A Travellerspoint blog

The price of everything

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View Asia 2008 on Wardsan's travel map.

Last night I ate at Le Rabelais, the restaurant at the Ðàlạt Palace Hotel. White tablecloths, a tinkling pianist, candles, high ceiling, chandeliers, and fake Empire chairs: a wonderful place, marred only by hopelessly incompetent service.

I had a set dinner: amuse-bouche (we are not amused); young rabbit in aspic and apples; wild boar and a venison skewer with redcurrant sauce; a plate of cheese; a baked banana pudding. While the rabbit in aspic was nice enough, the highlight of the meal – of the week – was the cheese plate. Four tiny morsels of the echt Roquefort, Camembert, Pont l’Evêque (maybe) and parmesan. The Camembert and Roquefort (my favourite cheese) were exquisite; the pleasure they brought was unbelievably intense, quite impossible to recapture unless you’ve been without something, and the prospect of something, for three months. It alone was worth the price of the meal - $64 including two glasses of Australian wine. (Without it, the meal would have been poor value.) On the other hand, it did briefly make me thinking about going back to Europe and the cheeseful life.

There have been two other moments of oral bliss that in themselves lit up the whole day: a cold Snickers in the DMZ; a chilled slice of Mars Bar in Hoi An.

Why on earth did the French – so justly proud of their cheese – not leave a legacy of caseification in Vietnam? At least in cooler Ðàlạt? The country is so much the poorer for it. I feel that particularly at the moment, in the aftermath of the latest enteric, as, like Wallace, I want to eat nothing but cheese. I am subsisting solely on vache-qui-rit baguettes.

Anyway the question for today and for many a day is: what is a dollar worth? I don’t mean in pounds or dong, but what is it worth to me? What is the minimum pleasure I am willing to accept in return for choosing to pay a dollar? At the moment I haven’t a clue.

At the moment I’m spending about $30 a day in Vietnam outside the big cities; a little more in Thailand. I’m on course to spend much less than £10,000 if I travel for a year. I’m not travelling obsessively cheaply but I do stint on the hotels. I don’t stint on the food, as is clear, since it would violate my axioms.

But I have got used to a completely different set of prices, and it affects what I consume. For example, this morning I didn’t buy dried kiwi fruits during the bus ride, because they cost $3, a steep price. But I was hungry; so that was stupid. I take xe oms instead of taxis – even with all my bags. I have also turned down the chance to do some things because I thought the cost too high.

Let me be clear: I don’t think there’s anything morally superior about travelling cheaply as an end in itself. That’s juvenile. There is a level of comfort at which you never leave your hotel or your taxi, where I imagine you are partially insulated from your surroundings all the time. But I am not talking about that level. In any case, once you’ve eaten noodle soup at one Vietnamese street café, with your arse on a plastic seat one foot from the pavement, you’ve eaten at them all. Doing it every day doesn’t make you cool, it just makes your diet boring.

Yet over time minimising can easily become a game, an intellectual pursuit. I am falling into the trap.

If I were to start spending freely – without staying in five star hotels, but taking taxis and any tour I feel like – I might manage to spend £15,000-£17,000 in a year. So the question is really: what difference does £7,000 make? Out here, spending a few extra dollars makes a huge difference to the quality of what you buy and to the range of goods and services available. At home, much less so. So this is the place to spend the money, if at all.

It all depends on my permanent income. That is, roughly, what do I expect to earn over the rest of my working life? More relevantly, when am I going to start working again? And how much am I going to earn when I do? I don’t know when I am going back to the UK; I don’t know how long it will take to find a job when I do (the OECD has forecast UK GDP growth at 1.4% in 2009 (stop press, March 2009: IMF is forecasting UK growth of -3.8% this year!)); and I don’t even know the field in which I’m going to look for work.

So I don’t know whether £7,000 is a lot of money or a little. On the whole, unless I get a job with a salary that is a calculated insult – that is, return to academia or work at a junior level in the civil service – it’s not likely to make a huge difference to life when I return. Yet it would make a big difference out here: the difference between having and foregoing experiences out here that I will never have the opportunity to repeat.

In light of that, it seems clear me that I should spend and enjoy. Yet without a job to return to it’s difficult to do.

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When they say hello or smile for a photo, the Vietnamese will very often flash a V for Victory sign. More often than not, an Italian, say, will get it the wrong way round - with the fingers in front of the thumb - producing the insulting gesture allegedly invented by the victorious archers at Crécy in 1346. In Vietnam, it is almost always employed in the Churchillian orientation. I wonder why they get it right; I guess some old commie used to flash victory signs?

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This blog has received more than 10,000 visits. I have given the address to a few people, but more people are reading it, probably because some of the entries have been featured on the Travellerspoint website.

This raises the question of how to write for this unexpected readership. The blog has a lot of parochial English references; am I supposed to alter my style in order to be understood by people from different cultural backgrounds? Should I stick to a certain frequency? Should I try to maximise readership?

No: this is a blog, not a newspaper. I don’t want to write in the lowest-common-denominator straitened-vocabulary transnational newspeak favoured by international organisations; I’ve done that before. And I want to be able to refer to the Wombles or Test Match Special if I feel like it. The blog is supposed to be a record of my travels for me, my friends and family. If others find it interesting, they are very welcome. And since I’m on holiday, I’ll write when it’s convenient.

(Viagra penis extension porn Paris Hilton - that should keep the search engines interested.)

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In eight hours you can probably fly from Vancouver to London. Or you can bus 300km from Ðàlạt to Saigon. Behind me, a well-heeled Vietnamese couple spoke English to their tiny baby and Vietnamese to each other.

Saigon: an evocative, bygone name, like Mandalay, Formosa, or Cathay. I've only been here a couple of hours but it doesn't seem very evocative, etc.

Posted by Wardsan 22:29 Archived in Vietnam

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As one of the readers who stumbled upon your blog thanks to Travellerspoint, I will vote in favour of you not changing your prose style. You can always do what I do when I come across a reference I don't know, look it up on Wikipedia.

Thanks for sharing your adventures!

by GregW

Please don't change your writing style !! I came across your blogs via your featured photos. I enjoy the flow of words and thoughts that jump from the page as your style is very open and honest.... enjoy the rest of your trip....oh and the wombles are cool :)

by Rraven

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