Vietnam Part IV

Vietnam Part IV
Getting There

Our son lives in Vietnam. He teaches English as a second language in Haiphong, a large port city in the north. When we were at war with the Vietnamese that country was impoverished. China and Russia supplied all of the weapons and most of the money that the Vietnamese needed to resist our military. China has a common border with northern Vietnam, so there was a land route for supplies to get through. Russia does not. The antiaircraft batteries and numerous other weapons had to travel by sea; these supplies were offloaded in Haiphong. We relentlessly bombed both Hanoi and Haiphong. Hanoi is the capital city; it’s two hours away via a modern superhighway.

Haiphong is much smaller than Hanoi. Its airport has only a few gates. There are no direct flights between the USA and Haiphong. Actually, there are no direct flights to Hanoi either. When I booked the trip I had the choice of leaving from Seattle, San Francisco, or Los Angeles. Since Phyllis had never been to San Francisco that’s the city we picked. It’s a four-hour flight from saint Louis, two time zones away.

We spent two days in San Francisco, getting over some (minimal) jet lag and doing a lot of walking up and down hills. Followers of the facebook page have seen many of the pics we took. We then had a choice of flying to Tokyo or Seoul. No preference here, but the Seoul connection offered better options for us, so this is what we did.

This leg of the trip took thirteen hours; eight time zones away. As we neared Seoul the plane crossed the International Date Line. This means that one minute it’s Saturday at 10PM; as you travel west it becomes Sunday at 10 PM. Read Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days to get an understanding of how this puzzling and necessary arrangement can cause havoc with plans. When the plane lands the flight attendant makes it a point to announce not only the local time but also the local date.

We flew Asiana Airlines, one of two Korean national airlines. Something about Asian and Emirate food and service that is far superior to what USA airlines provide. We arrived at Seoul around 8PM. We marveled at the magnificent airport (Incheon) and bought some duty-free whisky and cognac to take with us when we met the family of Miguel’s girlfriend.

The flight to Hanoi, also on Asiana, took four hours (two time zones away). We got there at 11 PM. Here we had to go through immigration and customs. Americans need a visa to travel to Vietnam. For many countries this is not a requirement (for example, Americans do not need a visa to go to European Union countries). There are several ways to get one. The most secure one is to mail your passport, along with an application, to the Vietnamese consulate closest to you along with a stated fee.

We did not want to part with our passports. The most popular choice is to apply for a visa on line, which will cost a small amount. In two days you get back an e mail authorizing you to land in Vietnam, where you will have to stand in line at the airport and pay $50 per person to have your passport stamped. This entitles you to stay in the country for 3 months.

We did our research. Everyone on line said that it was perfectly OK to do this. The State Department web site said that it was OK, but that once in a while the border agents overcharged tourists. The Vietnamese immigration command had been made aware by the Embassy that these abuses were happening.

We gave our passports to the immigration agent. We were asked to sit down. An hour went by. It was midnight; Miguel was waiting for us out there and we had no way of telling him that we were delayed. People who got there long after we did were collecting their visas. Finally, I gathered the courage to go to the counter to complain. Our visas were immediately given to us. Instead of $100 we got charged $270. This had to be in American money, in cash.

I asked why the increase. The young lady told me that beginning today the fee had increased. As she spoke to me a young American tourist, obviously traveling on a budget, collected her visa. For $50. It was obvious what the game was. Only the people who look like they can afford it get fleeced. What you would expect in a totalitarian economy. I swallowed my pride and my anger and I paid up.

It was later made clear to us that government salaries are not living wages. Policemen get to keep many of the fines they impose. Under the table, of course. People who are in charge of permits and licenses supplement their income by delaying approval until they are induced to move faster with a bit of extra money. This mode of operation is rampant and expected. I sensed that people get very frustrated with it (after all, they also need the money that they are forced to dish out).

Tourism in Vietnam is flourishing. I asked myself why a country that wants more visitors subjects the more affluent ones to delays and hassles. It makes no sense. Until I realized that the well-to-do can afford to buy tours where all of these details are handled for them. In the total scheme of things, the fleecees like me are probably few. The extra $170 I paid can feed a family of four for a month. Good for them; may they enjoy it.

We spent two days in Hanoi. We saw a few museums, but mostly we decompressed until we hired a private car to drive us to Haiphong. There we would get to meet our potential future in-laws and we would establish a home base for exploring the north.

I reflected some more on the payoffs and their implications to the expectation we have for law and order. It is sad that the government cannot afford to pay people more. More serious is what happens when you allow the rule of law to be corrupted. People in power do not have to suffer through delays and hassles when they want something done. But the masses bitterly resent these roadblocks. They have no time to waste; they need to eat as much as those in power do. When you have no political opposition it is tempting to decide to ignore the needs of the people, particularly if you are doing your best to tend to SOME of those needs, such as building highways and making sure that there’s enough electricity and water for everyone. But you should be careful to establish a firm foundation for your government. This will be based on trust; on the masses having a firm belief that you are looking out for them. They should never have a reason to resent your authority.

Our infrastructure is vastly superior to that of most civilized nations, but many citizens have let us know that they no longer trust their government. Tens of millions of people will not vote on the issues; they will register a complaint against the established order. Despite overwhelming evidence that the USA is a beacon of democracy and strength, bitterness and even violence is deemed a solution. This is sad and frightening. Many fences need to be repaired.

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  1. Betty Townsend