Me and my girlfriend are spending 3 months in Vietnam this year (amount tourist visa allows you) and our first stop is the biggest city in Vietnam, and the biggest city we've been to in general!
Quest #1: Getting There
Our original plan was to go fly out from Tartu to Helsinki, chill there for 8 hours (literally) then take an 8 hour flight to Bangkok, chill there for two hours (literally too, air conditioning is strong in asia) and finally take a two hour flight to HCMC.
It didn't go exactly as planned.
Before we left to Helsinki we did a final checkup and turns out our flight carrier Jetstar does not offer online check-in for our trip - this means we would have to leave the international area of the airport, check in, get back to the international area, and get to our gate for the flight. To leave the international area you need to get a visa and we only had 2 hours there so there would have been almost no way for us to make it... Well so we thought. Even Jetstar support "specialist" assured us that is the case:
"you need to get out to check in, would you like to reschedule for an extra fee?".
Nevertheless we found it a bit hard to believe and went to reddit, asked some people who had done these kinds of trips before on /r/digitalnomads and turns out big airports like the one in Bangkok have check-in booths in the international areas so we didn't have worry about anything! Crisis Averted!
Well we weren't too certain, but we were at least somewhat relieved.
However our adventure was not over.
Once we got to Helsinki we found out that everything is really bloody expensive! We chilled in a mall near the airport for 8 hours trying to not go bankrupt and it was a long, dull experience. Also I got a bit of a fever so that definitely didn't make it any more exciting.
Finally we decided to go to the airport early, which was a great idea as the buses in Finland don't stop unless you put your hand out and wave at them like your life depends on it.
Needless to say we missed our bus because we were not aware of this great ritual of Finnish people and enjoyed 25 more minutes of lovely Finnish weather.
Waving hands at busses? Pretty barbaric if you ask me.
Finally we got onto our plane from Helsinki to Bangkok. It was a nice plane and the flight went pretty smooth, except that we were late. The flight wasn't delayed or anything but we were almost an hour late for whatever reason.
We landed on time to still make it, still had an hour before check in closes, "We did it" so we've thought. Well our plane couldn't park for another 30 minutes as a plane in front of us had to be towed away as it's wheels were broken. So we are finally connected and we're on the very end of the plane and some folks being decided to chill in the corridor of the airplane with their toddlers and their bags. Politely we managed to climb through their barricades while avoiding the stink eyes and we made it out to the airport with 20 minutes to spare!
We had a 10 minute long sprint through the entire airport looking for Jetstar's booth, but it's nowhere to be found. Finally we found a gate with a small placard saying something related to our journey. There's was a lady standing there and she looked confused when we passed her our phones with flight tickets on them. She asks some questions that we couldn't really make out, we nodded and pointed and weirdly enough we got let through!
We had our bags checked and had 10 minutes to spare! We went on looking for jetstar's booth again but the info desk just pointed us to the gate from which our plane was about to leave. Well the people at the gate told us that we messed up, "how did you even get here without a boarding pass and without going through immigration?" they asked. We explained our story briefly and luckily for us they took pity on us and we were issued boarding passes right there at the gate, and had 5 minutes left to boot!
Plan was very calculated to say the least!
The last step of our trip was complete! We finally felt relieved, and this final flight between Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City was the most enjoyable flight of my life - it felt as we're flying first class!
Quest #2: Get to the apartment
We actually landed early, not that it mattered this time. The airport was pleasant and straight-forward. We followed "visa" arrows and finally arrived at the visa issue area, passed our documents and passports to a very bored looking policeman and sat down to wait for our turn.
Every few minutes you could hear a lady mumble something over the speaker and a bunch of foreigners starting to look confused, trying to decipher whether it was their name mentioned there and whether they should try and shuffle to the window to receive their passports back.
Finally after 20-or-so minutes our time came and we were called to take our documents and pay up.
All things considered this was one of the most pleasant visa experiences I've had, almost as if it was there just to collect a 25 dollar fee ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
We almost made it.
Two more steps to go:
- Exchange some money
- get to our airbnb place(which was pretty far away.)
