January 21, 2015
For reasons I don’t quite understand, the business manager at the school says she can’t quite complete my work visa before my current tourist visa expires. Hummmm. I’ve gone to a lot of trouble and expense to get documents then get an affidavit for them all. And now there’s “not enough time” to finish the paperwork? This seems suspicious as I was told “no problem” in mid December. This school, as many in Vietnam, simply prefer illegal teachers. It’s a bonus for them—no paperwork to do, the taxes they hold out never need to be paid to the government and illegal workers don’t have any legal standing,
so whatever was promised, even in writing, doesn’t matter. I had really hoped I wasn’t working for one of those schools, but it looks like I may be. To add insult to injury, my tourist visa runs out at the end of January. New visa rules went into affect January1. I’ve looked them over, and they don’t seem to apply to my situation, but the business manager says her contacts don’t want to handle a visa until they know more. “Maybe, next month?” they say. I don’t know the consequences of overstaying a visa, but I don’t want to find out.
In the end, I must have a visa to stay in Việt Nam. That’s the law and it is my responsibility. I don’t feel comfortable relying on the school to work the problem out–they have never been concerned with legalities. I must take care of myself.
So my plan is to see if I can get (at least) a one month tourist visa extension to stay through the end of February. I have Thursday off and will head to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). I also need additional passport pages, and have an appointment at the US Consulate Fri morning. If I had time, I’d get a new passport, but I don’t. (Turned out that I didn’t need to surrender my current passport to get a new one, so while it will take 10 days or so and I have to go back to HCMC to pick it up, I have a new 52 page passport ordered. It’s larger than the usual 28 page one, at no extra charge. It’s been a life long ambition to fill a passport and I’ve just about done it!)
If this doesn’t work and I can’t arrange a visa, I may go to Cambodia for a “border run” and see if that works. It’s something world travelers have done for years. You simply leave the country by the nearest border, then walk back across and get a new visa. There is some risk, of course, and I need more information than I have right now. If I have to go this route, maybe I can get more info in HCMC.
January 22, 2015
Didn’t sleep well last night, with so much on my mind. Up by 6:30a and out the door with clothes for overnight. Grabbed 2 banh mi and hoped a scooter taxi for the bus station, and the #5 Cho Lon-Bien Hoa xe buyt (bus).
As soon as I started on the first sandwich, I realized my first mistake. I’d brought 2 bottles of water from the fridge. I took a swig from the first to find I’d grabbed the rice vodka I bought in DaLat! What a surprise. Glad I had a second bottle that actually contained water! Gave the rice vodka to a grateful man on the bus.
Next I took the #1 bus to Ben Thanh, District 1. Just in case, I needed to get photos—for a possible visa and new passport. It wasn’t as difficult as I’d thought, and I got 6, though expect just to need 2.
After visiting the Immigration office, I found that there was much confusion about the new visa laws. Everyone agreed that there did not seem to be any changes with the visa I wanted, but they weren’t sure. So somehow this would take at least three times as much money($300-500 were the quotes I’d been given) and twice as long—possible 2 weeks. I don’t have 2 weeks and that’s an unreasonable price. I inquired at first TourViet and then Saigon Tourist offices before someone offered me a solution—a border run with a tour of Angkor Wat. Of course the total price was more expensive that the visa, but seemed like a sure thing, would only take 3 days and I’d get to see a new country and a place high on my life list of locations. I planned to do the tour while the school was closed during Tet (Lunar New Year), but it’s actually slightly less expensive now.
While I don’t suppose this solution was convenient for the school, it’s what I had to do to stay in the country longer. I texted the info to Khanh (business manager) and asked off for 4 days. (In the end they gave me 5, which will be easier on me).
And with that accomplished, I just had time to jump on a half day tour to Cu Chi Tunnels.
The guide was named Vin. His English was good, which he said he learned in high school. His family has lived in the area for many generations and he was a child during the American War (what we call the Vietnam War).
The tunnels are a vast network of underground passages that plagued the U.S. Military to no end. They are located about 70km (maybe 45 miles) outside downtown HCMC. On the way we pass bright green rice paddies with new growth as well straw colored ones that were recently harvested. Vin explained that most of the rice for the country is grown in the Mekong Delta of Southern Vietnam.
