Three Close Calls and a Week in Vietnam

A Street in Old Hanoi

I’ve got a fun story to tell to start out this post, but that requires a little context.

I have two passports. The first is my original, ten-year validity, US government issued passport. The second is what’s called a duplicate passport. You can apply for such a document under particular circumstances accompanied by a written letter explaining why you need it. In my case, I failed to secure all the visas that I would need for the year before leaving (namely, Vietnam, India and Brazil). Considering I need to have my passport on my person while in a foreign country, I couldn’t send it back to home to apply for those visas in the US. Therefore, I needed to have a second passport in the US that I could use to apply for the visas. 

During my epic stopover back in the homeland (which now seems like it was years ago; it was really only about 11 weeks) I applied for this passport, which I then left with my mom while I continued back to Asia. My Grandma Kay, bless her soul, then made the trip back up to San Francisco to finish the process of getting these visas completed (Grandma, I’m eternally grateful, thank you!). The visa processing service I used (A Briggs, which I could not recommend more highly for any passport/visa services) then mailed the completed duplicate passport, complete with visas, to Hiro’s place in Thailand – just in time for my trip to Vietnam.

Whew.

So there I was with two passports. The first, my original passport, has stamps from New Zealand, Australia, Japan, THE USA, Hong Kong, China, Malaysia and Singapore, as well as an entry stamp into Thailand. The second duplicate passport has no stamps, but visas for Vietnam, India and Brazil.

And so it was when I arrived at the airport in Bangkok with plenty of time, packing papers, ready to fly to Hanoi, where I would meet my mom on Saturday night, May 19, 2012. All seemed well as I checked in at the business class counter for Thai Airlines (using my duplicate passport with the Vietnam visa). Until…”ohhh, I’m sorry sir, your visa is not valid until tomorrow.”

“Pshh, sorry lady, you must be confused, my papers are legit,” I thought to myself.

“Your visa is valid for May 20. Today is May 19. You cannot fly to Vietnam today.”

It dawned on me that I had changed my flight from Sunday to Saturday, one day earlier, to meet up with my mom when she arrived, AFTER I’d applied for my visa. The realization was like a kick in the face on a Saturday night with a steel toe grip kodiak work boot and a trip to the hospital bloodied and bashed.

Upon closer inspection of my Vietnam visa, it was in fact valid beginning on May 20. “Ok, I’ll fly and then wait until midnight before I go through customs!” I pleaded with her.

“I’m sorry, the airport is not open that late. We’re going to have to book you on a flight tomorrow.”

Okay, it really would not have been that big a deal; I would have had to go back to Hiro and Akiko’s place, but just the thought of it and the hassle and changing flights and missing the connection with mom and the whole thing was monumentally deflating. There I stood, pleading with her to do something, looking absolutely defeated.

She must have felt bad for me, because she went and talked with her superiors, started making calls, and I don’t know what else. But finally, after about 20 minutes, big woman in charge told me that they would allow me to fly; however, they made me sign a document stating that if I were deported from Vietnam for invalid documentation, that I would be responsible for any costs incurred. Hmmm….not exactly encouraging, but I’ll sign anything that will get me on that aircraft. And so all was well!

Until I approached passport control. Smiling, having just beat the system, I smugly approached the Thai fellow checking exit passports just prior to the security gate. I cheerfully handed over my passport and waited as he flipped page by page through until reaching the end. “Where is it?” he finally asked.

“Where’s what bro? Oh SHIT!” I had handed him my duplicate passport. Which had no entry stamp into Thailand, because it was shipped to me in Thailand from the beloved Land of Liberty. The entry stamp was in my original passport.

When you receive your duplicate passport from the US government, you get a nice little letter strongly advising you not to carry both passports at the same time; that foreign governments might find it suspicious, that you could get questioned or possibly even detained, but to try and avoid the situation when possible.

My original passport with the Thailand entry stamp is in my backpack. “How am I going to explain this one?” I thought, and I had to be noticeably alarmed. As this occurred to me I took the duplicate passport back in hand and ducked behind the counter to start rifling through my pack to retrieve my original passport.

“He’s gonna know, he’s gonna know, he’s gonna know. I just handed him one passport with no stamp and now I’m going to hand him a different passport WITH a stamp, he is going to know and what the hell is he going to do then….” these and other thoughts are racing through my mind.

Just as I’m about to hand him the other passport, a colleague walks up behind the counter, taps the immigration official on the shoulder, and relieves him. He promptly stands up and walks away and the new guy sits down. I hand over my original passport. He quickly finds the entry stamp into Thailand, rips out the departure card, throws down a quick double stamp (and you can’t triple stamp a double stamp), and hands it back to me. “Kop khun kap” (thank you in Thai), as take my passport and briskly walk away.

Did that really just happen?

