Campervan Shopping: What Did We Get Into?

“What just happened?!” Mo asked.

I nodded. “Nobody will ever believe this.” 

Minutes before, Mo and I checked out a campervan that fit most of our criteria. We want a van with less than 200,000 kilometers on the odometer, a diesel engine, equipped with a roo-bar, three seats, and less than 15 years old. All for under $5,500. We’d set aside this past weekend to go van shopping, driving all over the city in search for the elusive perfect campervan.


One particular van ad led us inland, about twenty minutes from our house, to a neighborhood with abandoned shopping carts and rusty bicycle parts scattered on the sides of the road.

From the pictures, we saw that the campervan had a huge flower sticker on the hood with other puffy children’s stickers around the side. Based off of previous experience, we expected it to be owned by a European bohemian backpacker and her likely dreadlocked boyfriend.

As we pulled into the neighborhood, we scratched our heads wondering what type of backpacker would choose this suburb — out of all places — in a beach-centered city like Perth.

A Vietnamese senior, standing just 4’10” and weighing ~90 pounds soaking wet, walked up to greet us as we approached the van. She shot us a huge, (partially toothless) smile, and thumped the side of the van with her palm. My eye caught a sticker depicting black cats sitting on orange pumpkins, plastered on the passenger door. “I drove around Australia three times in this! — by myself!” I thought of my own miniature travel-addict grandma, born on Halloween and a black cat fanatic.

“Wow! Adventure girl!” I exclaimed.

She opened up the van door to reveal a bed with a bubblegum frame with curtains to match. I pictured this tiny-but-mighty woman conquering the Nullabor with nothing but her pink, stickered van, and huge smile — What I’d give to get the chance to have a drink with her and hear a few stories.

“This is my son’s house. He says if I don’t get rid of this van, I’ll have to drive it back to Cairns!” (Cairns is a 57 hour drive, according to Google Maps.)

She brought a pillow to the driver’s seat to sit on as a booster to see out of the front window. She shook her finger at the steering wheel, “You better start!” She looked at us, laughed, and said “I haven’t driven this van in months.”

She turned the key. The van didn’t start. She turned it again. It sputtered. She turned it again. No luck.

“Well, maybe just wait for me to call RAC roadside assistance?” She asked. Mo and I exchanged a hesitant glance and told her that we had somewhere else to be, but asked to see if she had any service paperwork on the van.

She pulled a hot pink bag out of the front seat of her car and began shuffling through stacks of paper like a poker dealer doling cards. She flashed us a handwritten note detailing everything that was once fixed on a plain lined sheet of paper. $20 and $50 bills fell out between the pages, because you always want to keep money everywhere just in case something happens.

“This mechanic. He doesn’t want to pay taxes, so he didn’t give me a proper invoice. I told him that if I had any issues driving it to Cairns, I’d ruin his life. He didn’t take me seriously — I made sure he knew I meant it.” She circled her hands around her thin body, “I know a lot of people. Every day, I see people here getting ripped off. I didn’t leave Vietnam to come here and be ripped off.”

She continued, “In my city, we don’t deal with silly things like police, courthouses, and prisons. In my city, we had a very busy road. Children kept getting run over on this road. One day, a taxi driver hit a child. The community lynched him before he could say sorry. No children were hit after that. You see?”

I raised my eyebrows.

She pulled out another invoice from the same mechanic, this one on official letterhead. It detailed the tax contribution.

She alluded to a time where she made arrangements to kill someone much more powerful than her, like how a snake can take down a large animal despite its small size.

I hoped both stories were merely metaphors.

“So, my son will be very unhappy if I don’t sell this van.” She sighed.

“Tell your son that you went through the pain of creating him! He needs to help you get the van ready to sell and make sure it starts.” I offered.

“No, my son is not like that. He’ll point at me and say, ‘It’s your fault for going through the pain. You’re a very naughty girl for having sex.'” Her hand shot to her mouth to stifle her giggle.

We wished her luck, told her we’d consider her offer, and walked out of the complex.

Campervan shopping has taken us to unseen parts of Perth and introduced us to people we wouldn’t have otherwise met. Not included in this story: The Mercedes Vito we test drove at a house inside of a walled compound (the only gated house on the street, mind you) with a banner that said “FIND THE TRUTH! READ YOUR BIBLE!” hanging over it. A father selling an eight-seater Volkswagon (“Best Dad” keychain not included), who had six children buzzing around him. One friendly used-car salesman — and a handful of smarmy ones. As much as Mo and I are at the point of pulling our hair out in frustration for not finding The One as quickly as we’d like, it has been an interesting experience.

Campervan Shopping: See our criteria, and find out what went wrong.
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