I have arrived in Vietnam

18 Jan
I have arrived in Vietnam

I have arrived in Vietnam

It wasn’t maybe by the most obvious route, but I did arrive in Vietnam, in one piece. Crossing the border entailed some challenges, but nothing a world-traveler can’t surpass. Vietnam feels a bit similar to Cambodia, but it is definitely different: more aggressive/assertive/commercial (pick the word you prefer), definitely better and stronger coffee, language barriers as high as skyscrapers and squeaking sand on the beach!

Crossing the border was not as self-evident as an unsuspecting unified European would expect. I had arranged a moto-bike (with driver) the day before to take me the 40 minute stretch to the southernmost Vietnam border. I was already pitying my back that would have to carry my 13kg backpack through 40 minutes of bumps and holes. But in the morning, a nice Tuk Tuk arrived, including a German granny who was also going to Vietnam. Well things change in Cambodia in mysterious ways.

So this is where salt comes from...

Bye Bye Cambodia - I'll be back

So instead of taking the quick road, we went down the ‘short-cut’ which took us on a 2 hour winding dirt-track through rice-fields and little villages, and a complimentary stop at the salt-fields to take pictures, of course. At some stage we were scheduled to ‘transfer’ to a moto – because the tuk-tuks were not allowed in the border area (that’s what they said) – and arriving at the moto-vultures in the middle of nowhere – there is little space for negotiation on how to continue the journey… But a few (unforeseen) extra dollars got me all the way to Ha Tien bus station (inside Vietnam).

Bye Bye Cambodia - I'll be back

Happy New Year - says the communist party

The Cambodian officials at the border were veeeeery official: controlling every page of my passport for about 1 minute, and hesitating 5 minutes before they would put any stamp in my passport. But when I carefully asked if I would be allowed to take a picture of the ‘Cambodian Border sign’, they actually proposed to take the picture themselves. So not that strict after all. I hopped on the moto again to take me through the few hundreds meters of no-(wo)man’s land.

The Vietnamese border was a ‘different pair of sleeves’ (as we say in Dutch) – it was like an obstacle race. The first official set the first challenge: pushing a ticket under our nose. No explanation of what or how, so I was ready to ignore him and go to the next counter. But then I noticed that there was written 2000 Dong on the ticket. Aha, they wanted a participation fee to take part in this game – but of course where would I get 2000 Dong (10 eurocent) at a border crossing that actually was a dirt road with a bare concrete building next to it? ATM? You must be joking! But when the situation is dearest, people in need find each other, and the Australian family behind me had some left-over dosh from their last trip – and they were willing to share. Yes, mission accomplished!

So we were IN (in the border-crossing game, not in Vietnam yet). Next counter was ‘health inspection’ where everybody had to fill in all the same passport details AGAIN on some form (I can do that blindfolded now). The English of the form was veeeery ‘international’, or maybe it was Asian English, because I didn’t understand it notwithstanding my years of working in ‘European English’… Somewhere it said: ‘Vaccination card exist’. Euh – let’s say ‘Yes’ – so Mr Official said ‘See’ – hm, my vaccination cards were with my papers in the bottom of my backpack – so I tried ‘No OK?’ – Reply: ‘OK – 10 dollar’… So I organized a public viewing of my dirty underwear and clothes for my fellow world-travelers to dig out my vaccination card from the depths of my backpack. Belgium-Vietnam: 2-0.

Happy New Year - says the communist party[/caption]The next stop was the immigration official who was supposed to put the stamp. So I tried my most Asian of smiles that I could force upon my face, using politely all the Vietnamese words that were left over in my brain from the year with my Vietnamese ex – and I asked how long I could stay. Answer “bye bye” while he gave me back my passport – but at least there was a stamp inside! The finishing line of the Border-Crossing game was in sight – one more time I had to flash my passport to a guy in uniform, he lifted the barrier – and I was IN VIETNAM.

The Cambodian Moto guy took me to the Ha Tien bus station – and we arrived just when a bus with a Rach Gia sign was about to leave. (I apologise for all the missing accents in the Vietnamese place names, because every vowel can have about 8 different accents=pronunciation/intonation, which completely changes the meaning of a word). I quickly jumped on it giving the moto-driver my last Cambodian Riel – and realizing at the same moment that I didn’t really have Vietnamese Dong to pay the bus…

Those were worries for later. I was just trying to take in as much as my eyes and ears could handle to get a feel of my new home country for the next month. The first thing I noticed is that the roads in Vietnam look like roads, bridges look like bridges, and the drivers actually drive (damn fast and furiously) instead of lingering quietly along as in Cambodia.

Vietnamese Roadside

Vietnamese Roadside

The Vietnamese road side does look quite similar to Cambodia: similar shops, golden decorated marquees next to the road for wedding parties, all kind of vendors,… But Vietnam is a lot more densely populated. That maybe also causes the more aggressive behaviour – it’s just a survival instinct. What is confusing for me is the language. In Cambodia, there was a different alphabet (squiggles) so I didn’t even bother to understand – and all that was in latin letters was intended for the Barang (foreigners) and was English (or some French). But in Vietnam the frustrating thing is that the letters are familiar (not the dozens of accents though on each vowel) but still I can’t decipher a single thing. So I think I prefer squiggles…

Going local - the Pho breakfast soup

Going local - the Pho breakfast soup

In Vietnam there is virtually nothing written in English (nor French). No subtitles under road signs, shop panels, etc. The people in the street (asking directions) don’t speak much English either. So I was forced to get my South East Asian phrase book out (which I hadn’t needed at all in Cambodia), and I got the few phrases left of my Vietnamese ex from other the dust (even though “I love you” in Vietnamese wont bring me lots of food on my plate). So I decided that in the food department, I would just go to a sympathetic street vendor and point to whatever he or she is carrying and say ‘Mot’ (one) and smile at what I get… As for pricing, a mobile phone or pen&paper to show what you want/have to pay does the job.

The Vietnamese money also had me very confused in the beginning. There are simply toooo many zeros. And then should I convert to US$ (as I am used to dollars from Cambodia) or to €uro? It turns out that if you cut off the last three zeros, that the money is double the Belgian franks. So 20.000 VN Dong (e.g. for a breakfast soup) would be appr. 40 Belgian Frank. Easy. Are you still following?

Yes - they really still wear these hats

Yes - they really still wear these hats

Some prices to get some orientation

  • 5000-10000 Dong for a lovely but very strong and thick drip-coffee
  • 200000 Dong for a hotel room with TV, hot water and wifi
  • 30000-40000 for a main course (except sea food)
  • 15000 for a Saigon beer (which comes in bottles of 675 cl – or some ‘funny’ unit like that)
  • 90000 for a 6 hour bus trip
  • 20000 for a hair cut
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