Expect the Unexpected (travels in Russia, Vietnam and more)

Expect the Unexpected (travels in Russia, Vietnam and more)

A Story by Beavo

An account of some travel experiences, whilst holidaying in Russia, Bosnia, USA and Vietnam


Expect the Unexpected

(travel experiences in Vietnam, Russia and more)

I think its fair to say that if you regularly go on adventurous holidays, independently arrange your own travel, accommodation, meals, etc. maybe get off the beaten track a bit, then at some point things will go wrong, and you will end up having some sort of misadventure.

Not always, I mean I’ve had trips where I jumped on a plane at the last minute, with nothing more planned than which country I was heading for, and have sailed through the holiday without a hitch. Other times, Ive put in hours of meticulous planning, had things set out in military like detail, and I’ve still come a cropper.

Like my last big holiday in 2019 for example, when I had been planning to see the Rugby World Cup in Japan for a full two years before I left home. I was to travel out across Russia, spending seven days on the trans-Siberian Railway to get to Vladivostok, catch a two day ferry the next day to South Korea and then on to Sakaiminato in Japan. The following day, I was to make numerous train connections, in order to reach Fuji City, on the other side of the country, in time to head off to climb Mount Fuji in the morning. It was a tight schedule, with no room for Mr Fuckup, but it was well planned and definitely doable.

Imagine my devastation then, when I rolled up at my hotel in down town Moscow, slightly the worse for wear after a long stop over in Amsterdam airport, to find I had somehow lost my wallet! Day one and I was stuck in Putin’s Communist Capital, the much feared, Cold War Capital of my youth, with no money, no bank cards and no clue as to how to get myself out of the situation.

I stood in the hotel foyer with the stony faced receptionist staring at me blankly, his Brezhnev like eyebrows twitched as I babbled incomprehensibly, tried to explain my situation, and pleaded for clemency. I felt my face redden, and my head swam, as I desperately tried to think how I might resolve my  predicament, but nothing came to me in my agitated state.

Soon, the hotel owner appeared and I imagined myself being led away at gun point, to spend the next 10 years of my life in a Siberian Gulag. However, to my surprise, the lady was extremely friendly, spoke good English, and told me not to worry, everything could be sorted out in the morning.

It was a massive relief, and I went off to my hotel room with the words of a Sting song going around in my head,

The Russians love their children too.’

Who’d have known?

Luckily, on that occasion, I was bailed out by my best friend back home in Scotland, himself well travelled enough to know about Mr fuckup.

Roger was able to transfer money out to a branch of the Western Union Bank, just half a mile from my hotel. I was back in the money by ten o’clock the next morning, and all went smoothly there after.

So what I’m saying I guess, is that when you head off on adventurous travels, expect the unexpected.

In September 2001, I experienced my scariest and most shocking travel misadventure ever, whilst on a two week holiday in the USA. My good pal Charlie and I had flown out to Boston via a stopover in Iceland, and had spent a few days exploring the very entertaining, Irish Italian city, before heading down to Cape Cod for a day or two at the beach. We had planned to spend the second half of our trip in New York City, and so on the morning of September 11th we boarded a bus to the Big Apple, we were excited to get there and to see all the sights of down town Manhattan, Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, Twin Towers etc.

When we were a couple of hours into the journey, a woman in the seat in front of us took a mobile phone call which resulted in the whole bus freaking out, as the news of what was going on at the Twin Towers spread to the other passengers. Our bus drew in to its scheduled stop in Providence City, where the driver announced that we would be going no further that day, New York City was in lock down!

Myself and Charlie found ourselves stranded in a city we knew nothing about, with nowhere to stay, and everybody around us going absolutely crazy, it is a day I will never forget!

In August 2002, I was caught off guard in a different way, when I travelled out to Bihać in Bosnia, for the wedding of Roger and a local girl, Aida, whom he had met whilst working out there, a few years previously.

