Most of SE Asia doesn’t require British citizens to have a Visa before entry, but Vietnam does. Fortunately we remembered this in the airport on the way to Singapore, so quickly did the online application. Less fortunately, my surname was chopped off for some reason, so I had to amend the application and resubmit it. Claire’s Visa was fine and came through perfectly. I landed in Ho Chi Minh City and it still hadn’t arrived.
The immigration officers in the airport are not helpful, and nor is there anyone to talk to, so after a couple of ambitious and futile attempts to get through immigration on my TBC visa, I gave up and went through on a visa exemption (pretending I’d be getting on a bus to Cambodia in a weeks time) that Brits are allowed so I could at least be there for 14 days rather than the planned 30. This was also the only way I was allowed on the plane in the first place, as you need either a Visa or proof of exit otherwise the airline blocks you from boarding.
Most other countries though have it tougher, having to do Visas on arrival for which you have to pay a lot and queue for hours while they are ‘processed’. Unless of course, you pay a few hundred US dollars to a local man to do the exact same thing you do yourself, at which point you skip the queue, are processed immediately and are sent on your merry way without issue.
I had come to Vietnam expecting (though I’m not sure why in hindsight) a more legitimate setup than the likes of Laos & Cambodia, but it had not been a strong start. Given the country is trying to boost its tourist numbers, I’d suggest they start with a more legitimate entry procedure!
Things improved a lot when we arrived (having made it past the typical airport taxi nonsense “the bus has finished for the day” he said, “the man is in the ticket office just there and the next bus goes in 20 minutes”, we replied). The staff in the hostel were really lovely and immediately ran us through all we needed to know, including where we should stop off as we went through Vietnam!
A quick dinner later, which was notable for the Johnny Wilkinson style kick the waiter gave the resident cockroach (a hazard of big cities in Asia, the food was pretty decent), we went to bed to rest our stressed and sleepy heads.
Ho Chi Minh City itself is a big and busy city, but the sights were happily located within walking distance of our hostel, so we went for another self guided walking tour for the day. After a brief and silly argument over directions and some self education in how on earth to cross roads in Vietnam – the answer is walk slow and steady and the bikes won’t hit you (cars will, so avoid those), but sudden movements and going backwards are absolute no-no’s – we had a nice time strolling around and looking at various things including a statue of Ho Chi Minh himself, the slightly underwhelming post office and the very underwhelming cathedral. It turns out Vietnam has a good craft beer scene though, so a couple of excellent passion fruit flavoured and jasmine flavoured beers from the Pasteur Brewery were tried and we were back on our way.
The Imperial Palace was closed for a private event, so we spent a fair while in the war remnants museum, which was really good. Good is probably not the right word – it’s a tough visit with exhibitions including an excellent collection of photos from many journalists of the time – many of whom did not make it through the war – and a brutal depiction of the impact of Agent Orange, among other chemicals, that were used. The collection of US war machinery and weapons was also impressive.
We had been looking forward to Vietnamese food ever since we left Thailand and our first discovery was a local Banh Mi spot (its essentially a sandwich in a mini baguette-like bread). Expensive at £1.33 rather than the usual 66p, the soft yet crunchy bread was filled with pate, plenty of each of 3 different types of pork, a cheese spread, coriander, chilli and some salad. The place was just around the corner from our hostel and at no point, even in pouring rain, did it fail to have a massive queue of locals outside. Yummy!
Being a big city, there is a party area so we checked that out in the evening and wimped out. We must be getting old, but it was soooo loud and busy and frankly we couldn’t be bothered so went to a quite place round the corner for a beer Saigon instead.
Having had a nice relaxing day, it was time to deal with the fact I was currently having to leave the country 2 weeks earlier than planned. I went to the immigration office which was understandably a long way from tourist friendly and at the second attempt found where to go and spoke to someone to find out if I could swap over to my now granted Visa. “You must leave within 14 days” was the answer to almost every question. Evidently, I had to leave and come back in order to achieve what I wanted to. So I booked a return flight to Bangkok (the cheapest and fastest option when entrance fees for other countries is taken into account) for the following day.
We spent the afternoon looking around the now open Palace, which was interesting but lacking a little in grandeur before edging a bit closer to the noisey area that evening.
At 5am, I said goodbye and set off to Bangkok. It was obviously a dull day of flying and sitting in airports. I definitely confused the Thai immigration man, who wanted to know where I was staying that night before eventually giving up, and the Vietjet check in lady who took a while to work out why I was going to Vietnam on a 1pm flight despite having been stamped out of the country that morning. Immigration into Vietnam was much smoother this time, lesson learnt and I’ll make sure future Visas are sorted well in advance!
The highlight was finding the best restaurant – by price, quantity and quality – in Bangkok Airport. If you’re ever there, head to the food area by section B, but turn left just before you get there and between the toilets and massage parlour is a tiny cafe with a little buffet, well worth the 100 baht (£2.50) for a full plate.
While I was doing this, Claire had been on a day trip to the Cu Chi tunnels, which she can describe:
So whilst Andy was off to Bangkok I decided not to waste my day and booked myself onto a tour to see the Cu Chi tunnels. I had heard about these tunnels before heading to Vietnam and had been keener to visit them than Andy so it worked out quiet nicely. I was picked up from the hostel on the back of a bike and taken a grand total of 2 minutes down the road to the meeting point before walking almost back to the hostel to get on the bus, that is SE Asian efficiency for you. We had a tour guide on the bus who told us all about the history of the tunnels and the area before our first stop at a Vietnamese hand-made craft shop, we were given a quick tour of how the art work is made all by local people who have disabilities. It was a short stop and we were back on the bus.
We finally reached the tunnels and were ushered inside, we walked through the jungle and learnt about the design of the tunnels, the booby traps which where set up and how key the tunnels where for the North Vietnamese soldiers during the Vietnam War.
We then had the opportunity to have a go on the rifle range, I opted for an AK-47 and had a great time shooting down the range.
It was then finally time to go into the tunnels, a section of the tunnels had been widened to allow tourists to experience what it was like. I couldn’t believe they had been made bigger I only just fit, after about 2 minutes down there I decided I had experienced enough, it was unbelievably hot and crowded so I left at the first exit.
After this we spent sometime playing around in the hidey holes under the jungle floor, it was good fun but again really small.
After all the excitement it was time to head back to town. When I got back I still had some time to kill so I went for a walk around a park. It wasn’t the most interesting park but I did get chatted up by a very large man from the Congo named Diddy, he wanted my number but when I dropped the boyfriend card he said his goodbyes, its nice to know I still got it ;), then it was back to the hostel to wait for Andy.
Reunited and ready to move on, we very kindly got a lift from the hostel staff to the bus station on their scooters (we had chatted a lot and I think they felt sorry for me). The guy that took me had our bags between/on his legs and me on the back but still managed to navigate the crazy roads while keeping us upright!
It’s a nice enough city, but we were glad to be moving on. I wouldn’t head back there unless needed to for transport, its the kind of place that after a couple of days you feel as though you’ve done it. The Mekong Delta to the south is meant to be lovely though, so we might check that out if we’re ever back in the area.