I was pushing 60, divorced, unemployed and stuck in an endless Minnesota winter. Then it all changed.
A new Vietnamese American acquaintance invited me visit her family's home in Saigon.
So just after Christmas 2001 and before 2002 could slide in, we boarded a plane for Saigon.
Our match wasn't one of those made in heaven (another
story for another time) but still I enjoyed Vietnam very much, and my life hasn't been the same
since. Now houseless but not homeless, living part of the year in a rented apartment in California and the rest somewhere
in Asia, still unemployed, but luckily not completely broke yet, I'm feeling as comfortable in Ho Chi Minh City, Bangkok or
Phnom Pehn as in Minneapolis.
Ok, now let us get on with it and talk about how you can visit - Vietnam now
It's been two and half hours since we take off from Hong Kong International, and I am deep
in thought. How many hours is it across the Pacific? San Francisco to Hong
Kong - 13 hours, yes, that sounds about right. So then how many hours since I left Sacramento? 25 hours in total must be close. Or
was that... Well, darn.... OK, somewhere between 18 and 26 hours.... Yup... darn,
Vietnam has two international airports,
Hanoi to the north and Saigon in the south. As of today, there
are no direct flights to either location, so carriers rout flights through gateways such as Tokyo, Singapore, Seoul/Incheon,
Hong Kong or Taipei, and then on to Saigon via Vietnam Air. Another funny deal is that even thought the last leg always seems
to be on Vietnam Air ,the actual plane you transfer to is normally the same carrier you flew in on. Though, in what the government is billing
as an more open policies, they are allowing United Airlines to fly direct from the States. Well sorta direct, you have to still have to change planes in Tokyo and
then on to Nam. Once you get past the
ticket price, choosing a carrier is more of a subjective decision for each of us to make. Ticket prices can fluctuate wildly
between carriers, so if you want a good price shop and shop. A good place to
start is on Yahoo Travel and the section of My Yahoo where you can set it up to
track airfare for you. Also, Travelocity.com allows you to set up city-to-city airfare alerts where they notify you via e-mail
as to price changes. Just before I get down to the wire I check with a couple
travel agents, take another look online for consolidators and online travel spots and double check the travel section of the
Sunday paper for deals and then I commit to a ticket with the best deal I have found.
Economy/Tourist class airfare can cost as little as $750 or as much as $1500, so shop on.
Actually, I even saw a sub $600 price advertised in March 26 Sunday's Sac Bee.
As I said, when you depart from the west coast it's about 13 hours across
the Pacific. So in total it's somewhere between 18 and 26 hours, depending on
the layover at your carrier's gateway city. In most cases, it doesnt seem to cost any more for an open return/open
jaw ticket. An open return is exactly as it sounds; you leave your return date open, allowing you flexibility on your return
date. With an open jaw ticket, you fly into one city and return from another. So, for example, you could fly into Hanoi and back from Saigon or maybe fly into Vietnam
and return from Thailand. However, keep
in mind that if you have an open return, airlines have only a limited number of flights across the Pacific, and they limit
the number of flights so they can fill the planes to the max. So it may take a while to confirm your return ticket. Call the
airline sooner, rather then later with your requested return date. If you find yourself in a bind because of no open flights,
and they don't offer, ask to be added to their standby list. Slots open quickly, but you may not find
that special seat you were after.
Due the long, narrow geographic nature of Vietnam,
your in-country travel options are simplified. Air travel is available between major cities and a trains running from Saigon to Hanoi and on into China,
if you have your China visa handy. The
best overall deal is bus travel. It is inexpensive, efficient, and gives you a chance to see the country and make some
Local buses are dirt-cheap,
though they can be crowded, and I have often thought they should have signs posted saying, "Only skinny butts allowed, all
others at their own risk." Before I couldn't recommend them, but I have changed
my mind and now think they can be a great way to travel. While in the past I have recommended the so-called "open
tour" buses, today they are loosing their edge because of the hords of people using them, and because of the surly
tour operators running them. A couple months ago I tried out a couple local buses, and, yes, the seats were still
small and at times the buses were crowded. There are many stops so progress was slow, and language was sometimes
a problem, but they were very cheap and always a good adventure. Therefore, I made a note to myself that if I am to be crowded
and uncomfortable I would rather be with the locals then the "open tour" buses with the foreigners. However, the open tour
buses can still offer good benefits and be a good deal for up-country travel between major tourist destinations. For example:
You can buy a ticket from Saigon to Hanoi (one way around $29) and stop off in
cities along the way, and when you are ready to move on, just request a seat on another bus and you are on your way again.
