Jan 8, 2015

My first month as an ex-pat, Part 1

Note:  The first title of this post was "My first few days as an ex-pat". Then it was "My first week..." and "My first few weeks..." Now that it's 33 days since I arrived, it's time to sit down and finish part one. Part two will follow shortly...

Although my initial plans were to stay in Sài Gòn for only a couple weeks, I'm still here. Am currently looking at leaving for Đà Lạt by the 18th.

Since I FINALLY finished telling the story of John's Harley (there are those incongruous words again) Adventure, I thought I'd get caught up on the highlights of my initial time as an ex-pat...

By the time my flight arrived at Tan Son Nhat airport (SGN—Sài Gòn, a.k.a. Ho Chi Minh City or HCMC), I was thoroughly thrashed! The frantic pace during the 36 hours I was in Washington State between returning from one adventure and embarking on another was filled with goodbyes, doctor appointments, packing, tying up a few (though not all) loose ends, tears, and very (VERY!) little sleep.

My baggage contained 99% of the physical things I own except for one suitcase that was held for me at my HCMC hotel since I left back in July—checked pieces, most of which were within a pound of the 70 pound limit for overseas Business Class travel. Since each passenger is only allowed two checked bags in the ticket price, I got to pay $150 for the other six bags ($900 total). Considering the ticket cost only ~$125 and 100,000 frequent flyer miles, I was happy to pay it. Unfortunately, I had to rearrange a few things at the ticket counter to get them all at or under 32 kilos AND ship one bag containing my brand-new-never-worn Schuberth C3 Pro helmet 

that I'd planned to carry on—or pay another $150. I checked it and hoped that I'd packed it well enough.

I had a five-hour layover in Vancouver, B.C. during which I dared not sleep for fear of missing my 1:25 a.m. flight to Hong Kong. I was so "out of it" when I got off the plane in Vancouver that I only realized I'd left my phone on the plane from Seattle when I heard a PA announcement in the Customs area asking "Will the person who left a cell phone on Alaska Airlines flight 2242 please report to an Alaska Airlines agent?" or something like that. I usually ignore such announcements, but something told me to check and, yup, I was that person.

After retrieving my phone, I headed to the Cathay Pacific Business Class Lounge for a few light refreshments, a comfortable chair, and some email. I managed to stay awake and make it to my Hong Kong flight in plenty of time to settle in for the 13-hour flight. Since it was well past my normal 10 p.m. bedtime and I'd only had two hours' sleep each of the previous two nights, I thought I'd have no trouble reaching a prescription-induced long night's sleep. I was wrong... my prescription didn't make the hurried transfer from the intended carry-on that got checked.

I slept less than two hours; watched three movies (The Expendables 3, Captain Phillips, and November Man); and ate two meals and a snack. There's a reason I'm sharing all this, and it's coming after a few more paragraphs...

I made my Hong Kong connection and arrived into HCMC, as I said earlier, thoroughly thrashed. As usual, immigration was easy, so the next step is collecting the eight checked bags; which I did. Customs in Việt Nam consists of taking your bags off the two complimentary luggage carts, putting ALL of your bags (including carry-ons) onto a conveyor belt that takes them through a scanner, and picking them up on the other side. Very easy!

My good friend Nhi (pronounced "ñee") was nice enough to take the day off work and meet me as soon as I walked outside the Customs conveyor/scanner, which is, btw, where they catch a LOT of smugglers. It's always great to be greeted at the airport, and this greeting was especially welcome—in part because I knew she would help me ensure that ALL of the luggage on my carts made it into the taxi. And she did.

By the time we arrived at the hotel, all I wanted was a shower and a nap. So I poured myself out of the taxi and let the very-happy-to-see-me staff unload the taxi. After I got my room key, I grabbed my two-laptop/two-iPad/multiple phones backpack and headed toward the stairs and my room. That's when it occurred to me to COUNT THE NUMBER OF BAGS.