It was the day after we had held a fairly small but wild stag night for the groom, in some of the local bars around Bihać, and I was feeling very much the worse for wear. We were invited over to the bride to be’s family home, for what was to be a traditional Bosnian dinner, and we were told to expect a treat. Roger and I sat down in the small kitchen in front of an old range cooker which was emitting the finest smell of roasting meat, and I began to feel like I might just manage to keep down some food for the first time that day. The surprise came when the oven doors opened, and out came a whole calf's head, complete with eyeballs staring back at me. Suddenly I could feel the bile rising in my throat and I swallowed hard. Roger proceeded to carve up, and serve me some of the calf cheek meat, which tasted okay, but when he handed me a piece of tongue, which had the spongy consistency of chewing your own tongue, I struggled to keep it down. The last straw came when Roger, without warning, cracked open the calf's skull and proceeded to spoon out it’s brains onto the plate in front of me. This was too much, I bolted for the kitchen door and reached the garden, just in time before I threw up the remaining contents of my poor, abused stomach. The kitchen erupted with laughter behind me, and I turned to see Roger standing in the doorway, with a big stupid grin on his face, no surprise there!


In world war 2 the average age of the combat soldier was 26,

In Vietnam, he was Nineteen, N N N N Nineteen!’

This was the declaration made in the Paul Hardcastle song released in 1985, one year after I left school at the age of 16. By the time I had decided to visit the country for myself in 2009, this was pretty much the sum and substance of all I knew about Vietnam, and I didn’t really know what to expect when I boarded my flight to Hanoi in early November that year.

I had a rough plan to spend a few days in the city, before heading north west to the frontier town of Sapa, near the border with China, and then to make a couple of stops, in yet to be decided coastal towns, on route for Ho Chi Minh City in the south.

Walking the streets of Hanoi on day one, I had to learn quickly how to negotiate crossing the busy roads, which swarmed with thousands of scooters and mopeds. It was terrifying at first, as I stepped off the pavement into the oncoming wave of whining, whizzing, mini motorbikes, with the whites of the drivers eyes, clearly in view, before they casually swerved around me without a care. The trick I had been told, was to keep walking at a steady pace, keep your nerve, and not to panic, this allowed the drivers to judge your intentions, and to react accordingly. It wasn’t for the faint hearted!

I quickly tired of this madness, all the noise and hustle was just too much for the first day of my holiday, and I soon sought out some quieter place to relax.

I was amazed by the scenes which I came across in the back streets and corners of the city, not necessarily frequented by tourists. I always love to wander off the beaten track, and to see ordinary people going about their everyday lives. I soon found myself in a large market, where there were stalls selling all kinds of food atrocities, such as chickens feet, pigs heads and starfish on a stick.

Everywhere, there were women wearing Non la, the traditional, Vietnamese, conical straw hats and shouldering a don ganhtwo baskets slung from each end of a bamboo pole, filled with everything from bananas to fresh bread. There was a real sense of having taken a step back in time, and I was fascinated by it all.

As I walked back to my hotel in the evening, dodging the constant barrage of street hustlers and hawkers, I was suddenly approached by a couple of teenagers on a moped. They drew up next to me and the pillion passenger, dressed in a pink mini dress and matching pink biker helmet, shrieked at me in an obviously fake female voice.

when He/she asked me if I was looking for a good time, I realised instantly that this was no lady, and that hiding under the fetching mini dress was most probably a nasty surprise.

I politely declined, and there was a shriek of shrill laughter as the pair sped off into the throng. ‘Whatever, Boy friend’ she shouted over her shoulder, with a one fingered salute.

I took an overnight train to Sapa the next evening, and found myself billeted with a party of gregarious Australians in the four person sleeper carriage. We cracked open some beers and shared some raucous laughter, as the noisy, hot and sweaty train wound its way into the night. I arrived at my destination in the early hours of the next morning, tired and hangry.

Sapa is a colourful and charming market town, where several ethnic minority tribes live side by side. The women of the town can be seen in their colourful, traditional dress, walking the streets selling crafts and souvenirs, and chattering to each other, in small huddles, on the street corners. It was a perfect oasis in which to relax, and I spent a couple of days following treks through the mountainous, surrounding countryside, enjoying the scenery and relative peace. There were rice terraces, water buffalo, bamboo forests and all sorts of wildlife to amaze and excite and to be captured on camera, as I wandered far and wide.

