Visa runs can be a daunting and mundane activity but something that we regularly are required to do in order to remain in Thailand. Combining it with a chance to see some of the wonders of Asia can really take the strain away. Ho Chi Minh is rich with history, culture and elegance. Read firsthand one writer’s stirring experience of the city and all it has to offer.
I have been an expat in Thailand now for 9 years. I’ve had the misfortune of having to leave the country for renewal of visa and work permit on several occasions. Having visited a number of the neighbouring countries to apply to renew my paperwork, this year my professional advisers, if I may refer to them as that, are supposed to guide me accordingly and give me the necessary advice to stop me from falling foul of the authorities and the regulations here in Thailand. But it seems that this year, as happens almost every year, something, somewhere goes wrong. The last time was as a result of filing late accounts which in turn delayed me from renewing my visa, which then resulted in an ‘overstay’.
Immigration laws in Thailand are constantly changing, so I had to leave the country to register my documents in an overseas consulate yet again.
Since moving to Thailand I’ve travelled to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore in Malaysia and to Phnom Penh in Cambodia. This time when my lawyers yet again, after doing exactly the same thing 3 months ago, failed to inform me or comply with the regulations here in Thailand it meant that I had to leave the country once more.
I decided to go and Vietnam this time and flew to Ho Chi Minh. 15-day visas are available on arrival. I flew out on Sunday evening with Thai Airways, business class, at 19,800B. The taxi to the airport cost me 500B, and I fought my way through duty free spending far too much money on things I really didn’t need. I settled downstairs in the business club lounge with a drink and some water and waited for my flight.
I left Thailand Sunday evening and arrived in Ho Chi Minh 70 minutes later. It was a pleasant flight and not knowing Ho Chi Minh in any way, shape or form, or indeed where the hotel that I was staying was, I asked the gentlemen I sat next to if he knew where the hotel was. He said that he did and he was very kind and offered me a lift to my hotel. He said that it was on the way but I’m sure he was just being a hospitable local and showing kindness to a fellow traveller (not something encountered much nowadays) and was happy to get his driver to drop me off.
They dropped me off at the Aristo Saigon Hotel in district 3 in downtown Ho Chi Minh. I checked into the four-star hotel. All seemed well. Agoda had given it an average of 8.1 listing and the hotel room, although compact was well equipped and most importantly it had a comfy bed. I had a cold local beer, a Saigon Original, and stayed in the hotel for the evening.
The following morning I went to the reception and told them I needed to go to the Thai consulate. They wrote the address down and put me in a taxi. The traffic in downtown Ho Chi Minh is very busy with thousands of motorcycles. Everyone it seems drives a motorcycle but the car managed to battle through.
When I arrived at the Thai Consulate the small office was empty. What a bonus I thought. The two young Thai ladies were delightful, very helpful and spoke perfect English. They checked the paperwork that I presented and told me that the fee was 80USD. As ever not being well prepared, I didn’t have any dollars so was directed across the road to a Vietnam Airline’s office who would, I was told, change currency for me. Regrettably, I didn’t have enough Vietnamese Dong either, I am a bit of a loser when it comes to understanding foreign currencies!
I am definitely going to go back to carrying 2 x 100 USD notes in my travel wallet in future. I did it for years as the highest, most accepted currency in the world. I was directed to an ATM, some streets away and fed my credit card into the machine and got 2 million or 4 million Vietnamese Dong out – hey I thought, I’m a millionaire! It didn’t really mean a great deal though as the currency here is not terribly advanced. I went to the adjoining bank with the currency thinking that I would change it to Dollars for the fee but no. After queuing up for 10 minutes, the bank informed me that they couldn’t do that. Apparently, there is some silly government regulation that they can’t change Vietnamese Dong into Dollars? So I walked back to the Vietnamese Airlines office gave them my Dong and they gave me the required 80 USD.
I went across the road and paid my fee. I was told to collect my passport the following day between 1.30 – 3 pm. I left the consulate and asked the taxi driver to stop at Starbucks, missing my daily fix. He then dropped me back to the hotel where I changed. The humidity was pretty intense so I needed to change from my formal wear to more relaxed, casual attire.
I then went walkabout and was told that just down the road there was a museum, the War Remnants Museum. I paid my 15,000 B entry (75 cents of a US dollar) got my little sticker and walked into the 3 or 4 storey museum.
In the grounds outside there were various aircraft, fighters, bombers, helicopters, tanks, heavy artillery and warfare. I went into the museum which was open sided and had a number of people milling around. I wandered around looking at the photographs, maps and gift shops. I went up a floor to various rooms that were sectioned off. All in all, it was pretty sad. The photographs mainly in black and white were poignant and at times horrific. The atrocity of such a pointless war! You certainly needed a strong stomach wandering around looking at the many photographs.
One room was all about torture and also covered some of the machines or ‘instruments of torture’. I was told afterwards that many of these were from the French occupation of Vietnam. There were so many sad photographs on the walls with detailing the atrocities of war. I wandered around looking at the various other tourists, Asian and Western, and I think everyone felt the same way as I did, sombre. It didn’t really make for an enjoyable excursion.
I went into one room which was all about ‘agent orange’. Admittedly not something I understand terribly well. I was only about 10 when the Vietnam War was happening and I’ve never read up about it, not being a great fan of war, but the pictures on the wall were horrific. Various deformities and it seems that this ‘agent orange’ was sprayed liberally on the country by the huge American fighter-bombers with trails of vapour coming out of the back end decimating everything beneath them. Forestation stripped clean, fields left bare, homes decimated and the people, well, it seemed that no one really thought about the people.
There were various photographs of the people left over after the war and many had deformities of some form, babies born without legs or limbs, adults covered with blistered skin, deformities of the face, arms, legs, limbs and the torso.
Unfortunately, it was just before lunch and I’m afraid that I couldn’t stomach food after I had walked around this room. The last thing that I could do was eat.
I talked to a couple of the locals who spoke perfect English. The beauty of Vietnam is that many of the people do speak English, I guess, due to the French and the American occupation and because of the heritage and the past. I went into the shop and bought some books and some small gifts and things to take back home; a crash helmet, t-shirts, some silk and linen scarfs, some wall pictures made using rice, I just felt I had to do my bit, no matter how small.
Later that day I wandered around and the streets. Everyone I met was very pleasant, kind and courteous to me. I walked to the market, the main market that sold local arts and crafts, t-shirts, jeans, bags and watches, all of the usual stuff that you would expect to see. The vendors enthusiastically and desperately tried to sell me at every junction. Did I want a bag, a wallet, T-shirt, a watch? Again I bought various gifts to take back home for my family but my day was scarred by what I’d seen at the War Remnants Museum.
All in all, I was very impressed with Vietnam, Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City as it is now called.
I never understand why the locals change the names of these cities. Mumbai was Bombay, Ho Chi Minh was Saigon and so on. I guess there must be good reasons for it but I don’t understand why? The local people that I met and engaged on the streets – the staff in the hotel were all very pleasant. They looked after me very well. The hospitality was very pleasant and well received.
I still don’t quite understand how much money I spent but my bill for two nights was just over 4 million Dong, from what I understand that is about 200 dollars so a bargain it would seem for two nights stay in a four-star hotel.
It rained a lot. It’s pouring with rain now. Everyone on the motorbikes is wearing a cape or is holed up by the side of the road taking shelter from the rain – monsoon rains, pretty extreme to say the least. But everyone it seems is getting on with life here in Saigon; Ho Chi Minh; Vietnam, despite the past.
I’m glad I’m not American though … because if I was then I think I would ashamed to admit it.