12 August 2007

Travel: Saigon, Part 1

I have been fascinated by Vietnam for many years, probably since I saw an excellent movie called Three Seasons, which portrays Saigon as a city in transition from strict communism to unbridled capitalism. I had hoped to make it my first foreign trip here, but it was not as easy as I had imagined. Vietnam is one of the few countries where U.S. visitors need a visa. This is not difficult to get, but you still need one. Remember, Vietnam is still a communist country.

So, a few weeks ago I booked a trip and got my visa and promptly caught some bug that kept me close to home for a few days. I had to reschedule my trip, but the visa was good for 30 days only. So, I re-booked just a few days later, and I was off.

Because of the short booking window, I had to fly on one of Asia's many low-cost carriers (the Southwest model is alive and kicking over here). JetStar it was. Usually, I wouldn't go into a lot of detail about the flight out or the carrier operating that flight, but I just can't help myself here.

I had already paid for an entire flight and one night of a hotel for my canceled trip ("budget" means "non-refundable"), and the original flight was on JetStar, but I had little choice this time around. Unlike many destinations here, the choice of direct flights to and from Saigon is pretty sparse. [Note: since April 30, 1975, the official name of the city has been Ho Chi Minh City, but many in the region, including locals, refer to it still as Saigon, and the airport code remains SGN.] I searched on Zuji (which is Travelocity's Asian booking site), but it doesn't offer content from the budget airlines, and I didn't want to pay $1,000 for my flight. So I went back to the JetStar site. I had everything ready to go and tried to pay, but I kept getting an error message - I could not complete the transaction. For all I knew, my credit card was being charged each time I clicked on purchase, but I couldn't tell. So, I called the airline. I was told that the error was probably due to too many people being on the website at one time and that I could book over the phone, for a $20 surcharge. But, it's JetStar's fault that I can't book on the website! I didn't argue, however, as it gets you nowhere here. So, I got my reasonably-price flight and an actual confirmation of purchase (and confirmation that this was the only charge to my card).

JetStar features one flight daily to and from Saigon, leaving early in the morning and returning immediately. That meant on Saturday morning, I arose at 5:30 to catch a 7:25 flight to Saigon. The trip started ominously enough, with a sleepy-eyed cabdriver driving about 85 mph down the East Coast Parkway to get me to the airport in a hurry. We passed two accidents involving cabs (it was still pitch black here), and I was pretty sure we were going to be the third. But, my cabbie got me there in one piece, and I was comforted by the sight of Chiangi, perhaps the nicest, cleanest, most efficient airport in the world. Except for the JetStar counters. You are supposed to be checked in 40 minutes before your flight, or you will "forfeit" your fare, as the booking documents state. And I had had enough of paying JetStar without getting anything in return. Well, the JetStar area was a mess. The lines for Saigon were long, and they were moving extremely slowly. They did open an extra lane for Vietnam passengers (another flight was leaving for Manila, but later, so they had all those passengers step aside), and they put me in the front of that line (this may sound bad, but it's true - westerners often get special treatment here). I got my boarding pass and realized I had been placed in a middle seat (JetStar's website won't let you choose your seat within 48 hours of the flight, as I had tried to do after I booked on the phone). I said I couldn't do that, so they gave me the aisle seat in the back row, warning me the seat did not recline. I didn't care - I don't sleep on planes anyway. I was going to drink coffee and read my Lonely Planet guide.

JetStar flies nice, new, clean airplanes, but they pack in the seats like the passengers are clowns in a Volkswagen. Actually, it is fine for most Asians, since they tend to be smaller than the typical westerner (who is probably smaller than I am). But the last row is even a tighter fit. I got to my seat and just laughed. I could not sit in it with my legs directly in front of me. I had to put my right leg in the aisle, which was going to be difficult when the beverage cart rolled by. Fortunately, there was no one in the middle seat, and I was able to squeeze in for the short two-hour flight.

By the way, the flight left about 20 minutes late. The captain came on and apologized and blamed the delay on backups in Immigration. I couldn't believe it! I flew through Immigration (maybe 30 seconds). It was the delays at the JetStar counters that delayed most of the passengers. If they had held to their 40 minute rule, half of the plane would have "forfeited" their fares. But, it's easy to point fingers somewhere else. I'll bet if the Singapore government knew they were saying such things, they would fine them or ban them from flying through the city.

If you can't already tell, JetStar really is no-frills. You even purchase snacks, soft drinks, and coffee. That is fine, however; let those who really want that stuff pay for it. I will pay three bucks for a cup of coffee. But, the airline does not allow outside food and drink to be consumed onboard. Is this a movie theatre? If they want to do that, however, I suppose they can do it. A bit cheesy, but that's what you get for a cheap flight. Of course, such decisions are made by the corporate office and then enforced by the line workers, the flight attendants. So, these poor young men and women spend much of their time explaining to passengers why they can't eat the food they have brought on the flight. A bit embarrassing for them, but nothing worse than when the American carriers started taking pillows and blankets off flights. Except it's Asia. Which means that the Singapore-based flight attendants are speaking in English to Vietnamese passengers who don't understand them (or don't care to follow the rules, which may be just as likely - I've never seen more people get out of their seats to get into the overhead bin or go to the bathroom while the airplane is taxiing, both after arrival and before departure). I heard the little speech about it "being unfair to other passengers who have purchased their food" so many times, I think I can recite it in my sleep. But, the flight attendant would walk away, and within a minute the food was back out. A Sisyphean exercise, if there ever was one.

My flight actually arrived on time, and my visit began. That's what the Saigon posts should be all about, but I had to share my little travel horror story. At least it ended happily, with a safe arrival in Vietnam. Of course, I had the return flight 48 hours later...

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