Day 1 – Part One:
The course of true travel never did run smooth. Or something.
Holy travel gods did I royally mess up this journey. It’s been a good long while since I’ve traveled anywhere that requires a visa, and because I felt my visa-requirement-investigation-skills weren’t quite up to snuff, I relied on my sister and bro-in-law to supply the information.
Mind you, my sister, Karen, and her hubs, Manny, are currently on a 400+ day trip around the world. They’re constantly scouting their next location, figuring out complex logistical puzzles, scouring the interwebs for cheap flights, etc. More than once they’ve been up well past 4am trying to pin down details for their next stop. All of this is to say, turns out that traveling full-time is actually a full-time job, and those two are drowning in details (while also having crazy adventurous good times)! And all of THAT is to say, it’s no surprise that at some point or another, they might get a detail or two wrong. Unluckily for me, in this case, it was whether or not one needs a visa to enter Vietnam. Because while they thought one didn’t, it turns out that one does. And this one (i.e. me), as of nine hours before my flight to Vietnam, did not, in fact, have one. Following? Basically, bad news bears and I’m a stupid idiot.
Now, here’s when I am grateful for the N in my INTJ. Early in the planning phase for this trip, I’d done some light investigation into the matter myself, but I’d basically taken their word as gold. No visa required? Cool. Seems like a bother anyway. But at about 10pm the night before my flight, my intuition kicked in and I decided that, you know what?… wouldn’t it suck if after 25 hours of travel, I arrived at my location only to be turned back? (I forgot that I wouldn’t even be allowed on the plane in Minnesota without a visa, but that’s besides the point.) So, I looked into the matter just to be sure, and sure enough… one needs, at VERY least, a letter of approval for a Visa-on-arrival. And that takes eight hours to process. Oh, and did I mention this was on a Sunday?
In a stroke of incredible luck, it turns out there are tons of sites that process these letters of approval, but they all look scammy AF. Even the Vietnamese embassy warns against using many of them. After some frantic research, though, I learned that the embassy might not be all that objective, as a big part of their incoming $$$ comes from visa fees, so they obviously have a reason to turn people away from these speedy third-party sites. It was all a tangled web of misinformation and general confusion. Not to mention extreme panic. Once midnight hit, I realized that I could either figure out a way to get this letter of approval processed at lighting speed ON A SUNDAY, or it was time to start planning an intricate, awful, annoying, and soul-dimming plan b.
After much combing through travel blogs and Trip Advisor, I found the winning site, one that looked like it would phish all my info and maybe even trick me into giving away my first-born daughter. They had a “super urgent” option, promising that the approval letter could be sent within half an hour, Sunday be damned. Sounds too good to be true, right? Couldn’t agree more. But I was at the end of my rope. The clock was ticking quickly, and I needed something to show when I checked-in in less than six hours. So I ponied up the $125 and prayed that the Mother Goddess was on my side. I called the number on the site to make sure there was an actual human on the other end—there was. I called again after paying to make sure they’d received it—they had. And then, with nothing left for me to do, I finally went to sleep at 2:30am, my alarm set for a far-too-early 6:30am. Four hours of sleep before a 25-hour journey. Served me right.
My eyes seemed barely to flutter closed before the alarm was screeching in my ear. Up ya go, to maybe or maybe not hop on a flight to Vietnam to meet your sis and Manny. To maybe or maybe not be turned back when you get there because #scam. Checked my email and BAM! There it was. Something that looked like an official enough (to my untrained eye) letter of approval in Vietnamese. I got up, hastily finished packing what I’d deferred doing in the great panic of the night before, and drove to the airport with my worried mom in tow.
Good ‘ole Twin Cities and its friendly folk. The check-in process was seamless as could be. My hand was visibly shaking as I passed over the letter of approval to the chipper American Airlines helper-person (what do you call someone who helps you check-in via a kiosk?!) Her eyes scanned the letter, then she plugged in the dates I was approved for, and that was that. I was in. I cleared checkpoint number one. PHEW. Now, to try and tamp down my anxiety about the final checkpoint, Vietnam’s immigration, until 25 hours hence. Easier said than done, my friends. Easier said than done.
