Tag Archives: Safety

Cycling in Vietnam: Summary & Advice

Our two week tour of Vietnam proved a great experience.  While we only cycled a few hundred kilometers on nine days of cycling, the mix of activities fit the conditions we encountered.  For instance, the two days devoted to Ha Long Bay did not involve cycling, nor did our day in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon.)

Our experience of Vietnam and its people was very positive.  We had three different sets of drivers and guides – for the three separate regions – and all of them were helpful, experienced, interesting, and personable.  All of our hotels were clean, comfortable, and endowed with good breakfasts.  The personnel were courteous and helpful.  The included meals at chosen restaurants were tasty and copious, if sometimes repetitive.  Overall this trip was “two thumbs up.”

So, should you do this trip?  And if so, what might you need to know beforehand?  Here are a few thoughts.  Some we learned ahead of our departure;   some we wished we had.

So many colourful occasions

So many colourful occasions

Should you do this trip?

If this is your first cycle trip overseas, Vietnam may not be the best place to start.  Vietnam’s travel infrastructure is not as well developed as locations like northern Europe.  You’ll be more exposed to traffic with unfamiliar rules.   Our day cycling in Hanoi was not for everyone – although we wouldn’t have missed it.  Language challenges may be greater here – important should you get separated from your group.  The different cuisine could leave you battling a stomach bug on a ride, and facilities are often hard to find.  But if you’ve got a few tours under your belt, and are looking for more culture, history, and different landscapes, then we’d highly recommend the tour we took.

You might meet one of these in the middle of your path. (Photo by Rob Mudie)

You might meet one of these in the middle of your path. (Photo by Rob Mudie)

Best Time to Go

Using climate sites, we determined that February is generally the driest, coolest month of the year, and the average temperature is good for cycling.  However, averages can be deceiving.  On our own tour, it was 60F (16C) in the north, and 95F (35C) in the south.  Most of the time it was cloudy and misty, and in central Vietnam it rained non-stop for two days.  However, two weeks later, some friends enjoyed blue skies all the way.  So, we still think February and March are good bets, as long as you avoid the holiday rush at Tet – usually over by mid-February, occasionally a bit later.

Even rainy days are included in a sunny average.

Even rainy days are included in a sunny average.

Visas, Vaccinations, Medications & Trip Insurance

Finding online information about visas was challenging.  There are a plethora of companies offering to help get you a Vietnam visa for a fee, and it’s sometimes hard to tell what’s legitimate.  In end, Cheryl and I opted to leave our passports at the local Vietnam consulate for a few days.  Others in our group were happy using the services of a local travel company specializing in Vietnam.

Vaccinations were another matter.  This is a complex subject, and a lot comes down to your assessment of the risks versus costs.  We all updated our basic travel inoculations, but we fretted over rabies and Japanese encephalitis.  Different members of our group got different advice from different travel clinics.  How big is the risk?  Frankly, it’s small for both diseases.  Still, losing the gamble would not be fun.  Some in our group opted for both.  Cheryl and I elected just to be cautious about mosquitoes, which can spread more than just encephalitis.  As for rabies, we found a local doctor who offered much cheaper rabies shots provided we came in as a group;  the cost saving came from a technique developed by the WHO.  The lower price tipped the scale for us.  Our decision was reinforced when a friend was bitten by a dog in Cambodia; she underwent the full post-bite inoculation series upon her return to Canada.

Advised by a conservative doctor, we also had prescriptions for anti-malarial drugs and antibiotics, loads of insect repellent, and even a set of clothing impregnated in pyrethrins.  To our surprise, during our two weeks in Vietnam surrounded by flooded rice paddies, we never saw a mosquito, and so left most of our supplies untouched.  We did run out of some common medications like decongestants;  Paul reacted badly to the smoky air that seemed to blanket the country.  However, we easily replenished our supplies locally.

Flooded paddies all around, but no mosquitoes to be found.

Flooded paddies all around, but no mosquitoes to be found.

