Vietnam - Ho Chi Minh City, My First International Stop
January 1, 1970
by Angelo Bell
On December 17th, 2017 I drove to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to catch an international flight to Vietnam. My trip to Vietnam actually took shape three months earlier when I met Nghia online. Nghia was the aunt of a shopkeeper I worked with at the Asian Garden Mall in Little Saigon (Westminster, CA). Nghia was studying English and her niece knew that, as a writer, mastery of the English language was very personal and important to me.
I agreed to help Nghia with her studies and pronunciation. One thing led to another. Soon, Nghia and I were having video chats on Facebook Messenger. We used social media to tackle her pronunciation issues and upload documents to clarify and re-translate poorly translated English documents she’d received in class. We also worked to polish her current events articles on wildlife preservation and air pollution in Vietnam.
Nghia and I wanted to take our friendship to the next level and that meant meeting in person. Because of the political climate it was much easier for me to travel to Vietnam than for her to travel to the USA.
When I told my family, friends and coworkers that I was going to Vietnam their first instinct was to warn me. Of course. Most of what we’ve heard about Vietnam is related directly to the events of the Vietnam war and the subsequent mass exodus of displaced Vietnamese into unwelcoming communities in the States. But those events occurred in another lifetime and things have changed drastically. In fact, things have changed so much that I wish I’d done even more research and prepared more thoroughly for my trip.
Current Day Tourist Visas
After the war, Vietnam was thrust into international isolation. Its emergence from this status began in 1989 and concluded after the Paris Agreements in 1991. It was then that Vietnamese troops were withdrawn from Cambodia. This new political stance allowed Vietnam to foster both diplomatic and economic relationships with ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nations) and luckily with many countries in Western Europe, with whom they now conduct business.
When the gates opened tourists and adventurers flocked to Vietnam. Hence the visa process became paramount. Obtaining a Visa to enter Vietnam is a simple process and costs from $24 to $50 USD depending where you go. To obtain a visa just visit a travel agent who coordinates travel to Vietnam. You’ll need a valid password, a passport-quality photograph (the agent may take one for you) and the fee. It typically takes a week for it to process but I’ve heard you get get a visa in just a few days.
I learned most of this on my own through trial, error and asking lost of questions. I work in an area heavily populated by Vietnamese. It was foolish of me not to confide more in the people around me. I should have asked for help, but I didn’t want to go through a massive Q & A session every time I inquired about travel arrangements and visas. So I went it alone. I still had Nghia in Ho Chi Minh City. My own personal tour guide.
International Flights and Layovers
Because of the sensitive diplomatic issues with Vietnam, only certain airlines are allowed to have direct flights between VN and Airlines. Most of these airlines must have standard and longterm diplomatic relationships with the Unites States. Airlines like China Air, Korean Air, Eva are all basically “allowed to enter US airspace in route from Southeast Asian countries.
I booked a flight on Vietnam Airlines, but the first and longest leg of my journey was provided by China Airlines. I walked into the International arrivals building at LAX and was immediately lost. I wondered, How do folks coming from other countries who don’t know English survive travel? I imagine that ‘not knowing’ is part of the adventure, but I am a chronic preparer. Every aspect of travel is on a need-to-know-everything basis.
I kept eyeing a long line and I felt bad going up and cutting the line. But I knew I’d feel even worse waiting hours on a long line for nothing. I finally saw the line for China Airlines and happily waited on that line.
At the check-in counter I was pleasantly surprised that my carry-on was well under the maximum weight of 7kg (about 15lbs). I was also happy to learn that I was allowed to check two bags if I needed to, and this could be done without a baggage fee. This information was vital for future trip planning.
TSA is always a hassle. The line was super long, but it moved only moderately slow. By the way, I’m always the guy who forgets to remove his belt or leaves his cell phone in his pockets. If you see me in line, run! Luckily I had a very patient TSA agent I assume he’s seen it all before.
And there I was, ninety minutes early, waiting at the gate for my plane. As I mentioned, this was my first flight since 2012 and my first ever international flight as a civilian. I was worried about the boarding procedure and that proved to be valid since I had no idea what the Zone 1, Zone 2 and Zone 3 was. So I winged it and got on the plane.
On the plane I got lucky. I had a seat in the middle but to my right was an empty seat. The only empty seat on the plane. The Flight Attendants noticed how uncomfortable I was and suggested I take the seat. It helped. But I also learned that had I purchased my tickets earlier I could have chosen a different seat, such as the seats near the emergency exits that offer more space.
Here’s the thing, I am a big guy. 5’10” (1.78 m) and 240 lbs 109 kg). It is simply a matter of patience to deal cramped coach seats on the occasional 6-hour flight from LA to NY (my hometown). However, a 22-hour flight traveling 22000 km is an entirely different scenario.
Despite the extra room and the empty seat I still felt too cozy. I made a decision then and there that for flights over eight hours I’d buy my tickets further in advance and be open to paying extra money to fly premium coach prices.
The first flight was about 14 hours long. I watched three movies, six episodes of The Big Bang Theory and played video games. The service was very good and the food was satisfactory.
I transferred at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport (TPE) and had a three-hour layover. After disembarking and going through an expedited customs screening process, which only took 35 minutes, I had nearly two hours of down time at one of the prettiest airports I’ve ever seen.
Granted, I grew up in New York, so my first exposure to airports was JFK. At the time it was not what I considered a classy airport. Later I became familiar with LaGuardia Airport. Still, not typically classy.
But TPE with is immaculate floors, marble columns, and high end Duty Free shops was intoxicating. However it was approximately 3am local time and it was very cold. I didn’t truly appreciate TPE until my return flight when I had more time.
