Nothing screams vacation like being afraid for your life. After all, people go on exotic trips to forget about their chores, their bosses, excruciating hiatuses in Mad Men…the little problems. So it only makes sense to vacation in a place with some major ones. Of course, much of what we label as dangerous is really a matter of perception: Just as dangerous dogs are a function of how you raise them, dangerous vacations are simply a function of how often you leave your hotel room. Luckily there are some truly lovely resorts in some seriously scary places.
One & Only Resort (Cape Town, South Africa)
When going on vacation, one should invariably head for the “Rape Capital of the World.” Now, I admit that this is somewhat unfair to say because South Africa is more accurately known as the “Rape, Armed Murder, Carjacking, and Kidnapping Hub of Plenty.” It was a close call for the Department of Tourism, but they wanted it to fit on a license plate. Recent surveys also show that while 1-in-4 South African women have been raped in their lifetime, 3-in-2 had been carjacked that very day. So, in terms of overall safety, you should definitely focus on locking the car doors.
The point is that you’re highly unlikely to be the victim of any kind of crime in the stylish lobby of the One&Only resort in Cape Town. The One&Only is part of a chain, of course (there are seven of them), but this One&Only is certainly the only-Only on the African Subcontinent. (Truth in advertising is a core value in the developing world, where cigarettes are still marketed as stocking stuffers.) This urban-chic oasis features waterfront views, a world class spa, a Japanese restaurant with a Michelin-starred chef, and a seafood restaurant with Gordon Ramsay as the chef. Having him punch you in the throat is extra. For those lucky enough to book a suite, please note that each one comes with a 24-hour butler who guarantees superior service (i.e., Jasmine Tea), old world charm (little bit racist), and conducts himself with the utmost discretion (carries a switchblade and won’t tell your mother).
But no. I really am being tough on South Africa, a country that’s had more than its fair share of triumphs and tragedies. Cape Town itself was founded by the Dutch East India Company, the first and only multinational corporation with the power to coin money and wage war. Yes,that is…coin money…and wage war. The same people who thought that was a good idea later built a prison and put Nelson Mandela in it, although that mistake has since been rectified and commemorative jail-cell snow globes are now on sale in the prison gift shop. Even better, government statistics show that the only crimes officially on the rise in South Africa are “those dependent upon police action for detection.” As for what that means, it’s probably best to move on…
Bembridge Coast Hotel (Isle of Wight, Great Britain)
Once upon a time in 1560, a disturbed young boy murdered his father and sister, and the dead girl, deranged and dressed in blue, now roams the foggy hills of England crying out for her mother, who obviously did a bang-up job raising these children. But that’s the Isle of Wight for you: the most notoriously, densely, and actively haunted island in the world. There are more dead people than tourists, but that makes booking a room fairly easily.
The Isle itself is diamond-shaped, five miles off the coast of Hampshire, and about 70 miles from London, where there are many supermodels who look dead but are really just “in demand.” Resort-wise, Wight boasts many quaint areas, one of the most popular being Bembridge on the eastern tip. Offering a plethora of activities such as crabbing, shopping, beach-combing for the kids, and copious amounts of yachting, the only thing to worry about in relaxing Bembridge is the decapitated head of a 17th century pirate that is sometimes seen in fishing areas. Those who happen to comes across this head are advised not to panic, not to call the concierge, and to practice Catch & Release as always. Other Wight specters that have long been witnessed and solidly confirmed (confirmation defined as three or more mentions on two distinct websites) include a phantom monk who roams the grounds of a monastery, a woman in red who hung herself in her manor house, and an entire haunted police station complete with a sad and slumped phantom convict whose parole hearing is any day now. One personal favorite, specter-wise, is the ghost of a man named Michael Morey who chopped up his grandson with an axe in 1736, tried to hide the crime by shoving the dismembered body into several leather bags, got caught, and was summarily executed and displayed on the barrows. Today, he regularly emerges from the existential mist, forever damned to circle the ancient barrows on horseback, balefully crying out in rage and despair. What I want to know is what the poor horse did.
For those wondering why there is so much supernatural restlessness packed onto this one petite, polite British island that was otherwise minding its own business, it apparently comes down to the ley lines—of course it’s the ley lines!—as you will repeatedly be told in every pub from Bembridge to Dead Bridge by the many ghost hunters who annually flock to the island armed with little more than untutored opinions and a laminated map. Ley lines, by the way, are unseen alignments that have been carefully diagramed by New Age types in hemp shoes and, through means unknown, create powerful currents of psychic energy that crisscross the globe and converge with stunning accuracy at the direct points of intersection between major megaliths, ancient sites, holy places, standing stones, churches, cairns, astrological configurations, large playgrounds, oversized bunkers, abandoned Pintos, and anything else that happens to fall on one of the lines and not have a cash register or Book of Mormon. (The lines are very old and that religions is very, very new.)
