October 18th, 2015 (Sunday)
When I went through Immigration in Myanmar, the lady at the counter had raised her eyebrows at the limited VISA stamp space I had in my passport. I did not think much about it or worry about it as a seal could always be put in some limited space, right?
At the Cambodian border, I was stamped out of the country with no fuss. We then went to the duty-free area for lunch. Then the bus ambles into the Vietnam border. The bus steward collected the passports from everyone. The idea was that he would take it to the Immigration counter, get it stamped, return it to us, and then help us through the security check and scan. When he brought back the passports, I could see that mine was in a unque position. Uh … Oh …
Then the bomb dropped. Vietnam Immigration will NOT stamp my passport as it does not have enough space.
What do I do now?
Why can’t they stamp in the in-between spaces?
Can I talk to the Immigration Officer directly?
Should I bribe?
Should I head back to Cambodia? But then VISA was single-entry! It should be fun explaining my predicament to a person who knows zero English …
Which city has the nearest Embassy/Consulate?
Will the remaining of my vacation be in this no-man’s land???
My mind was in a whirl.
I could see all my fellow bus passengers cross into Vietnam and get in the bus. I was stuck, neither here or there. I approached a couple of guards to enquire about options. No English signs anywhere and no one knows English either.
Anyone who has seen the movie “The Terminal” (Tom Hanks) can get a feeling of the situation 😉
I was sure of one thing. If they want, there is definitely space to squeeze in a seal. In that case, are they angling for money? After approaching various counters and officers, it was clear. They want bribe.
The Giant Ibis bus steward had put me in touch with a guy who supposedly took care of “such problems”. This saviour came after 45min. My luxury bus had long gone. My co-passengers would sure be wondering what happened to the “DSLR guy”?
After some haggling and after paying 3 levels of bribes, voila, got the stamp! The officer, who clearly got a cut, made a show of serious review of the VISA stamp, for the benefit of everyone in the Immigration hall.
I had to take a junk bus, that too the spring-board-attached seat right at the back, to finally get to Ho Chi Minh City. From the final bus stop, it was a short enough walk to the hotel.
After dumping my bag in the room and a quick shower (Man! Did I deserve one …), I headed out for dinner. In Vietnam, most ATMs charge a “fee”. E.g. For 25 USD, around 2USD fees.
I had grilled shrimp, Pho and a beer for dinner. The waiter had to call his friend, who spoke English, to help with translation 🙂
While walking back to hotel after dinner, I got to see a traffic cop ask a lady scooter driver to stop and she calmly dodged him and took off!
October 19th, 2015 (Monday)
Had to wake up early as my tour guy said pickup was at 7.05AM. Had a hurried breakfast. The guide Duc (pronounced “Dook”) came right at 7:05:00 AM!
The tour group consisted of your truly, a New Zealand couple (who already spent a week in Hanoi and were on the way to Cambodia), an Italian-Australian couple (Lawyer-Government-Employee and his NGO wife) and an Australian couple (who held US passports as well).
Some tit-bits from the tour and some random notes:
# Ho Chi Minh, considered Father of Vietnam, travelled a lot to learn Communism in depth.
# The French divided Vietnam in North/Central/South provinces, for easier rule. After Japanese occupation during WWII 1942-45, French returned. US backed Viet Minh fighters against the French. Viet Minh originally built Cu Chi Tunnels. But it was Viet Cong (Guerilla Communists in South Vietnam) who took the tunnels to a totally new level.
# Along with fighting South Vietnam, US Etc., Viet Cong did 20 years of digging!
# Vietnam flag is a red flag with yellow star. The Communist sickle/hammer flag is also present everywhere.
# Cu Chi Tunnels had 3 levels, all the way down to bunker levels. Viet Cong folks were relatively small and hence the tunnels were built to be very narrow.
# Cu Chi Tunnels is on Highway 22, on way to Cambodia border. Cu Chi area gets around 1 Million visitors a year.
# The tunnels had hospital/kitchen/rest-area/wells and even a connection to Saigon river. The exhaust vents were covered with leaves to camofluge.
# Viet Cong recycled US bombs for raw materials.
# Viet Cong were tough! 20 years of fighting, digging, building, getting bombed, rebuilding Etc.
# Just like in USA, the driver sits on the left and drive on the right side of the road.
# Reunification or Independence Palace: Nothing fancy. Mainly a museum for South Vietnam President. His office, dining room, bedroom, war room, bunker Etc. It was very crowded though, with tourists.
# War Remnants Museum: An ode to Vietnam’s hatred for USA. Napalm, Agent Orange (Dioxin), Torture, Executions Etc.
Quite disturbing …
# Street vendors are everywhere. And most of them have a lot of customers as well.
# Saw a lot of the consulates around. Just like their proximity in foreign policy, US and British consulates are right next to each other 🙂
# Unlike in Myanmar and Cambodia, craze for US Dollars is not there in Vietnam. You can get by with Vietnam Dong (pronounced “Dom”) just fine.
# Though the country preaches Communism a lot, it appears quite Capitalist as far as I can see.
October 20th, 2015 (Tuesday)
Other than taking care of my passport woes (Which forced me to cancel the 2-day Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi train plans), and some walking around HCMC, it was a light day.
I even took a siesta after lunch.
Based on Annie’s recommendation, I saw the A O Show today. It was awesome! A symphony of dancing, bamboos, baskets and culture.
October 21st, 2015 (Wednesday)
# Motorcycle taxi guys and shoe-shine guys harass you. If you are obviously a tourist, with dangling camera for example, you will have your own entourage 😉
# Did a 4km (one way) walk in the humidity to visit the Museum of Vietnam History. It was just about okay. Small, but some decent exhibits, including a 19th century Vietnamese Mummy.
# French colonial buildings are everywhere. Looks beautiful … Example, City Hall, Opera House Etc.
# Did see some Indians on the road and also noticed a few Indian restaurants.
# Ho Chi Minh City in October is humid like crazy. Need to change T-shirts twice a day.
# I was adviced by Annie (Hotel Manager) to take Bus #152, which is the easiest way to the Ho Chi Minh City Airport. The bus driver pulled a fast one on me. He made a huge rukus when I got in (I was the 1st) and made me pay double the charge, by using some super-speed Vietnamese :-). Since the rates are ultra-nominal, I considered it my tip and moved on.
# Tan Son Nhat Domestic Terminal looks pretty hip and neat. Good job Vietnam!