Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Stranded in Saigon. Still.

When you lose your passports just before Tet in Vietnam, you're in for a long wait.

I've been trying to see my detention in Saigon as a wonderful experience.  Get to immerse myself more in the culture. Was so excited to be returning to Vietnam and hanging about for a couple of nights in steamy Saigon bars drinking cheap wine and watching the traffic chaos.  That part of it hasn't been bad either. We've knocked back a few bevies between us, Al and I. Self-medication for sure. But we've been here twelve days now.

It takes two days to get your emergency passport.  Once Tet is over.  You go to the 20th floor of the new Vincom Centre in District 1, pass through a friendly security check and then you're in quiet, pristine air-conditioned surrounds.  A beautiful, personable Vietnamese woman with impeccable English, sits behind glass and listens sympathetically as you relay your story.  You shed a few tears of relief that you're there making progress; finally organising your precious passports.

The middle-aged Aussie woman ahead of you has a worse story to tell.  She was attacked by two men on a motorbike, who nearly ran her over, then fought with her to get at her bag. She had it under a jacket and across her shoulders.  They won.  She was on the way to the airport; just stepped out of her hotel.  Her travelling companions gave her some money to tide her over, then caught their own flight home, leaving her alone to sort it all out.  During Tet.  She hadn't left her hotel room except to taxi to the consulate.

You fill in a new passport application and write a statement explaining how you came to lose your documents.  BTW, make sure you pack a few spare passport photos.  We had.  We thought we might need them to get visas to visit Cambodia.  As if.  But they came in handy.

It's Friday, so you have to wait through another weekend.  You finally return to the Consulate and collect your passports the following Monday.  Huge, inexpressible relief.

But wait, there's more.

You have to take a letter, and your passports, across town - two dollar taxi ride - to the Vietnam Immigration centre.  It's a pushing, shouting, crowded run down official building.  Total confusion for us idiots abroad.  We take a place at the back of a shuffling mass of people.  Couldn't call it a queue.  It's edging forward and we don't even know if we're in the right place.  I hold our spot while Al does a recce.  So relieved when he signals me over.  He's found the right counter to line up at.

Remember, keep smiling.  Speak slowly.  Don't shout.  Don't lose temper.  It get you nowhere.  (Learned that lesson when me, Al and sister, Reggie, got thrown off a Vietnam cycling tour a few years ago.)

We're interviewed by a cross, uniformed officer.  He inspects our documents, reads our police statement, shakes his head.  "You. Photocopy.  All this.  You go.  Over there."  He waves us off and we get into another touchy push of people.  Another grump snatches our documents.  Photocopies them.

Back to the other guy.  "You come back yesterday,' he says.  "Counter 6.  Three hours."


He laughs at his mistake.  "Yes.  Tomorrow."

It's 12.45 pm here.  Killing time on this blog waiting for 3 pm pickup.  Can't relax until those passports with visas are in our hot little hands.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Stranded in Saigon. Day 9.

Been spending lots of today, Day 9 in Saigon, Day 15 in our stranded-without-passports adventure, trying to think of reasons to be grateful that I'm in this situation. Hmm. They're not flying thick and fast.

Met a couple of English tourists on Friday, the day we finally organised and paid for our passports, which should be available tomorrow, or the day after - ie.: before our rescheduled flight on Wednesday.  That was good.  This couple was our age; they'd arrived in Saigon from England, via Hong Kong. We met them at a crossroad bar when we were feeling buoyant, and not a little drunk. We shared travel stories, as you do, and decided to have dinner together.  Lovely.  Contact with people who speak idiomatic English, albeit with a London slant. No matter.

At the end of the first evening, decided to meet up and swap stories the following evening, which we did.  That meant they'd had two entire days walking around District 1, I suppose.  They'd been to a couple of tourist meccas and done the done things.  They'll be in Nha Trang now.  They decided that after two days in Saigon, they'd pretty much had it and needed to move on.  Really enjoyed their company. Even took photos of them and swapped email addresses.  But sorry, new BFFs.  If it's a choice between meeting you, and blinking ourselves back to January 14 and not losing our passports, I'll take the passports.

As I was saying, for us, this is Day 9 of Stranded in Saigon.

I know my way around now.  After breakfast, we do this amble down through a park, down the seafood aisle in Ben Thanh markets, down a few streets around there towards the Saigon River - wide, muddy, fast flowing wash with vegetation scudding along. Water lilies? Not real sure.  We walk up through the manicured garden displays in some CBD area. Stare up at the buildings, swig from our water bottle and walk on, holding onto each others fingers, like elephants, trunk and tailing it.  No public displays of affection, please, in Vietnam.  Won't get started on what apparently is allowed cos I don't want anyone reading my anonymous blog, tracking me down and making me stay here any longer.