One last bus tip: I always book two seats (still a bargain) and take my bags on board, giving me a little more personal
space. Travel caf�s like to use their own hotels and guest houses for your lodging along the way, but
I find the quality to price ratio better when I book my own lodging. They don't
like this much, but that isn't my problem. Drive yourself car rentals are not available, but a car with driver
can be arranged at about $35 a day. Yes, those motorbikes are cute, and you can rent them at a reasonable price, but they
are as dangerous as they are cute. Vietnam
has one of the highest incidences of traffic related injuries of any country in the world.
little about South Vietnam:
Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon prior to 1975 is a great place. The city's old French colonial architecture now has new, tall buildings mixed in with it. There are outdoor cafes, wide tree-lined streets jam packed with motorbikes and a
growing number of cars, buses and trucks. At night, you can visit classy Vietnamese music clubs, discos and during the day
occupy your self with great shopping. You see traditional Vietnamese shop houses, street side coffee shops and a population
density that is reminiscent of the crowds at the State Fair on a August day in
Minneapolis. In and around the city there are museums chronicling the war years, which do not reflect the USA military in its best light, but are interesting nevertheless. There is
a museum on the life of the famous Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, even a water park for your splashing pleasure, and numerous
temples. However, even with all interesting and spiffy sights, my favorite is to just hang on a street corner and watch the
goings on of the city. Other good options are a day trip to Cu Chi tunnels, a popular hideout of the Saigon area Viet Cong
during the war; Cao Dai Holy See in Tay Ninh-the main temple of Vietnams only homegrown religion or maybe the hydrofoil to
the beaches of Vung Tau.
The Mekong Delta is a flat agricultural area in the far south of Vietnam, honey combed with waterways. The Mekong is well worth
a visit as a day trip if you're short on time or as a three-day tour booked through one of many traveler agents in Saigon. A few months ago, I took a public bus to Chau Doc and spent a few days looking around then took
a boat up the river to Phnom Penh. It was a great trip and I would highly recommend it.
The Central Highlands - Dalat:
About 300 km from Saigon is the ever-cool hillside city of Dalat. Temperatures here are always at least 10 to 15 degrees cooler then in Saigon. I used to kid about how locals needlessly wore ski parkas, wool hats and gloves in
the evenings. But after my last visit, I joke no more. After spending three months in the heat of Saigon I about froze to death
at night. During the day, it is warm bordering on hot, then when the sun goes
down and the breeze picks up, burr! For most visiting from North America
or Europe, a heavy long sleeve shirt or light jacket will do the trick. The Dalat area is
a very popular place for Vietnamese to visit and considered the perfect spot for a honeymoon.
To the beach:
One of my fonder memories from 1967 was the beaches and the warm South
China Sea that washed across them. I am happy to report that this has not changed. The water is just as warm and
the palm trees still sway idyllically over sun splashed, white sand beaches. There are many nice beach areas to choose from,
little, laid-back Mui Ne to Nha Trang with its noisy drinking spots like the Sailors Club and interesting boat day trips out
around the islands. However, keep in mind Vietnam isn't very well developed
and is crowded so we arent talking a beach scene like in Southern California or even Thailand.
Yikes, a communist country:
Yes, its communist, formally named Cong Hoa Xa Hoi Chu Ngic Viet Nam or the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV) but not to worry. What you see does not fit with the concepts of communism
I picked up through the years. From a visitor prospective what you will see appears to be a freewheeling, open market society,
but I have no concept of what goes on behind the scenes. The public view is brought to you by new, more progressive government
ideals and the exceptional entrepreneurial skills of the Vietnamese people. However, behind this go-go veneer, it is a government
with only one political party, the Communist Party, modeled after concepts gleamed from the Soviet Union and China. The failure of many of the Soviet backed programs and ventures in the earlier
days of the new government is in part responsible for the creation of what appears to be behind an open self-supporting economy.
But make no mistake, the government is all powerful and allows no dissent by the Vietnamese.
More recently, the government has witnessed Thailand's
ongoing success with tourism and has decided to cultivate tourism as a cash crop. So, we tourists are important, which is
good for making out lives in country even better. But I always try to remember that no matter what I think I see and hear,
the government is in complete control and things can change. Though I have to admit the tight government control and its lack
of the interest in personal freedom is that the armed, non- government criminals are held in check and the threat of terrorism
Americans are way cool people but:
Vietnamese are not keen on the American government, especially George W. but respect
the American people. As of this time, there are very few American visitors, so wherever you go people are interested in you.