Hectic, havoc-laden, and harrowing though was the night before my flight, the travel itself proved blissfully uneventful. The trip to Chicago was short and sweet, staffed by some no-nonsense flight attendants who weren’t tolerating any time-wasting or out-of-bounds behavior. During the layover in Windy City I happily found the book I’d neglected to buy, but so badly wanted, for this trip! A Quiet Gentleman by Graham Greene, set in, you guessed it, Vietnam. (Also, somehow, and I don’t know how, a gorgeous edition of Frankenstein also made it into my bag. Who knows how it got there. What? Yes, of course I paid for it.) The 12-hour flight to Tokyo was quiet as could be. I watched The Devil Wears Prada and Clueless because apparently, I’m basic. I tried to sleep, but a giant army dude next to me kept drifting into my space. I sooooooo enjoyed my layover in Tokyo. Then the final leg. Five and half hours to Ho Chi Minh city, with 50/50 odds (made those up) that I’d be allowed into the country. There was some fretful sleep had on that last flight, but I snuck in a Z or two before finally, and I do mean finally, landing in Vietnam.
Off the plane, legs stretched, full on panic quickly coming on, I hustled to immigration to find out for certain: will I stay or will I go?! Almost at once I spotted a diminutive man who stood holding a little sign that read, “Lisa Walden.” So far, so good. I walked up to him, hope and desperation written in my bloodshoot, jetlagged eyes, and I don’t even remember what he said. All I know is that within two minutes he’d disappeared with my passport, and I was left filling out an immigration form, wondering if I’d just had my passport stolen. My new friend (or foe) was nowhere in sight. But a minute or two later he hurried back. “Photos?” “No,” I sheepishly answered. “Five dollars.” “Ok…?” He cut the line of people waiting for their own visa’s to be issued, and a woman stepped out from behind the processing area with a camera and took my picture. As this now confirmed friend of mine zipped around helping other freshly arrived visitors, I watched in exhausted silence as everyone buzzed around me. Back he came, with my passport in hand and a freshly stamped visa pasted within. YASSS!!! Then he took me to another line, which he promptly skipped, and I handed over my passport to an immigration officer. Thirty seconds later it was done. I was in, and the burden I’d carried with me since my studio apartment in Uptown, Minneapolis melted away as I fairly floated with joy.
Next up, the luggage carousel. The helpful man accompanied me there and was going to wait with me until I received my luggage, but he had many other people on his list so I thanked him profusely and sent him on his way. Turning back to the carousel, I almost expected that as a result of a karmic cosmic balance thing, I wouldn’t get my luggage. And that was totally fine with me because it was only fair and holy mothers I am a lucky gal. But nope, my lucky streak continued. I collected my suitcase and ventured past customs out to the warm night air of Ho Chi Minh. I found the driver my hotel had sent to fetch me, and after settling myself into his car, I quite literally smiled the entire ride to the hotel. I made it. I freaking made it.
Ho Chi Minh (still often called Saigon by locals and tourists alike) is two shots of espresso straight to the bloodstream. Make that four. Lights, cars, a buzz of people on scooters flitting here and there. Horns honking as a tool to carve through traffic, not the angry signal of displeasure that we’re used to in the West. I rely on my intuition quite a bit (as may be inferred from Part One of this tale), and within five minutes I knew… I love it here. It’s a strong flavor, a punch to the face, a place you either love passionately or hate passionately, and I love it.
My hotel check-in was easy enough. It’s a nice, upscale spot. I didn’t want to slum it on my first few nights, especially as I’m alone for this first little bit. Bed turned down, shower taken, family contacted, and then sweet, sweet sleep, at very long last.
I woke up WAY later than intended. My phone was still on Minnesota time, so a 10am wake-up didn’t happen. At noon I peeled my heavy eyelids apart, but then lounged around for the next seven hours. Yup. Seven. Hours. This jet lag ain’t no joke, and I typically don’t succumb to it. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t sleep for those seven hours. I just lazed. And also researched things to do. But mostly lazed.
