in that place was buying lemonade for 400 yen. Quite expensive, don’t you think? Or does lemon cost that much now?

So if ever you get into a situation wherein you’re not sure of the bus you have to take, better go on foot instead if it’s just within reach in a matter of 30 minutes.  You’ll lose more time and money wandering around in the wrong places.

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How To Go There:

The nearest station is Hirabari station. If you are coming from Nagoya, take the Nagoya City Subway Higashiyama Line  for FUJIGAOKA and get off at Fushimi (Aichi).  It takes 3 minutes.  From Fushimi (Aichi) station, ride the Nagoya City Subway Tsurumai Line  for AKAIKE and get off at Hirabari Station. It takes 22 minutes.  The total cost is 300 yen. If you go to the Nagoya Agricultural Center during the plum blossom season, there’s actually a specific schedule that they post at the bus stop. And usually, there’s a station staff near the bus stop to guide the influx of tourists. But if you’re way too early like before 9 am, they may not be there, yet.  The bus stop going to the place is the bus stop farther away, not the one near the station exit. If you decide to walk, it’ll take 18 minutes according to Google Map. Here’s the address: Nagoya Agricultural Center, 平針黒石-2872番地-3 天白町 Tenpaku Ward, Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture 468-0021. Also, make sure to check when the flowers are in bloom. This year, I went in the middle of March and they were just perfect.

Winter at Shirakawago

My eyes drifted away from my phone into the snow-capped scenery overlooking the window.  The tall evergreen trees covered with snow calmed my heart.  It was December but not yet Christmas. I was seated on a bus filled with guilt and contemplation.  Were my actions an hour ago reasonable or was I just plain selfish? From time to time, I would dismiss the negative thoughts and marvel at the beauty of the untouched snow we passed by.

I took a paid leave from work so I could take my friend and his companion to the famous UNESCO World Heritage Site in Gifu — Shirakawago. My friend and I worked for five years in the same workplace until I resigned and pursued a training program in Japan.  Coming from a tropical country, experiencing snowfall in winter is a must and probably one of the major reasons that my friend decided to visit.  It was his first time in the land of the rising sun and I was filled with excitement to revisit Shirakawago again with someone from home.

It was 7 am and I was a few minutes on foot from the hostel where my friend was staying when he sent a message. He decided to move the schedule to 8:30 because he woke up late. In addition, he wanted to avail of the free breakfast from the hostel. I was filled with irritation! I woke up at around 4:30 in the morning of winter and walked for 30 minutes to my town’s train station before daylight just so I could be on time. Now, who wouldn’t be disappointed and annoyed?! I decided to keep my cool and just sent him a message to meet me at the bus station instead.

I was on the bus and my thoughts were drifting. My friend and his companion missed the last bus to Shirakawago partly because of a mistake in the direction that I sent. And there I was asking myself, “Am I not tired of traveling to Shirakawago so many times?” It was already my fifth visit.  It would have been a whole new experience if I were with companions.  I was actually looking forward to building a snowman and throwing snowballs at each other. Oh well, it was another solo travel again.

It was the same place, only with a different drop-off point.  The gassho-zukuri farmhouses, the village people going about their daily lives despite the influx of tourists, the scarecrows that remained fixed throughout the change of seasons, the not-your-typical snowmen, the whole ground covered with inches of snow ——-all of these and even more make Shirakawago one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.  It’s that magical picture of a quaint village that you thought you’d only see in a Christmas postcard.

Was I reasonable to just leave my friend to tend to himself and find the bus stop? Or was I just plain selfish in going to Shirakawago ahead so I could enjoy the scenery?  I couldn’t come up with an answer. The important thing was I apologized. Shirakawago is that charming of a place that would make you feel like others are at a loss for not having had a chance to see it.

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