For the first time, we elected to take the Dukoral oral vaccine against traveler’s diarrhea.  Traveling friends swore by it.  Still, the jury’s out on how effective it was.  We used bottled water, even for teeth-brushing.  We stuck mainly to the tour-sponsored restaurants and didn’t indulge in street food, although we ate salads freely.  Had we slipped up, we were prepared to follow a questionable meal with Pepto-Bismol and a stiff drink – again, as advised by our travel doctor.  But, despite eating a wide variety of dishes from set menus, no one in our group had any problems.  So we didn’t really need that rice wine with snakes in it.

We also bought travelers’ health insurance for our trip.  Since our Vietnam tour was only part of a ten-week away time, we ultimately bought full-year travel coverage, plus a rider for the extended time.  A friend who works as an insurance broker tracked down the best deal for us, which had trip cancelation and lost baggage insurance into the bargain.  Fortunately, we never needed any of it – but we have in the past.

Ate something questionable? Try this! (Photo by Rob Mudie)

Ate something questionable? Try this! (Photo by Rob Mudie)

Clothing

What to take can be a challenge.  We packed largely for biking in the “average” climate.  Turns out we were under-dressed for the cool conditions in the north, and our polyester biking gear was too hot for the steamy heat down south.  Check the temperatures in Hanoi and Saigon.  Cheryl wished she’d brought some compact down, and a couple of extra light pants and long-sleeved tops for the North.  As you may know, the local inhabitants wear long pants and sleeves, even when it gets warm;   tourists are obvious because they wear shorts and singlets, even when it’s chilly.  The cycling rain gear we brought turned out to be too warm; we did better with the semi-disposable ponchos we picked up in Vietnam for a dollar.  After the first day, we eschewed our heavy lace-up shoes in favour of Keen’s sandals;   they were cooler and dried out more quickly after a rain.  Even the locals mostly rode in flip-flops, rain or shine.

Finally, after Cheryl’s run-in with a pickpocket in Hanoi on Day One, we wished we had more clothes with zippered or concealed pockets – anything to make it easy to spread our cards and cash around.

Whenever we stayed two days in the same hotel, we were usually able to wash a few light clothes and have them dry before we checked out.  Laundry prices at the hotels were often fairly high, although at one or two locations that charged by the kilogram instead of per piece, we found them very reasonable.  And the clothes always came back neatly folded, flower scented, and well before the promised time.

Wet-weather riding increases the need for laundry facilities.

Wet-weather riding increases the need for laundry facilities.

Cycling Equipment

Taking your own bike helmets is absolutely necessary.  In some countries, bike tour companies have the odd spare for those without.  In Vietnam, even some of our guides rode without helmets.  Paul had taken a spare to Vietnam and left it with our last guide, who was most appreciative.  Biking gloves were also a good idea, although not essential.  And they did get very sweaty in the steamy south.

Since distances were relatively short, we decided not to take our gel seat covers.  Some of the tour operators supplied bikes with gel covers included.  The bikes themselves were mostly decent Trek mountain bikes; the ones in the hilly north were almost brand new and had disc brakes; in the flat south, they were older and less well equipped.

We had also taken rechargeable blinking lights for front and back, but ended up not using them.  While we use them at home, especially when riding country roads with higher speed limits, we decided not to in Vietnam.  In the traffic conditions we usually encountered, we suspected they might have been more distracting than helpful.  Bright clothing was useful; for one thing, it alerted drivers that we were tourists, unfamiliar with the local driving customs.  It also helped us keep track of our group.

Even with colour, the Mekong Delta trails presented challenges in following.

Even with colour, the Mekong Delta trails presented challenges in following.

Unlike trips in Europe, the bikes did not have carriers or panniers, only a small pouch on the handlebars.  However, the van was seldom far away, so we could generally leave extra clothing there and retrieve it if needed.  However, we were glad we’d brought a couple of small packs to wear.  The operators also supplied water bottles for the rides, but we were glad we’d also brought our own – especially handy on non-ride days.  Given the frequent advice not to drink tap water, we were always buying large bottles of water and refilling our own.  Or drinking the beer, which was often cheaper.