The food is definitely good and cheap.  Try Vietnamese Kitchen.  Couldn't tell you where it is, but it's good. They don't rush you from course to course, and by god that Johnny Walker hit the spot after today's shit walk.

Back in our air-conditioned hotel room now, showering off the shit walk grime and I inadvertently found something that I think the Vietnamese - and the Europeans - do really well.  Much better than Australians, who should adopt this practice.  English guy last night told me it wouldn't be too hard to plumb in, and I'm thinking of investigating the possibilities when I'm safely home in Aussie.

It's a very useful gadget; easily operated.  Serves a variety of functions - foot washing; shoe washing, and that little frisson of delight, bum washing.  I'm talking about that hose, hanging by the toilet cistern.  Extremely useful, especially when one's paper may not be flushed tidily down the toilet.

Still would have rather not lost the passports though.

Just sayin'.  Cheers from Fraudster. (More sanguine than even she realised; second detached retina seems to be hanging in there.  Year 10 English, last period Friday Feb 3 is looking awesome.)

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Fine dining in Saigon.

Thought we'd try out a more 'upmarket' looking Saigon restaurant; a place with several smiling, solicitous uniformed wait staff in red monogrammed shirts and black pants. A bigger place, with polished wooden tables and chairs, it looked reasonably appealing after our morning 'shit walk'.

(Today's 'shit walk' featured a middle aged man on a motor bike, riding through the park. Yelling something unintelligible, while riding his motor bike, he corralled a younger man who'd irritated him in some unknown way, and beat him with a piece of bamboo.)

But back to New Pearl restaurant.  We ordered our 'Lip-ton tea, fresh milk', and snack of choice, deep fried bean curd and Hong Kong spring rolls.  The tea came quickly.

A considerable time later, so long that we were going to cancel the order, out came some squishy fish-fingery looking things and a plate of dog biscuits.  Except the dog biscuits were harder than dog biscuits.  I know, having tried a doggy treat back in my childhood. (Al was surprised at this. I thought everyone had eaten at least one dog biscuit.)

Al tried to bite into a dog biscuit. He barely made an indent, just a few little teeth marks, which we surveyed with amusement.  He then tackled it with a knife, slicing motion and full bicep press. No luck.

Decided to return  the dog biscuits posing as deep fried bean curd.  A waiter removed the dish. Half a minute later, his male supervisor and an authoritative woman in very tight aqua jeans and black high heels returned with our dog biscuits and told us to eat them.

We can't, we said.  Too hard.

Bemused they looked at each other, at the dog biscuits, at us and seemed reluctant to accept our verdict.

So Al picked up his knife and demonstrated that indeed the little brown squares were impenetrable.  But they still wouldn't have it and pushed the plate towards us.

Look, we don't want them; too hard.  I demonstrated the consistency of the biscuits by rapping several times on the wooden table.  Seeing Madam Aqua Pants' still incredulous look, I leaned forward and mimed taking a bite out of the corner of the table.  Also picked up a chopstick and demonstrated that I couldn't bite into that either.

Finally, the plate was removed.  But when we tried to get our bill, the waiter indicated that we must stay and eat some more dog biscuits that would be ready in five minutes.

No, we don't want them, just the bill, said Al, miming the bill using the universal signal of scribbling with an imaginary pen on the palm of his hand.

You must eat them. Five minutes.

No, just the bill.

The only way we were getting out of there was by paying for them.  Not much, of course.  It's Saigon. But enough for a waiter, or chef perhaps, to 'lose face' and maybe his job.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Stranded in Saigon

Went out for a 'shit walk' in Saigon this morning, for about two hours. There's nothing wrong with my bowels, it's just the environs of Saigon are less that appealing at the moment. Dirt, stench, broken pavements, constant traffic noise. Beep beep and more beep.  I've learned to cross the roads like a native. Basically, don't look, just walk steadily across. If you look, you might panic and try to dodge. Not a good idea. Motorcycles, cars, buses tend to avoid the pedestrian. I say that yet sister, Reggie, got a nasty bump from a motorcycle when she was walking along the pavement a couple of years back.

Saigon is actually a fascinating place, as is the rest of Vietnam. That's why we're back for a fourth visit.  I'd highly recommend it, and could just about suggest a great travel itinerary for anyone who's interested.  The food is brilliant, and cheap.

This trip, however, has wiped any smug travel smart-arsed-ness right off my dial.  Have already said how bleak you feel when you've done something really dumb that was avoidable.  Well, it's gotten worse. 

I'm focusing,  in my mind's eye now, on a man on a skateboard this morning.  He was resting his pelvis, where his legs used to be, on the board.  He was propelling himself with a short piece of dowel with a handle on it.

Who am I to complain?  Always someone worse off.  And we're not in a tsunami or anything.

