Thursday, 5 March 2009

Last day in Saigon and return to China

I decided not to go to the War Museum in Saigon and I’m still not sure whether or not that was an act of moral cowardice. My reasons were threefold. Firstly, I was on holiday, the museum sounding depressing, and I don’t want to be depressed on holiday. Secondly, I studied the Vietnam War in great length for my History GCSE (for non Brits, GCSEs are the qualifications you study for between the ages of 14-16), and felt I had studied enough gruesome photos and video footage of it for one lifetime. Thirdly, what I really, really wanted to do was just sit down in a café with a book and a cup of coffee and read and watch the world go by.

So that is what I did. As I was the only customer in the cafe for most of the time, I got into conversation with the waitress. She was from the Mekong Delta, but like many young people from that area, had moved to Saigon in search of work and a more interesting and exciting life. Although she told me she was not very fond of working in the café (and despite this she was an excellent waitress), she did it so that she could improve her English, which would hopefully eventually lead to her getting a job in the tourism industry. It was an fascinating insight into the hopes and ambitions of young Vietnamese from poorer backgrounds.

I also saw a couple of interesting sights. One of them was this cart selling bananas. Another was three high school girls, dressed in a very chic uniform of navy culottes with a white short sleeved blouse all riding the same bicycle. One sat on the back parcel carrier, one sat on the seat and another stood on the peddles. It was a very enjoyable, lazy morning.

The afternoon was spent mainly bargaining hard in shops for dvds, books and souvenirs. We picked up a lot of dvds for about 40p (60 cents) each, and most of them actually work properly too.

Our flight back to Beijing had a stopover in Nanning, a city in southwest China, and those of us flying to Beijing had to get out of the plane, go through immigration, and then get back on the plane. Perhaps because we were coming back into the country on our foreigner’s residence permits rather than a entry visa, and as it is a small airport they hadn’t seen many of these, or perhaps they were all power crazed jobsworths but immigration took ages. A woman in front of me, travelling on an American passport, was refused and was taken off by an immigation official (but reappeared not long afterwards and was allowed through).

When it got to me, the man checked my photo page obsessively, bending it so much I thought he might tear it, then checked and rechecked both my expired employment visa that I had originally used to enter China back in September, and my current residence permit. I was getting more and more sweaty palmed as this went on, worrying that immigration would delay me so much I’d miss the connecting flight. After getting me totally discomforted, he eventually stamped my passport and waved me through.

cock of the walk, Saigon

And my issues with Chinese officialdom were not done for the day. Because of the temperature difference between Saigon (30ºC) and Beijing (-10ºC) I had packed a few thermals at the top of rucksack to change into at Beijing airport. So after getting my bag from the carousel I duly trotted off to the bathroom to put them on.

When I came back, I saw to my horror that my bag was being investigated by a sniffer dog! The English speaking customers officer then started asking me if I had any fruit (yes, fruit) in my luggage. Confidently and honestly, I replied no, but the dog said otherwise. They asked me to turn out the pocket that the dog had indicated might be hiding a contraband banana. I brought out a battered Mandarin phrasebook, a pair of shower shoes, oddments of Asian currency and, finally, encased in a plastic bag, my still wet bikini bottoms. The dog went mental. The customs guy got me to open the bag. As I drew out what are, after all, glorified ladies' knickers, he morphed from confident official to mortified small boy, and hastily made his apologies and walked off. Somehow I didn’t feel the dog was going to be getting at tidbits that day.


  1. this must be an interesting experience, to travel to such places, so remote from our culture! thanks for sharing, and thanks for visiting my page!

  2. Ha! Funny story about the sniffing dog!
    I have enough trouble getting through airports in the US. Can't imagine how difficult it might be in China.
    You're a brave lady. And I appreciate all of your insights into life in Asia.

  3. It was obviously not my day for airports, because I've never had any trouble other times I've flown in and out of Chinese airports, or passed through their immigration. I felt quite sorry for the sniffer dog guy, he looked like he was about to combust with embarassment!

  4. Hmmm - I wrote a comment here yesterday but it appears it didn't show. Anyways, glad you got the quality moment at the café - aren't those lovely??

  5. Ishtar - hmmm, I wonder where your original comment went? Maybe it got eaten by the internet version of washing machine sock monsters. Yes, I love just chilling out in cafes, but there are very few in China, so it was a real treat!

  6. J, I hereby present you with the Butterfly Award! Details are on my blog.