Perhaps the most useful thing we took were rear-view mirrors that attached in seconds with Velcro.  None of the bicycles came with mirrors, but every scooter on the road had two, and we soon knew why.  For about US$4 each, the mirrors were well worth it.  Two per bike wouldn’t have been remiss.

P1050650croppedsmall

These paths left little room for passing.

Money, Cards, & Internet

Since almost everything was included on this tour, the money we needed was primarily for drinks, tips, and extras.  Since many of the smaller shops didn’t take cards, a bit of cash was essential and that in Vietnamese Dong.  To keep our wallets filled, we relied on debit cards at ATMs.  We had no trouble finding ATMs, although perhaps only half of them worked with our cards.  One in our group had a “special” card that was non-standard.  She never got it to work, but fortunately she had another.  Advice when traveling: always have more than one type of card, and keep them separate, just in case.  When Cheryl had hers stolen, she still had another – and I had two as well.  The limits on ATM withdrawals were quite low, but then, we didn’t need much money.  Larger hotels and restaurants accepted most credit cards.

The free Internet in every hotel was excellent without exception:  fast, ubiquitous, and reliable – much better than we later experienced in Australia.  We had no problems backing up photos to the cloud – until we left Vietnam.  Reminder:  don’t forget your power-plug adapter.

Water puppets in Hanoi.  (Photo by Rob Mudie)

Water puppets in Hanoi. (Photo by Rob Mudie)

Tips

Tipping provided us with considerable confusion, and our group had several lengthy discussions on what to do.  Tipping porters at hotels and airports was easy enough, usually around US$1.  At meals, we only paid for drinks, and tipped on that amount.  However, all the set meals were included in the tour price, as were hotel stays, but we never figured out how tips should be handled on these items.  Mostly we just muddled through.

The real confusion came with tipping cycle guides and drivers.  We received three different guidelines from the tour operator and the booking company.  Some implied a sliding scale, depending upon the size of the group, others did not.  None were clear on whether the suggested amounts were a total for guides and drivers, or an amount for each.   In the end, our group held lengthy discussions and came up with a per-day per-couple minimum for guides and a smaller minimum for drivers.  Then, at the end of each segment, Rob would collect the amounts in an envelope and present it to the service provider.  Even that didn’t go as smoothly as hoped.  Most of the time – but not always – there were two drivers, one for the van, one for the bike truck.  Drivers sometimes came and went without notice; twice, last minute changes of plan had us miss our farewells with a driver.  The line between drivers and guides was often blurred:  on one leg, our cycle guide spoke little English, so a second attractions guide rode with us, and the first guide doubled as van driver.  One day, our cycle guide was under the weather, so, he brought in cyclist friend and sat the ride out.  In the end, we did the best we could.  We tried to remember that everyone we dealt with worked long and hard, and none were overpaid.  Tips were always welcome, whether in dong or US dollars.

Our guide and drivers make tea, while we admire the view.

Our guide and drivers make tea, while we admire the view.

Cycling Protocol

Finally, it would have helped if we’d reviewed our cycling protocols.  The six of us had often ridden together at home as part of a larger group, and we should have known better.  Somehow, in the excitement of a foreign country, we forgot some of our practices.  Especially in the Mekong Delta, the trails turned and branched endlessly, and it was very easy to miss a turn.  If each of us had stopped at every decision point until we could see the following rider knew where to go, we would never have become separated.  As it was, we lost members twice, both times for more than twenty minutes – which seems like an eternity when you’re listening to crickets.  We will allow that following the protocol can be challenging here, as there are so many decision points.  So, don’t hesitate to ask your guide to slow down, especially if you want to stop to take photos.  At day’s end, we were all reunited, and after unruffling a few feathers, had a good laugh about it all.

P1050616croppedsmall

There’s lots to distract an avid photographer. “Which way’d they go?”

Bon Voyage!

We trust you’ve found these thoughts useful in planning your cycle trip to Vietnam.  Have a great time, and let us know how it went.

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Rest stop in a northern village.

Rest stop in a northern village.

