Friday, September 23, 2016

Vietnam: Week 25 (in which I renew my visa)

This post is going to be a lot of words. And very few pictures. But if you like stories about visa laws listen up.

So one thing that's really annoying about Vietnam is that the visa laws are constantly changing. In order to enter Vietnam you need to apply and pay for a welcome letter, and then also fill out papers and take pictures and pay a lot more for the actual visa sticker in your passport.

When I first arrived the longest visa allowed to foreigners was a 3 month tourist visa. Which meant every 3 months I had to get a welcome letter, leave the country, and come back in. Which I did twice.

Pretty recently they've changed the laws. It's hard for me to say for sure what exactly the rules are now (side note: there are no real laws in Vietnam) because the multiple people we talked to have given different sides and googling it gives the previous law. But what it sounds like (and what it was for me) is that you can now only apply for a one year, multiple entry visa, which is much more expensive. Better for me, because I live here. Worse for visitors.

Anyway, in any case our visas were still running out. And me and five of my roommates still had to get up crazy early to take this bus to Cambodia to leave the country, get our new visas, and come back in.

Dealing with officials at the border is a pain to say the least. For one, from the second you get off the bus people swarm you to try and help you by offering you rides, leading you around, trying to fill out paperwork for you, and then asking for money. So you have to push past and keep saying "no". Also lots of long lines.

For two, every person will tell you different things. For example Shoe and I both filled out our paperwork with the same red pen. They accepted mine but made Shoe go back and fill it out again with blue pen. Also if your money is "ugly" (dirty or torn) they can refuse to accept it. So there are lots of distraught tourists who can't get into or out of the country because they have enough money...but no one will accept it.

For three, they can ask for however much money they want from you. The sign at the border said $135 each, but they asked for $140 from each of us and wouldn't take no for an answer. Vietnam pretty much entirely runs on bribes. By giving the officials extra  money they will push you through and past the lines quickly. By being obnoxious Americans and continuously pointing out the number on the sign and asking "why?" They will be rude and make you wait much longer. We do the later. Other people I know here do the former.

The luscious Vietnam/Cambodia border garden

Well here's where the story gets really fun. Because after crossing into Cambodia, getting our exit stamps from Vietnam and entry stamps into Cambodia...then crossing back and getting our exit stamps from Cambodia...we find an issue. Even though we all got our welcome letters together through the same company, two of our roommate's welcome letters are a month off. Instead of allowing them into Vietnam in September their letters say October.

We have already stamped out of Cambodia and can't go back. But we can't move forward into Vietnam either. We are stuck on the border.

The Vietnam/Cambodia border is a bizarre place. Outside it consists of this empty garden area with big elephant and giraffe statues like a forgotten theme park. This little stand sells some snacks and drinks.

Inside it must have at one point been a shopping center...but is now a creepy dilapidated empty building. But it still has dusty glass food counters and menus. Old advertisements and broken glass cases are everywhere. It's bizarre. For a while we thought it was maybe purgatory. Here is a video from my roommate Dylan's Instagram. (side note: he's a great photographer. He has all kinds of cool Vietnam pictures you should check out).

Ultimately a crazy nice border guy helped us out. He was super helpful, made a bunch of phone calls, and just hung around and talked to us in extremely broken English. They were able to contact the company and have them fax over funds for a new welcome letter. We just had to spend many many hours at the border.

These were the first few hours. We sat out in the garden and had a beer with the official who was helping us out. We got snacks. We hunted for snails. We were so young and hopeful. 

7 hours passed. We literally bought out every single beer at the border. We fell asleep on the couches. There was no air conditioning (side note: Vietnam is hot). Things got continuously worse. Eventually we get all our stuff together and wait for another hour or so in line. Eventually get back on the bus for more hours back to HCMC. Then a cab for another long drive to our apartment were we were stuck in traffic because of an accident. We joked that we'd never get home. But eventually we did. And when we did. Both the elevators in our apartment were broken.

