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One Night in Saigon

Our flight landed at Tan Son Nhut international at 10:00 p.m. and we were tired.

Our flight landed at Tan Son Nhut international at 10:00 p.m. and we were tired.

I liked being in Saigon. It was an exhilarating city, but this time I was just passing through, mission accomplished.

It had been a hard 16 days, going up the Mekong by small boat, then into the Cambodian jungle, but we had the photos in the can and it was time to go home. Pierre and I felt good about the work we had done, got all the photos we were after and now I looked forward to curling up with a book in the lounge for our 14-hour layover.

We cruised up to the transit counter and handed over our pass! ports, a formality before entering the duty free world of Belgian chocolates and Cuban Cigars.

The smiling face behind the counter suddenly looked grim as she said, “Your visas have expired.”

I stepped forward with my most conciliatory grin and said, “I know, but we are just transiting through the airport and don’t need visas.” We had gotten single entry visas for our initial entrance to the country two weeks prior and they expired the day before knowing that transient passengers did not need them while staying in the airport.

She asked for our tickets and then informed us that our flight left the following day, 14 hours from now. When I acknowledged this she said that is not transiting and directed us to a seat. She told us we would have to talk with immigration authorities and put us under several hot lights where we were left to fidget for the next hour.

Pierre says we should have gotten multiple entry visas, and I reply it never occurred to me, as it is not necessary to have one while in transit. The problem of the moment being our interpretation of transiting and the Vietnamese official’s version do not match up.

After an hour a tall intense fellow in a bad suit shows up and in perfect English says, “Tell me your story.”

I explain to him we have flown in from Siam Reap Cambodia and simply wanted to crash in the airport lounge for 14 hours until our flight to Taiwan leaves the next day. He rubs his face with an ‘I’ve heard it all before” gesture and squints at me through the harsh light.

He informs us that a 14 hour layover taking place on two separate days is not transiting and that we must leave the airport, but we cannot leave the airport without a visa, Catch 22. I wonder if he has ever read Joe Heller?

Pierre shoots me one of those ‘I’m going to kill you” looks for I had assumed pretrip responsibilities of getting all necessary paperwork taken care of.

Mr. Badsuit tells us to sit tight and he will see what he can do, then disappears with our passports, and we sit for another hour. Several people with various uniforms stroll by acting casual but obviously wishing to see the two curious Americans.

When he returns he is smiling. I am instantly on guard for I swear a cobra smiles just before it strikes.

“Tell you what I’m going to do for you” he says. “Technically you are in transit but if you stay here you become a security risk. Security tells me anyone here longer than four hours is loitering and rounds them up, It’s your 9/11 you know,” he says with a shrug as if 9/11 was something unique to Americans.

He says he is going to send us to a tourist hotel in the city, even pick up the tab for the ride, but we will have to pay for the hotel. He gives me a name to see at immigration the following morning to pick up our passports and says we are not to leave the hotel for any reason. If we do so, we are illegal aliens with no papers.

Pierre starts to say something about not leaving without his passport, but I give him an elbow. This is a good deal and we are in no position to argue. Not only are we going to sleep in a bed rather than on a hard airport seat, but also they are providing transport to do so. I will worry about the passports in the morning.

We are turned over to an immigration officer who glares at us all the way to the baggage carousel where we pick up our luggage. I avoid eye contact thinking he is just looking for any excuse. He eyes us up and down as we walk and I guess he is thinking we are arrogant Americans for traveling with no papers when suddenly he says in perfect English, “What are you shooting?”

Suddenly we are talking photography in the middle of the airport lobby with Mr. hard cop who has become one big smile.

All around us the limo drivers jockey for position with their name signs. “Mr. and Mrs Sturat, w/Travel Indochina.” “Mr. R Holcomb, w/Saigon Hilton.” Suddenly one of these drivers is next to us with his sign asking if Pierre and I are Mr. and Mrs Anderson? I laugh and tell him no. Mr. Immigration cop is telling us about his Nikon when the driver returns and asks again if we are Mr. and Mrs. Anderson. He does not seem to know or realize one of his clients is supposed to be a woman. He is convinced it is us and we are avoiding him.

A young man stands close beside me while his wife or girlfriend quickly snaps our photo as if we are old friends. He throws me a quick little bow and scurries away giggling.

The gender confused driver is now arguing with our escort and is ordered away by the official just as our car arrives. There is a bellman from the hotel in full livery complete with white gloves who takes our bags. The immigration man orders the crowd to part and suddenly we have gone from being stateless fugitives to government escorted VIP’s. A flash bulb goes off in my face and a crowd gathers around us. I wonder what fabricated story will appear with it in the morning papers?

As we wade through the ! sea of people we are instant celebrities and Pierre begins to smile and wave like some rock star. He is enjoying this way too much.

The driver holds the door open and our bags go into the boot as people crowd around to see the American celebrities who have a government escort to their car. For a final touch, the immigration man salutes us as we ride away into the Saigon night.

The bellman is looking through a stack of papers on his lap then turns to me and says, “So you are here illegally and need refuge for the night. I will take care of you.” What a comfort he is.

The hotel is quite nice but in a seedy part of town. The lobby is full of western faces and I wonder how many are here like us because of some political oversight or simply as tourists.

The bellman hands our passport to the check in clerk who glances at us with a smirk. Obviously our story has preceeded us and he is amused by his illegal guests. Our room is awash with flashing neon even through thick blackout curtains. One look up and down the block tells me we are in the red light district.

Pierre is worried about our passports and cannot sleep so we head for the cafe and a few beers.

Once in the cafe Pierre picks up a hotel ad for massage and asks the waiter if it is too late to get one. “No Problem” he replies, anything we want. It is almost midnight now and I think the masseuse will be off duty. The waiter returns with our beers and asks for our room number then asks what sort of girl Pierre wants.

Finally it hits us what he is talking about. We pay for the beers and retire to our neon filled room. I look out the window and see a state police officer looking up at our balcony and think it is of no coincidence.

In the morning the same bellman takes us back to the airport, walks with us to immigration where we pick up our passports and head for the transit lounge.

At the same counter where all this began the evening before, we present our passports to the official on duty who looks up at us and says, “Your visas have expired.”

James Dorsey

James Dorsey is an artist, writer, and photographer who has traveled extensively in 29 countries. He has made seven extended trips through Asia. A