All Mini-Hotels (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam)
Why is it that every mention of Ho Chi Minh in casual conversation, at least in my world, is met with the same response: “Ho Chi Minh…isn’t that the place that…or wait, isn’t he the guy…?” The answer is no. It’s not the place where the guy stood in front of the tank with the daisy. But yes, it is the place where the helicopter took off and left Miss Saigon behind. So, sure, if you add the word “City” it is a place, but it was also definitely a person. But no, that person wasn’t also named Dien Bien Phu. And in some ways perhaps (but for the most part hell no) he’s not the same guy as Mao Zedong. Got it? Good. Because in any case it’s not a great place to stay in a mini-hotel.
Let’s be more specific, first off, because if you have enough money you can find somewhere fabulous to sleep pretty much anywhere besides Darfur and Nebraska. But the so-called “mini-hotels” littering the landscape of Ho Chi Minh City, particularly those in the backpacking mecca of Phu Nhuan, are little more than death traps masquerading as fire hazards, all designed to distract you from the roving conmen and abusive staff. I don’t want to name names, but…let’s say..the Phu Phuong Hotel located at 338 Dao Duy in Ward 9…for example. We’ll call that one dodgy—and maybe don’t stay anywhere else in a five block radius. Among the things these mini-hostels are notorious for is:
- Bait & switching on things like price and air conditioners;
- Shouting obscenities when you question your $873 worth of “Good Bag Handle” charges;
- Failing to have luxuries such as working phones lines or deadbolts that stop armed marauders from breaking into your room while you’re, say, still in there sleeping and/or furiously pushing on the other side of the door (while screaming);
- Shysters who say they’ll take you from the lobby to the airport then shove you out at an unlit Cambodian rest stop;
- And of course the old “spike your food and sexually assault you” routine, which is never as much fun as they describe in the Lonely Planet.
There are maids in these hotels, but if you leave money in the room (as part of your innovative “Pell Grant for Pilferers” college scholarship fund), they will take it. And anyway the maids are mostly hiding in the deep recesses of the hotels where all the clean things are. Ho Chi Minh mini-hotels, in other words, are notoriously filthy. When you first enter your room and marvel at the parquet floors, for example, please be warned that the floor is actually a dull and lifeless beige. The brown comes from scum and the sheen can be attributed to cockroach pee. Fire is also a big concern in these tiny paradises, particularly for those staying above the 6th floor because local fire department ladders tend only to reach to the 5th. On the other hand, fear of fire will mitigate the paranoia caused by your deadbolt not working, as the only other means of egress will be the enormous hole your pedestal-footed bathtub is about to punch in the tile floor. That is, of course, if you have the audacity to have your own bathroom. If you do happen to share one (you will share one), please note that your bathroom cohabitants will unfailingly be six chatting, spewing, college-aged Australian males with penchants for cheap beer and the aim of drunken monkeys. Other than that, the only real concerns in Ho Chi Minh mini-hotels are the endemic nature of cholera, rabies, SARS, bird flu, dengue, HIV, HPV, head lice, hand warts, H1N1 (otherwise known as swine flu or “MSNBC Fever”), and the occasional but in most cases virulent outbreak of rampant homesickness.
Look it…the aim of this information is not to make you stay home. It is simply, lest we forget, to reinforce that travel is hard. As it should be. Most days, our biggest concern walking out the front door is whether or not we forgot an umbrella, and our biggest problem while lying in bed is whether or not we still like our current haircut. And what kind of life is that? The motto of the One&Only resort is “Live the moment.” So they’re very unlikely to let you die there. Plus it’s a good motto. And yes, fire safety in Southeast Asiaranks right up there with food availability on Southwest Airlines, but if you do make it out alive you’ll finally know the difference between Ho Chi Minh and Fu Manchu (Hint: Neither had good barbers.)
My passionate thesis is that the whole goal of travel is 3) to enjoy yourself, 2) to arrive home unscathed, and 1) to experience the planet. And a lot of the planet is a scary place. Whether the children are breaking into your rooms with daggers or hanging out beneath your windows with no heads, mixing adventure with danger is like mixing alcohol with a job interview: necessity and bad idea all at once. Most of the world will greet you warmly, some of it will murder you for your Levis, and the entire mess would be solved if we all just had our own butlers.
Bring a silencer, learn to make rope ladders, and go travel very hard, my friends.