In line with the transient nature (bedeutet, dass man nicht lange and einem Ort bleibt) of the European yoof (youth) of today (and of course, the money that they bring in their backpacks), most countries in South East Asia offer generous (großzügig) visitor stays via ‘visas on arrival’; basically, getting a good old stamp (Stempel) in your passport that says you can stay. Thailand and Indonesia offer one month, Malaysia offers three months etc. Unfortunately, Vietnam only offers this type of visa for a 15-day period which is barely (kaum) sufficient (ausreichend) for most backpackers. Therefore, we braced ourselves (sich bereit machen) for another encounter with – dun dun duuun – immigration officials.
A few days prior to arriving, we’d filled out the visa application (Antrag) and paid the fees which would hopefully give us our golden ticket of a three month stay in Vietnam. You’d think this would be done via the Vietnamese government but it’s actually done through a ‘travel agency’ who, for the reasonable figure of $9 USD, file an application (Antrag stellen) with the government on your behalf (in unserem Namen/ für uns) which, if accepted, then somehow magically (magisch) ends up at the official immigration office in Ho Chi Minh or Hanoi airport when you land. There are innumerable companies (unmengen an Firmen) offering (anbieten) this service, all with dodgy-looking (seven fragwürig/ zweifelhaft aus) websites, but most actually have a good reputation (Ruf) of delivering. To save on costs, the ‘travel agency’ files all applications they receive on any one day together so when we received our email (which we had to print out and present to immigration at Ho Chi Minh airport), there were about a dozen other peoples dates of birth (Geburtsjahr) and passport numbers (Reisepassnr.) alongside ours. I guess this isn’t as bad as a photocopy of everyone’s passport (see our earlier post about Thailand immigration) but it’s certainly fertile ground (fruchtbarer Boden) for ID fraud (Betrug/ Fälschung) all the same.
Arriving at Ho Chi Minh airport, we made our way to arrivals and set eyes upon a slightly chaotic (leicht chaotisch) looking scene. About fifty people sitting on seats waiting and a queue (Schlange) of twenty lining up to visit the single immigration officer at the glass window. This could be interesting.
After asking other travellers what the process (Prozess) was, we were told that once we reached the head of the queue (wenn wir das Ende der Schlange erreichen), we had to hand over our passport, application letter and passport photos (we remembered them this time!) in exchange for a form to be filled in (in Austausch für ein anderes Blatt, dass wir ausfüllen mussten). Quite why these forms weren’t just in a pile on the writing benches by the side of the office window (like at any other airport we’ve ever been to) is a mystery (Warum die Blätter nicht einfach auf dem Tisch mit den Stiften liegen ist uns ein Rätsel) but I suppose in a Communist-run country they have to keep the proles (Proletarier) occupied (beschäftigt) somehow.
As you may have already guessed (Wie ihr euch wohl schon gedacht habt), once we’d filled in the forms, we had to stand back (zurückstellen) in the same queue for another twenty minutes to hand the same form back to the same man at the immigration desk. As you also may have guessed, Tessa was indignant (empört) at this complete lack of process and efficiency (Mangel an Ablaut und Effizienz).
Forms handed in, we took our seats in purgatory (Fegefeuer), waiting for our names to be called to receive our stamped passports and for St Nguyen to open (öffnen) the pearly gates to the Vietnamese promised land (schimmernde Pforten zum gelobten vietnamesischen Land).
We’d read online that the processing time (Bearbeitungszeit) is usually 15-45 minutes and it didn’t seem THAT busy so we were quietly confident (zuversichtlich) that we’d zip through quickly and get into the city before dark. As you may have read throughout (durchgehend) this blog, Tessa and I are generally far too optimistic (generell viel zu optimistisch (ich weiß ja nicht genau, aber, dass ich optimistisch bin ist mir neu)) when it comes to waiting times and this was no different!
