Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – January 23, 2015
Our trip to Vietnam was arranged; transportation and accommodations and I was ready to relax when Len asked why I booked rooms for days that aren’t covered by our 30 day visa? What? I couldn’t have made that kind of mistake, I thought. I quickly grabbed all my papers, looking for the exact date our visa starts and pulled up the calendar to check the date. Damn, I screwed up! I almost cried. This meant more work, cancelling the hotel that I just booked would cost $51, finding another hotel for our time in Ho Chi Minh and rethinking our plans for our time there. Our four days in Ho Chi Minh now turned into one day. Our plan would be to go with the flow and see what sparks our interest at the time. Now we just had to get there.
We took the bus from Phnom Penh, Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The bus ride was to be about 6 ½ hours. Within minutes of getting on the bus we were asked to hand over our passports to the bus porter. Reluctantly we did, as he was collecting all the passengers’ passports, assumedly to list us for fast tracking, once we got to the border. We traveled along the rough and bumpy Cambodian road for about 2 hours before arriving at the Cambodian border. We were handed back out passports, got out of bus and went to deal with the Cambodian border officials, to exit the country, which was a relatively easy process.
We then stopped for a 20 minute lunch break, before we were to cross the Vietnam border, which was not so easy. Our bus drove across the border to wait for us on the Vietnam side. However, we had to get all our baggage, and walk across the border, along with the many hundreds of others who were crossing at the same time as us. We started with a huge lineup outside a small building. We received no direction from anyone, nor were there any signs about what line or what desk was for what purpose. We needed to get a $30 USD ($38 CAD) 30 day visa to enter Vietnam. Sooo… once we were finally into the undersized building we slowly made our way to a counter to complete forms for our visas. We then waited, as patiently as we could, to step forward and have our photos and fingerprints taken. We then turned in our passports for visa processing. We were jammed in this undersized building on a hot, hot day (no air-conditioning) with hundreds of tired, hot, sweaty and grouchy foreigners, all with baggage, standing shoulder to shoulder and hip to hip. Everyone, less the staff, were all thoroughly unimpressed with what felt like to us, absolute chaos. Add that into the fact that we were coming into a foreign Communist country, and you have a bit of an image of our welcome into Vietnam.
After turning in our passports and paying our fees, we simply had to wait for them to be processed. We learned by observation that the visas were being bulk processed and then turned over in huge stacks to officials (as you can see in the photo). They called out the first names of peoples’ passports, when you heard your name you would step forward through the crowd, “…excuse me, sorry, excuse me…”, and claim your passport. This took what seemed like forever. Then I, Noah and Aurora were called to claim our passports. We waited for Len’s name to be called but his passport was not in the stack with ours. When I looked at our three visas, Aurora’s passport was stamped as “no fee”. No fee!!! We just paid $151 CAD for our visas, with no receipt. We were not going to start our time in Vietnam by giving away $38 that we didn’t need to. I asked Len to go back and ask for a refund. Len was already anxious about coming to Vietnam, so he was not eager to go back and ask for our money back from the frowning border staff, but he did. He came back saying the customs agent looked annoyed at the request, but reluctantly refunded the money. This didn’t stop Len from sweating though, as he was still waiting for his passport to be returned. We went ahead, dragging our bags, and putting them through the x-ray security camera onto another customs official. No problems with our bags, good! Now onto the official to inspect our passports and newly issued visas. It was pretty uneventful for us, but not for him, as we interrupted him, the lone official at a small desk, from watching a women’s exercise program on his smart phone. He stamped our passports and mumbled something and waved us on. All the while we are still waiting for Len to get his passport and finish his entry into Vietnam. He finally got his passport/visa and wrestled his way through the grumpy foreigners waiting for their passports/visas. He cleared the x-ray machine and the bored customs official and came out of the building dragging his bag (the biggest bag we have). We then slowly made our way towards the bus and other passengers who were impatiently waiting for us. Whew!! We are now in Vietnam!!
With only one full day in Ho Chi Minh City, or as the locals still call it, Saigon, we knew we had to make the most of our time. We knew we didn’t want to see anymore markets, temples, or any war related sites, so we booked a tour through our hotel. Our tour was to the Upper Mekong River and it started with being picked up at our hotel at 8am by a tour bus. We then rode for about two hours passing by rice fields, small villages and locals working in the fields.
Our first stop was at a farm village where we learned a little about honey bee farming, we enjoyed some honey tea and fruit and listened to local musicians playing traditional Vietnamese instruments. From there we walked to the river where we boarded hand-rowed Samoans (traditional wooden boats). Under the shadows of the coconut trees and river foliage with a local villager, we were rowed along with the fast flowing current through these natural waterways until we arrived at a family run coconut candy making business. We learned how coconut candy is made and packaged, sampled some of the candy then of course we bought some too. It was a very amazing process. Nothing of the coconut goes to waste.
While there, another product we were shown was Snake Oil. Len stepped outside his comfort zone, and gave it a try, yes Snake Oil. High potency alcohol with a preserved Cobra Snake and a Scorpion, in the bottle. He drank his shot, but from the look on his face, Len did not enjoy it at all. Of course we resisted the requests to buy a bottle of this local fire water.
Then it was off to board another, larger Dragon Boat, for cruising down the Mekong River. We passed floating villages and stilted houses. Boats docked alongside the shores that were obviously permanent residents’ homes. The riverbanks laden with coconut palms, rice fields and orchards. After about a forty five minute boat ride, we arrived at an Island, where we relaxed and enjoyed some lunch. Following lunch we boated back along the same scenic route of the river. Two other things I clearly remember from this part of our journey was our chance to see locals harvesting seaweed from the river (we saw dozens of people doing this from their traditional wooden boats) and for the first time since leaving Europe I saw a Cathedral church steeple. We have seen so many temples and wats in South East Asia, it seemed odd to see this assumedly Catholic cathedral along the river (we later discovered that approximately 20% of the area is Catholic).
The final stop on our tour was to the Vinh Trang Pagoda where we saw the largest happy Buddha. You can’t help but smile when you look into his face and see this smiling jolly Buddha. There are three giant Buddhas at this pagoda, a reclining Buddha that represents the past, the standing Buddha that represents the present and the Happy sitting Buddha that represents the future.
Overall, the tour was well worth the $15 USD per person we paid (which included lunch, water and snacks). We didn’t have to deal with people begging you to buy postcards or fridge magnets, which was a wonderful bonus. It was a great way the see life in rural Vietnam.