Saturday, 31 December 2011

Back to Vietnam

Our airplane arrives at Tan Son Nhat International Airport in the late afternoon. The journey has been happily uneventful. Istanbul has a modern, well-designed airport, so the transit went smoothly. Turkish Airlines serves some of the best airplane food I have ever had (the eggplant and chicken in tomato sauce was absolutely delicious), and the flight attendants did their best to keep the passengers hydrated. The plane made a brief stop in Bangkok before moving on to Ho Chi Minh City, which was somewhat annoying, but as we were allowed to stay and wait on the plane it was not a big problem. Throughout the journey, we could enjoy movies of our own choice. A completely different experience from Air China, which I took last week, despite the fact that both airline companies belong to the same international alliance.

Like most Europeans, I need a visa in order to visit Vietnam. There are two ways of getting a Vietnamese visa: one can either get one at a Vietnamese embassy or consulate abroad (and pay around 50 or 60 euros), or one can apply for a ‘visa on arrival’ online. Basically, you sign up for a visa at the site of a Vietnamese travel agency, who will then get the required permission from the immigration department, and send you a scanned copy of the official approval letter. This usually costs about 25 US dollars, but I found an agency that charged only 11 - I assume they have a ‘special connection’ within the immigration department. You print out the letter, which you hand in (together with a passport picture and a filled out visa application form) upon arrival at one of Vietnam’s international airports, after which you have to pay an additional 25 dollars ‘stamping fee’. In total, I paid 36 dollars.

Getting a visa on arrival is an excellent way to experience authentic Vietnamese efficiency. In stead of passing through immigration immediately, you have to go to a small office in a corner of the immigration hall. You are not the only one: several dozens of foreigners are standing and sitting around the office window, waiting for their visas. Some look completely alienated, others indifferent, others frustrated. If you are lucky, a queue has emerged spontaneously; if not, survival of the fittest. I was lucky. While queuing, however, I realised that I had not filled out the second visa application form, and I did not see any lying around. My wife went to a nearby desk and asked if she could get a copy of the form, which the young official behind the desk kindly gave her. In addition, he informed her that if we did not feel like waiting for a long time, it would of course be possible to get the visa faster – the ‘priority treatment’, so to speak. Everything can be arranged, after all, for everything has its price. Welcome back to Vietnam.

We did not pay him. We have had plenty of experience with Vietnamese corruption in the past, and I consider it a sick system that I do not wish to support if I do not have to. So I filled out the form, and waited for my turn. As I approached the office window, the queue dissolved into chaos. Some people were making applications, while others were paying their fees, while others got back their passports, while others were impatiently asking why they had to wait so long, while others were simply standing there, blocking the way for new applicants, naively believing that unlike everybody else they would get their visa within five minutes – all in front of the same desk.

Eventually, I handed in the letter, application form, a picture and my passport. We waited. As I had not bribed the officials, I did not receive ‘priority treatment’, so we had no choice but to be patient. After approximately forty uneasy minutes, during which several people received their passports and many more arrived and applied, I heard a lady say ‘Mitta Aika Piita Rót’. I assumed that she was referring to me, and my assumption turned out to be correct - so after paying the official fee I received my passport, together with its newest Vietnamese visa. The seventh, I counted.

Tan Son Nhat Airport is located inside the city. As we had a connecting flight the next day and did not feel like spending our first night in the city centre, we simply walked out of the airport, and stayed at a nearby hotel. Saigon triggered my senses. If you do not experience it for a while, you forget what tropical air feels like, only to be forcefully reminded when you return. It was not very hot, but the moist, warm air engulfed me like a bath, and the myriad strange yet familiar smells made me feel both dizzy and excited. But the most impressive feature of Saigon is the incredible amount of noise it constantly produces. No other city in the world has such a density of motorcycles, and they all produce a fair amount of sound. Add to that the noise of construction work, street vendors and shops vomiting loud dance music, and you get the cacophony that is called Ho Chi Minh City. 

We found a hotel not too far from the airport, with clean sheets, a bathtub and a minibar. We enjoyed a delicious first dinner of grilled fish, water spinach with garlic and fresh green herbs. My wife treated herself to her favourite food, the most disgusting fruit Creation has ever seen: durian. Everything was fine. We slept very well, until the noise of construction work downstairs woke us up at 7am - a lovely way to get over a double jetlag. Any first-time traveller to this country, be warned: earplugs are an absolute necessity. 

We somehow managed to catch some more sleep before we got up and checked out. We enjoyed delicious bún noodle soup and Vietnamese ice coffee with condensed milk. Afterwards, we walked back to the airport for our connecting flight, which would bring us to Hoi An where we were going to spend the holidays.

It is good to be back.

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