As the minutes ticked past and lucky people filtered away with their passport stamps, we sat looking glumly (verdrießlich) at the clock on the wall behind the immigration counter. 45 minutes gone. 60 minutes gone. 90 minutes gone. After two hours, I decided to see if maybe there was a problem with our application seeing as there wasn’t a single person left from the travellers who were there when we arrived. “I don’t know. Wait”, was the reply (Antwort) from the friendly (freundlich) cashier (oh yes, we have to pay for this privilege! Read on) who proceeded to then disappear (verschwinden) into a back room for 15 minutes, probably on lunch.
Two and a half hours after first arriving, our names were finally called and we handed over our $25 USD each to get our passports back containing the holy stamp (heiliger Stempel) (no idea what you’d do if you didn’t have any US dollars as they don’t accept (akzeptieren) their own currency – the Vietnamese dong – for some reason).
As luck should have it, another flight had landed just prior (kuru bevor) and we now had another twenty minute wait for our passports to be checked and stamped again before, FINALLY, we were there! Welcome to Vietnam.
Throughout our wait at immigration, Tessa had been nervous about what would happen to our big bags at baggage claim. After nearly three hours, would they have been taken to lost property? Or had someone just taken them?
As we reached baggage claim, we needn’t have worried as our bags were still there. And a kind soul had removed them from the carousel so they weren’t travelling round and round. Only they hadn’t been placed, as you might expect (wie man vlt erwarten würde), NEXT to the baggage carousel. No – they’d just been put on the floor right in the middle of the baggage hall. Nowhere near the carousel or up against a wall or by the lost property desk – just sat in the middle of the floor waiting for someone to steal them.
Slightly bewildered (perplex/ verblüfft) but also relieved (erleichtert) that we’d got through immigration and retrieved our bags successfully, we proceeded to the local bus bay for a bus into Ho Chi Minh city which cost us a pricey 5,000 VND (0.21€, £0.18)!
After checking in and dumping our bags at Vintage Hostel in the centre of Ho Chi Minh’s backpacker district, we went for some dinner and found a nice place with a first-floor balcony (Balkon) overlooking the busy street below. Upon opening the menu, I noticed that a local ‘Saigon Green’ beer was the same price as a can of Coke, working out to about 60 pence (0.80€)! And it was also a big 450ml bottle! I think I might like this country 🙂
The next morning, we decided to explore the city by foot, starting with the nearby Ben Thanh market. One of the oldest structures in the city, the market building is made of yellow stone with an imposing (imposant) clock tower as the entrance. Inside is a large array (Aufgebot) of handicrafts (Handwerk), clothing and a food court in the centre. Tessa also bought some dried fruit (getrocknete Früchte) which was delicious (Tessa: “Dried pineapple is the best thing ever!”).
Afterwards, we walked up to the impressive City Hall. A French-style palace building; it faces (gegenüberliegend) the Nguyen Hue plaza which stretches (ausdehnen) several blocks through the city and, at the top nearest the City Hall building, features a statue of Ho Chi Minh himself.
Next, we headed to Notre Dame cathedral (very similar to the one in Paris, except much smaller) and to the adjoining (angrezend) Central Post Office. Like something out of a Harry Potter film; the Central Post Office is a long, thin (schmal) corridor of a room with a beautiful gothic-style curved ceiling (Decke). The counters are all positioned (positioniert) on the sides (and den Seiten) with a large painting of Ho Chi Minh on the wall at the end. Near the entrance, there are two large maps (Landkarten) painted on the side-walls and clocks of many different timezones (Zeitzonen) around the world. A charming European-style building that feels quite out-of-place (unpassend/am falschen Ort) in Ho Chi Minh.
Our final sightseeing stop of the day was the famous Reunification Palace. Home of the President of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War, it was the site of the end of the war as the North Vietnamese crashed through the palace gates and raised their flag in victory.
Nowadays, it’s former Presidential furnishings (Möblierung) have been restored (restauriert) as well as some fascinating artefacts from the wartime in the underground bunker (unterirdischer Bunker) and also two tanks (Panzer) and a fighter jet in the palace gardens.
Next morning, we took a tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels, a 250km network of underground (unterirdisch) tunnels where the North Vietnamese rebels (Rebellen) hid (verstecken) for weeks at a time to avoid (vermeiden/entkommen) the American and Australian patrols.