Staying Connected Overseas
I had ordered International Data & Calling from Verizon before I left for my mobile service. The service was available as soon as I landed in Taipei and my phone attempted to roam the local network. I was only charged a flat rate of $10 per day if I used the service. The service allowed me to receive calls and texts from my children who were back in Southern California, 14,000 miles away. I ended up needing the service for a healthcare insurance issue that arose back in the States.
My plane arrived and three hours later I landed in Tan Son Nhat International Airport (SGN), Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The city is also affectionately known as Saigon by local and displaced Vietnamese men and women. Customs took just under twenty minutes and I was off to Arrivals. I was happy I only traveled with carry-on luggage and I vowed I’d do this forever. My ride, Nghia, was late.
I waited in an area of Tan Son Nhat that reminded me of the Car Rental stations at LAX. Only, there were no cars, just Taxi stations, kiosks to transfer money or buy a new SIM card for your phone.
It’s A Different World Than Where You Come From
Two things struck me when I exited the main Arrivals area of the airport: first was the outside Burger King cafe with pictures of phở on the menu. The second thing was the smog. I gagged on the carbon dioxide and petrol pollution in the air. I hoped that as I got further away from the airport the pollution issue would decrease. Just as the current events article I assisted Nghia write stated, air pollution is a major issue in HCMC.
Nghia called from an Uber to tell me she was on her way to Tan Son Nhat. I told her the number of the huge pylon I waited near. The taxi drove up, paused just long enough for me to throw my bags in, give Nghia a hug and to hop in.
We drove in traffic to Hotel Ngoc Ha in the Bên Thành area. It was a twenty minute drive and I marveled at the scooters that drove dangerously close to our taxi. There were so many of them buzzing around like flies, operating in this odd sense of harmonious chaos.
Nghia gabbed with the taxi driver in Vietnamese for most of the entire trip. I was annoyed that I’d flown all this way just to feel alone in an Uber. They talked so much I even snarkily asked, “Do you know this guy?” I later learned that she had felt nervous at meeting me.
We arrived at the hotel and Nghia handled all the check-in translations for me. I almost went ballistic when the concierge asked to keep my passport. Nghia explained that it was customary. Nevertheless I felt obliged to remind the person not to lose my passport. (wait until you read Part II: What happened when I checked out!)
Food, Glorious Food
A quick shower, shave and an additional five minutes to brush the airline food off my teeth and we were on our way to a local spot called Tan Lap (Established 2000) for phở and rice. I forgot to get the “333” beer. I am told it was originally produced in 1983 and called Beer 33. Legend says, Beer 33 has a cameo in a few American war movies about Vietnam. To distance the product from those movies and the war, another “3” was added to the product name.
During dinner Nghia finally warmed up to the idea of a big strange American man keeping her company for the next week. She leaned in closer and said, “Smiling and happy, now you look like and feel like the man I have chatted with for many months.”
Nghia relaxed but jet lag hit me like a ton of wet bricks and I had to go back to the hotel to sleep. After my nap, we returned to Tan Lap for more soup and I had a Heineken.
We went for a walk to find an ATM machine and that’s when I was exposed to the endless scooters. I’d taken video of the scooters from the Uber but there was nothing like sharing the streets and the sidewalk with these mini monster machines. Scooters are the primary mode of travel for people in HCMC and you’ll see far more scooters than vehicles. They even have a scooter Uber, locally known as Xe Ôm or “Scooter Hug.”
Hung Ky Mi Gia
The next morning we had a breakfast meet up with Nghia’s brother, Thanh Tân at a restaurant called Hung Ky Mi Gia. We had asked around for recommendations and we were directed to a nice spot close by. I had authentic Vietnamese coffee (not hot enough for me, though) and some kind of breakfast soup (I call it) with pigeon eggs inside. I do not like eggs but, as they say, when in Rome…
We went back to the hotel to relax, sleep and shower. The temperature averaged 85F (29C) and we walked mostly everywhere. At the hotel both Nghia and I had some work to do. I had to outline a Personal Statement I was writing for a client applying to law school. Nghia had to complete an English homework assignment.
The jet lag was ratcheting up its affects on me at this point. It got so bad I searched online for a better clue as to why I would get so dramatically tired. I came to the conclusion that I was dehydrated and I set out to stock the hotel fridge with water. Silly me, I didn’t realize that the water in the refrigerator the housemaid kept stocking every morning was free. I imagined it would be 3x normal prices like the hotels in Southern California.
It’s important to note that I tipped her almost every day. It’s customary. There was one or two days that I did not see her but Nghia did. We tipped the doorman every other day and we tipped the gentleman who took care of Nghia’s scooter for the day and a half it stayed over.
Here’s another thing worth noting. Most of the locals people we came in contact with were adamant in their belief that I was not American. They believed that because of my dark skin I could only be African. They were half right. In the eyes of many native Vietnamese (especially women), Americans are caucasian. Period.
Nghia got cornered in the elevator once by the cleaning crew. She was asked questions by the older cleaning staff in the hotel. We learned that they all believed I was a Government Official from Africa. Again, they were half right ?
Ice Cream and Seafood
After we were rested we called an Uber to meet up with eight of Nghia’s friends from her English Class. We had ice cream at Haagen-Dazs and decided to extend the party at a local sidewalk/back alley seafood restaurant. The mussels in butter sauce were delicious!
After dinner I was exhausted. Jet lag was hitting me again and I couldn’t wait to go back to the hotel to sleep. If I haven’t mentioned it yet, Vietnam is 15 hours ahead of me in Southern California. During Daylight Savings time it is only 14 hours ahead. Still, it’s enough to throw anyone’s circadian rhythms out of whack.
We had a very busy schedule planned for the next three days which included shopping for T-shirts at Ben Thanh Market, finding an adapter for my phone so I could charge it, purchasing a wireless mouse for my laptop and my first scooter ride.