Next stop on my Vietnamese adventure was Ha Long Bay. Hạ Long Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Quảng Ninh Province, and the name Hạ Long means "descending dragon". The bay features thousands of limestone karsts and islets in various shapes and sizes and I booked myself on a cruise, to explore the area properly. Boarding my appointed cruise boat in the evening, I was just in time to witness a beautiful orange sunset and enjoy a nice cool Hanoi Beer or two, before settling down for the night in a small but very comfortable cabin.

I woke the next morning to enjoy the incredible atmosphere of the morning mist slowly clearing, to reveal a stunning array of tree covered rock islands, through which sailed a mix of pleasure cruisers and small fishing boats, catching the golden rays of the rising sun as it rose in the sky, it was an unforgetable scene!

At the breakfast table, I became aware of a whining, American female voice, which grew to be like an excruciating drill, boring into my ear. It belonged apparently, to an over privileged brat of about twenty years old, dressed like a movie star, with a large brimmed sun hat, enormous black sunglasses and clutching a fake jewel encrusted, pink mobile phone. She was complaining to our tour guide about everything, from her cabin conditions to the breakfast options, and was extremely obnoxious about it. I did my best to zone her out and enjoy my banana.

I had decided to spend the day canoeing amongst the islands, rather than the alternative, relaxing on the beach option. I spent hours paddling up and down, through rock arches, caves and narrow gaps in the rocks, witnessing shoals of small fish leaping above the waves in front of me, and colourful, exotic birds circling overhead.

When I eventually paddled back to the beach from where I had set out, I heard frantic screaming and looked to see quite a commotion going on, half way up the sand. It seemed there was a group of monkeys attacking the sun bathers, and one female in particular was in hysterics! It was the yank.

As I beached my canoe, and handed it back to the guys from our boat, I saw the girl being led off by one of the female crew members, she was screaming blue murder and threatening to sue. I found out later that she had been trying to feed little Bobo, his parents had objected, and had bitten her on the arm. She had been taken off to a local hospital, to receive precautionary injections for rabies.

Now, I know that the injections for rabies are pretty unpleasant, and I wouldn’t wish that on anybody, but I couldn’t help thinking to myself, ‘That’ll give her something to moan about.’ 

A classic case of monkey karma.

My exit from Ha Long Bay came as a bit of a rush the next morning, when the news was that a typhoon was closing in on the area, and the road was in danger of being cut off. I was bundled on to a small boat, with dozens of other tourists, and was in quite a state of alarm as we set off over a wide stretch of open water. We were totally over laden with everybody’s baggage, and the boat was sitting very low in the water. When waves began to crash over the brow of the boat, a long, long way from the shore, I became extremely nervous, and imagined the headlines in the Daily Record newspaper back home, ‘Scottish Tourist Dies in Vietnamese Ferry Hell!’ I shoved my way closer to the single life belt and hoped for the best.

I survived the crossing however, and was soon catching the bus to my next destination, Hoi An, on the central Vietnamese coast.

Hoi An is another picturesque UNESCO world heritage site, popular with backpackers, and perfect for a couple of days sight seeing and chilling in the sun. I spent two days, enjoying the colourful sights of the Historic District, with its charming waterfront, recognized as a well-preserved example of a Southeast Asian trading port from the 15th to 19th century.

Here, I also discovered Pho, which is a Vietnamese soup consisting of broth, rice noodles, herbs, and meat, it is considered to be the country’s national dish. I had several large bowls full of Pho, which was most delicious, and cheap too.

On checking out from my Hoi An hotel, I met Michael, the hotel manager. He was quite a character with his thick Harry Potter style glasses, very friendly, but hard to understand with his less than perfect English, and my non-existent Vietnamese. I did grasp however, that he was offering to book me on a shuttle bus from the hotel to the main bus station, and I was glad to have this arranged for me. I managed to convey to Michael that I needed to be on a shuttle bus which would match up with my main bus journey to Ho Chi Min City, departing at 4 o’clock that day. As he handed me my ticket he kept repeating to me, over and over again, something about the time of departure. I smiled and nodded, and we both laughed, knowing that I didn’t really understand.