We live on the 13th floor.

But good news. I now have a business visa (and can actually be legally employed) and I can come and go into the country as many times as I want until next October and never have to visit the border ever again.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Vietnam: Week 24 (in which I visit Củ Chi Tunnels)

If you're reading this, know that it has literally been over two months since I've written in here. So, sorry. I'm going back in and writing a few of the cool things I've done in the past couple months. But all in all, I've been here more than six months. And things are pretty settled and routine. So there's not much to write about.

Anyway, back in September I visited the Củ Chi Tunnels. And that seems like something interesting enough to share.

From Wikipedia: The tunnels of Củ Chi are an immense network of connecting underground tunnels located in the Củ Chi District of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and are part of a much larger network of tunnels that underlie much of the country.

Cu Chi is technically a district of Ho Chi Minh City, although it is a pretty far drive out of the city.

Basically they are what Americans know as the tunnels from the Vietnam War. And they are a very popular tourist attraction in Vietnam. Which is the most bizarre part of the tour experience. It's a lot of Australians and Europeans taking selfies and being all "woah damn bro look at this sick shit" know. It's a historic war zone? Anyway, I was the only American in the tour group which was weird.

I was there with my German friend. By the way I have a German friend. He's mad cute.

Anyway so first you take a long bus ride from the city out to Củ Chi. A Vietnamese tour guide takes the time to tell you all about Vietnam's war torn history (the American-Vietnamese War is actually a, proportionally, very small portion of their history at war) which was really interesting. And the tour guide makes a good point to always tell the history from both sides. 

When you arrive they usher you into one of these "rooms". All of the rooms here were originally part of the tunnel system and totally underground. But they have recently uncovered them and built this roofs over them to protect them from rain. Then they show you a video which is actually interesting.

You follow the tour guide around and he shows you all kinds of different parts of the tunnels and different examples of traps they made. It's crazy interesting how crafty the Vietnamese Army was. Even if, you know, they were fighting against us.

This is the size of the hole where snipers would hide. It's a tiny cramped hole in the ground (of course connected to the rest of the tunnels).

If you want, they let you crawl into the space. I did not do this.

This is the same hole, with the "door" shut. Totally undetectable.

There is also an American tank that got blown up by a mine and now sits for tourists to climb on and take selfies. (I didn't climb on it...but we did take a selfie with it for the sake of being honest)

This is one of the basic entrance to the tunnels, if I remember correctly.

Here is my tour group. All of the trees you see in this area are 30 years old or younger. During the war all of the trees were bombed and napalmed, and this same area would have been completely flat dirt (hence building the insane intricate underground system).

Vietnam in general used to be completely covered with jungles, filled with elephants and monkeys and large cats all country wide. Years and years of war have destroyed a huge majority of the land.

We got to see several of the rooms throughout the tunnels. There were rooms for weapon production and rooms for cooking (which is what I think this one was) and rooms for sleeping, etc. People of all ages, male and female, lived and fought in these tunnels for years.

Near the end of the tour you actually get to crawl through the tunnels. You can choose to go up to like 5km I think? But there is an exit every km. I crawled through 1km. It is scary, and cramped, and dirty and extremely hot.

I can't imagine how awful it would have been to have to live in the tunnels. Especially considering they were completely dark back then. Now they're somewhat lit.

And this is the exit.

The last thing on the tour is when they sit you down and feed you tapioca, the root vegetable that the army lived exclusively off of. Because all the vegetation had been destroyed, this was the only thing that they could grow for food because the roots remained safe underground. It is very bland, and basically tastes like a plain potato. But it's super high in protein and that's all they ate.

Then they put you back on a bus and take you back to the city. All in all it's a really interesting and educational experience. I learned so much about the Vietnam War (or the American Resistance War, which is what they call it here) and it's really great, I think, to see it from the opposite view. (And for the record, the Vietnamese really hold no grudges against America because of the war. I know most people ask me about this. Really they're super welcoming to foreigners.)