But we're dealing with our own little bit of shit due firstly, to 'our' carelessness - not mine; Al's. (Just sayin'.)  Secondly due to Tet.

After we'd reported the loss of our passports to the police in Hoi An, and obtained the required 'letter' we rang the Australian Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City.  An English speaking woman there told me to get to HCMC ASAP because it takes 48 hours to get an emergency passport and exit visas.  We are due to fly out of Saigon on January 27.

We visited Sinh Tourist - best travel agents BTW, with offices in the major tourist places - and were told that we couldn't fly south, nor could we catch the train, due to having no passports.  We had to brave another 'sleeping bus'. (Only try that if you're young, flexy, thin and have a bladder that can endure. It's lots cheaper than flying though.)  We also found that the buses were pretty fully booked, due to Tet travel, so we had to wait for three days for seats.

Another 20 hours on buses. Awful.

We arrived in Saigon on Friday at six. Of course the Australian Embassy would be closed for the weekend. Stymied again, we tried to make the best of it; find our 'happy place' which usually involves a walk, a look-see round a local market with squirming live things in shallow bowls and copious amounts of alcohol. (It has a calming effect.)

What we weren't expecting was that the Australian Embassy would close for the entire duration of Tet.  It's possible that it may open tomorrow, but chances are it won't open until January 27, our departure date.

And what I personally wasn't expecting, was that the retina in my left eye, like its counterpart on the other side, 12 months ago, would partially detach from my eyeball this morning.  Didn't see that one coming.  At least I know what's happened and that I'm not having a stroke or a diabetic retinopathy bleed.  Didn't know that when it happened last time. Quite hair-raising in the list of scary stuff that can happen to you if you're getting on in years and you happen to be short-sighted.

Have to say that my resilience is amazing me. And there is a certain symmetry in matching scrawls on my eyeballs.

Fingers crossed that our luck will change and the Australian Embassy will be open tomorrow.  

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Down and out, nearly, in Vietnam

Ever wondered what it's like to lose your credit cards, cash and passports in a third world country?  Al and I are in the process of finding out.

Also finding out about sleeping on cramped buses overnight, then swapping to another cramped dirty sleeping bus for the second part of the journey from Ninh Binh in north Vietnam, via Hue to Danang and Hoi An.  Big ride that one.  Potholes. two lanes.  Suicidal traffic.  Top speed maybe 70 k, occasionally, but mostly about 50.  All up, about 20 hours.  Because foolish me wanted to do the overland trip, rather than flying and seeing nothing.  Didn't the fact that we were the only old people on board tell me anything?

Picked up sleeping bus in Hanoi originally.  Thought it seemed all right.  Was only a 2 and a half hour journey.  Bus was near empty.  We can do this, we thought.  Not bad at all.

But Ninh Binh onwards was quite different.  Caught the bus an hour after it was scheduled to leave.  Told through hand gestures that after removing and plastic bagging our shoes we needed to squeeze down the back.  Hard enough in itself.  Two sleepers were left.  In a dark, barely ventilated, coffin-like pod.  Immediately started hyperventilating of course.  Sat hunched over for a while - no head room.  Eventually battled claustrophobia and settled. Slept, sort of, through a bumpy dream beleaguered few hours of the night.  Not so poor Al.  He's tall and didn't fit.

Ordered off bus at Hue.  'You take taxi.  Meet at office.  1.30.'  Can't describe - nor want to - the tone.  Let's call it imperative.

Which office?  Where? 

Some local touts put us in their dodgy van and 4 k and 'three dollar US' we were there.

Quick lunch, then onto a different older bus for the Hue to Hoi An leg.  More spacious, but grotty, with a suspicious little stain where a previous bumhole had been on my lift -off mattress.

Who cared?  Al was totally bloodshot, but I'd snatched a few naps along the way.

Finally arrived in Hoi An, a place with which we're quite familiar, having sojourned here on three previous visits.

Maybe that caused us to relax a little.  Or perhaps it was relief to get off the bus after 20 hours.  But that was when Al left his money belt on the bus.

Upon discovery, he left me forlorn on a darkening corner and ran back to the drop off point.  We'd already seen the bus leave but the driver was contacted within 20 minutes of us leaving the bus.  He hadn't picked up any more passengers, and 'he knew nothing'.  And that's the line at Camel Travel, the bus company.  What can they do?  We're the idiots abroad.

Sunday today, so police and Australian consulate are having a slow day.  We have a bit of cash, given my secret emergency stash.  Who knew I'd need it?

The worst thing:  that feeling of despair, sick in the tummy, when you're a grown up - old now - and you've done something really dumb.  All the rest is a first world problem which I hope will be fairly easily resolved tomorrow.  Spoils the beautiful Hoi An day though.