“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport. Local time is 20:30 and the temperature is 33C”.
We have reached the largest city of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City also known as Saigon. I am not sure whether the nausea that I feel is due to the Bun cha served on the plane, or it’s the excitement kicking in. I look at Simon, smile hesitantly and say, “What have we got ourselves into this time?”
While the plane is slowly approaching the gate, most of the passengers jump up and start restlessly searching for their hand luggage. I’ve never understood these people. Why can’t they just calmly stay seated until the air crew is ready? Sometimes these people would literally stand on top of each other, in these narrow aisles for 30+ minutes. Phenomenal!
As we are walking out from the plane, I can instantly feel the pleasantly warm and humid air on my skin. Love it! The air is always warm in Vietnam, doesn’t matter if it’s day or night.
Based on our first impressions, we think that we could really like it here. The locals seem very friendly. Everyone around us are smiling and speaking very politely, addressing us with titles like “Miss” and “Sir”.
Getting Vietnam tourist VISA
Unfortunately, the pleasant treatment ended as soon as we reached the passport and visa control. After presenting our passports to the immigration officer, he gave us a serious look and firmly asked,” Do you have a visa?”
Handing over our Vietnam Visa Approval Letters, we innocently responded, “We are from a Visa on Arrival country.” (A friend of ours, who has been living in Vietnam for a year, recommended us to get this paper done online before entering the country. According to her, it should help to simplify and speed up the entry to Vietnam.)
The immigration officer then firmly stated,” You need visa! First visa, then come here.” He then started waving his hands in an unclear direction and told us to search for the visa application counter. We quickly scanned through the immigration hall and noticed a 5 x 5 m area where a bunch of foreigners were gathering. We then also noticed a sign “Vietnam visa on arrival”.
After we reached the visa application desk, once again we presented our letter of approval and asked for a visa. Another “not so friendly” officer told us that they need this document on paper carrier accompanied with 2 passport-type photos, a filled out entry-exit form and 50 USD or 1,160,745 Vietnamese Dong (VND) in cash.
It then took more than 2 hours to sort out the paperwork, make passport photos and mainly just wait until we were finally presented with a visa receipt and told to proceed to the immigration control.
Getting a SIM CARD
After getting a visa stamp and collecting our luggage, we moved to the arrivals hall. Our fist mission was to purchase a local SIM card. At the arrivals hall we got greeted by tens if not hundreds of local entrepreneurs. All of them had their own bag of tricks for selling their merchandise or services. Some offered “half price” taxi service, some local currency, some home-stays and so on.
As an experienced pair of travelers we walked straight past them toward the Viettel mobile kiosk. At the Viettel counter, we were greeted by two local girls who both seemed extremely excited. They kept gasping at how tall we are, and how beautiful bright skin and beautiful eyes we have. We politely thanked them and complimented them back…both girls giggled and blushed.
Simon then asked for a local SIM card. (We had done some research and I knew exactly what package we wanted and how much it should cost. We payed 200 000 VND for a 30 day prepaid card with unlimited calls, messages and internet.) While the girls were registering the SIM card we got a flash Vietnamese language course from them. We learned the two most important phrases – “xin chào” (hello) and “cảm ơn” (thank you).
Catching a “GRAB” taxi
Our next step was to find a transport to our accommodation. For that, we had previously downloaded an app called “Grab”. This app is basically an Asian version of Uber. You can see an approximate price of your journey before you order the cab and you can also choose in between luxury or basic car as well as a motorbike. (You can also order food through Grab)
While waiting for our Grab we were being approached by heaps of taxi drivers who offered us their services. As we already knew the price of our journey, we decided to make a social experiment. We asked one of the taxi drivers, how much would it cost to drive 8,5 km to district 3. The taxi drivers’ eyes started shining and he answered,” Considering the current time and traffic jams it will take very long. But because I like you, I will give you a very good price. Only 2 million dong (VND).”
We looked at the price on the app and told him that this is 1,5 million dong more than the Grab ride.” Without thinking twice, the taxi driver then offered the same ride for half a million dong.
We thanked him and said,” If you would have offered us this price right in the beginning, we probably would have shaken hands with you. But because your initial plan was to rip us off we would like to politely decline your offer.” The taxi driver then turned around and went looking for a new victim. (Few months later a friend of ours got charged 5 million for a shorter trip).
Minutes later our Grab arrived. The driver came out to greet us, helped us with our bags and off we went.
