Birthday in Vietnam
It seemed only fitting that I’d end up detained by Vietnamese immigration at the Ho Chi Minh airport as the clock turned midnight on my birthday.
It was my first big international trip since 2020! I used to go around the world every month. But now, as I reached another turn around the sun, I got to relive some of my earlier days of “fake it till you make it” travel.
In this case, my visa hadn’t come through by the time I traveled to Vietnam. I’d actually applied for one this time, following instructions that promised it would be ready in three days. Throughout the journey, however, the online status stubbornly listed “in processing” every time I checked.
I flew to Tokyo and then on to Ho Chi Minh (I’ll always think of it as Saigon) hoping it would work itself out—which is usually what happens, at least eventually.
Along the way I thought about my first and last visit to Vietnam, way back in 2006. I was new to Southeast Asia, and spent every day seeing as much as I could. The hustle culture was real, with everyone trying to get ahead one way or another.
I was frugal to a fault back then. If I let myself get overcharged or shortchanged, I’d be upset for hours. It wasn’t just the money, it was that I’d missed what was happening until it was too late.
I don’t worry about those things as much now. The honest truth is that I won’t miss the $4 extra the taxi booking service withheld from me in making change, or even the $200 I had to pay for an “emergency” visa on arrival. (Conveniently, there’s a way to get the same visa upon arrival that most people get in advance, simply by magically locating the right sponsor. Just don’t ask for a receipt.)
Besides, I hadn’t traveled in a long time. Just think of all the money you’ve saved by going nowhere, I told myself.
Before my emergency visa sponsor was located—they woke him up and he drove thirty minutes to the airport, which bothered me until I realized how much money he was getting—the authorities were preparing to send me back to Japan on the morning flight. That would have technically been a retreat, of course, but I was more concerned about hanging out five more hours in a barren waiting area with metal chairs and no coffee shop.
At least there was WiFi. And truthfully, while I was tired and hoping to get things sorted so I could sleep a few hours before facilitating a Zoom call at 7am local time, another part of me thought, maybe the adventure will be that I get sent back!
That, too, would be an appropriate throwback to my earlier peripatetic life.
So I decided to just let it ride and go with whatever happened. It wasn’t like I was trying to go to every country and Vietnam was still on the list. I didn’t have any work commitments there (presumably if I did, someone else would have thought about the visa), and these days I purposely try to allow extra space in the schedule.
After getting settled, I spent the first day re-orienting myself, and not just to my immediate surroundings. Vietnam, like most countries, features a broad overarching culture with lots of variation contained within. Even for the typical foreign visitor, it feels very different from its neighbors.
Yet there is something about the feeling of the unfamiliar that feels familiar.
And that, I began to notice, is something I’d missed. I didn’t need to go next door to Cambodia or Laos to see THOSE parts of “familiar unfamiliar.” No doubt they would be categorically different—but the sense of immersion for me would be similar.
So instead of wandering further afield I spent a few days in Saigon, working much of the day and then walking the streets after the sun went down.
What did I see in Vietnam? It doesn’t really matter. I’m not trying to write a travel guide here.
What did I do on my birthday? I had a donut. (To be clear, it was a very good donut.)
How did I adjust to jet lag? I didn’t really. I slept three or four times a day, either for an hour or three hours or whatever I felt like.
Most countries run by communist governments have a flourishing atmosphere of capitalism. As I said, everyone’s hustling. When I tried to enter an elevator on the ground floor of a mixed-use building (the donut shop was on the third floor), an attendant politely stopped me and pointed to a sign.
To use the elevator, you have to pay! As the sign informed me, “this elevator does not belong to the building’s investor.”
3,000 dong is less than fifteen cents, but it’s the principle of the thing. I took the stairs along with every Vietnamese person I saw in the building.
At the end of four days I was starting to get on a normal schedule, which of course meant it was time to reverse everything. I traveled back to the U.S., passing through Japan again, and prepared to go through the reentry cycle.
Jet lag is my favorite drug, I used to say. I borrowed the quote from Jacques Cousteau.
The thing is, it’s not that jet lag itself is the drug. Like a lot of drugs, the actual experience isn’t that great. It’s the anticipation and the memory. It’s the sense of being aware of a whole other world!
There’s more than what you see around you every day. You should feel grateful for the parts you’ve been able to experience. You should look forward to seeing more.
Thank you, Saigon, for letting me in (after I paid off your immigration officials) and for helping me have another birthday. I haven’t always been a fan of birthday celebrations, but in recent years I’ve learned to acknowledge that they’re much better than the alternative of not having a birthday.
Pictured below: donut with an injection of chocolate ganache. Yes, the donuts at this place are Covid-themed. I’ve missed Asia.