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Trip Report Vietnam Part One - our intro to Ho Chi Minh City

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When we were planning this 6 ½ week trip to Vietnam with a side trip to Kuala Lumpur, one of my biggest concerns was that we would be investing a lot of time and money exploring one part of SE Asia that might turn out to be very similar to our other trips. I confided in friends that I hoped for an adventure. The first 48 hours of the trip dismissed that worry and confirmed that it would be anything but dull. It was to be a journey to a country so different that it might have been another planet. As much as the personalities and sensitivities were similar to those we found in S. Korea, Thailand, China and Cambodia, what we experienced in Vietnam was undeniably unique. I will be linking pictures on Flickr as the reports are posted. https://www.flickr.com/photos/114247595@N07/sets/72157639714548803/

Our route from Denver at 6 a.m. (thanks to Sue for the ride at an ungodly hour!) on October 22, via Chicago and Hong Kong before landing in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) or Saigon as it is otherwise known early morning on October 25 (their time) brought new meaning to the term Grand Circle. I made this choice so that we fly on a 777 and have seating with good legroom and without having one of us stuck in a middle seat. All Mike’s years of traveling on United has offered the continuing benefit of perpetual preferential economy seating, as well as business lounge access on international flights. So we weren’t too worried about our expected layover in Chicago, nor our 5½ hours in Hong Kong. The fact that we had an extra 2½ hour delay in HK in the middle of the night, wasn’t so much a physical challenge, as a mental one. The plane suffered a part failure and I had no faith that they going to find the suspected part at midnight, nor that they had even diagnosed the failure correctly. However, a replacement arrived and we finally reached HCMC a mere 35 hours after rising to go to Denver airport. Thanks again go to our airport pick up person in HCMC for patiently waiting for our arrival.

We fell into our very comfortable beds at the Blue Diamond Hotel in District 1, had a short but good sleep and rose enthusiastic to start our day. That was until Mike discovered that his visa was not in his passport. We had opted for “loose leaf” visas to avoid having to send our passports to the VN consulate in Washington. The desk staff had copied our documents upon arrival, but they had no copy of the visa (against all rules, but that’s another matter). We went down for breakfast and to mull over what to do.

I offer a tempered review of the Blue Diamond on Thua Koa Huan: the staff was very pleasant and very helpful; the beds were great, however the showers had what appeared to be mold where the walls and floor met; and the budget rooms, are not well-situated. During our first stay there was a torrential monsoon rain, and whatever drainage system the hotel had, made it seem like the storm water was all backing up into our bathroom. It wasn’t, but the effect was rather unnerving. The hotel restaurant was expensive for other meals, but the pho at the included breakfast buffet was the best I had during the trip. They offered bowls of noodles to which one could add an assortment of goodies such as chopped fresh chilies, lime juice, mint, ginger and bean sprouts before bathing it all in a delicious broth.

Over breakfast we decided it was useless to try and find out how the visa was lost, but the panic set in of how to get a new one before we left for Hanoi in 2 days. We spent the daytime hours of the next 2 days figuring that out. Blasted by the heat and humidity as we exited the hotel, we replaced the panic with the slightly lower anxiety of how to navigate the sea of motorcycles and cars on the streets. Google “pictures of motor cycle traffic in HCMC”, to get some understanding the situation, as no amount of verbal description begins to convey the reality. If you are reading this online, here’s one link to get you started. http://vimeo.com/32958521. Mike reminded me that the travel blog advice was to walk slowly and steadily through a crosswalk and the motos would avoid you. Clearly it worked, but my advice is not to become blasé. There are still idiots on the road as attested by the roughly 30 deaths per day across the country involving motorcycles.

Our first stop was an ATM, as we seldom bring cash with us. This worked for us, but be aware that the single transaction limit is fairly small for some banks and the service fees add to the total cost. Even so, we still found it the most effective method. And in VN you will walk away a multi-millionaire each time with the conversion rate at 20,000Dong to the US Dollar.

Next on to the British Embassy, whose staff was singularly unhelpful. They wouldn’t even let Mike talk to anyone; he was simply given a piece of paper with the address of the Vietnam Immigration office, but no instructions on how to get there.

