Back to Bangkok, May 31 - June 1

Our goodbye gift from Vietnam was an attempt to squeeze some last cash out of us through one of the more prevalent money scams, at the airport bank of all places! The scam goes like this: The 10,000 Vietnamese dong bill (about 60 cents) and the 100,000 dong bill (about $6) look similar. A tourist hands over a 100,000 dong note, the merchant surreptitiously swaps it for a 10,000, then shows the tourist that they "accidentally" gave the wrong bill. (It's easy to get confused with all those 0's, after all.) We were probably taken in by this scam once or twice before we heard about it, but we weren't going to be swindled at the airport, even by the polite and well-dressed woman at the money exchange counter. When our protests attracted a nearby policeman, suddenly the woman decided -- without admitting to anything of course -- to correctly exchange the 100,000 dong bills we'd given her to begin with.

Unfortunately that final event at the airport did leave us with a slightly bad taste in our mouths, and it generated quite a family discussion about modus operandi in Vietnam compared with the other Southeast Asian countries we'd visited. In point of fact, the majority of Vietnamese we interacted with at any length during our two weeks were genuinely kind and helpful -- hotel staff in particular tended to be excellent. But a small number of unpleasant experiences, combined with the incessant touting mentioned incessantly in our previous Vietnam travelogues, did leave an imperfect impression. One can only hope that as Vietnam tourism grows and evolves, the "good guys" will win out in the end. (It doesn't bode well that a concerted effort in Hoi An to reduce tourist harassment seems to have failed.) In any event, with its diverse culture and plenty of natural wonders, Vietnam is certainly worth visiting; we have no regrets.

We planned our travel schedule around a direct flight from central Vietnam to Bangkok offered some days of the week by a "boutique" Thai airline, PB Air. Despite numerous attempts, we never succeeded in purchasing e-tickets on their web site -- it's always discomforting to see "Javascript
error" after entering one's credit card number and pressing Buy Now!. We ended up buying our tickets at the airport, which was considerably more expensive, but on the good side they didn't charge us for the seat occupied by Emily's Vietnamese hats (photo 1).

Everyone was excited to return to good old Bangkok for a last Thai hurrah before ending this most epic part of our year off. We were relieved that there were no immigration problems on arrival: Technically, tourists are allowed three entries into Thailand in a six-month period. With all of our comings and goings in the sailboat, this entry was our fourth. We'd heard that the rule isn't enforced strictly, but we were a bit nervous nonetheless.

We checked back into the Somerset Park Suanplu for one night before flying home. The staff were as nice as ever, the substantial luggage we left five weeks ago appeared miraculously on arrival, and we stayed even higher up than last time -- photo 2 shows the view from our 24th floor apartment. Our main activity aside from ping-pong in the hotel was to visit the nearby Suan Lum night market. Emily insisted on finding some hair-bands she'd considered purchasing, but decided against, when we visited the night market on our previous stay. With several hundred vendors and no memory of where this particular one was located, it was a monumental task, but we succeeded. We ended up having dinner in the night market's large outdoor "food court" (photo 3), not exactly a fancy send-off meal, but certainly a delicious one.

During our travels throughout Southeast Asia we've become keenly aware of what we call the "Lonely Planet effect." Lonely Planet guidebooks have always appealed to independent travelers -- we're hooked on them ourselves -- and they're especially popular in Asia to the point that it's a rarity to see a tourist clutching anything else. The problem is that only a limited number of hotels and restaurants can be listed, so those that get a mention (be it a positive or a neutral one) receive a disproportionate amount of business, and those that don't lose out. As time went on we tried to counteract the Lonely Planet effect: We patronized restaurants recommended by other people rather than by the guidebook, and for hotels we relied primarily on the excellent TripAdvisor web site. This issue also generated an interesting family discussion -- we all speculated on the future of travel planning as guidebooks, hand-held computers, user reviews, and GPS technology inevitably meld together for the ultimate constantly-updated travel tool.

After 3½ months in Asia and 9½ months of travel altogether, is the family sick of it yet? Not a chance! Look for the next travelog in about six weeks.

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