Once we left the gated airport area we were greeted by shouts and offers: "Taxi, Taxi!", "Sim SIM", "Exchange exchange!". We kinda needed all of them but were intimidated by the aggressiveness of the sellers.
We looked through the booths by standing far away to avoid the calls and decided on a few. They all offered pretty much the same service. For whatever reason we chose the loud lady at the first booth we saw as she wrote down the biggest number on a paper piece as what she would give us per 1 dollar. We handed her over $500 and she quickly turned us away with a stack of vietnamese dongs as she was about to receive a few more customers.
We were a bit confused and shocked, so we decided to whip out a calculator and see whether we got scammed.
After fiddling around we were surprised that we were $60 short! Instead of 12-something million we received only 10. Needless to say we went back to complain and the lady was pretending to be confused:
"Oh you wanted this rate on the wall?" (as opposed to my imaginary rate).
She quickly went through her computer, printed us a receipt and handed us the money we were missing. This time we counted every single dong to make sure we got everything.
Next we got some sim cards with unlimited data for 150k a pop, it was a pretty good deal, especially compared to european prices. We planned on taking an uber but we got a bit lost on the map and our phone batteries were almost dead. Instead we wrote the address of our place down on a piece of paper before the last electrons evaporated from the lithium batteries and went to a pre-paid taxy booth. It's a booth with some people yelling "Taxi, Taxi" every 30 seconds or so where you pay before you go to prevent being scammed.
The guys at the booth looked at the address paper confused and said they'll get us there for 200k. We didn't have much choice and 7 euros didn't sound that much for a couple of lost and tired Europeans.
We got the paper went outside and were greeted by a guy who took us to our cab. So we started the last bit of our trip. The streets were just packed and guzzling with motorbikes and here we were sitting in a clearly oversized for this region SUV and dragging along through the tiny streets of Saigon.
We didn't mind taking our time though. The car was comfy and the views outside were quite mind-blowing! There was a scooter with two people and a dog just standing on the back of it. There was another one with 4 people stacked on it - two parents and two kids. And another one with chickens on it! And the way the whole traffic worked, or didn't. And the way the sidewalks were covered with fruits, produce and even raw meat, occasionally full dead bodies of chicken, ducks and other animals!
I think we were too tired and jetlagged to have a culture shock, but we definitely felt alien.
Our driver finally stops, whips out google translate and says that our hotel is somewhere here but it's closed. We correct him that it's not a hotel but he still says it should be somewhere here. We looked around and the place looked familiar and some of the houses even looked like the ones in the pictures our airbnb host sent us - we had the address, surely we can find it.
As we were about to leave the vehicle our driver used google translate to ask for a $1 tip "for a drink or food". Being tired and just wanting to get away we decided to humor him and give him that dollar.
He wished us goodbye and we set off. We stumbled around looking for our apartment and finally decided to boot up our laptop and charge our phone off it to get maps going. Turns out we weren't at our destination at all!
Google map directions made out an over 500 meter long zig-zag route that we had to take. That doesn't sound like a lot we thought and went forth. Well it was quite a bit, we went through tiny streets filled with scooters and street dogs that followed us around. 20 minutes later we finally arrived there, at least according to the google maps app. However the place was nowhere to be seen. We tried to call our host but our sims were not capable of calls - only online mobile data. Finally we managed to somehow get in touch with our host and we described where we are and he offered to come pick us up in 15 minutes.
While waiting and walking around we actually managed to find the place! It was a tall white house with a huge gate on a small side-street nearby. We did it, we got greeted by an old lady that let us in to our apartment and we could lay down on the bed and say for sure that we "made it!".
In general it wasn't as bad as it could have been. I'd say we got lucky at multiple points through out our trip and somewhat unlucky at others. Nevertheless we made it without any losses or injuries and in hindsight it wasn't bad or difficult at all, just inconvenient.
Tips for future traveling:
- Research airport structures. Make sure to get online checkin. Check in as early as possible.
- Do not trust money exchanges.
- Carry multiple mini-usb cables/power banks for phone charging.
- Do not trust taxi services too much.
- Finland is weird and expensive.