Never the less, we look back on this as the beginning of the adventure at least I had hoped for. We saw more of the city in those first few hours than we ever would have otherwise. I think we must have walked most of central HCMC more than once on just that first day. It may not be a recommended way to counteract jet lag, but we it allowed us to stay up and running all day. We sampled our first street side drinks and started our addiction to Vietnamese coffee. At one point we stopped for some fresh squeezed orange juice. We noticed though that people kept stopping and paying without getting anything to drink. Then we saw that the vendor also offered use of his porta-potty! We also encountered our first street vendors, although we didn’t master how to dismiss them effectively until much later in the trip.

The first trip to the VN Immigration Office was disheartening. After a considerable wait, we met with the only person who spoke English, and he was not what one would call compassionate. The first question out of his mouth was whether Mike had filed a police report. Not an unreasonable question, but he offered no advice and cut off the conversation after giving us our paperwork. Off we went to find the police station, which turned out to be very close to our hotel. The police were both pleasant and intelligently helpful. They offered seats, and tea or water. They put the fans on in the waiting area. The one person who spoke English pulled out his tablet device with a translation app to make sure he understood. And we weren’t the only people seeking help who were treated well. No matter who came in during our stay there, everyone was treated with respect and courtesy.

Again, we slogged back to Immigration, this time with the police report in hand. Both Mike and I had received multiple entry visas from the consulate in the U.S. and each was good for 3 months. The HCMC official offered Mike a replacement single entry visa good for 15 days. It was a not-too-subtle invitation to leave the country within that period. As we were headed north for 2 weeks, that was hardly useful. I was furious, but what to do? I had remembered that while we were waiting, Mike had offered his seat to a young and pretty Asian woman (hmmm…) who had thanked him in excellent English. I approached her and asked if she spoke both English and Vietnamese and whether she would she help us – I was still hoping that the official simply misunderstood our situation.

She turned out to be our guardian angel. Although she couldn’t convince him that he should process the multiple entry visa offered on their price sheet, Linh did manage to get much more information out of him, including the very important detail that part of the application still needed to be filled in. She also knew an agent who could ensure that the single entry visa that would last one month. It would cost twice the listed price (yes that probably went straight to the official) but it would allow us to travel north for 2 weeks and exit the country to travel to Malaysia. She also knew someone who for a $10 fee would give us an invitation back to VN for a cheap visa at the airport for our return trip to HCMC and other points. We arranged to meet back at the Immigration office when the form was completed. Travel note – an invitation letter is the least expensive and quickest way to get an entry visa. And in fact our host in Hanoi had offered to get one for us prior to our U.S. departure. We declined the offer, as it sounded rather suspicious. Of course, you need to know the recipient, but I can now recommend at least one person in VN who can arrange this for you. More on this later.

So back again to the police, who actually seemed pleased to see us again. However, they insisted on confirmation from the hotel staff before they would fill out the remaining portion of the form. But no worries – they called the hotel for us, and the hotel sent someone in a taxi with the hotel registration book, to show that we were actually staying there. It was now too late to finish this in one day, so we took a large leap of faith and put the matter on hold for one night.

We had a mostly unexceptional dinner, but the evening was memorable as we wandered around the area, enjoying the nightlife in a nearby park. It was filled with rap singers and dancers, and sports enthusiasts, as well as hundreds enjoying the relative cool of the evening. Mike and I spent a fair amount of time talking with young students who showed up hoping to practice their English. We ended with some beers at what came to be a regular watering hole, a restaurant called Kuhya. It was another serendipitous choice. We had tried to have a drink at another street-side location and they refused to serve us. So we wandered across and picked the first place that had seating. It was the first time we had beer with ice. Khuya didn’t stock cold beer, but served it with large tubes of ice in each glass. As the ice melted quickly in the heat, it was replace with another tube. It was also our first exposure to excellent wait service – always attentive, never overbearing. We went many times to Khuya and received excellent attention each time. What a very pleasant conclusion to our first day!

The next morning we visited another park near the hotel and had a happy time having tea with locals and enjoying the modern sculptures in the park. It turns out there are a huge number of parks in the city. They are variously well used; some with early morning Tai Chi or other exercise, others with late day after work relaxation.

