Monday, August 6, 2012

The road to Phú Quốc

The past month has been full of typical teacher responsibilities: report cards, grading essays, creating lesson plans, practicing for the song concert, preparing for yet another open house, and field trips.  After five months of teaching full time, I was more than ready for a week of vacation.

Two other foreigners planned to visit Vietnam back in April.  After balancing our budgets and doing some online research, Vietnam seemed like the best option for Kyle and me, as well.  The four of us settled on an island just off the western coast of Vietnam in the Gulf of Thailand called Phú Quốc.  It is rated as having the best and cleanest beaches in Vietnam and top-rated food.  It's also the only place in Vietnam that doesn't require obtaining a travel visa prior to entering.

Or so we thought.

During the two months between booking the flight and hotel and actually leaving, we went back and forth, deciding whether or not to go ahead and get the travel visa, anyway.  Maybe we'd take the ferry to the mainland one day to visit the historic sites of Ho Chi Minh city?  When it came down to it, we were just too lazy to figure out the confusing visa process, so we decided against it.

Which was the wrong decision.

The two other teachers had flights out of Seoul on Friday night, but with Kyle being an afternoon teacher, we couldn't depart until Saturday morning.  After an insanely stressful week (another story for another day...), I got right to cleaning the apartment and packing that Friday night.  A few hours later I checked Facebook and saw a message from Caitlin.  I opened my inbox to find nothing but, "call me now." Oh no, I ran to my phone to call her as quickly as possible, but I could hardly get passed the 15 missed calls I had from her.  Of course, she didn't answer, so I started pacing around the apartment.  A few seconds later the phone rang, and Caitlin asked, "Are you sitting down?"
Well, now I am.  She then informed me that we do in fact need a visa to get into Phú Quốc.  Because of the horrendous English spoken by the ICN airport employees, she was still trying to sift through all the details. 

Let me take a moment to introduce you to one of Caitlin's tattoos: Ganesh, one of the Hindu gods attributed to dealing with obstacles.  According to Hindu belief, Ganesh is responsible for removing obstacles, but at times, Ganesh will also place obstacles as he sees fit.  Thanks for that, Ganesh.

A few more calls were exchanged, and after an hour or so, Caitlin was finally able to fill me in.  The girls' first flight was through Jeju Air, who informed the girls they needed a visa even just to board the flight, let alone land in Vietnam.  The helpful Jeju Air associates also said their counters would be closing in five minutes, so good luck!  The girls went to the office of their second flight (Vietnam Air) only to find those people closing down, as well. 

Enter Mr. Choi.  A kind Korean (not sure if I'll use those two words together ever again.  I kid, I kid!) employee of Vietnam Air just on his way out escorted them into his office.  He offered them coffee and began explaining the error.  Apparently, Phú Quốc doesn't require visas, but the only way to get to the island directly is by cruise ship.  We all had connecting flights in Ho Chi Minh city.  Basically, at Ho Chi Minh airport you can't get to your connecting flight without going through immigration, thus the need for a travel visa.  To top it all off nicely, even express visas take one business day to process, and here we were sorting this out on a Friday night.  Rebecca was about to have Mr. Choi start the refund process, but Caitlin instead said jokingly, "Well, is there anything we can do? We do have cash..."  Suddenly, Mr. Choi remembered what a workaholic his boss in Ho Chi Minh is.  He rang him up and in a matter of minutes had travel visas for the four of us in the works.  For a price of course.  The girls missed their flights and had to wait for Saturday to reschedule them.  As if Mr. Choi hadn't helped enough, he offered to drive the girls home, for free.  This left Kyle and me to face the sketchy visa plan first.

We met Mr. Choi at the airport the next morning.  He recognized us straight away and checked us in.  With a reluctant face, he told us our flight was overbooked.  Of course it is.  He continued, would we mind moving to business class? One of the seats doesn't recline all the way, but the food is great! Would we mind? Rock, scissor, paper for the seat that doesn't recline!  He told us to move quickly to security, as we shouldn't be allowed to board the plane without visas, but his employees were waiting to let us pass.  One of the employees pulled back the barrier, checked our tickets and passports, then let us through.  We got to the terminal with no trouble at all.  We then boarded our first flight in business class.

It was all a bit ridiculous, but I'm certainly not going to complain! As soon as we sat down, flight attendants swarmed us, offering newspapers, fresh juice, and champagne.  We were given complimentary toiletry sets, slippers, blankets, pillows, damp washcloths to freshen up, TVs with an extensive collection of movies, a seat that reclined all the way into a bed (well mine did anyway), and unlimited alcohol.  Our flight travelled during lunch time, but we were still provided with a four-course meal.  It concluded with an elaborate tray of various cheeses, fruit, chocolate, and ice cream.  The whole ordeal took about two hours; then we watched a movie.  After that, it was already time to descend.  Time for the moment of truth.

We were instructed to seek out Ms. Ha, some employee who knew our situation.  As we walked off the ramp, we saw instead a short Vietnamese man holding a sign for Ms. Shelly Ann and Mr. Kyle David.  We followed him to a lone bench, and he asked us a few details about our trip.  He walked back and forth between our bench and the immigration window several times, but after about twenty minutes, he returned with our newly stamped passports.  We paid him, US dollars only please, then headed for the final step.  The immigration officer looked at my passport for what felt like 10 minutes, then gruffly handed it back and called the next person.  Kyle passed through in seconds, and we headed out into the stiff, choking Vietnamese air. 

The flight to Phú Quốc passed with no trouble, aside from the fact that the plane was so small we had to take a bus out to it.  There was no boarding ramp, only a set of stairs straight up the side of the plane.  The wheels were held in place by a set of cement blocks not unlike the ones my dad uses for his trailers.  Oh, and it also had propellers.

Luckily, the flight only lasted an hour. We arrived at an airport that consisted of two levels, each with one large room. It was the size of a small warehouse. And I thought Akron-Canton airport was small. We found yet another sign with our names and climbed into a taxi.  Thankfully, Ganesh eased up on us for the rest of the trip.

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