2020, Thursday 28th May I received an email; there was a Vietnam Airlines plane ready to take home remaining Kiwi tourists still in Vietnam.
The first problem was that this plane flew on Sunday the 31st May and the second problem, I could scarcely afford to pay what they were asking.
Still languishing in central Vietnam, amid the peaceful beauty of Buon Ma Thuot, initially I was happy to dismiss the email; one Vietnam Airlines ticket from Ho Chi Minh City to Auckland was going to cost me in the vicinity of $1700 – more than the price of the return flight I had booked back in 2019.
A few hours later I received at follow-up message threatening that if I did not take this flight back to New Zealand, as Vietnamese Immigration authorities were all aware of my presence in Vietnam (along with lapsed Visa), there would be severe consequences.
Again, initially, I wasn’t perturbed.
It was the third email in as many hours from Vietnam Immigration that did it; they warned me that if I did not get myself home on the flight they were offering, on top of ‘consequences’, I would likely be stuck in Vietnam until sometime next year.
Before my New Zealand debit card had expired in March 2020 I had withdrawn over 30 million VND (approximately 2000NZD) to keep me going for the remainder of my stay; although that stay had been drastically lengthened I still had stashed in my bag a total of 16 million VND (just over 1000NZD), but knew that would be insufficient to get me through another six months in Vietnam.
My adoptive Vietnamese family were aware of my ongoing plight and had all been extremely supportive throughout; now, upon being notified of this updated version of my plight, the daughter (current student, future wife) ducked away to inform her mother. A moment later she returned, clasping a wad of 500 dong bills.
Shortly after that the mother drove a carload of my supporters and me to Buon Ma Thuot airport, in the hope of purchasing the ticket.
Alas the Vietnam Airlines desk at Buon Ma Thuot airport was unattended and, even after some urgent Vietnamese pleas, no assistance was forthcoming.
My Vietnamese contingent were undefeated; I had little idea at this point what was happening – I was mentally preparing to be in Vietnam until 2021.
We drove to another Vietnam Airlines office where, after much (seemingly heated) Vietnamese discussion along with the arrival (and presumed influence) of the father, I was presented with my itinerary.
From dismissing chances of going home to then suddenly being right there at BMT airport at the Vietnam Airlines counter; from then being led to believe there was no hope of going home in the near future to later showing up at a small inner-city travel counter where, boom, there it was.
I was befuddled, but it didn’t matter; all I knew for sure was that I had a ticket, I was going home in two days and, if not for the help of my Vietnamese family, none of this would have been possible.
I spent one last, wonderful but sombre, day with my Vietnamese family in Buon Ma Thuot before, at 9 p.m. Sunday 31st May, they drove me to the bus station; destined for Tan Son Nhat airport, Ho Chi Minh City.
Monday morning, 5 a.m., the bus rolled into Mein Dong station. Even that early in the morning Saigon was bustling. I had no desire to do anything productive.
The first six hours I spent at a café, drinking ca phe and chatting with passing locals; for the remaining eight I simply shifted to another café.
Around 7 p.m. I turned up at Tan Son Nhat airport and walked inside; the place was empty.
I sat and waited for over an hour before noticing an information board light up. I checked it to find my flight was departing, as scheduled, at 22:35.
I checked in my bag and, with not another person in sight, strolled through to customs. There was someone waiting for me at a desk. I handed them my passport. He glanced at it. “Your Visa is expired,” he intoned.
“Yes,” I tried to keep sarcasm out of my voice, “so has the Visa of most of the people behind me.”
Another uniformed man approached the desk. “You come this way,” he waved his arm.
I walked in the direction he was indicating.
“You go in there,” he pointed to a doorway.
I went in and heard his voice behind me; “Sit down poleese…”
The phrase ‘sit down poleese’ has been the source of much humour between my Viet family and me, and when this man said it, I almost laughed aloud.
“…The commander will see you.”
I sat, stretched out, and felt a greater sense of calm than I had felt for a long time. I wasn’t worried. I knew these guys weren’t going to do anything to me. I think they were just bored and looking for a way to waste some precious time.
The ‘commander’ arrived who, the way he kept belching under his breath, I suspected had just eaten a large meal. If nothing else the man did provide a commanding presence.
He sat down. First thing he said to me: “Why do you have expired Visa?”