Getting through the TRAFFIC
Although it was already close to midnight (11 PM) the traffic in Saigon was insane.It was crazy in our opinion but for the locals, it was just a normal day in traffic. The multi-lane roads were filled with cars, buses, trucks and mostly scooters. It was impossible to distinguish one lane from another as there was no order on the roads. The sound of the engines was accompanied by constant car signals and occasional yelling…madness.
I looked at Simon and said, “Sh8%, this is even worse than traffic in Bali or Bangkok.” I then opened the car window and took my phone out to film this crazy traffic. At this point the Gab driver called out, “Unless you want to lose your phone, I wouldn’t do that.” I then curiously asked,” Why not?” The Grab driver replied, “Well, in Vietnam it’s common for the thieves to grab the phone from your hand when they drive past.”
Getting useful TIPS
I quickly then wound the window back up and asked what else should we look out for. Our Grab driver (named Nihm) explained that we should never have car windows down or doors unlocked when driving in traffic. Nor should we keep a phone or a bag on a table in a cafe or other public places. When crossing the street with a handbag, it should always be securely close to our body. Holding a bag by its handle makes it easy for the crooks on a scooter to grab it and drive away. (Have a look at the video below to see the most commonly used robbery methods in Vietnam).
* A month later we saw a Chinese tourist being dragged along the busy roads of Ho Chi Minh City. She had decided not to let go of her purse. The thieves on a bike however knew that she’s not gone last for ever. So instead of aborting the robbery they too didn’t let go of the bag. So, the poor woman was being dragged behind the motorbike until she finally gave in and let go of the handle. *
Nihm shared some more useful street smarts about Vietnam. For example, he told us that to avoid food poisoning, we should eat in busy places. He clarified that the food is fresh when a place has a constant flow of people. He also gave us tips on how to bargain at the market. (Apparently the locals like it.) Nihm suggested that, when at the markets, we should start of by offering ¼ of the full price.
Accommodation in Vietnam
For the first week, we had organized ourselves an apartment through Airbnb. According to the advertisement it was a two-bedroom apartment in the vicinity of city centre, in a nice and safe part of Saigon.
When we got out of the Grab we found ourselves in front of a pawnshop. “Where’s the apartment building?” I asked Simon…like he should know ay. Simon replied, “Hmm. Good question. Let me call the owner of the apartment.“
A few minutes later, a friendly young man, named Tung, arrived. He grabbed my suitcase and shouted, “Come.” He took us through a narrow hallway and even narrower staircase to the second floor of the pawnshop. He then put down my suitcase in front of a barred door, unlocked few padlocks and waved us in. After that he handed us bunch of keys and said, “Okay I go now.”
We both looked around the flat, then the barred door, then each other and just laughed, “Welcome to Vietnam!”
First meal in Vietnam
As we were both excruciatingly hungry, we didn’t stay in the flat for long. We decided to go and look if any of the nearby eateries were still opened. Using Google map, we located a corner store that was 900 meters away and according to the internet was still opened.
Once we reached the store, the selection seemed very strange and not appealing at all. Despite the poor choice, I grabbed a couple of 3in1 coffees, few bread buns, a packet of cream cheese, a tomato, lychee’s and 2 bottles of water. Simon added shrimp-flavored nuts and a packet of biscuits. From the fast food counter we ordered chicken balls, couple hot-dogs and a bowl of spicy noodles. This seemed enough to suss out the appetite 🙂
After munching away the hot food, we decide to head back to our accommodation. Once again, we opened our faithful assistant – Google Map app and turned on the navigation.
No good deed goes unpunished
After walking for about 100 m, Simon noticed that one of his shoelaces had come lose. He handed me the grocery bag to tie up the lace. A few seconds later a motorbike, with three youngsters on it, drove out behind the street corner that we were standing on. We were literally in eye to eye contact now and all of us seemed a bit startled. From there on sh#t hit the fan real fast. It seemed like the boys were losing their balance and the motorbike was about to fall on its side. As Simon was trying to help the boys get their balance back, the last boy on the bike reached for my “support”. With the grocery bag in one hand and phone on the other, I too tried to help them……
The joke was on me when I realized what actually was happening. The boys were not having trouble with the balance at all. It was a classic robbery. My pathetic attempt to fight for my phone that was only a month old, was over before Simon got the grasp of the situation.
Being amazed at what just happened, I told Simon, “They stole my phone.”
“Are you serious?” Simon couldn’t believe me.
I helplessly stared the crooks riding away and mumbled, “Mhmh.”