And on this Saturday there were a huge number of boy and girl scouts who had camped out in this park, many of whom were dressed up for Hallowe’en. Also notice how their tents are not set up on the grass. We didn’t see anyone even walking on the grassy parts of parks, despite the lack of “keep off” signs.`

We met again with our angel and her contact around noon. The rather shifty looking guy took Mike’s passport and application paperwork to the desk. We reminded ourselves that we went through a similar process (bribery included) when we hired a lawyer to get our permanent immigration paperwork processed in Denver. That guy flat out said that half his fee would go under the table to INS.

We were nervous as we planned to meet again, but without our angel, around closing time at Immigration to pick up the passport with its new visa, and pay the 3rd party. It seemed that our problems were to be solved with about $150, but the weekend and our flight to Hanoi was looming large. When he produced the passport, it had only the 15-day visa. I started yelling at him, that this much we could have done on our own. Mike said he looked absolutely terrified, but even if that is true, he certainly deserved the tongue-lashing. That it wouldn’t allow us to travel back from Hanoi. That we wouldn’t pay him anything. He immediately got on the phone with Linh. By his reaction, she seemed to be saying much the same thing, apparently telling him that he needed to fix it right away. When he put me on the phone with her, she said he would take care of it. He took the passport back and said to wait. I watched him go back into the office waiting room, where he talked to what appeared to be another 3rd party agent. That person seemed to hand him some more money. He went back to the processing window and about 20 minutes later returned to us. The visa had the 15 days stay overwritten with 30 days and officially stamped. We could safely travel in Vietnam and exit to Malaysia.

We later arranged to meet our Linh at her work place to give her copies of Mike’s passport so that she could arrange the invitation letter for the additional visa upon reentry into Vietnam. She would take nothing for her efforts, and the invitation letter worked like a charm. She hoped to travel to England to do an advance degree and work. We wish her well.

We could now have a relaxing time until our flight on Sunday afternoon. Saturday morning we were up early to start some true tourism in the city. We went first to the Post Office, which is an amazingly beautiful piece of architecture as well as a great place to buy postcards and souvenirs at reasonable prices.

Next we headed to the Botanic Gardens with its lovely topiary, tropical plants, bonsai and a small exhibits. We even enjoyed the adjoining zoo, which we usually do not. However, families were out in number and watching the parents and kids and occasional teenagers was fascinating.

We returned to our room for what became our regular routine of showering, making a change of clothes and having a bit of time indoors. The heat was not too bad, but the humidity left us both dripping. Later we ate dinner at an Indian restaurant called Saigon. We knew we would have ample opportunity to eat Vietnamese food, and so with our joint passion for Indian food, it was our first choice in the large cities. Most of our meal was lackluster, but the chicken Chettinad was one of the best of the many Indian dishes we had the entire trip. We rounded out the evening by attending a traditional music at The Bizu Cafe near the hotel. The coffee was good, but not outstanding, but we went for the music. The musicians were students trying to preserve traditional music. As we have found so often, arts of the Europe and the west are in vogue and traditional music, dance and fine arts are ignored. The concert was sparsely attended but the rest of the audience was so knowledgeable that it made up in enthusiasm what it lacked in size. I even tried my hand at the one-stringed instrument. Its sound was so hauntingly beautiful that I seriously considered buying one to take home and practice playing. A side note – the coffee shop is above an up-market shop called The House of Saigon. It has a selection of the most wonderful clothes, shoes and accessories. Even if you don’t want to hear the music, visit the shop.

Sunday, we had a half-day before our flight, so we took a walk toward the river. Along the way we discovered two museums. The Fine Arts Museum showed us another side of the city and indeed the country. We found it so appealing that we visited it again on our return to HCMC at the end of our trip. The TripAdvisor description is an excellent summary. www.lonelyplanet.com/vietnam/ho-chi-minh-city/sights/museums-galleries/fine-arts-museum .The building itself is full of interest and the variety of artwork is astonishing.

We returned to the hotel, secured a couple of our large bags with them, and left for the airport.

Next stop Hanoi. Spoiler alert. The drama is over but anecdotes abound.

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