It’s been awhile since my first post, but things have been incredibly hectic so this is the first time I’ve had to sit down and relax in a couple of weeks.
I arrived in Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City) at around 11:00pm local time December 29th, 2009. I had gone up to Dallas, TX the week before leaving the U.S. since I was going to be flying out of DFW, and I wanted to spend time with my sister and her husband before I left. It was one of the most relaxing and stress free Christmases in recent memory. Prior years I was always a little stressed to have to travel from Indiana to Texas, and then try to delegate time between my family and my ex-wife’s family. I spent my last week getting together the last of my paperwork for Vietnam which I will get into more detail later on for anyone interested in knowing what is required to travel and stay in Vietnam for a lengthy period of time.
I had thought that in leaving Indiana after my divorce that I wouldn’t see snow again for a really long time, since Texas rarely ever gets any….to my surprise and not complete displeasure….we had a couple of inches of snow on Christmas Day! It was just enough to cover the ground and make things look nice without completely shutting down the roads. My mom was excited to take a bunch of pictures to show her friends, since she didn’t have any pictures of herself in snow before. My little girl Penny (my black and white Shih Tzu) loved bouncing around in the snow. Born and raised in Indiana she is used to running and hopping around in knee deep snow.
We all went out to see the Rogers and Hammerstein musical “South Pacific” the day after Christmas which was appropriate since I would be moving into the general vicinity in a few days. My brother-in-law and I thought the musical was great but my sister and mom weren’t too impressed.
It was a nice ending to the holiday week and I felt as refreshed and ready as I could ever be for my journey east. I left Dallas early Monday morning, December 28th and spent almost the next 24 hours on a flight that took me to Tokyo and then onto Ho Chi Minh City…the name Saigon was officially given in 1976 to honor the former revolutionary leader.
Arriving into Tan Son Nhat airport in Saigon, I was a little nervous about going through declarations and customs in Vietnam. I had heard from some Vietnamese-American travelers that they would be targeted by corrupt airport officials who would solicit bribes to facilitate a quick pass through the check points. My mom suggested that I give them a small “donation” to avoid any harassment. Although I am loathe to support a corrupt system…I was carrying a lot of valuable electronic equipment and not a small amount of cash and being that this was my first time going alone….I thought the better of sticking to my principles and did “donate” around $30 in total to the 2 officials I met. I wasn’t questioned or given a hard time at all so I wonder if that little bit of greasing helped at all or if it was all unecessary….I will try the other way next time I pass through.
Leaving the airport is quite an adventure in itself. I don’t think I will ever get used to the sight of hundreds of people milling about right outside the doors….packed together like sardines behind a few flimsy chain barriers….gawking at everyone leaving the airport. I think I now know how celebrities must feel during red carpet events. I was surprised that I could pick out my Aunt waving at me from among the mob.
I was graciously offered a place to stay at my Di Tu’s (Aunt #4) in Saigon. She lives alone now since her husband just died just a few months ago from cancer. She had been pretty depressed the past few months and was excited to have someone stay with her for awhile. I think it will be a little therapeutic for us both to have each other during my time in Vietnam.
My first night in Saigon I didn’t sleep a wink. It must have been a combination of jet lag and excitement from being halfway around the world. I was in a city which although was the place of my birth…. I have very little knowledge of, and I went from being a virtual hermit for most of my life….I was now thrust into a bustling city of over 7 million people….everyone of whom seeming to own a motorbike or automobile.
I spent most of my first night in Vietnam setting up my wireless router so that I could use my laptop and Skype on my Ipod Touch to communicate with my family in the States. Skype works surprisingly well on the Ipod and calls to other skype users are free and calls to regular landlines in the U.S. is only 2 cents/minute.
The next morning my first order of business was to exchange some of my US Dollars to Vietnamese Dong. The exchange rate is officially around 18,500 Dong/$1 Dollar, but exchanging it in the banks or at the airport you would only get 18,000 Dong or less whereas if you exchange it in the black market in the numerous gold shops around Vietnam you get over 19,000 Dong/$1 US. I exchanged $1000 US and got back a little over 19,000,000 Dong. Since I have a place to stay…my cost of living in a country where the average person makes only around $100/month is extremely low. It’ll be interesting to see how long it lasts.