This is the true story of a traveler named Phil, who left his passport at a hostel.
I was halfway through a four-month backpacking trip around Southeast Asia. Most of the guest houses and hostels we’d stayed at previously didn’t require us to leave a passport at the front desk, but for some reason that seems to be the standard when you’re traveling in Vietnam. We left our hostel in Sapa around 5 p.m. and piled into a van that was headed for the Lao Cai train station. Our train didn’t leave until 9 p.m. but it would take at least an hour to get there.
The drive in and out of Sapa is an unsettling one. What should really be one-way roads wind precariously through the mountains, with very little preventing vehicles from tumbling over the sides. Fifteen of us were crammed into a twelve-person passenger van and the roads were not sitting well with most of the clientele. About halfway through the drive, I realized I never got my passport back from the front desk at our hostel. I immediately panicked. We couldn’t tell the van to pull over and drop us off because we’d be in the middle of nowhere. It would be impossible to find a ride back to Sapa. We couldn’t ask the van to turn around because other people in the car had earlier trains to catch. The only thing we could do is keep traveling in the opposite direction of where we needed to go.
As soon as we reached the train station, my girlfriend and I ran over to a taxi and tried to explain our situation. Seeing as how we were desperate, there was little bargaining involved. After a lot of awkward hand gestures and broken English, we were on our way back to the hostel at 6:30 p.m.
An hour later, I tumbled out of the car onto the misty streets of Sapa and ran as fast I could to our hostel. I grabbed my passport from the guy at the front desk (who was pretty apologetic about not handing it back when we checked out) and bolted back toward the car. At this point, we still had a pretty good chance of making our train.
The only thing worse than being stuffed in a van full of carsick passengers, is being flung around the backseat of a reckless cab driver. Admittedly, it was pretty awesome that he was trying to get us to our train in time but I was certain that one of two things would happen: 1) we would make our train, possibly with time to spare or 2) an incoming car would send us flying off the side of the mountain and into impending doom. Luckily, the former would be our fate. We even had time for a bowl of pho before boarding.
Lesson learned: Always make sure you get your passport back from the front desk.