I booked my trip to Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Hong Kong full well knowing I only had 2 and 3/4 pages free in my passport. Even though I had that little nagging feeling and a small pit in my stomach over this detail, I figured it would somehow be ok.
Because I was booking this all last minute and did not have time to send in my passport to the Vietnamese Consulate in Washington DC (why is there only one consulate in the entire US???), I had to use the site www.myvietnamvisa.com (yes, I too thought it sounded super shady and was highly skeptical of this working) to get the necessary paperwork for my visa on arrival in Saigon.
At the Saigon airport I wait in a long line, get my visa and quickly look to see how much room it took up in my passport…damn, it took up one entire free page. After clearing customs, I look at my passport again. I see that the idiot immigration officer who stamped my passport for entry into the country, decided to place that stamp on the one blank remaining page I had left. Really dude? You couldn’t have put that stamp somewhere else?
My brain starts spinning as I am en route to my hotel, now wondering what the heck I am going to do if I need more room in my passport for the rest of my 3 week trip. I check-in, get to my room and lay down on the bed and just stare at the ceiling partially from being tired from the time change and 30+ hours of travel and partially because I am kind of freaking out about how I am going to resolve this now imminent problem. The pit in my stomach is getting worse and so I pull out my ipad and start frantically doing some Google searches.
The Google searches include: How much space do you need for the Cambodian visa in your passport? What do you do if you don’t have enough pages in your passport while traveling? Where do you go to get more visa pages in your passport? Where is the US Embassy in Saigon? Directions and operating hours of the US Embassy in Saigon?
Within 20 minutes of arriving at my hotel, I now go downstairs to have the concierge help me get a cab. “To the US Embassy please.” Yikes, this is not the way I was planning on starting my first solo, international trip. Gulp.
I arrive at the US Embassy where a heavily armed guard outside the gate speaks to me in broken English. He tries to explain that they only take “emergency” cases in the afternoon and by appointment only. Well, in my head, this was a dire emergency which I tried explaining, but he would have none of it. He says my only option is to come back first thing tomorrow morning when they open.
On my way back to the hotel, I remember that the next morning I have a half-day tour of Saigon by cyclo (a cycle rikshaw where the passenger is in a seat in the front and the driver is in back). Crap, I’m going to have to cancel that:( I get back to my hotel room, big pit still in my stomach, cancel the tour for the next day, shower and pass out. Don’t even have the desire or appetite for dinner.
I get up early, eat breakfast, stop by my room to pick up my passport and belongings to head out for the day and get a phone call. Who the heck is calling me? No one even knows I’m here! It is the front desk telling me my tour guide is here. “WHAT? I cancelled that.” I go downstairs, explain the situation to the tour guide, realize my cyclo driver is there waiting and a lightbulb goes off in my head. I need to get to the US Embassy and I’ve already paid for the half-day trip….hmmmm….I’ll just have him take me! To the US Embassy by cyclo I go!
I thoroughly enjoy my 10 minute ride to the US Embassy via cyclo through the crazy congestion of Saigon traffic. My stomach is in knots and I’m praying this plan is going to work out. I arrive at the Embassy, tell my driver he is free for the rest of the day, head into the very formal government building to hopefully get new pages added to my passport.
No joke, 20 minutes later, I am back out on the streets of Saigon with 24 freshly sewn pages in my passport (and out $82 USD), now with no tour by cyclo and left on my own to figure out what to see and do the rest of the day.
Back on Google, I devise my own tour of Saigon and spend the rest of the morning at the Reunification Palace and then take a stroll just enjoying the sites and sounds of the vibrant city. I was definitely bummed to have missed out on the tour of the city, but as it goes with international travel, sometimes you have to make your own plans and be ok with it. By lunchtime, I’m famished and in need of some good food to wipe away the still raw memories of the stress over the visa business. At least that pit in my stomach is gone.
Through various sites like Yelp and travel blogs, I come to find the best vegetarian pho (traditional Vietnamese noodle soup with broth, vegetables, rice noodles and usually meat, but in my case, tofu) is near the famous Ben Thanh Market, which I had already planned to spend the rest of my afternoon at.
The restaurant I am led to is called Pho 2000, also known as President’s Pho because it is where former US President Bill Clinton stopped in for a bowl of pho in the year 2000. He was the first US president to visit Vietnam since the Vietnam war.
I order the vegetarian pho which is vegetable broth, rice noodles, tofu, various fresh vegetables accompanied by basil, lime and chilies to add to your own liking. And because it was so hot outside and I felt I deserved it, I caved and ordered a coke (which I don’t normally do). Let me tell you…both that pho and coke could not have tasted any better. I polished both off and finally felt a huge sigh of relief. NOW my trip has begun….
After my satisfying lunch, I went straight to the Ben Thanh market for some retail therapy and went a little nuts on my purchases for having only been in Vietnam for less than 24 hours. If you go to Saigon and enjoy market shopping, this is the place for you. Yes it is touristy, but seeing the beautiful handicrafts of Vietnam is only half the fun there….it is a foodie’s paradise where they have fresh fruits and vegetables, coffees and teas and local delicacies as well as food stalls to make fresh cuisine on the spot (even vegetarian food). One-stop shopping and eating…now that’s my kind of place! Needless to say, I went to the Ben Thanh Market about 3 more times and enjoyed every second of it.