Hey everyone, I’m sitting in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) recovering a bit from our travels to get here. We left Iowa City Thursday morning and headed toward Moline. I got my first twinge of anxiety when we got on the road toward the airport. No heading back now! Katie dropped us off and took the customary pre-departure photo of Rose and I. Once inside the airport we attempted to get our boarding passes but the somewhat incompetent worker couldn’t figure out how to get us all of our boarding passes. She told us we’d had to pick up our next boarding pass in Chicago. After looking at our itinerary we realized we had no time to do this in Chicago because we had a very narrow window to catch our next flight. So we stood in line again and made her figure out her mistakes (which she finally did). Boarding passes in hand we headed to our gate and noticed that our flight to Chicago was delayed by 25 minutes. This did not bode well for our incredibly tight window of time.
After a half-hour flight to Chicago we were literally sprinting through O’hare to the international terminal drawing the stares of the other travelers. Rose was in flip flops which made this difficult! Of course, our gate was at the VERY END of the international terminal. We ran up to the counter and the very nice lady said the plane has boarded but we can still get you on. Woot! Then she noticed that the bridge had already been removed. It was too late! Flight = missed. I looked out of the floor to ceiling windows at the jet right outside and loudly cursed. So close, yet so far. We had missed the flight by 30 seconds.
The nice lady at the counter spent the next 20 minutes arranging another set of flights for us. Instead of going through Tokyo we would now go through Hong Kong and arrive in Saigon just two hours later than we had planned. We also got upgraded to economy premium seats. Perhaps missing that flight was a blessing in disguise. The Cathay Pacific flight was about 15 hours. I watched the new Hobbit movie which was drastically and almost comically different from the book. Rose watched some old 90’s rom coms. The rest of the flight I just tried to sleep, which was often difficult due to the small child kicking the back of my seat. We took an arc up over Alaska and Siberia before crossing China and landing on the Chinese (but politically autonomous) island of Hong Kong. The lights of the island were brilliant below and I wished that we had some time to explore this place as we had done in Tokyo on a long layover back in 2012.
The Hong Kong airport was nice and we spent some time checking out some Chinese artifacts and costumes in the spacious terminal. The airport had free wifi so we took the chance to tell everyone we were alive and slated to arrive in Saigon just after midnight. I also quickly did some last minute research about Saigon taxi scams and the Vietnamese currency, the Dong. The two hour flight over the South China Sea to Saigon was short and sweet, and I surveyed the sprawling city lights of Saigon as we came to land at the airport. I couldn’t help thinking about how this same airport brought in so many American troops and supplies during the war, yet was utterly useless in evacuating the desperate South Vietnamese during the fall of Saigon in 1975.
The airport was pretty nice and I think arriving a bit later helped us out. We had to wait for about ten minutes for our visas and five minutes to get through immigration. I exchanged some greenbacks for some Dongs (don’t giggle). The exchange rate is a bit wonky: 1 USD is about 21,000 Dong. “This is going to challenge my mental math” I thought, as I thumbed through my notes with denominations of 500,000 ($23) all the way down to 2000 ($.09). Each colorful note has a portrait of Ho Chi Minh himself, the de facto leader of the North Vietnamese during the wars (The Vietnamese fought a long struggle against French colonial powers during the decades before the “American War” as it is known here). Uncle Ho, as he is affectionately known, died of heart failure before he could ever see his country reunified and the city of Saigon renamed in his honor. He’s now embalmed and on display in Hanoi, the capital in the North, in a giant concrete mausoleum (despite his wishes to have his ashes scattered in the rice paddies near where he was born).
We left the airport and I grabbed a taxi – one of two reputable companies that won’t scam you – but I still watched the meter closely. The city was still somewhat bustling for being after midnight. I saw young adults in a park playing guitar and munching on street food. Bars and restaurants were still serving food and drinks. I saw many billboards celebrating the 40th anniversary of the “liberation” of Saigon. The streets were beautiful, with flowers and greenery along the side of the road and draped across the street. We arrived in Bui Vien Street where we were to stay. This is the backpacker area and was still humming with energy (except for our hotel, where a guy was sleeping on a cot and had to be awoken so we could check in). We got into our room which was quite nice and then went for a quick stroll to a convenience store down the street. Bui Vien is a bustling street lined with restaurants, bars and shops. We grabbed some snacks and a couple beers and headed back to our room to finally rest. I had a few Tiger beers (which now make me feel right at home anywhere in Asia I go) and I watched a soccer game on TV before passing out.
Now it’s time to head out on foot and start exploring this fascinating city.