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Hiking “The Wave” in Arizona

(See Part One of this adventure here.)

Lucky 13

The unfortunate have filed from the lottery room leaving the winners to celebrate.

Having yesterday won the right for today’s hike into “The Wave”, we awoke still lauding our good fortune. From yesterday’s misstep, we could see how easy it would be to get lost for a few hours on a hot afternoon, and run out of water. People die on this hike. Taking the ranger’s advice to heart, we had the “10 essentials,” including almost a gallon of water each, a compass, and a couple of copies of the BLM map. The map shows compass bearings at half a dozen points along the way, as well as photographs taken from each point. Much of the path is unmarked and over bare rock, so it’s important to navigate by the suggested landmarks. Along the way, the route passes from Utah into Arizona, but there’s no sign marking the border.

The Wave Trailhead

Near the trailhead en route to The Wave.  They can always find me from the air with that shirt!

We had a nine AM start from the parking lot that served the North Coyote Buttes. The May air was still brisk, but the sun was already hot. The directions were good, and we had little trouble staying on target for “The Wave”, about 90 minutes distant. From most of the high points along the route, you can see the distinctive cleft in the rocks above the destination. During wetter times, this cleft is apparently a waterfall. It didn’t hurt that Darcy had been there five years before – Marty had unfortunately been Number 11 that day.

Route to The Wave

This is what much of the route to The Wave looks like.

The desert landscape is surreal. The colors of the hills range through every shade of red, yellow and brown. The shapes are equally striking: one set of hills resembled either a row of giant Hershey’s Kisses or perhaps mega-dinosaur coprolites. Although we didn’t see any, there are signs of dinosaurs in the Jurassic era rocks. Looking down, we could see hundreds of fossils; they resemble ancient brain corals, but are probably be something else entirely. In the few areas they could get a foothold, wildflowers were in bloom in pink, yellow, and lavender.

Wild Lavender

Wild lavender grows in a patch of sand showing tracks from the past day or two’s hikes.  The wind will erase them.

Suddenly, we were there.

Arriving at The Wave

Suddenly, without warning, we’re at the entrance to The Wave.

It’s impossible to do “The Wave” justice with either words or pictures. Being in the middle of it is magical. It’s a small smooth-sided twisty gully with undulating stripes of shades of yellow and ochre. By leaving early, we arrived at “The Wave” before the majority of the day’s twenty hikers. Of this we were glad, as being there alone enhanced the visual experience. By the time we left, there were about a dozen people wandering around the area, and it felt almost crowded. But there was a certain camaraderie amongst the lucky few allowed in.

Cheryl in The Wave

Cheryl stands in one of the side channels to The Wave’s main gully.

After eating a quiet lunch while taking in The View – eyed by a cautious raven – we spent an hour or so exploring the area above “The Wave”. While not as stunning as the gully itself, there are plenty of interesting features within a few hundred yards. We were surprised to see a number of small pools of water nearby, and even more surprised to see they were teaming with tadpoles, insect larva, fairy shrimp, and even a few small fishes. We could only imagine that the water table below the now-dry waterfall was sufficiently near the surface to prevent the ponds drying up within hours in the hot sun.

Standing water near The Wave

Teaming with life, a pool of standing water just above The Wave.  The water is very likely brine.

This water is apparently a remnant of the history of the formation. The gully was originally carved out by streams that cascaded down from the cliffs above, but in more recent time, the watercourse has shifted, and the gully has been sculpted by the prevailing winds. During our lunch, there was a good breeze blowing through it. The layered rocks themselves are sandstone laid down over 150 million years ago. At that time, this area was the center of an enormous equatorial desert of reddish sand. Much later, water leaching through the rocks would sometimes bleach iron from alternate layers, resulting in the dramatic stripes.

Proof for Posterity

Our companions and we standing in the main part of The Wave.

