Vietnam is one of those countries where most citizens need to apply for visa (at least 3 days ahead of the travel, unless they want to be faced with additional costs of speedy issuing). After applying on-line for a pre-approval visa letter and paying US$20 per person, after up to three days it is sent via email which shows all the people allowed to enter in the given day, along with their passport numbers and dates of birth… Seemed to me like violation of personal data protection, but I am used to the European standards where even grade lists at the university have to be encrypted, so what do I know. After downloading a visa form, filling it out and attaching a passport photograph you feel like you fully prepared to cross the border. However when we landed in Vietnam, it turned out that we had to queue for an hour in order to get the visa stamped into our passports and pay additional US$45 for a single entry visa (multiple entry is another story).
Completely exhausted, but happy that it finally all worked, we left for the airport, where a car was waiting for us to take us to out hotel – since we were landing in the middle of the night, we decided that it is safer to organise a transport, than to look for a bus. We paid US$18, which turned out to be exactly three times as much as if we took an ordinary taxi… Beware, an average taxi ride to the city centre should cost you about Dongs 125K, which is roughly US$5 plus tip. Vietnamese love to be tipped, and they expect it, especially from travellers, unless there is service charge included, but even then no one will say ‘no’ to a big, fat US$ tip. Another thing is, that paying in American currency for most of the things is not a problem at all. Handling the Vietnamese Dongs is quite a challenge, as the amount of zeros may cause severe headache. On the bright side, everybody is a millionaire 😉
We finally arrived to our Nguyen Khang Hotel in a middle of the night, and were greeted with a welcome drink and a free room upgrade! Yey! The hotel was really nice, right in the centre of the backpackers district, so many bars and on-budget bars were available just a minute away. Ho Chi Minh has many amazing places, unfortunately during the Lunar New Year holidays most places were closed, which was extremely frustrating. Unfortunately, many sights also were not available, most sadly the Mekong Delta Floating Market and the Cao Dai Temple, as well as some museums in the Ho Chi Minh city. On the positive side, during the holidays the city gets quieter and many places are decorated with flowers and symbols of good fortune.
Despite the holiday season, we managed to make two day trips which we booked in one of the many travel agencies just next to our hotel. Prior to the trip I also found similar offers on-line, but luckily I didn’t book it there. For our first trip to the Mekong Delta we paid US$11 whereas the on-line operators ask for US$50-60!
The Mekong Delta is located South from Ho Chi Minh and covers about 39,000 square kilometres. After a bus ride (transportation via boat is also possible, but more pricey) of about 2 hours we switched to a boat which took us to various destinations along the Mekong River.
Our Tour included a ‘longtail boat ride’ (a tiny boat rowed on a narrow river in between water coconut trees and mangroves), a visit of a coconut farm where coconut candies were being produced, a lunch on a cute island, testing of some local honey products and a presentation of traditional Vietnamese music.
It was a nice day trip but I think to most impressive parts of the Mekong River are the floating market (which was closed during the new year) and some regions deeper inside the Delta, and therefore not possible to see within one day.
The second day trip was to the Củ Chi tunnels. The tunnel system had been built by Guerrillas (the Vietnamese fighters from the south) for 19 years and ads up to about 200km. It was providing a shelter from the poisonous gasses during the war, and allowed many to survive in extreme, but fairly safe conditions. The tunnels were so narrow, that an average American soldier could not squeeze in. The tunnels available for tourists are already twice as wide, but it still made me nauseous to crawl inside…
It is horrifying that a war can go on for so many years without a good reason. What motivation the American soldiers had to keep them going for so long? It is beyond my comprehension. Another odd thing is, that today Vietnamese do not mind Americans visiting their country. Moreover, special tours for American veterans are organised! Who would want to come back and relive the horrors of that places?! Again, I cannot fit it in my head.