May 25, 2013 @ 5:14 pm - posted by Drew Charles

Wow – its been so long since I wrote! After Thailand I went to Chengdu for 2 months, then to Ho Chi Minh (Saigon), Vietnam. It was utter chaos!

Rush hour in HCMC (Saigon), Vietnam

In many ways Saigon hasn’t changed since I was here 10 years ago. Motorbikes still flood the streets, people are still incredibly nice, and the motorbike taxis remain the biggest menace in Vietnam since the American Army. Don’t get me wrong, as far as I’m concerned, motorbike taxis are the only way to navigate around such a manic city where traffic lights seem to be more of a suggestion than a rigid set of rules. However I just don’t think its fair game to offer me a motorbike 20 times each hour (no exaggeration). If I want a motorbike I’ll find you!

To make it worse the drivers on seeing a single man, if I don’t take the motorbike they’ll start offering me ladies. Hardly the idyllic tourist experience! I tried educating one of the drivers once, believing that maybe if I could put the industry in the context of his own children he would think twice about making money that way. The conversation went something like this:
“Want motorbike?”
“No”
“You, you want motorbike?”
“Again, no”
“Want lady?”
“Do you have children?” – Now my intention had been to get a doting father not to offer up ladies any more, but on hearing my words I suddenly realised how it sounded.
“Er I don’t mean that, I mean do you have a daughter?” I gave up, realising that with his bad English and my attempts to put him into context only came out making me sound like some sort of nasty predator.

You know you’ve been in Asia too long when you no longer see a benefit in being the celebrity white guy. Culturally many Vietnamese men lose out to us. As they talk, they will sneak and arm around your shoulder and stroke your arm. This is how the straight men socialise in Vietnam! Maybe I’m culturally insensitive, maybe I’m repressing homosexual desires, I don’t know, its probably me that has the problem, but seriously if you invade my personal space like that in England we’ll dress you up in sequinned trousers and send you to a bar named “Tasty Buns”! – Space, personal space, the English needs lots of it! and we’re paranoid when the wrong person invades it.

Street scene in HCMC (Saigon), Vietnam in 2012

Ostrich Racing

In Vietnam, a little known activity is Ostrich Racing! I’m serious, you get to ride these overgrown stuffed birds!…. although apparently not me… I’m fat. Too fat for these birds unless its morning and they have the energy! Still, instead of me going, by claiming it had been my dream since birth I forced my friend Minh into a quick Ostrich race with amusing consequences…

I had to bribe my way out of Vietnam!
On my exit from Vietnam, I had a never to be repeated experience. I tried to check onto my plane and was met with the response:
“You overstay your visa”.
“No I didn’t, the English get a 1-month visa”
“Yes, but look, it says you were given just a 1-week visa. And on this page says you were given a 2 week visa”
“So you’re telling me they gave me 2 different visas?”
“Yes, and we cannot check you on until at least one of them is valid”. Great, so I have 2 visas for Vietnam and neither had a usable date. This is a sick joke.

I traipsed off to see the immigration officer. Like many immigration officials he was not only pompous, he was stupid. I have a theory that immigration recruits people that actually like bureaucracy. I explained my problem, and dared to suggest that the incoming immigration officer had written the wrong date.

He explained this was not the case and started reeling off about my 10 day overstay. I tried to speak, but he shot me down with “don’t interrupt me”.

“You’re looking at the wrong date sir” I said in my best kiss arse voice.
“please don’t interrupt he said looking for the right date on the visa”.
I pointed to it. Of course in any other profession helping someone to help you is lauded, but for an immigration official with that dangerous mix of pomp and stupidity it just irritated him.
“How come I only got a 2 week visa?” I asked. Clearly the official made a mistake.
“We do not have to tell you why we think you are only suitable to be here 2 weeks” he replied.
“So you’re telling me my visa was accepted, but only for 2 weeks, that’s ridiculous. Surely it’s a yes-no thing?”
“Don’t interrupt. we have two options he declared. Either we do not let you leave the country and you have to go through an immigration case with a judge, and of course you will lose your flight tickets which cost a lot of money.”
“If my visa is invalid, shouldn’t you be making me leave the country sooner, not later?”
“Option 2, you pay us some money now and we sort it out that way” he said, his grubby little eyes glowing a bit.
“I can’t answer that until I know the fine”.
“Between $25 and $100, how much money do you have on you?”
“I’m poor” I said, now their scam was patently clear. They get their mate to mess up every 100th visa application. Average wages over here are less than $10 a day. They only need to catch a few people each day for the chief and his deputies to double their salary. I arrived at 4am and didn’t check the official had written the right date.
I showed him my depleted wallet.
“Okay I’ll ask the chief what your fine is for a 10-day overstay”
“2 days”
“Don’t interrupt”
“Whatever, if it’s not the minimum $25, I’d rather go to court” I threatened, knowing that whilst they had the upper hand, morons like these are no match for me in a negotiation. On principle I was already thinking about missing my flight. This amounted to nothing more than having to bribe my way out of a country.

He went off and came back with an offer of $25, so I took it. They made me sign some form. I asked for a translation and he said “it says you give me money for over-staying and you admit it’s your error”. None of the boxes on the form were filled in. This is corruption at its usual in Vietnam. Suddenly it became clear why Thailand was leaving them behind. These pricks were not going to be punished by me not coming back, they would be punished by poor economic growth.

Saigon from aeroplane

I left Vietnam confused and bewildered, after the immigration experience part of me says I’ll never be back, but another part of me thinks I have unfinished business with an ostrich….

Drew Charles.

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