Returning to Australia… again

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Lady Luck must have been smiling on me this week. I had a surprisingly good trip across Asia to Australia.

I planned nothing. No checklists. No backup plans. I didn’t even check that the tickets I had purchased a couple of weeks prior had been delivered. One hadn’t. The only reason I even realised was when Yi asked me what time I had to be at the airport and I realised I had no idea and that the ticket hadn’t been emailed to me. I logged onto Tiger’s website and downloaded an extra copy the night before I was to leave. My first plane left at 5:20pm.

That night I went out to Ben’s Motorbike Bar. Hans and his new girlfriend were busy canoodling until later, but Daniel showed up on time. I had bought two bottles of cheap rum from the woman in the alley and when Ben arrived he saw them and shuddered and pointed at them saying “That shit.. That shit is EVIL. Keep that away from me”. His first experience with it had been on opening night when I had brought him a case of the stuff to help celebrate his opening. Everyone who walked in pretty much had the same reaction when they saw I’d brought more. But Daniel and I were old-hands at the Saigon rum, so we got right into it, and kept getting into it until it was gone. But there’s one thing you shouldn’t do when you drink that rum and that’s mix it with beer. But we were at a bar and everyone was drinking beer, so drink beer we did.

Which explains why I was so hung over the next day. By 1pm Yi was repeatedly trying to wake me up and I was cursing her and telling her I didn’t care and I would be happy to miss my plane. I just wanted to sleep more. She glared at me and said “You brought all your drunk friends home last night. They were here playing loud music until early morning. Not surprised you feel sick”. I gave her the finger. She tried to break it off.

I dragged myself out to a snack bar and picked up a hot dog and some chips. There’s no way I was touching any Vietnamese food today. Even the hot dog was hard to get down. Ben came past since the snack bar was on the same block as his bar. He laughed and said “Feeling shite ? I bet. You have to fly today don’t you ?” “Yup” I said, with my head in my hands. “And I bet the hangover only gets worse from now on”. He laughed and disappeared into the alleyway in the direction of his bar.

We had planned to ride out to Tan Son Nhat to save on money. I had paid up my rent for two months and left Yi as much money as I had which left me with a sum of only $25 USD. I decided I was simply not up for the ride and I chickened out and called a taxi, using up $10. I was determined that nothing was going to go wrong on this trip. It would all be smooth sailing. It had to be. I had no margin for error and no cash to fix anything that went wrong. I didn’t even pack my bags. Yi did it for me while I lay in bed ruing my choice of rum and beer the previous night.

I’d done that trip many times so I was confident I knew how it should work. I would change my money into Australian dollars in Singapore because the agents there don’t charge the highway robbery commissions like they do in Australia. I would forgo any meal in Singapore and wait until I got to Australia. I should have just enough money left to get a meal from a little Asian restaurant I knew in Brisbane before catching the train up north.

In true Vietnam style, the airport had zero interest in checking my bags. I had one carry on too many and I was well over weight but the woman at the Tiger check-in desk could not have cared less and didn’t even look at my bags. I hoped I could make it through immigration and customs without throwing up on anyone’s uniform. The woman said “Emergency row ok ? Window or aisle ?” “Window” I said.

There’s one great thing about being a white English speaker on a small jet going to or from Vietnam and that’s that the small 737’s have emergency rows. These rows have twice the legroom and they are reserved for passengers who can speak English and take directions about how to open the emergency hatch in case of an emergency. Typically they will avoid putting any Vietnamese in these seats because that very morning for the second time this month, a Vietnamese person had freaked out while the plane was on the runway and opened the hatch. So they keep locals out of that row. Which is just great for me because I had double leg-room and no one sitting beside me. Ahhhhh. Thank you Tiger. You may be slow at issuing tickets when people book online, but your planes are clean and roomy. I was dreading the second leg of my flight which would be on a much larger 777 which typically has much narrower seats and I was not looking forward to another long flight crammed in beside some equally overweight Aussie, trying not to squish against each other for 7 hours.

The trip to Singapore was quick and comfortable, but I was even more sick by the time I arrived. I changed my money and wandered around Changi. I got an internet password but I couldn’t be bothered logging on and checking my ticket. There was only one flight to the Gold Coast on Scoot that night so it had to be mine. It wasn’t until I started heading to the gate that I realised I didn’t have a boarding pass. I went to the transfer desk and to my horror they told me I had to clear immigration and leave and come back in through the baggage area. That would take me ages ! I worried I would miss the plane and suddenly regretted my laissez faire attitude towards booking and planning. Fortunately the immigration area was quiet and I got through quickly. Normally I would be happy to have another two random stamps in my passport but right now it was filling up quickly. I think I was a third of the way through my new passport which I’d only had for less than a year. I wished I could ask the immigration official to conserve space and not stamp too far from the other stamps.

