Our trip to Vietnam and Cambodia started in Vietnam’s largest, most Western-orientated city. Although it was renamed to Ho Chi Minh City in 1975, to the locals it’s still Saigon. Our flight was uneventful – Brisbane to Singapore to Saigon. But getting through Immigration was… interesting.
To set the picture I should mention visas. Australians need visas to visit Vietnam and Cambodia and on this trip we needed a multiple entry visa for Vietnam because we would be crossing over to Cambodia for several days before crossing back into Vietnam in the middle of the Mekong River. It was made clear to us that an e-visa for Vietnam would not be acceptable because of that river crossing. The immigration people board the tour boat and don’t have access to reliable internet. Our travel person suggested a broker who would take our passports, get the appropriate visa and return them to us.
Yeah right. Neither of us fancied the idea of handing over our passports so we did some homework at the Australian government travel site and the Vietnamese embassy in Australia. Seems the Vietnamese government had got wise to the dodgy visa brokers and come up with a better (cheaper) approach. You apply for your visa online and send a scan of the information page on your passport and a passport sized photo. And you fill in the form, taking care those passport details are accurate. Within a couple of days they send you back an approval letter, you send money via a direct deposit to the embassy, and in a couple more days you get a shiny, official, printed visa with your picture. We’d had to argue the toss with the travel people that these were not e-visas and would be accepted for the Mekong River crossing. I can tell you in hindsight they worked as intended, so don’t get a Vietnam visa through a broker.
There are other visa traps for non-Australian travellers, too. People with UK passports don’t need a visa – for a stay of up to fifteen days. But if you exceed that fifteen days, yes, you do need a visa. A few members of our group fell foul of that one, requiring swift action from our group leader to get visas (at a price, of course) via the Phnom Penh embassy. So wherever you come from, do your visa homework and go via the Vietnamese embassy.
But we weren’t in the country yet. We were queued up with about a couple of thousand other people, shuffling our way along those conga lines you always find at airports. The goal at the end of the conga line was to pick which of the twenty or so lines to the immigration officials checking passports one at a time was moving the fastest. We were there in that vast, crowded shed for near on an hour and a half. But our visas were fine.
Later, we discovered our fellow travellers, who didn’t arrive a day early as we had, were hustled through the formalities by APT staff in a few minutes. How about that?
Our luggage, along with everyone else’s, had long since been moved off the conveyor belts. We grabbed our bags and waltzed through customs. The only thing they seemed to be interested in was carrying too much cash. It’s easy to do in Vietnam. One million Vietnamese dong is around AU$62.40.
We met our APT contact who would take us to our hotel and provide us with some starting information. He was a nice lad who’d been in Australia for a year on a working visa. Being able to speak English is an invaluable asset which opens doors to people without professional skills. This lad was an example. He’ll probably be a tour guide in a year or two.
Saigon had been the capital of South Vietnam’s pro-Western regime after it ousted the French in 1954 and it was that government which asked for American help against Ho Chi Minh’s Soviet-backed army. The Americans left in 1975, leaving the South Vietnamese to their fate when the communists took over.
We found in our journeys that there is still a gulf between the north and the south. In 1975 anyone who had worked for the South’s government was a target, whatever their role. They were sent to re-education camps to learn the error of their ways while they worked in the paddy fields. Our tour guide, Long, was himself one of the original boat people in the eighties, those who paid money to escape Vietnam in fishing boats, hoping to make it to Hong Kong or Indonesia or Australia. We all know some who did make it but many drowned or were caught up by pirates. Long told us about his girlfriend who was raped and murdered at the camp where he was interred in Indonesia. He himself was sent back to Vietnam when the rules were changed and he was declared an economic immigrant. He endured six months of re-education, but by then conditions were not as severe. Even so, these days, although he is permitted to travel within South-East Asia, he said the Vietnamese government would not allow him to travel to the US, Europe, or Australia. Another local guide told us about her uncle, a pilot in the South’s air force. He escaped from re-education and made it to the US, but several of his brothers disappeared when trying to leave in fishing boats.
As it happens, we had an interesting encounter in the business lounge at Saigon airport on our way home. We’d noticed a tall man carrying a cold weather coat in the queue ahead of us as we went through immigration. We ended up sitting next to him in the lounge and he asked to borrow one of my USB ports to charge his phone. After a bit of chat he told us he lived in New York and had escaped from Vietnam, aged two months, just as the communists took over. He showed us pictures on his phone of his grandmother and her family and another of family members, including his cleric uncle, outside Saigon’s Notre Dame cathedral. His family had been part of the final South Vietnamese government and they’d had the influence to enlist American help to get them out. What would have happened if they hadn’t escaped? He referred to Cambodia’s Killing Fields, where Pol Pot divested himself of his political opponents. More about that later.
The trip to the hotel, located in the centre of the city, was an eye-opener. Pete and I have been around a few places in our time, seen some crazy driving. But this was special. One of the papers we were given about Saigon’s places to go included a long paragraph on ‘Crossing the Street’.
This was entirely necessary because there don’t appear to be any hard and fast road rules beyond ‘sort of keep right and if you’re a car, stop at red lights if you can’t sneak through.’ The motor ways are a little more controlled but the city streets are clogged with traffic, most of it low capacity motor bikes. Saigon has thirteen million people and something like eight million motor bikes. Motor bikes don’t obey any rules. If they can’t make a way in the road they use the footpath – which is interesting because the footpaths are often used as paid-for bike parking in between the street sellers hawking noodles, fruit, coconut water, etcetera
You’re right, there’s not much room for pedestrians.
The Park Hyatt is a five-star hotel so the room was great and the prices for anything extra were five star as well. Still, sometimes it’s easier to pay $$$$ than mess about finding a cheaper alternative.
Next time we’ll take a walk on the wild side and show you a bit of Saigon. In the meantime, we spent an evening in one of the hotel bars drinking expensive drinks (even at half price) watching the traffic in the road outside. Please note the car doing a U turn and look out for the pedestrian crossing the road.