Our guide for the day was Jimmy who told us his father had been part of the Viet Cong and spent time living in the tunnels during the war. It was evident (offensichtlich) in the way that he spoke that Jimmy was fiercely patriotic (extrem patriotisch) and proud (stolz) of his country’s hard-earned (hart verdient) freedom (Freiheit). He led us through the fields (Felder), showing us how the Viet Cong laid booby traps (Falle) for the American soldiers as well as explaining how they avoided capture (Gefangenschaft entkommen). For example, they placed chilli powder over air vents (Belüftungslöcher) to confuse (verwirren) sniffer dogs (Spürhunde).
Partway (halber Weg) through the tour, we arrived at a shooting range (Schießplatz) where Tessa and I paid 500,000 VND (21€, £18.50) to fire (schießen) an actual AK47 at some targets (Zielobjekt). There was also the opportunity to fire an M1 rifle, M16 rifle and several other authentic Vietnam War guns. The entertainment aspect (Unterhaltungsaspekt) of this seemed quite opposed (gegensätzlich) to the seriousness (Ernsthaftigkeit) of the history of the surroundings (Umgebung) but they are certainly making a lot of money from tourists which will hopefully go towards the upkeep of the magnificent tunnel network.
After finishing our Rambo impressions, Jimmy showed us some of the huts (Hütten) and camps that the tunnels lead to (hinleiten) and their various uses (unterschiedliche Anwendungen). One such example was of hut where the Viet Cong made rubber shoes from old truck tyres (LKW Reifen). They included sets of shoes with backward (rückwerts) facing soles (Sohlen) where that the man at the back of a patrol unit (the Viet Cong often moved in packs of 3-5 men) could sweep up (verwischen) the others’ tracks (Spuren), leaving just his own and it looked like he was walking in the opposite direction (gegengesetzte Richtung) to what he actually was.
The final stop on our memorable day was to the head of a 50m long stretch of tunnel where we would have the chance to crawl along (entlangkrabbeln) as the North Vietnamese rebels had 40 years before.
The tunnel was barely (kaum) a metre high and about 60cm wide (and this tunnel had probably been widened to accommodate tourists) so it meant you had to half-crawl, half-hop along. Jimmy had earlier explained the various levels and cut-off points the Viet Cong built into the tunnel network to avoid becoming trapped (gefangen) or to stop the spread of water, oil or fire (whichever the enemy decided to throw down) and actually going into the tunnels gave a real appreciation (Anerkennung/Wertschätzung) of what a magnificent achievement (großartige Errungenschaft) the tunnels were for the rebels even if the conditions inside were dire (schrecklich).
The bus back to Ho Chi Minh was spent reading up further about the tunnels and their role in the war – we’d had a fascinating morning!
We asked to be dropped off in the city at the War Remnants Museum which, as the name suggests, contains a large array of interesting (and somewhat gruesome(grausam)) artefacts and photos from the Vietnam War. In the courtyard (Innenhof) outside the entrance to the museum are several fighter jets, bombers and tanks (Panzer) which make for a very impressive first insight (beeindruckender erster Eindruck). The other outdoor exhibit (Ausstellung) is dedicated (gewidmet) to the hardships (Elend) and torture (Qual) endured (aushalten) by North Vietnamese prisoners of war. There are harrowing (erschütternd/ grauenvoll) photos of severely malnourished (ernsthaft unterernährt) prisoners; men disfigured (entstellt) and paralysed (gelähmt) from torture techniques (Foltertechniken); bodies burned (verbrannt) or buried alive (lebendig begraben) plus women and children being kept behind bars. Alongside these are several reconstructions of squalid (armselig) prison cells and torture weapons such as the ‘tiger cages’ which are human-sized barbed wire (Stacheldraht) boxes where the prisoner must lie for hours or days on end without being able to move else they would be impaled (aufgespießt). The whole exhibit was quite disturbing (aufwühlend) to see but this would only be an introduction (Einführung) to what we’d see inside.