Heading back required a similar process using waypoints and compass bearings. The BLM map included photographs and readings for the return journey as well. One would think that retracing one’s steps would be easy, but it’s good not to get too cocky when close to home. The ranger had told us yesterday that more people got off the path on the return journey, especially where the path veers left to go over the saddle near the end of Coyote Buttes. Veering too soon could lead us into a steeper descent than we’d like. Veering too late could have us down in the lowlands where it would be harder to orient ourselves. Or even lead us to the sheer edge of Buckskin Gulch, which would present challenges of its own.

Trekking back from The Wave

Beginning the trek back from The Wave, distracted by visions of cold beer and nachos at Escobar’s.

Sure enough, as we headed up the hill, we began to disagree about the exact route. It’s interesting to see how the brain starts to see patterns and resemblances wherever it looks, and soon each of us was sure of the correct saddle – except there were at least three of them. Soon, two other couples caught up to us and added to the disagreement. I was quite convinced we had gone past the correct saddle, while others thought we needed to go farther still. Six of us eventually continued up the route we were following, and the other two opted for another route. None of us were too concerned about getting lost as we could see the large limestone hills that we knew to be behind the parking lot. Still we knew we could easily spend a couple of hours wandering around in the growing heat.

Death in the Desert

A reminder that not everyone survives out here in the desert.

As we came down the other side, it was clear we had not returned by the same saddle we’d come up. However, by following to the left the small wash at the base of the hill, we soon got back to the trail, which is clear enough at that point. The rest of the trip back to the car was uneventful. But even in hindsight, I doubt we four could all agree on exactly by which route we’d returned.

Flowers in the Sand

Away from the bare rock, more desert flowers blooming in mid-May.

As we left the parking lot, we passed the ranger coming in for the afternoon. Since each car needs to display a copy of its permit, there would be a good indication of who had not returned by nightfall, and in what area they would be. So if you get lost, someone might come looking. However, if you don’t feel comfortable with that possibility, it’s recommended to hire a guide for the hike. And take lots of water.

Celebrating our Luck

Celebrating our luck in winning the chance to hike into The Wave in Arizona.

At the end of the day, we still felt incredibly lucky to have won the lottery to visit “The Wave.” With our chances having been about one in twenty, we hadn’t really expected this outcome. We heard a rumour that if you fail to win a spot, and return to try again each subsequent day, you will be awarded an additional ball each day, up to a maximum of five balls. That would probably give you a fifty-fifty chance of getting in by the fifth day. However, I was not able to find a reference to this online. Another option is to enter the online lottery for one of the other ten spots, something you need to do several months in advance. Good luck!

Cheryl and the Terrain

Cheryl posing in front of the unforgiving terrain that guards The Wave.

On the way back through Las Vegas airport, I finally got to try my luck at the slot machines. Gambled and lost a dollar and that was enough for me! I guess I’d used up all my luck in Kanab.

Notes in the Margin:

A few days before our trip, we received an unusual request through the Couchsurfing site. A young couple in Poland were getting married, and the bride’s brother was creating a video with best wishes from all over the world. We offered to send our greetings from our home town, but thought it would be a nice touch to send personal greetings from Zion and “The Wave” as well. So we had some extra fun putting those together on the hikes.

Unlucky Seven

What?! I knew I should have bet on 13.

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Bye for Now!

Waving from The Wave – all the way to a Polish wedding!

Lucky 13 Wins in Vegas, … er, … Kanab, Utah

We didn’t win in Las Vegas, but we came up lucky while hiking in Utah.

Friends Darcy and Marty had planned a return visit to some of the areas they’d visited years before, and asked us to come along. Since Cheryl had no new contracts pending, we took up their offer at the last minute; one of the perks of the “No Pension Will Travel” lifestyle.

From Observation Point

The expected view from our first destination.

We flew discount airline Allegiant from Bellingham to Las Vegas. Their prices are low, but watch those extras. The default seating arrangement appears to ensure that couples are not together, and there’s an “upgrade” charge to move even one seat over. The rumoured fee to use the toilet was hyperbole.

We arrived in Vegas in the late evening, giving us just enough time for a driving tour of The Strip. This was mainly for my benefit, as the other three had each been to Vegas several times before. I remarked how much Las Vegas resembled a “Disneyland for Adults.” However, I missed my chance to thwart the one-armed bandits; early next day, we headed out for the three-hour drive to Kanab, Utah, planning a stop in Zion National Park for a hike up to Observation Point.