They use the chance encounter to try out their English and offering you the opportunity to learn more about Vietnamese culture,
the language and for each to enjoy the other's company. Since the war ended in 1975, North and South Vietnam has been one country, but geographically and culturally there seems
to be two regions. For people like myself, and I think for many Vietnamese in the south, there is still a distinct North and
South Vietnam. Historically, the north
was the home of industry and artisans, and the south was more of an agricultural area, with cities like Saigon
involved in trade. For me, because I've never been past Hue
where the south transitions into the north, my mind starts having problems at that particular geographic point. It's not rational,
but it is still a problem for me, telling me something to the effect that it's 1967 again, and I shouldn't be going up there.
While in reality I have been told that Hanoi is a wonderful city, more laid back and relaxed then Saigon, the northern mountain
village of Sapa is a charming and Halong Bay, from the photos I have seen, is unbelievable beautiful.
You You must have a visa to enter
the country, and it's said you need it before
your air carrier will allow you to board. Although I have also heard, that as
with so many laws in Vietnam, there is
an exception. It goes like this. If you have a travel agent at your arrival city, Saigon or Hanoi, they supposedly can arrange a visa for you at the airport. I haven't actually tried this, but I understand that all you need to do is notify your travel agent of
your arrival date, give your name as it is on your passport, passport number, and they will meet you with the paper work for
the visa at the airport. More on this later.
The do-it-yourself Visa:
The official way to obtain a visa is by applying through the Vietnamese Embassy. In the USA: Consular Section, Embassy of Vietnam,
1233 20th Street NW, Suite 400, Washington
DC 20036. You have a choice of one
month, three month or six-month visa. The price of each type of visa depends on the length of time and how many entries you
need into the country. For example, if you were to use Vietnam
as your travel base for Southeast Asia, a multiple entry visa is probably what you need.
Then, if you plan is to arrive in Vietnam
and stay there until you return home, a single entry is the deal for you. A one-month, single entry visa is $65 for standard
five business day processing, $85 for two business day processing and a multiple entry visa is $130 which includes two business
day express processing. A three-month, single entry is $110 for standard five day processing, multiple entries at $150 and
five days to process. A six-month visa allows multiple entries, takes five business days to process and goes for $ 200.
Another option is to apply thought the Vietnamese Consulate in San Francisco at 1700 California St, Suite 430San Francisco, CA
94109, phone 415- 922-1707. Interesting enough, for some reason or
other they have a little different offering, a 30 day single-entry visa is $60.00, multi-entry $100.00 and they claim a two-day
You need a passport six months away from its expiration date, passport size photo (2x2), money order or
certified check payable to Embassy of Vietnam, along with your completed application form. (application) Either visit the embassy or consulate in person or send it all, along with a
self-addressed, stamped envelope for either express mail or FedEx, to the embassy or consulate via Express Mail or FedEx.
Note this part is very important,
your visa goes into effect the day you specify on your application and not before. Meaning if you arrive before the visa's
entry date you can't enter, and if you arrive after the date, you will have a shortened the valid period of your visa. The
visa time clock starts ticking on the entry date you requested not the date you arrive.
Note: Please use the above as a guideline and double check with the embassy or consulate for up to date
A place to hang my pack or stash my steamer trunk:
Accommodations in Vietnam
range from a few dollars for a bunk in dormitory, to a few hundred for a night in a five-star hotel. On average, you can plan
to spend around about $30 a night for a comfortable room with air-conditioning, satellite TV, a front desk to assist with
your travel arrangements and a free breakfast tossed in. If you are staying more then three days, it is an accepted practice
to inquire about a discount off the original rate. I always ask for a discount even if I am only staying for one night, and
I usually get one. The Vietnamese are used to bargaining. I think the bargaining process in Vietnamese culture is more of
a social game then a win, loose proposition or as a social exercise where the desired result is the transfer of goods and
services between individuals with everyone a winner.
Where to from here?:
visa is about ready to expire, and I am not ready to go home yet - now what?" From
Saigon, it is easy to head down through the Mekong Delta, cross over to Cambodia
and on to Thailand. If you finish your
travels in the middle of Vietnam or up north, an option might be to head
into Lao and again on into Thailand.
Then there is always the option of the visa extension, allowing you a chance to
dodge reality a bit longer. Visa extensions are applied for through travel agents, which in fact are probably unoffical extensions
of government offices.