I take a sip of my Vietnamese iced coffee; its strong and caramel-like flavour is soothingly familiar and awakens my jet-lagged mind, even if temporarily. As I sit here with Ankit taking a break from walking around the city, I still cannot quite believe that we’re here. We’re doing this. We no longer have a home and most of the important things that we own fit into our backpacks. We’re free to dictate our own schedule; when we sleep, when we eat, when we work, when we move on from where we’re currently at. I also just realised I don’t even know what day of the week it is.
It’s quite the liberating feeling.
And yet despite all this liberation, we’re still pinching ourselves to see if it’s in fact real. It seems that it takes our minds time to catch up with our bodies; for ourselves to adjust to the big changes we’re undergoing – change of country, change of lifestyle, change of direction.
Yes, we’re here physically, but we’ve yet to reach here mentally.
The days leading up to our departure from Dubai were hectic. The heat closed in on us in tune with our departure date. You underestimate just how much it takes to permanently leave a place; belongings and contracts shackle you down, and it takes a hell of a lot of sweat to break free.
Our final day was pretty much typical of our final weeks as a whole – chaotic and random. We were staying with a close friend, as our electricity and AC had been cut off and therefore it wasn’t possible to live in our apartment anymore. Up at 7am sharp with our to-do list etched in our minds, we set out to finish everything off before our flight at 11pm.
First up, we had to complete packing the things that we were sending home – well, I had to. I always like to leave packing until the last minute, even when I’m packing up my whole life.
Our apartment was as hot as an oven, so it was no easy task. The removal guys were meant to show up by 10am and in typical Dubai fashion they failed to (and they also failed to inform us that they were going to be late). One angry phone call by Ankit later and they agreed to make it by 12pm, so we had to hang around despite the fact we had so many other things to do and little to no time in which to do them.
Once they had come and taken what few belongings we have left away, we had to rush out to get our Du Internet connection cancelled and pay our final bill. We reached the Mall of the Emirates branch at 1pm.
“Our systems are down,” we were told unapologetically by a kandora-clad member of staff.
As you can imagine, we were highly frustrated. We were told that they weren’t sure when the system would be working again, but to come back in an hour or so. We were also told that this was a Du-wide issue, so there was no use attempting to find another branch.
Annoyed, we set off to the food court to have some lunch. Once we ate, we headed back – said systems were still down, only this time a different guy informed us that other branches were fine.
Great customer service as always, Du.
Our sense of urgency grew as time shrank before us. We drove fifteen minutes from MOE to Internet City to try our luck at another branch, where we encountered an unhealthy dose of Dubai bureaucracy.
“Sorry, sir, we need to see your visa copy to cancel this.”
Apparently a passport copy and driving license – two things that Ankit had on him at the time – don’t count as ID in Dubai.
By this point, steam was coming out of Ankit’s ears. We had to return back to our friend’s place, which was a good 20-minute drive away in order to get the visa copy, then drive to our apartment before 4pm to let our cleaner in to do her job. Then we had to drive to Du, get the cancellation done, drive back to ours again and help clean.
Needless to say, by the time we headed back to where we were staying in order to get ready for the airport, we were both completely exhausted. I had yet to finish packing, so I had an hour to finish up, have a shower, get ready and leave.
Once we were packed and ready, we tried our backpacks on to a synchronised “fuck.” We’re definitely no pros when it comes to packing for a RTW trip, and we quickly realised that certain belongings would most certainly have to be ditched by the time we got to Vietnam.
So we, the novice backpackers, reached Al Maktoum International Airport at around 8:30pm. Relieved to have finished everything just in time and to finally be on the move, we felt that all our worries were now far behind us, and that we could relax for the duration of our flight.
Sadly we were mistaken.
“The dates on this are wrong,” the lady at check-in said to us as she scrutinised our visa approval letter for Vietnam.
For a split second, I felt my heart sink. We had reached the airport ten minutes previously and had both let out a huge sigh of relief. We had made it; everything was done and all that was left was to board the plane to Vietnam.
If only it were that easy.
I took the letter back in my hands to see what she was referring to, and quickly realised that she didn’t know that the Vietnamese authorities sometimes issue one letter for groups of people who aren’t part of the same party.
“That date refers to this other guy’s date of entry to Vietnam. See, Harpreet Dhatt,” I said in my most non-patronising voice. I then explained how the visa letters work.
“Oh, I see, I see,” she said with a vacant smile. I shuffled my feet and tried not to look at Ankit.