Now all I have to do is get through immigration in Communist Vietnam with an invalid visa. Taking on nap on the flight to Hanoi I dreamt of being thrown in jail upon arrival.

What’s the worst that could happen? They could fine me, keep me in custody until midnight (and hence May 20), put me in jail, or possibly even deport me (at my own cost). I decided that deportation would be the worst possible thing that could happen, and really, while that would suck, it wouldn’t be THAT bad. But still, let’s hope nothing happens.

So there I was, approaching customs, with 8-9 different stations where immigration officers were stamping away as each line got slowly shorter. Do I choose and older man who might be more understanding and also have the seniority to overlook a minor inconsistency in this young man’s paperwork? Or choose a younger officer who might not notice or care enough to sound the alarm?

All of them are stone-faced.

Considering they sit so low behind their booth and you can really only see them from the eyes up, there really wasn’t much of a decision to make. I chose a young-looking character who looked bored.

I approached the desk looking as friendly and inconspicuous as possible. He’s all business, his face showing no crease of emotion as he takes my passport. He flips through it. Well, this is it!

I wait. He glances up at me. I give him the biggest most harmless smile I can put on my face. He looks down. I wait. Another suspicious glance up. This is it, he’s picking up the phone, I’m going to see the inside of a Vietnamese containment cell. I wait…

THUMP. THUMP.

I’m walking away with my passport in hand, freshly stamped by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

HE SLIDES IN UNDER THE TAG, SAFFFFE!!! Batting 1.000 today baby! Three possible disastrous situations averted, I walked to (relative) freedom outside the terminal.

Vietnam 

And so I entered Vietnam, where 40 years ago every American man would have done just about anything to LEAVE, much less get in. I’ll say now that the Vietnam War essentially dominated my thoughts just about my entire time in the country. Despite that, I found Vietnam to be a beautiful country, and I did have a great experience.

After clearing customs I waited in the airport at a coffee shop chatting with gal from Sweden who was on her way home after traveling Asia for about four months. She had been out of money for about a week, but managed to make it to the airport with a bunch of bananas and a handful of dong that a new friend had given her for the journey home. She shared some incredible experiences and photos, and a banana.

After some time I saw a tall pretty blonde lady walking through the terminal. Not hard to tell that that was my mom.

It had only been two months since I saw my mom in Hawaii, but it was great to see her.

I also met Nora, my mom’s colleague at Stanford Hospital, and Alvin, their “Vietnam Consultant.”

Nora knows a little bit about everything, has traveled extensively and has a great sense of humor. She also has a daughter who’s been living in Paris for about four years, who recently returned home to her apartment to find it had been broken into and everything stolen – for the second time. I felt so awful for her hearing about it. I continue hoping that I can make it through this year without being robbed.

Alvin grew up in Ho Chi Minh City until he was 14 years old before moving to Sacramento, CA and started high school, not knowing how to speak English. It’s hard to imagine how tough that must have been, but he overcame that and many other challenges to become a very successful businessman in the Silicon Valley. He’s also a great guy and we had a blast hanging out together.

We arrived fairly late and checked into our hotel, and I’ll just say that the week was easy living. Having excellent accommodation, with Alvin to show us around, being with mom for the week, and basically having everything all planned out is a world of difference from survival mode.

Vietnam is intense; the first thing that strikes you is the traffic, if you’re really unlucky. In fact, a few years ago the government brought in the world’s leading traffic expert to evaluate the traffic and offer solutions for relief. He was killed crossing the street.

Cue Nora: “wow, they really got the wrong guy for the job.”

With billions of motorbikes constantly flowing through every intersection, unobservant and heedless of any traffic law, crossing the street is in fact quite hazardous. You essentially just need to walk straight at a constant speed, not making eye contact with motorbike operators, and make your way lane by lane until you reach the other side.

The first day my mom and I left our room to join the others for breakfast. Both of us being pretty fit, we decided to take the stairs, and were promptly locked in the stairwell.

“Sorry guys, we were locked in the stairwell,” became common throughout the week.

After breakfast we spent the day touring around Hanoi with Alvin and his longtime friend Linh, both of whom were invaluable to have with us. Linh is a gorgeous Vietnamese singer who grew up in the north but now lives in Ho Chi Minh City. Alvin, being from the south, is not as familiar with Hanoi and asked Linh to help show us around while we were there. She was a fabulous host in both Hanoi and later in HCMC.

Among other sites we saw Uncle Ho’s Mausoleum, lots of government buildings, the big lake, and learned the legend of the turtle. The food was excellent.

That night Dr. George Fisher and his wife Nancy arrived, who my mom was working with during the week. They joined us from that point forward, and we had a great time spending the rest of the week together.

