Touring Vietnam — Part One

Touring Vietnam — Part One

Ha Long Bay, VietnamOne of the problems with being a roving Retiree is that there are so many fascinating places in the world and the travel industry keeps dangling fabulous offers in our faces! Not fair, not fair!

So when Gate1’s weekly email included a $699 package,8-day guided tour including round trip flights and all accommodations, I jumped!

Getting Ready

This was our second trip with Gate1, so we knew there would be preparatory materials to review before leaving on our trip. Sure enough, in addition to all the logistical information, there were some books and some videos suggested. Of course, we didn’t make enough time to read all the books, or view all the videos, but I did order two of the award-winning movies: Three Seasons, and The Scent of Green Papaya.

True to our norms, it was the last night before departure when we finally carved out the time to watch the movies. We started with Three Seasons, by a Vietnamese-American director and starring Harvey Keitel along with several Viet actors. It follows four people in Ho Chi Minh City as they confront the cultural changes in their lives. Easy to see why it was the nation’s entry for a 1999 foreign-language Oscar: lyrical cinematography, poignant characters and story lines. When it finished, however, our 3am departure weighed heavily on our minds so we never did get to see the second film. Our loss!

The Flight

If you contemplate a flight from the US to Asia, or from our Southwestern state to anywhere besides Mexico, you have to be prepared for an uncomfortably long spell inside an airplane. Especially for me; I’m 6’2”, around 300 pounds, and economy-class seating was not designed for me. Never wide enough (“I’ll need a seatbelt extender, please”), never enough leg room (“Please warn me before putting your seat back”), I have not enjoyed flying since I was about 14!

So I asked my doctor for some pharmacological assistance: Valium. “Take one pill, a couple of hours into the 14-hour flight, and when you wake up, you’ll be ready for breakfast! You might want to take a test-run, see how the medicine works for you…..” Yeah. Test-run. Really should do that!

Turns out, Valium makes me hyper! My legs twitch, I can’t get comfortable even in a double-wide seat (our flight was less than half-full!), my feet squirm inside my sandals. Who knew! Well, I would have known if I had taken his advice. Not my best experience on an airplane, even dividing a whole row between my wife and myself! Don’t think I’ll employ that particular solution again.

Kudos to China Airlines, though. Even the regular economy seats were wider and offered more legroom than most other experiences I’ve had recently. And the cabin attendants were beyond helpful. Getting up every half-hour (see “twitching legs”, above) they never hasseled me about hanging around their work areas or for obstructing the aisles. In fact, I had very interesting cross-cultural discussions with two of them that truly enlightened me about being Taiwanese. Unashamed plug; if you get the chance, try out China Airlines. I think you’ll agree that it’s a better experience than most!

The Arrival

From my experience, Gate1 always greets you at the airport, no matter how late your arrival. This trip was no exception, and we were truly late. Advice: when the Vietnamese Visa website says you can apply online, and your visa will be waiting on your arrival, they don’t lie. What they don’t tell you, however, is that you have to go through a separate procedure before you can do immigration, which consists of standing in a very long line, presenting all your paperwork to an official, then standing around while several other officials process that paperwork along with everyone else who applied on line. It seemed like about two-thirds of all the tourist visa seekers had done exactly the same, so we were all waiting for the too-few officials to process the too-many applicants’ requests. From my perspective, the processing order even seemed to be random; several people who arrived long after our papers were submitted received their visa-stamped passports long before we did.

Even after that extra hour, however, Steve, our tour guide, was there with his sign awaiting our arrival. We were the last to Steve on the tour buscome out, so we went directly to the bus transporting us to our hotel. And what a tour bus! Our first introduction to Vietnamese culture was the elaborately decorated and very comfortable bus that would be part of our first two days in Saigon.

(To be continued)

2 Replies to “Touring Vietnam — Part One”

  1. So exciting that you get to travel so freely now! Living in another 3rd world country, I have to say that line in the airport is the norm. I haven’t been to Vietnam so I’m excited to read part 2. Hope you had a blast! Maybe visit the Philippines next 🙂

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