Three counts each came up one bag short and I forgot all about the shower and the nap. When I realized that the missing bag contained my brand new helmet (see above), my GoPro camera, and a bunch of other valuables, I freaked. $2000 gone! FCUK!!!

Nhi and I grabbed the first cab we found and pleaded with him to get to the airport FAST! My first thoughts were that the cab driver had failed to load the bag—even though I was pretty sure I'd seen two empty luggage carts. On the interminably long ride back to the airport, I said a very bad word a number of times and kept trying to mentally part the log jam of cars and motos to give us a clear path. Moses, I'm not!

By the time we arrived back at the airport, I'd convinced myself that the taxi driver had loaded the bag and then unloaded it to an accomplice when I turned away... so the first thing we did was search for him. Looking back, I'm amazed that we found him so quickly. Nhi asked a few other drivers we'd turned down in favor of the guy with the big van and they pointed us right to him. He let us search the van again—though I was convinced he'd gotten rid of it before we left the curb—and said over and over again that he had loaded every bag on the carts and unloaded every bag at the hotel. Now what?

I went inside the terminal while Nhi waited outside. I wanted her with me, but Vietnamese are NOT ALLOWED inside the terminal unless they have a ticket or they work there, so I was on my own. I checked the luggage carousel, the airline baggage office, and then, as a Hail Mary, filed a claim with lost baggage. The very patient woman at the desk explained to me that since I had already left the airport with my bags, I was not covered by the rules that would normally allow me monetary compensation for a lost bag. Understandable and I'm still filing the claim. I called the hotel and Ms. Phuong, the owner, read me the baggage claim numbers of all of the bags cluttering up the entryway (my words, not hers) so that I would know which claim check in my hand belonged to the missing bag. Then we headed back to the hotel to wait.

The ride back to the hotel was less stressful, but only because I had accepted that:
1) I had messed up and lost the bag
2) It was gone

Now I'm trying to figure out how to get another 2X helmet here (the closest dealer is in Thailand) and brooding that the one that is/was in my bag was the last one of that design in my size for sale in North America, so I'm going to have to pick another style (insert the overused expletive here)!

Then came the reward for being, on the whole, a good and fair person...

As soon as we walk back into the hotel, Ms. Phuong tells us that the baggage claim office called five minutes ago and THEY HAVE MY BAG!!!

Remember the post-baggage conveyor that is "Customs" here? One of the secrets to getting successfully through "Customs" is to pick up ALL of your bags on the other end of the conveyor belt. Something I failed to do.

Fortunately, no one else picked it up either, and it was later delivered to the lost baggage desk who held onto it until after Nhi and I grabbed some lunch and returned to the airport for the third and final time that day. WHEW! I was relieved, exhausted, a bit embarrassed, and a little guilty that I'd immediately assumed it was the first taxi driver who'd taken it.

As Nhi often says, "John wai wa!" (wai wa ~ crazy).

One of the things I do here regularly is walk down to the open-air street market and pick up a bunch of the small, sweet bananas that I call bananitas (little bananas) as I was taught the first time I had them many years ago in Cuba. That's what I did after breakfast on my first full day back here. If you can find these bananitas in the U.S., they'll cost you between ~$2 per pound when regular full-size organic bananas are 89 cents a pound. Here I pay ~$1 per kilo or 45 cents a pound for them and I eat about 3/4 pound every day.

Many tourists and ex-pats complain about paying more than locals, even after they've lived here more than a year. Some of these people also complain about the humidity and heat and are genuinely surprised when I ask why they live here. YES, you will be asked in many cases to pay more than locals... because the person asking knows you can and wants to get as much money as possible to feed his/her family. Get used to it! A guy told me the other day that he won't buy cigarettes from one shop because the locals pay VND24,000 and he is charged VND25,000. The VND1,000 difference is less than 5 cents. Is 5 cents worth getting a stroke over? Hell, I wouldn't walk next door for a nickel! To each his own, I guess...

Back to bananas...

My first day back, the woman I usually buy from was not around, so I bought them from the guy in the next stall. The total for 1.5 kilos (3-1/4 lbs) was VND30,000, so I paid with two 20,000 notes.