The main building of the museum is three floors of photo galleries with various themed rooms on each and they seemed to get more harrowing (grauenvoll) as you worked your way up.
The ground floor was dedicated to (gewidmet) inspiring stories (inspririerende Geschichten) of Vietnamese people overcoming injuries (Verletzungen) from the war (or problems inherited (geerbt) from their parents) to, for example, compete at the Asian Games or paint masterpieces with the use of just their mouth. There was also an exhibit of the international response (Reaktion) to the war at the time including many posters protesting for the USA to ‘get out of SE Asia now!’ and photos of prominent political figures from many countries appearing at rallies (Protest/Streik) or giving speeches in protest at the American involvement.
As we worked our way up to the first and second floor, the galleries illustrated some of the atrocities (Gewalttat/Grausamkeit) perpetrated (begehen/verüben) on Vietnamese soldiers as well as the impact (Auswirkung/Einfluss) of the war on ordinary citizens (as well as some of the massacres (Massaker) inflicted upon (zufügen) them). The second floor featured a gallery dedicated to the use of Agent Orange by the Americans on the Vietnamese population and was the most disturbing part of the entire museum. Graphic pictures of adults and children with ballooned limbs (rießig angeschwollene Gliedmaße) or completely drooped (herunterhängend) faces were startling (bestürzend) to see and the fact that people younger than Tessa and I (three or even four generations after their ancestors (Vorfahren) were exposed (ausgesetzt) to Agent Orange) are still afflicted (heimgesucht/befallen) by the wanton (mutwillig) actions of the Americans is upsetting (erschütternd) and infuriating (macho extreme wütend/aufbringend).
I must say, whilst the War Remnants Museum was a fascinating, uncensored (unzensiert) look into the horrors of the Vietnam War, it was certainly a one-sided (einseitig) look at the conflict and quite propagandised (propagandierend) against the Americans throughout. Whilst the Americans went into another country and committed unthinkable (undenkbar) atrocities to innocent (Unschuldige) as well as military peoples (largely for the protection of an ideology rather than humans (eher um eine Ideologie zu schützen anstatt Menschen)), the North Vietnamese are documented to have committed equally heinous (genauso abscheulich) acts which were conveniently not even mentioned (geeineterweise/geschickterweise nicht mal erwähnt) in any of the photo galleries or exhibits. Our overwhelming (überwältigend) feeling on leaving the museum was bewilderment (Fassungslosigkeit) and upset that any human could treat other humans in such ways. We can only hope that with so much political unrest (Unruhe) in the Western world at this time, that our leaders don’t repeat (wiederholen) previous mistakes.
Our final day before leaving Ho Chi Minh was to be spent on a tour to the Mekong Delta. Starting in the Himalayas, the Mekong river passes through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and, finally, Vietnam before emptying into the South China Sea. It is a crucially important agricultural area in Vietnam and provides a living for millions of people in the south-west of the country.
The bus dropped us at the jetty (Hafen) in My Tho, a city of 300,000 people, where we departed to spend the day criss-crossing the river. We stopped at a variety of locations (Auswahl an Orten) for activities like seeing a coconut candy factory, trying honey-lemon tea, canoeing down a small stream and listening to traditional local music but we came away from the day feeling rather disappointed (enttäuscht) as our guide offered very little (sehr wenig) information or commentary on what we were seeing (where do they sell the coconut candies? Is the honey in the tea locally grown? How many people are employed here?). We ended up feeling like we were just being shipped from one place to another to buy whatever goods were on offer there rather than being given an insight into the lives of the people on the delta and how they rely on the river (Wir wurden nur von Ort zu Ort chauffiert, um irgendwelche Sachen zu kaufen, anstatt einen Einblick in das Leben der Menschen auf dem Fluss, und wie diese vom Fluss abhängig sind, zu bekommen). Still, it was interesting to visit and we will certainly be crossing the Mekong at some point in the rest of our trip so we can hopefully learn a little more then.
Next morning, we would take a bus north of Ho Chi Minh to the beach-side fishing town of Mui Ne.