Observation Point

Part way up, Cheryl contemplates the remainder of the ascent to Observation Point.

I’d been wondering what Darcy had in store for us. About my age (and just as young looking), Darcy had recently run the Boston Marathon, and won her age group in a local half-marathon. She isn’t known for shirking a challenge. As a less experienced hiker, I thought I’d check out some of the hazards of hiking in Utah. Rattlesnakes, perhaps? Yes, there are some, but some of the biggest dangers are falls, dehydration, and flash floods. All can be mitigated with careful planning. And, as with most travel, driving is probably the top risk.

Observation Point climb

Much of the ascent to Observation Point looks like this.

I did see that Angels Landing in Zion had made it onto at least one list of “20 Most Dangerous Hikes.” Then I learned that Darcy had done that hike last time. “Observation Point is easy by comparison,” she said, although I wondered about “easy by comparison.” It’s an eight-mile round trip, with 2100 feet of elevation gain, the endpoint looking down on Angels Landing. The footing is smooth, making it doable if you’re used to those kinds of distances; we made the return journey in well under the suggested time of five hours.

Wildflowers in Zion

May was a great time to see wildflowers on all four of our Utah hikes.

This was Cheryl’s first hike since recovering from a running injury, so she was monitoring her body’s reactions to the climb and descent. Happy to say, it went well, although her legs complained to her the next day about the shock therapy.

Happy on Observation Point

Happy on Observation Point

I’m prone to vertigo – it’s a family trait – and there was about 20 minutes of uphill and about 45 on the return, when I found myself hugging the cliff side. The ledge was probably four or five feet wide at this point; most people wouldn’t be bothered. Still, I kept a watchful eye on the weather. I wouldn’t have enjoyed coming down during a blustery rain storm, and the rangers were divided on whether it would rain again before it cleared that evening. Lucky for us, the clouds began to lift, and we had only expansive views to contend with.

Hey, where's the lunch?

This little guy joined us for lunch. We also saw mule deer and wild turkeys in Zion.

Our home base in Kanab was the funky Parry Lodge, on the National Register of Historic Places. The rooms and lobby are plastered with photos of the many stars who came here to film westerns, mostly from the 30s through the 60s. With reasonable prices – about half of those charged in other areas around Zion – the Lodge was fully booked every night. The service was friendly, and even included packing us five-dollar box lunches that were big enough to share. It’s a busy kitchen, so if you have special dietary requirements for your hike, it’s best to write them out beforehand.

Heading down from the Point

Watching our step, heading down from Observation Point.

The next morning, we headed over to the BLM office in Kanab to do some gambling. We really wanted to do the hike into “The Wave”, in the North Coyote Buttes which straddle the Utah-Arizona border. It’s a popular destination, but permits are limited to 20 people a day. Ten of those are awarded via a lottery the day before. With about 200 people a day applying, our odds weren’t good. Our backup plan was to do a hike in Bryce Canyon. On this day, about 45 separate parties entered the draw, from as far away as Germany, China, Saudi Arabia, and Australia. The ranger read out the

Late afternoon sun in Zion

Late afternoon sun illuminates a peak in Zion.

names, origins, and ball assignments. I wished aloud for my lucky number, 13, and we thought it a good omen when we were assigned that ball. The packed hall fell silent as the hopper was spun. I wondered what we’d do if we only won spots for half our party, but Cheryl refused to speculate. Then, the first ball out was lucky 13 and we whooped and hollered like Vegas winners. The ten chosen hikers stayed behind to get maps and detailed instructions on how to find “The Wave” tomorrow. We learned that hikers occasionally failed to find it, and many get off the trail while returning. So, listen up!

Fording Wahweap Wash

These campers returned the next day to find Wahweap Wash dry no more.

