Monday, September 19, 2016

Sai-going, Sai-going, Saigon – Erich

You know how Istanbul was Constantinople, but now it's Istanbul, not Constantinople? Well, the same is true in another major city that isn't its nation's capital. Ho Chi Minh City was Saigon, but now it's Ho Chi Minh City, not Saigon. Been not quite as long a time gone for Saigon. Now it's Vietnamese delight on a tropical night.

The other day we flew into Ho Chi Minh City. Though the airport code is SGN, a throwback to those bygone Saigon days. Our arrival was not smooth, which is not a complaint about the plane. The landing was very smooth. It was after we exited the aircraft that things got rough.

Vietnam is one of the nations that requires U.S. citizens to have a visa to enter. You don't have to get it ahead of time, you can get a visa on arrival, but to do so you must have a visa approval letter done ahead of time. We had done this, we had our visa approval letters all printed out and ready.

Now, we were approved for a 90 day visa which would cost $25 per person (so $100 for the four of us.) This has to be paid in U.S. dollars. You do not pay this in Vietnamese dong. I do not know why this is. But it was not a problem because I had $200 in U.S. currency.

However, on 1 September (which is how the world aside from the United States writes September 1), Vietnam changed it's rules regarding visas for U.S. citizens. Now, upon arrival any U.S. citizen gets a one year visa. This is, I'm sure, very convenient for U.S. citizens who want to retire to Vietnam where their money goes far. Now they only need to do a border run once a year, instead of every three months. However, it isn't so convenient for anyone who wants to come for only a few weeks. Because a one year visa costs $135 (which is much greater than buying four or even five 90 day visas. I don't know why this is – again.)

We had gotten our approval letter before 1 September, and we were assured that this change in the law would not affect us. Guess what, those assurances were wrong.

We arrived on 14 September into Ho Chi Minh City and went to get our visa on arrival. But the immigration officers explained that we had to get one year visas at a cost of $135 a piece. That is a total of $540! (I'm sure all of you worked that out in your heads before I told you the total, but my math boy in me couldn't leave it uncalculated.)

Now, as I'm sure you have also worked out in your heads, this meant I was $340 short of the amount I needed. Panic is now beginning to set in. Don't get too upset. I am writing this from Vietnam, so somehow or other I got in. (And to set your heart at ease, so did the rest of my family.)

The immigration officer allowed me (but only one person was allowed to go) to go through immigration and customs out to the part of the airport where there are ATMs. Then I was able to get money in Vietnamese dong, and they would take the remainder in dong rather than dollars. I don't know why this is, but I was grateful for it.

I suppose that was very nice of them. The immigration officers were all friendly, and I know they are just doing their job. So yes, it was nice. But it was also not so nice. Now entering Vietnam had cost me 5.4 times as much as had been previously indicated. That is an increase of 440%.

On the upside, my year long visa is multiple entry, so if I decide any time after we leave Vietnam and before 14 September 2017 that I am just dying for a bowl of phở, I can come back without paying for another visa. Booyah, right? (Note: I spelled phở the way it would be spelled in Vietnamese. It is pronounced foo where the oo is more like the oo in book. Or I learned that this vowel is like the i in sir.)

Let this be the worst problem one encounters at immigration when traveling the world. It's done, we've got visas, and we're safely ensconced in Ho Chi Minh City.

That, by the way, is the English name for this municipality. In Vietnamese they call it Thành Phố Ho Chi Minh. Thành Phố means city, so it is the same name. And here, it should be noted that Phố is pronounced foe with a long o. See the o with the apostrophe like tag on the right side above is a different vowel than the o with a hat above it.

What this does mean is that often on maps, this city is abbreviated as T. P. Ho Chi Minh. But don't giggle, those of you who are immature. You see, T. P. in the States might bring up images of bathroom hygiene, but not so here. First, the Vietnamese phrase for toilet paper is giấy vệ sinh which doesn't even have a t or a p in it. (Plus it ends in sinh, the mathematical abbreviation for hyperbolic sine. Pretty great, right?) But beyond this fact is another. Toilet paper, while available in South East Asia, is a very western thing. The natives don't use it.

Now, don't say ew. They have a different method. Every toilet has a flexible hose with a sprayer at the end, much like you often find connected to kitchen sinks back in the States. You use this, when you finish, to spray yourself clean. I assume you then dry off with a towel. I'm not sure. As a Westerner, I am sticking with my use of giấy vệ sinh. But they seem to primarily stock it in the stores for selling to Westerners.

Just a few of the differences in our cultures, and part of the fun adventure of getting to know the world. After all, you know the saying: Let Saigons be Saigons. 'Cause if you've a date in Saigon, she'll be waiting in T. P. Ho Chi Minh.

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