Ho Chi Minh City: A Surprise

As the 777-300 taxied, I looked out the window and saw darkness with specks of light scattered along the horizon. I could barely make out the faint shape of a harvested ricefield by the dim light. I did not know what to expect from the airport if the runway was built near a productive ricefield.

Then the big jet made a right turn, and suddenly the terminal building appeared from the right side of the window. It was new and modern. It wasn’t a low, traditional styled building like the 26-year old Jakarta Airport, but very much like Chek Lap Kok in Hong Kong.

Before we landed, I asked the purser for an immigration form. “I don’t think you’ll need it, Sir, but to be sure, I’ll check.” He disappeared behind the curtain to the Business Class Section, and in a few seconds returned. “The immigration form is only if you need to declare something. But in general, you don’t need it.” He explained.

I returned a blank expression to him.

“Anything else I could help you with, Sir?”
“So I don’t have to fill out any form, at all?”
“No, Sir.”
“Thank you.”
The purser left to attend to other matters. I could not believe my ears. Ever since the first time I went abroad, filling out an immigration form has been a routine, and having to do without it felt very much out of my comfort zone.

After passing several travelator, and made a quick stop at the restroom, we arrived at the immigration hall. It was a big hall with a long row of checkpoint posts. Very modern, and very efficient, starting from the design of the hall, down to the quick pace of the people at work.

Without saying a word, the immigration officer took my pasport, check it on his computer, stamped and signed it, and returned it to me. It was all in less than a minute. And by not having immigration forms to collect from passengers, they must have saved thousands of man hours of work, and also thousands of trees!

It didn’t take a long wait before my luggage appeared on the carrousel. The custom check was a breeze, and in less than ten minutes we were out of the terminal door. The waiting area was clean and orderly. No taxi solicitors, and all the people who came to pick up passengers waited patiently in a designated area.

As the hotel sedan was making its way along Ho Chi Minh City streets, I marveled at how organized the city was. Including its motorists. There were thousands of motorcycle riders on the street, just like in Jakarta, but they drove carefully.

From my hotel room window I could see a big intersection. At first, I didn’t pay much attention to it because it was just like any other intersection you can expect to find in a city. But on a closer look, I found one peculiarity: there were no traffic lights! Despite of that, the traffic in that intersection worked just fine.

Like Jakarta, there were street vendors selling food along the sidewalks. The big difference is they simply put chairs and short tables, without erecting big tents that took up a lot of pedestrian space.

And in some part of the city, the sidewalks featured stores, cafes, restaurants, clubs, karaokes, with neon signs flashing over well-designed establishments. For a minute, it did bear some resemblance to the night entertainment districts in Jakarta. But with a more tourist and family friendly air about it.

With the weather so fine, it was not a surprise to find people congregating in parks surrounding the Reunification Hall near the city center. To help them quench their thirsts, vending machines were placed in strategic locations, with sufficient number of dustbins to throw empty bottles and cans in.

Opening the desk drawer in my hotel room, I found a pamphlet containing tips for travelers coming to Ho Chi Minh. Here’s an interesting excerpt:

STREET SENSE – in the interest of security and well being, it pays to be security conscious at all times. There are many incidents of pickpockets and motorbike snatchers preying on foreigners especially those carrying handbags, exposed jewellery or money.”

Good to know that. Okay, so Ho Chi Minh City does have some shortcomings, like many cities in the world. But so far, So far, Ho Chi Minh City has exceeded my expectations.

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