We also passed a site I’d seen but didn’t understand: Hammock cafes. These are simple, low cafes, strung with hammocks instead of chairs. They are for weary travelers to use during the heat of the day to nap. Then after a coffee they are back on the road. How civilized! BTW, I’m really getting used to getting up early and then sleeping after lunch. No wonder so many “undeveloped” countries take to this practice.
We also passed by rubber trees, something I’d not seen before.
The Cu Chi Tunnels are located close to Saigon, but were also strategically close to the end of HCMC trail (for easy transportation), the Cambodian border (for easy escape) and the U.S. Military bases near Saigon.
Vin showed us an old black and white propaganda video, made by the Communists. History is truly told by the victors, and America lost this one. The video portrays the young Việt Cong soldiers—both men and women–as heroes defending their homeland. Who can blame them? The Americans are the bad guys. This is not the view of the war I had growing up.
From the brochure for Cu Chi Tunnels. (Ignore the grammar):
“This is a unique architectural structure, a system of deeply underground tunnels having several floors and alleys and branches like spider web more than 250 km long, with places for dining, living, meeting and fighting. This tunnel system embodies the strong will, intelligence, and pride of Cu Chi people, a symbol of revolutionary heroism of Vietnamese people.”
Also, according to the brochure, the complex sees one million visitors a year. Though we did not see it, there is an elaborate temple, martyred soldiers memorial, restaurants and a hotel.
Vin, our guide, said that the tunnels were started under the French occupation, but we’re not in heavy use until the American War. These tunnels are unbelievingly small passages and too tiny for most Americans to pass through. Though some tried, I did not. I feared my hips would never pass!
Also the passages were heavily booby trapped with no lighting, so VC soldiers had to memorize the system. Only the high commander knew the entire system, from memory, as there were no maps. One tunnel led to a U.S. Base, but took half a day of crawling in darkness to get to. It took the U.S. months to find that the opening was inside the base!
At the time these tunnels were dug, they were in deeply forested jungle. They were dug completely by hand. They came up with an ingenious way to hide the dirt from the tunnels, too. It was dumped into bomb craters!
The ingenuity and improvements from both sides was interesting. The VC made fake termite hills to hide the ventilation holes needed for the tunnels every 20 to 40 meters. Eventually, US soldiers recognized the shafts and brought in dogs to sniff out the VC. The VC then started using hot pepper powder to confuse the dogs, but it didn’t take long before the sight of a sneezing dog meant the enemy was near. The VC counteracted this by stuffing US uniforms into the ventilation holes, which often fooled the dogs.
Vin said that there was much secrecy during the war and you couldn’t be sure which side anyone was on. His family had 2 drivers. One for his mother to do shopping and the other for the children to go to school and back. Only after the war did they find that one worked for the CIA. He was sent to a labor camp for “retraining.” The other driver was secretly with the VC and immediately took an important post with the new Communist government. The family didn’t know the secret identities of these men and were quite surprised.
There was a shooting range at the tunnels. You could use old AK47’s, but I opted for a cool drink in the shade while others shot their rounds of ammunition.
On the way back, Vin shared some insights I hadn’t known:
- Many of the schools in Vietnam have school uniforms, typically long blue pants with a white sailor shirt. I’d noticed that some students have a red scarf wrapped at the collar, but didn’t think much of it at he time. Vin says the red scarf denotes a future Communist party member.
- With the crazy traffic, you can imagine there are many accidents involving scooters. Vin says the details of the accident must be solved before the police come. Otherwise the police with take the scooters involved for 4 weeks. The bikes are piled together in a warehouse and always get damaged in the process and the gasoline “mysteriously” disappears. The owners of the bikes have to pay a large fine and they only have one day that they can get the scooter back. If they miss they window, it is lost forever.
- Vin explained a few additional Vietnamese words to me. I confessed that I’d never be able to wrap my brain around the different honorifics, which are based on relative age to the speaker. I told him I called everyone “ban” which is sort of like friend (it’s not really translatable in English. It means “you” but it’s closer to the Spanish word, amigo). Vin explained the reason for the honorifics. Originally (and still in the countryside) people named children horrible names to scare off Devils and ghosts. A baby might be named “shit” for instance! But once you grow up, you can’t call a grown man Mr Shit! Even now, when seeing a baby, you are supposed to hug and kiss it, but say, “you are so ugly!” To scare off evil.