The plane was huge. Damn those 777’s. Ten seats across in economy. Still, I think the configuration of Scoot’s planes is a little better than Air Asia who really seem to cram you in even more than you should be. Thankfully I had a small Asian guy on either side of me. One asked me to swap so he could sit with his friends and I agreed, which put me on the aisle. Which basically means the drinks and food carts would bump into me and run over my toes every time they went past but it was sort of better than being squashed between two people, jostling elbows.

I actually slept a little on the plane. It’s difficult to sleep on those sardine can flights and often I can’t, but I got a few hours I think. I arrived at Coolangatta airport feeling fairly decent. I looked forward to being waved on through aisle one, the “we don’t want to check your stuff at all Mr E-passport holder” one. But because there was a lot of people from Vietnam and I had come back from there many times over the past year they decided to check me for drugs. My heart sank as both I and all the people in front of me were told “Aisle 2”.

I stood there frustrated as they rummaged through the Vietnamese people’s bags to find the inevitable amount of unusual foodstuffs they’d smuggled in despite declaring nothing. I was waiting for the Border Control tv crew to jump out at any time. The cute little beagle who ran around sniffing everything for contraband actually made me chuckle out loud. I think doing these long, regular journeys tends to teach you a lot of patience. When I see other people snapping at each other or rushing I just smile. One woman who was late and had to be escorted through the security screening ahead of everyone in Vietnam had apologised to me with a pained look on her face. I just smiled at her and said “It’s ok. We’ll all get where we’re going I’m sure”. Maybe it was patience or maybe I just didn’t have the energy to give a crap.

The little beagle left us all alone. I guess no one was smuggling any heroin today. I got through reasonably easy and went outside to get a bus. For the second time in a row the bus driver did not know about the free connecting journey when you were traveling across the state. I was not in the mood for an argument and I said firmly “Listen mate. I do this trip at least four times a year, and at least once a year there’s one bus driver who tries to tell me he’s never heard of this free journey. I am NOT paying you $25 for the journey to Brisbane because I don’t have it and I don’t need it. Get on the phone to your base and query them about it if you want and we can all wait here while you do it”. He backed down and told me to go and sit down. Good, I was at the end of a long couple of flights and I still had a long way to go and I was absolutely not taking any shit, patience or no patience.

I wanted to go to the Asian restaurant that made the delicious udon soup but I was too tired. I picked up a horrible hamburger and flipped through a free newspaper. Some American woman was singing absolutely brilliantly with her guitar nearby. It was very pleasing to hear something other than recorded announcements and whistles. I chatted to her outside a bit. I said “You must be headed for Cairns” and she asked how I knew. “It’s a very musical place. Anyone with a guitar on this train has to be headed for Cairns. You picked a good train for it. The Spirit of Queensland is brand new and very luxurious”. She commented that she was only traveling economy and I said “Economy on this train is like first class on any other. You’ll see”.

She did too. I heard her tsk with admiration when we boarded the brand new carriages with beautiful leather seats and lots of leg-room, with touch-screen tv’s and movies on demand and usb chargers and power outlets in every seat. I bet you don’t get that on an economy train in America. You sure don’t in Vietnam. I took a couple of pictures for Yi. I don’t like to encourage her to think that Australia is full of luxury, but this train is amazing. I flipped through the movie selection before we left. I was tempted to watch Frozen for the dozenth time but I was cold enough already without watching a movie about ice so I opted for Tracks, a true story about a woman who trekked through the Australian desert with three camels and a dog. I’d met so many adventurous people who were motorbiking solo across Vietnam in the last month. It was really inspiring to know that beyond the fluorescent lit offices full of people in suits and white collars that there were young people for whom a guided tour was too mundane and who just said “Screw it. I’m going out into the jungles of Vietnam on my own with a worn out of Honda and a raincoat and a map”. Some people know who to live. Others just know how to pass the time.

I fell asleep a few times during the movie. It had been a long trip and my hangover from two nights previous was catching up with me. I needed to sleep. Thankfully a woman came and nudged me awake to make sure I didn’t miss my stop. I fumbled around for my bags and exited the train, rolling a quick cigarette from the pouch of Mekong tobacco that my wife had packed me and waiting for the car that was to take me to my family home.

It was wonderful to see my two cats waiting for me. The eldest one headrubbed against my outstretched hand and the youngest one just bolted out the door as usual. He’s a little shit but I love him. It was good to be back in Australia but I felt a pang of longing for Vietnam. I didn’t want to be here. It was just necessity that brought me back to Australia. I lay down to rest in a warm bed, pulling up the covers against the horrible winter cold that I was so unfamiliar with. I Skyped my wife briefly to tell her I’d arrived home safely and she in turn told me that she’d just arrived back at her family home in the Mekong. I hate leaving her, but it’s good to go home and visit family. We all need a break from Saigon sometimes, but I just can’t wait to return.

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