Seriously, I was of the impression that I was on a flight intended primarily for travellers stuck in Vietnam because COVID-19 had made it impossible for those travellers to return home at the scheduled time; I was of the impression they were expecting an influx of expired Visas.
I was in disbelief. Again, I repressed the compulsion to speak sarcastically, but this left me almost no words. “Ah … COVID…?”
He commander nodded, studying my passport.
I tried again. “I had a return flight planned with China Southern on March 26, they cancelled that flight … I had another organised on the 29th, with Qantas, which was cancelled also.”
“I see,” the commander stood, “wait here.”
I watched as the broad-shouldered man photocopied pages of my passport then disappeared out a side door I hadn’t even noticed in the white room.
I don’t know exactly how long I waited there for the commander, I didn’t care, but it was at least 30 minutes.
When the large Viet returned, he had me repeat my story before asking, “You have friends in Vietnam?”
“I do,” I replied, “in Buon Ma Thuot.”
“You can ring?” he pointed at his phone.
“You want me to ring my friends?” I asked, confused.
He nodded; I suddenly saw that this could work to my favour.
I rang the first Viet number I saw on my phone and waited. “Tim!” came the response.
“Giang (‘Yang’), hey … Ah, some Immigration dude here wants to speak to you.”
I handed my phone to the commander and waited, listening. I didn’t understand many of his words, but I did notice Giang’s tone becoming increasingly shrill. I felt bad for her.
A few minutes later he handed back the phone then without a word left the room.
A minute after that my phone was receiving a call from Giang’s cousin, Dung (’Yhom’).
I answered it. Dung is the kind of assertive, strangely influential character, who, if you need something done in Vietnam, tell him and if he likes you, it will be done. This is much of the reason I hadn’t been worried about anything; between the influence of Giang’s father, Hung (‘Mr Hom’ to me,) of the Buon Ma Thuot Police, and her cousin, Dung, I felt as though I was fairly well represented.
I assured Dung there was no problem, that Customs had to have known there would be White folk coming through devoid of Visas, and that I was sure these Viet Customs dudes were just bored and looking for some way to kill the night. Dung wasn’t satisfied; his words, ‘I sort it out, Tim, don’t worry’.
Within moments, in the next room, I heard what must have been ten different phones, two at a time over the following five minutes, start ringing and vibrating until somebody picked them up.
Meantime, I sent Giang a text message telling her that everything was fine and not to worry; frustrated that I’d called her first rather than cousin Dung.
Seemingly Dung had finished with Vietnamese Customs; he was now calling me.
He explained ‘there is nothing to worry about anymore’ then instructed me, in his sometimes unintelligible Vietnamese accent, if there was any further trouble or if they tried to ‘make you pay money’, I should call him.
As I ended the call to Dung the commander meandered over to me, his expression no longer so intense. We went over everything again then insisted that I present evidence of my return ticket. Momentarily panicked, I then remembered how fastidious I am when it comes to deleting emails. Sure enough, with a rapidly depleting laptop battery and questionable Internet strength, I ran through old emails until I found the correct one from Helloworld.
The commander smiled and with his phone, took a picture of my laptop screen.
“You come with me now,” he said in a voice that didn’t match his face.
I gladly stood and followed him out the door. As we passed the threshold, he paused and carefully said to me, “There, ah, there will be no, ah, no money to pay.”
Where I had been over two hours early for my flight, there was now only 15 minutes until boarding. I was at risk of becoming anxious, until I saw the commander was going to accompany me through customs. He breezed me through baggage check in five minutes then, with a hearty handshake, left me at the boarding gate.
I wondered exactly what Dung had said to him.
The plane was under half full, so most people were able to claim their own bench seat, stretch out and sleep for the nine-hour, direct flight.
Auckland airport, much like Tan Son Nhat in Ho Chi Minh City, was deserted; the passengers were rounded up and escorted through the facility before being loaded onto a bus, then taken to the Pullman hotel.
My room is wonderful, the meals are superb, and my window faces east to a vista of the rising sun over Auckland harbour; I should be ecstatic, but I’m not.
I don’t miss Saigon but, fair to say, I do miss Vietnam; miss my Vietnamese family who were so good to me.
Article by Tim Walker
Edited by Donna Miss Saigon
Photography by Miss B M Thuot