“Okay. You’ll be seeing me again at the gate,” she said while handing us our boarding passes.
I assumed she was just trying to make small talk. Turns out, I was wrong. As we made our way to board the plane to Doha, I noticed that she was there, waiting. For us.
“I hope to see you in Dubai again soon,” she said while I handed her our boarding passes.
“Yeah,” I smiled.
“Do you live here?” she probed.
“Erm, yes, but not anymore,” I said, my voice starting to display traces of fear.
“Do you have a ticket out of Vietnam,?” she enquired.
“Yes,” I said clumsily. “With Thai Airways,” I continued, hoping that that was the actual name of an airline.
She looked at me with the manner of a teacher who is about to tell a truant child off.
“Okay, because you may be given trouble in Vietnam if you don’t have a return ticket.”
I nodded. “Yes, but we do.”
“Have a safe flight,” she said, and Ankit and I continued to the gate with our minds full of doubt.
“But we do have a return ticket,” Ankit reassured me as the plane took off.
Yes, we have a ticket back to Dubai for the 16th of December, which is when we fly to Cyprus for Christmas, but with our Vietnamese visas expiring in November, I was suddenly concerned that questions may be asked regarding the discrepancy in dates. Truth is, we have no intention of overstaying our visas, and will be heading to Thailand or Laos after a month or so – but an unfriendly immigration officer wouldn’t know that.
So throughout our one-hour flight to Doha, and most of our onward flight to Ho Chi Minh City, I was full of anxiety. And we had one more added stress to come.
When we went through to our gate at Doha International Airport, Ankit remembered something rather important.
“Fuck man. We forgot to get the US dollars for the visa.”
The visa stamp in Vietnam costs $45 each and travel bloggers warn that most of the time they will not accept any other currency. Couple this with the fact that there’s no ATM or currency exchange in that part of the airport, you know you’re potentially going to be screwed if you get there without dollars.
Ankit pleaded with the Qatar Airways staff at the gate for them to let him through, but they wouldn’t budge. He was angry. I was trying to calm him down while hoping that the start of the trip wasn’t indicative of things to come.
Onboard the flight, Ankit asked the cabin crew whether they’d be able to exchange some money for us. Genius idea and admittedly not one I would have thought of on my own. Unfortunately, they weren’t sure if they’d be able to and asked us to check towards the end of the flight.
Great, I thought to myself. A whole seven hours with this concern in our heads.
Ah, travel. One thing you cannot knock it for is being boring.
“You’ll never guess what,” Ankit said to me as I got back from the washroom towards the end of our flight.
“Oh God, now what?”
“My flip-flop just broke.”
This is when I burst in to a fit of laughter. Could we get more ridiculous?
Thankfully, we needn’t have worried as everything worked out fine in the end. The cabin crew were able to exchange our GBP for dollars to which we responded with a synchronised chorus of “thank you so much, thank you, thank you so much,” and we were therefore able to get our visa stamps without fuss. And thankfully no one batted an eyelid at immigration at the lack of a return ticket before our visa expiry date, so the check-in staff in Dubai needlessly placed doubts in our heads.
As for Ankit’s flip-flop, well, he had to walk through the airport wearing a pair of socks given to us by the airline.
What a start to our journey.
The first day has passed in a jet-lagged blur. Ho Chi Minh City is as chaotic as we remember it; motorcycles zig and zag across the road and honk at pedestrians who are attempting to cross. The streets are full of an amalgamation of smells – fish sauce emanating from food stalls, incense burning at the various temples, and the occasional unfortunate waft of sewerage. Life takes place on the streets – school runs are done by parents on motorcycles, mothers weigh their babies on scales that are located outside the front of public hospitals, street food vendors wash their pots on the tarmac, workers sleep wherever they find a bit of shade.
It’s everything that Dubai is not: full of street life, full of character, and a complete assault to all the senses.
We’re still waiting for reality to hit us, and at the minute we’re flailing around a little bit like fish out of water. But not knowing what each new day will bring is an exhilarating feeling that we’ve both been longing for for ages, and it really is as liberating as it sounds.
As I continue to sip on my coffee, I realise something. While we’re not quite fully awake or with it yet, if any place will bring our minds to the present it’s this place: frenetic Ho Chi Minh City.
Vital journey numbers
Hours spent travelling: 16
Miles travelled: 4000
Amount of individuals with bad BO on our flight: Four
Number of flip-flops that broke: One
Modes of transport: Three
Number of weird Qatar Airways staff that we encountered: Two