In a matter of days I went from the faded glory of the E&O in Penang to the downright depressed Kim Do Hotel in Saigon.
I hadn’t looked at my journal entry from Vietnam in years, but those feelings of isolation and hopelessness quickly returned as I read those pages yesterday.
I parted ways with my mom in Malaysia and flew to Saigon alone. When you’re 20 and naive, you’ll do anything, right?
The US hadn’t had diplomatic relations with Vietnam in years and my only contact in Saigon was a small branch of a travel agency based in Kowloon. Phoenix Services specialized in Vietnam and Cambodia in 1991. In Hong Kong the owner said I could purchase a visa at the Saigon airport, Tan Son Nhat. It sounded like a good idea at the time.
I never thought I’d encounter problems once I landed. I’d already taken a couple drama-free trips to China at that point. Vietnam couldn’t be much different, right?
The flight was only 1/3 full and most passengers were returning Vietnamese, most of whom hadn’t been back since the fall of Saigon in 1975. Many now lived in Los Angeles.
Tan Son Nhat was a typical third world airport, the decaying building dark, damp, and moldy. The Vietnamese carried a ton of luggage and said the customs officials searched their bags for gold. I was just waved through.
At the immigration desk, I handed over my passport, three photos, invitation to Vietnam and visa application (obtained from Phoenix Services), and the entrance card. Another official took these forms and disappeared. A third official took my suitcase.
After ten minutes, Passport Man appeared and beckoned me into a little room, leaving me alone with a tall young man dressed in the haphazard sailor uniform of the Saigon Floating Hotel.
“You have to stay at the Rex Hotel for a few nights,” he said. “You don’t have a visa.”
Who was this guy?
There was no way I was going to stay at the Rex. At $35 a night, it was by far the most expensive hotel in Saigon. I was determined to stay at the Kim Do for $7 a night.
An airport official walked by the room, so I waved him over and explained that someone from Phoenix was going to meet me at the airport. It was true. I’d paid for an airport transfer back in Hong Kong. Luckily I had the phone number for Phoenix’s Saigon office. Trying to remain calm, I asked to make a phone call. The official whisked me over to a woman seated behind a counter. She put my call through. Thank goodness someone was still at Phoenix late on a Friday afternoon. A man named Tri would meet me at the airport in 30 minutes. I had no dong, or Vietnamese currency, so walked to another counter to change $20 so I could pay for the call.
I still didn’t have my passport or luggage. I found the Passport Man and informed him that someone from Phoenix would arrive shortly.
“You can meet him at the Rex,” he said. “Board that van outside.”
“But he’s on his way here now. If I’m not here, he won’t know how to find me.” I could feel sweat trickling down my neck.
Passport Man finally agreed to let me wait outside the dingy terminal building. The brother of a woman on my plane listened to my story. His sister was also being detained.
“Things are very bad here,” he whispered when passport Man walked over to the van. I wanted to cry, not just for myself, but for this man who hadn’t seen his sister in 15 years.
I spotted my suitcase on a luggage cart next to a Rex Hotel van filled with well-dressed returning Vietnamese, all with long faces. An old man was loading the luggage into the undercarriage of the vehicle. I ran over and pulled mine off just in time.
Minutes before Tri arrived, the van departed, along with Passport Man and my passport.
Miraculously, Passport Man returned 30 minutes later and asked me for $23 in US dollars for the visa fee. I handed it over (someone in Hong Kong had wisely suggested carrying $100 in ones when I traveled to Vietnam) and rode off into the sunset seated behind Tri on his motorcycle, my hands clutched to the underside of the seat.
Tri drove me to the Kim Do (the photo above is my room there), hailed in Lonely Planet as having “all the conveniences of the Rex at a fraction of the cost.” Plus bats fluttering through the hallways.
That afternoon I wandered rainy Saigon, stopping in the Rex for a weak cup of tea. Back at the Kim Do, I experienced a power outage for an hour and ate a gristly chicken concoction in the ground floor restaurant after the lights went back on. Later that night I held back tears as I ended my journal entry:
Today certainly didn’t lack excitement. These next three weeks won’t be easy!