For today, with flash floods possible, we decided to avoid Buckskin Gulch, and instead headed out for Wahweap Hoodoos near the tiny town of Bigwater. There we were reminded of the need to stay vigilant. Leaving the parking lot, and crossing Wahweap Wash – now running with snow melt from Bryce Canyon – we thought the instructions and trail map straightforward. But as the morning wore on, we began to wonder if we’d made a wrong turn. Eventually, we reached an abrupt end of the wash – and no hoodoos in sight. Turning around and retracing our steps, we spent much of the time speculating on various places we might have made a wrong turn. We had a good laugh, when, about 100 yards from the trailhead, we saw the signs we’d missed directing hikers up Wahweap Wash. We had, instead, gone up Nipple Creek. It was a good lesson for tomorrow if we weren’t also to miss “The Wave.”

Hoodoo-like Peak near Wahweap

This hoodoo-like peak is as close as we got to the Wahweap Hoodoos.

We consoled ourselves with a stop at the Toadstool Hoodoos, an easy few minutes from the highway. Marty thought there were fewer hoodoos at Toadstool than he’d remembered, and we speculated on whether erosion or human agents were to blame. We later learned there has been vandalism in some of Utah’s hoodoo sites. What a shame!

Toadstool Hoodoos Trail

The approach to Toadstool Hoodoos was picturesque.

We dined that evening at Escobar’s Mexican Restaurant, where copious good food is served with ample good cheer. It’s a small place, and popular, so waits are likely. Bellies stuffed, we returned to Parry’s Lodge to dream of “The Wave” – with the occasional nightmare about failing to find it.

Toadstool Hoodoo

One of the Toadstool Hoodoos looks precarious.

Next up: Hiking “The Wave”

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Wildflowers in the Wash

With so much to see, it was hard to remember to look down, but there were flowers everywhere.

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Everything in bloom

Almost everything seemed to be in bloom.

Avoiding Travel Scams without Avoiding Travel

In last week’s post, Paul tells the story of losing $75 to a scam in the Dominican Republic.  This week, he draws some lessons from the experience.

Many travelers express concern about getting ripped off while traveling.  Unfortunately, for many in our age group, this fear keeps them from traveling … or from being as adventurous as they might be.

While it’s important to recognize the risks while traveling, it’s easy to scare oneself.  In over four decades of travel, we’ve suffered perhaps half a dozen losses, and a few more attempts.  What little we have lost was a small price to pay for the stories we acquired in return.  Almost surely have we missed a greater number of positive experiences due to over-caution.  We continue to seek the middle ground between being open to everything, and being “open season” for crooks abroad.

Everyone's selling something.  Are you buying?

Everyone’s selling something. Are you buying?

To put our $75 loss in perspective, it was the price of a tour.  To a minimum wage worker in the DR, it was a week’s wages.  Still, it seems unfair to the Dominicanos who stick to less lucrative but legal work.  Moreover, no one likes to feel he’s been taken, including Paul.

A little caution goes a long way towards avoiding a rip-off.  Knowledge of common cons can be helpful as long as it doesn’t frighten more than enlighten.  Check out WikiTravel’s “Common Scams” and Rick Steve’s “Tourist Scams & Ripoffs”.  Maybe you can spot the one that hooked Paul.

Understanding the psychology behind a successful scam may also help you recognize one more easily when you’re the intended victim.  This article from FraudAid lays out some of the basics.  Paul uses it to deconstruct his own experience with the one that got him – and the earlier scam, as he was struck by the common patterns in two very different cons forty years apart.

Enjoy the market in Barcelona but watch the crowds

Enjoy the market in Barcelona but watch the crowds

We think Paul takes secret delight in his vicarious connection with some of the great scams of Hollywood – like “The Sting” or David Mamet’s quirky “The Spanish Prisoner” – even if he was cast in the role of the Mark.  This dictionary of Scoundrel’s Slang may be helpful in understanding his analysis of the events described in last week’s post.  (You may want to reread the story first.)  At each step, Paul the Mark identifies what he might have done differently.  Here’s the rest of the Grifter cast:

  • The Outside Man, or Roper:  the young “father” with the sick baby
  • The Inside Man:  the shopkeeper whose shop was closed
  • On the Wall:  the young boy, on the lookout for the Bluecoats and other interference

As described by FraudAid, the first step is for the Roper to identify the Mark.  Since Paul was a Camera Hugger and traveling solo, he was an obvious choice; had Cheryl been with him, he likely wouldn’t have been a target for that con, although there are other cons designed for couples.  The Roper now has to determine the Mark‘s personality profile and identify what motivates him.