I walked about about 50 meters closer to my hotel and the man from the bananita stall runs up to me and hands me a VND10,000 note
my change that I had forgotten until 20 meters from the stall and then decided I'd rather let him keep it than walk back. So much for "they'll rip you off if they get the chance" that I hear so many times from jaded Westerners. Can you guess who now gets my banaita business?

Before I arrived, I thought I would buy a Honda PCX150 scooter for getting around town. Then, a few days in, I rented one for a day to try it out. Nope! Not for me! After riding a few different scooters, I bought a 2008 115cc Yamaha Nouvo for $450 from Flamingo Travel and rode it around HCMC for the first couple weeks. The first thing I did was add a rear rack and box big enough to hold my helmet and replace the greenish-yellow stickers on the sides with new red ones.

It seems that I'm unable to own a motorized vehicle without "tweaking" it a bit; as I frequently say, "I used to laugh at people who tweak their vehicles, now I am one!" The Nuovo is great scooter with plenty of pep and very good for riding in the pods that make up Sài Gòn traffic.

The "main street" of Sài Gòn's Backpacker District is Bui Vien Street. It's chock-full of restaurants, massage parlors, "art" galleries, and hotels and is VERY busy from dusk until sometime long after I've gone to bed. Many of the shops close at night and some pretty good street restaurants open up in front of them. In the five months I've been gone, many of the businesses have turned over and, from what I've heard they get for rent, it's hard to imagine how anyone could make a decent profit. Apparently some do, though.

Conde Nast Traveler just printed a photo gallery of 10 Reasons to Visit HCMC... when are you coming?

Last year I wrote about meeting a group of students in a nearby park who asked if I would speak English with them and what a rewarding experience it was. My second weekend here, I was again approached and spent another two hours mostly answering, and sometimes asking, questions.
During this exchange, the young woman to my right in the photo from the first group of students I spoke with in May came up and greeted me before asking if I remembered her. Of course I did! To verify that I actually did remember her, I reminded her that she left a comment on this blog soon after our meeting and that her group presented me with a scarf as a thank you.

For those who are interested in an interesting, fun, experience with local students, head to the park just west of the Ben Thanh Market (to your left as you face the main entrance on the traffic circle at Lệ Lai Street) near the intersection of Pham Ngũ Lão and Yersin Streets (District 1) around 11 or so any Saturday or Sunday morning and look for the students or wait for them to find you. It should only take a few minutes. If you get there after 3, as I did this past Sunday, they'll all be engaged with other Westerners and you'll feel a little strange trolling through the park for students... especially when you leave "empty-handed".

In the first 10 days here, I got to go to two Vietnamese birthday parties, one for a two-year old and one for an adult... in the same evening! Based on my two experiences and reports of others', VN birthday parties feature:
1) Dinner at a nice restaurant

 2) Karaoke (I sit in the back of the room and try to blend in with the wall)
Karaoke singer is at top center of photo
3) A LOT of beer drinking, much of it preceded by yelling, "MORT, HI, BA, YO-O-O-O!!!" which is my phonetic English spelling of the Vietnamese "ONE, TWO, THREE, Y-O-O-O!!!" All male adults and some female adults take part and it is considered bad form to demure.

4) Monetary gifts in red envelopes (the more you give, the better friend you are--VND500,000 (US$24) is a good amount.
5) An elaborate cake that may not have a piece for everyone

6) The cost of the party is borne by the honoree and will likely be more than reimbursed by the monetary gifts
7) Many people wanting their picture taken with the lone Westerner

8) A LOT of fun!

I hear that weddings are very similar, though even more elaborate. I had two very enjoyable experiences and strongly recommend that you accept any and all invites you are fortunate enough to receive.

That's it for this Part 1. Part 2 will follow shortly with real motorcycles, Big Bike (A2) license, and more.

Overheard in HCMC: A tourist doesn't know where he's been; a traveler doesn't know where he's going.

Have a GREAT 2015!!! 

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