The next day we went into Old Hanoi, where we walked through dusty and much less busy streets and got to see a handmade ceramic manufacturing facility. This consisted of about 8-10 Vietnamese essentially on an assembly line, pouring the liquid ceramic into molds, baking them in an oven, placing them on drying racks, and on through the process of painting and glazing the pieces. My mom even got to paint a few with a Vietnamese woman’s hand skillfully guiding hers, which she was thrilled about.

Mom Painting a Ceramic

On our last night in Hanoi Alvin and I shared a couple of oat sodas at the local tavern on a short but adventurous little outing through torrential rain.

Photo Gallery

The next morning we left for the roughly three-hour drive to Ha Long Bay. Upon arrival we jumped directly onto a boat and headed out for the four-hour cruise. With 1,996 islands, Ha Long Bay is gorgeous. It reminded me a lot of Milford Sound in New Zealand. We drank wine, took pictures and hiked up to the peak of one island for some fantastic views.

Ha Long Bay

Photo Gallery

Ho Chi Minh City

The next day we flew to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).

With my mom working the next day I went off in the city on my own, making it first to the national museum, and then the War Remnants Museum.

Photo Gallery

The War Remnants Museum was not a pleasant experience. As the saying goes, “history is written by the victors.” I saw a lot of bad things there. I’m not denying what I saw, but there is one very specific light under which the Vietnam war is portrayed in this museum, and it’s not flattering for America.

All I can really say is that the Vietnam war was a horrible and tragic thing for both sides. I thought a lot about how many young men there were between 18-25 years old, walking through the unmerciful jungle, clueless, miserable, afraid, and getting smoked at any moment by sniper fire and unthinkable booby traps. How it could have been me and my fraternity brothers out there.

And the Vietnamese side as well, living underground, in constant fear of being bombarded, tunnels collapsing, poison gas, chemicals and napalm, living on one ball of sometimes rotten rice per day, living with parasites and disease and insanitary subhuman conditions, abhorrent medical care and without light or air during most of their living moments.

I did not take any pictures inside; it really was too awful. These photos are only from the outdoor galleries.

Photo Gallery

The following day I made a day trip to the tunnels of Cuchi, an equally disturbing memorium of the war. Again, things were pretty one-sided, but it gave me a glimpse of what it was like for the Vietnamese soldiers living below ground, and ultimately how they won the war. This led me to purchase “The Tunnels of Cuchi”by Tom Mangold & John Penycate, which I recommend if you have the interest. Despite being enlarged to at least double their original size, being in the tunnels was eerie and claustrophobic.

In the Tunnels of Cuchi

Photo Gallery

On our last day in Vietnam Alvin took my mom and me out on a day trip. A two-hour boat trip down the Saigon River brought us to Vũng Tàu, a tropical peninsula across teh bay. Alvin showed us around all day, taking us for stellar Vietnamese lunch, bringing us up to the former US military base of Ho May, feeding ostriches, seeing buddhas, and a crazy ride down a rocky jungle trail on motorbikes during a crushing thunderstorm.

Mom and I had a great last dinner together. Our server corrected our observation that they forgot the tomato sauce on our pizza, pointing out the red hair-thin line around the edge.

I had a few other great experiences in Vietnam. Alvin and I went to watch Linh sing one night; despite being the only white person at the venue, and all the lyrics of all the artists in Vietnamese, it was fantastic. I attended one of Dr. Fisher’s talks about cancer where I met some of his fellow Leland Stanford Junior University Alumni. Alvin and I spent a lot of time together and have become great friends. Vietnam is a beautiful country with warm and welcoming people. It’s worth the stop…if you can make it in of course.

Photo Gallery.

10 Replies to “Three Close Calls and a Week in Vietnam”

  1. Chris,
    This is another awesome post. I really enjoyed reading it.

    It was great meeting you! (Thanks Sheila for bringing you to Vienam!)
    You have such a postive personality and that’ss why I think you are the right one for the job (Travel the world…)

    Enjoy the rest of your adventure and I will follow you on here.

    Take care buddy!

    Like

  2. Oh my gosh, your mom didn’t tell me the details of your near miss getting into Vietnam! Once again, you charmed your way through. Thank goodness.

    The tunnels of Cuchi must be amazing/horrendous to actually see. I really can’t imagine how it was back then. Horrible war.

    Again, love your writing style and love hearing about your fabulous experiences. ♥

    Like

  3. The Lord is watching over you Chris. There are no coincidences with that man changing posts so you could get through with your second passport. That is what I call a God incident. I will continue to hold you in my prayers. Great writing! Wishing you a blessed, safe journey. You are one awesome young man.

    Peace, Love and Respect,

    Marguerite

    Like

  4. Chris, you were such an addition to our week– your fresh observations about what we were seeing and doing made for some very special memories. Most of all, I loved your mom’s happiness at being able to share a great experience with you. I am so happy to hear that you persevered and stayed in India — I know the good stories will continue to roll in. Stay safe!

    Like

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