Crowds outside (and inside) Versailles are a pickpocket's delight.  But that's no excuse to miss out.

Crowds outside (and inside) Versailles are a pickpocket’s delight. But that’s no excuse to miss out.

In this case, Paul’s desire to converse in Spanish came through early on.  This put him at a disadvantage; had the con been going down in English, Paul’s “spidey sense” might have triggered earlier.  Operating in a second language can make it harder to pick up subconscious cues.  The Roper also counted on the Mark‘s desire not to look like a “rich tourist” by admitting he couldn’t have recognized any of the security guards from the hotel if he met them on the street.  Had the Mark asked, “Which hotel was that?”, it could have thrown off the con, although a skilled Roper could have recovered.  Before long, the Roper had determined that the Mark‘s wish to help a young family was the psychological persuasion that he needed.

What Paul could have done differently:  taken over guiding the script.  Assuming he hadn’t dismissed the request out of hand, he could simply have asked how much the young father needed and lent or given it to him right there.  Possible savings: $70.

During the second step of the con, the Roper‘s job was to make the Mark dependent upon him in some way.  One way he did this was to throw the Mark off balance.  He did this by quickening his pace to the point where the Mark had part of his attention just on keeping up.  Getting the Mark into unfamiliar territory was also designed to increase his sense of being linked to the Roper.  At the same time, the Roper continued unrelated conversation designed to mitigate any unease the Mark might feel about what was happening.

What Paul could have done differently:  trusted his unease at walking so quickly.  When he noticed that he was feeling rushed, he could have stopped, re-asserted his own agenda, and walked away if there had been any resistance.  It might have been a good time to switch to English.

The final step of the con was the Sting.  Once the Roper arrived at the closed shop with the Mark in tow, events moved swiftly.  Within a minute, Paul found himself staring at the Inside Man‘s $60 receipt with his mouth hanging open … considering his dwindling options.  Chances are the Grifters would not have resorted to violence, but they probably counted on the Mark’s discretion overpowering his valour.  They would have known he’d resist losing face, a motive often more powerful than the fear of death.  Who knows what strategies they might have planned to mollify the Mark if he hadn’t chosen to Cop a Heel?

What Paul could have done differently:  done an about face at the decisive moment.  Paul’s intuition was definitely ringing alarm bells as he stepped through the shop door.  It would have been uncomfortable to have chilled at that point and turned back, but it would have been the wiser course.

We avoided pickpockets at the Louvre by going early.  The day before we saw several pickpockets sussing us out nearby.

We avoided pickpockets at the Louvre by going early. The day before we saw several pickpockets sussing us out nearby.

The more general lesson is that our own personal weak points will determine what cons we’ll fall for, and what we need to be vigilant about.  Paul knows that he’s a sucker for a good cause, and is always looking for second-language opportunities when he’s on the road.  He is often less assertive than might be good for him.  His primary personal lessons for avoiding cons:  “Trust your intuition!  Don’t be afraid to assert your own agenda!”

Knowing yourself and knowing the cons can help you feel more comfortable while traveling.  Just don’t let it stop you.  Travel involves risk, as does everything worthwhile in life.  We have friends who lost their entire retirement nest egg to an investment scam from the comfort of their own home.

Seeing Paris' Latin Quarter with a "Discover Walks" local can make it safer

Seeing Paris’ Latin Quarter with a “Discover Walks” local can make it safer

“The best revenge is living well.

If you do get conned, it’s best to remember that Spanish proverb.  Resorting to violence as this young woman did could make a bad situation much worse.

For further reading:

What’s your best advice on avoiding trouble on the road?