At 5pm, I ventured out of my cave and made my way downstairs. When the elevator door opened up, a flood of music washed over me. There were a couple of women, dressed in what I presume is some sort of traditional Vietnamese garb, playing two of the most odd-looking (to me) instruments I’ve ever seen! I have no idea what they were. One of the women looked like she was plucking notes out of thin air. Her fingers weren’t touching any actual strings. What magical witches of music and wonder! The music was melancholy, and the artists were enchanting to watch, both setting just the right tone for my first real day in this country. I grabbed a seat, stuffed some veggie snacks down my gullet, and sipped coffee while enjoying the performance.
Next, I hit up the front desk. While the staff does speak English, it was still a struggle to communicate. I need to learn more Vietnamese phrases, methinks. Despite the struggle, they were gracious and patient, so helpful, so kind, and also weirdly mocking. In the best way. Like… hmm, mocking isn’t the right word. Full of laughter at the funny foibles of life, and full of laughter at silly little tourist me figuring things out on my first day. They were delightful. They hooked me up with a SIM card, some Vietnamese currency, and a plan for where to get my first full meal. I hopped in a cab and headed to a vegetarian restaurant for a much-anticipated taste of Vietnamese cuisine.
Ten minutes or so in the cab, and I was at the locale. It was a hole-in-the wall vegetarian restaurant. There were maybe eight tables total, two of which were occupied by locals. Looking at the prices, I realized I didn’t have quite enough local currency if I wanted to take a cab home afterwards. I asked a waiter if they took USD, but he didn’t understand. He called over another waiter and they just kept pointing to the asterix at the bottom of the menu which read something along the lines of, “We can assure you that all the food items are vegetarian and made with mock meats.” So I was assured I’d have a meatless meal, but I needed the cash to pay them for it. The two locals started talking (and laughing) amongst themselves, and one turned to me and said that the other would exchange me $10 USD for 200,000 VND. Now, the exchange rate is more like $10 USD for 220,000 VND, but hey, she was helping me out and I wasn’t going to begrudge her earning a buck in the process. I thanked her, and ordered “beef” Pho, going classic for my very first meal.
They served it up within five minutes. Once the bowl hit the table, a little five-year-old (the daughter, I’m assuming, of my friendly cash lady) came over to instruct me on how to eat my meal. She went as far as to grab one of the herbs on my plate with her tiny chubby fingers, break it into three pieces, and place them into my soup. A bit gross? Yup. But I was so charmed by that bubbly creature to care very much. Plus the soup was really boiling hot, so hopefully it boiled away any lil kiddo germs away? Oh, and by the way, the cost of my meal? A whopping $1.65. Incredible.
Grub consumed, I went to check out the Ben Thanh market, one that sells all sorts of wares from souvenirs to clothes to jewelry, sweets, and street food. Most of the vendors were closing up shop, but I managed to get a good look in the fifteen or so minutes I was there. The next stop in my chill night of wandering was a highly rated craft beer pub called Pasteur Street. I ordered a flight of six different beers. There were some interesting options in the mix, like a pomelo IPA, passionfruit wheat ale, and dragonfruit sour. A flight was very much in order, and so that’s what I ordered. The staff was ridiculously friendly. Two women bartenders talked up a storm, and told me the best spots for coffee as well as gave me tips on pronunciation for phrases and cities I’ll be visiting (Hue… not pronounced like Philips Hue… bahaahahaha.)
When I was ready to leave, they warned me that it was raining quite heavily. I told them I had a rain jacket with me, and that I’d be fine for my short walk back to the hotel. But as I walked downstairs, one of them followed me out with an umbrella. I was confused… did she want me to pay for it? Was she going to accompany me home? “Take this,” she smiled. “Don’t worry about bringing it back. It’s ok.” Say what? For serious? I’m obviously going to return it tomorrow and told her as much. But she didn’t seem to care. She just wanted to make sure that I’d make it home without getting soaked. Such kindness. Like I said, I love it here. I’m sure I’ll encounter my fair share of hustling, scammy, pushy people ahead, but for now, my first impression of this place is: one of warmth (both literal and figurative), personality aplenty, and a colorful adventure for all the senses.