I headed off into town for a last bowl of Pho and to grab some food for the journey, I had a nagging worry in the back of my mind about what Michael had been trying to tell me, I really didn’t want to miss my bus.

To avoid any disasters, I returned to the hotel early, and the shuttle bus dropped me off in the main town square, in plenty of time to catch my bus to Ho Chi Min City.

After a few minutes, I spotted my bus parked up on the other side of the square and already almost full of passengers, I threw my rucksack into the open storage compartment and hopped on board.

As I settled into my window seat, towards the rear of the bus, I suddenly became aware of some commotion happening outside, right where I had just deposited my rucksack. I looked out, to see a well dress gentleman arguing with a scruffy, ragged local guy, things seemed pretty heated and the local was becoming extremely aggressive. I was totally shocked when he suddenly reached into his jacket, produced what appeared to be a short sword, and began waving it in front of himself, in a wide, sweeping arc. The businessman backed off initially, but then he picked up his briefcase and used this to parry the blows of the local guy, who chopped and sliced away like a mad man. 

The two pursued each other in circles, heading gradually in the direction of the open bus door, and I worried they might bring the fight on board. Some of the other passengers began screaming and I looked round for an emergency exit.

Just as I was preparing to bale out the bus rear window, the sword was raised high in the air, swayed for a second, then suddenly crashed to the ground, as the handle appeared to break off in the wielders hand. There was a moment of silence, as the swordsman stared at his broken weapon in total shock and disbelief, before he turned and took off up the road, persued closely by the Businessman, screaming wildly in Vietnamese.

I wasn’t entirely sure what the whole incident was about, but I suspect the local villain had been up to no good at the back of the bus and the heroic businessman had intervened, quite possibly preventing the theft of my rucksack. Thank God for dodgy, antique swords!

What a carry-on’, I thought to myself as the bus headed out of town, ‘wasn’t expecting a full on sword fight to erupt right in front of my eyes!’ But then maybe that’s what Michael had been trying to tell me back at the hotel, ‘Get down to the bus station early, or you’ll miss the sword fight!’

The last stop on my holiday, Ho Chi Minh City (Previously Saigon) is the largest city and also, the business and financial hub of Vietnam, with a prominent history going back hundreds of years. At the peak of the Vietnam War in 1969, the city had 4.5 million inhabitants who were all evacuated when Saigon, and the rest of the South, fell to the North Vietnamese. It was renamed Ho Chi Minh City, after the spiritual leader of Vietnamese Communism, but residents were reluctant to adopt the new name, and the city centre is still known as Saigon.

My over-riding memory of my time there, is of my visit to the War Museum. As I walked into the entrance hall, I was met by huge graphic pictures depicting the horrors of the Vietnam war, and in particular, the horrific effects of Agent Orange. Agent Orange is a herbicide and defoliant chemical. It is widely known for its use by the U.S. military as part of its chemical warfare program, Operation Ranch Hand, during the war. The message being conveyed to me throughout the entire museum tour was, ‘This is what America did to us.’
I had finally found out something about the Vietnam war, and it was harrowing!
When I left the museum, I was once again outside in the overpowering heat, and the craziness of the congested city streets, it was becoming a rather depressing day.
I decided then, to save the last day of my holiday, and to cheer myself up, by finding a quiet bar to relax in. 

Having visited Irish Bars all over the world, I opted to seek out Saigons O’Reilly’s Bar, and to see how well they managed to look after their Guinness in such a climate.
It was a long walk across town, but eventually I made it, and stepped inside the green painted double doors, to another world. It was cool, and dark, and just like any other fake Irish bar I had ever been in, it was just what I needed.
I wandered up to the bar, smiled at the young barmaid, who smiled back, and I ordered up a nice pint of Guinness, and a very tasty burger and chips.

I was sick of N N N N Noodles!

© 2020 Beavo

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Added on August 31, 2020
Last Updated on October 24, 2020
Tags: travel, humour, adventure, Vietnam, Russia, Bosnia, Backpacking



Edinburgh, United Kingdom

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