What is the value of a lesson learned? In this case, $832. When booking our flights to SE Asia, I was presented with myriad scheduling challenges. After many hours spent researching, I finally came up with an itinerary that would waste no full days, and left a comfortable 3-hour layover buffer at all stops. Denver to Tokyo to Saigon to Manila to Cebu, where we would catch a bus to Dumaguete. Such a good plan.
- Flights in Asia are rarely on time.
- Nobody is in a hurry at any airport, it seems.
- Customs and immigration is, expectedly, a laborious and frustrating process.
- Apparently certain budget airlines only operate their check-in counter for an hour every day.
- Bypassing this brief window by checking in online renders your ticket non-refundable and unchangable should you miss your flight.
- Not speaking a word of Vietnamese is not conducive to speeding things along.
Yup, you guessed it: we missed our connection in Saigon when our flight from Tokyo was delayed 2 hours. We managed to get expedited service through immigration and customs, ran sweating like hogs through the airport at midnight as the intercom aired last call for our flight, only to be turned around at the last checkpoint to “verify” our already printed boarding passes with a ticket counter that was closed for the night. Awesome. Flight officially missed, and the money we spent on it down the toilet.
Normally, we simply would amend our plans and get to the Philippines (or wherever else) when we felt like it and when affordable airfare allowed. However, plans to meet my brother in Dumaguete demanded we eat a painful $832 bullet to book a new ticket the following day.
Brief moment of utter defeat and frustration to start off our vacation, yes. A fitful 3 hours of sleep at the airport on really uncomfortable benches, yes. But also a great day exploring Saigon that we would otherwise not have experienced.
We began by catching the local bus into town from the airport, because taxis are for suckers. In fact, we managed to navigate the city all day on foot and by bus, only getting lost a couple times.
Saigon is a huge city of eight million people, and its paradoxically ordered chaos is to us a familiar breed. Motorbike masses throng through the streets, entire families and produce market stalls piled precariously on some, businessmen and students motoring along on others. Buses, minibuses, flatbed trucks, bicycles, pedicabs and taxis join the fray amongst innumerable pedestrians, and it is soon clear that there is an unspoken conversation between everyone in this laneless melee. Somehow nobody wrecks. Somehow we can walk across the street through traffic without getting mowed down. Somehow this all works.
In many ways, Saigon feels just like Cairo or Lima or any number of large cities in developing countries. But in many other ways, it has its own unique charm. For example, in the many well-manicured parks, people spend their mornings exercizing in any number of amusing ways: swinging their arms randomly around, stretching, dancing, stepping sideways back and forth, playing badminton with or without a net, practicing martial arts, boxing, kicking a ball around, or utilizing one of the permanent exercise fixtures. Sometimes there are groups of 30 or 40 people all dancing to pop music blasting from a boombox, all stone-faced, stoically completing their dance exercise routine. I, on the other hand, couldn’t help but chuckle a bit. I even hopped on some swinging ab workout contraption for a few minutes.
Our first priority, after unloading our bags for safekeeping at a hotel, was breakfast. After 20+ hours on planes and in airports, we were ravenous. And of course, our breakfast of choice was pho, which we managed to scrounge up at a local produce and meat market for less than a dollar.
With full bellies, we set off to see the Jade Emperor Pagoda, a buddhist temple with numerous ornate shrines and a steady flow of revelers. While lacking the somber mood of most religious sites we’ve visited (such as the Western Wall, Temple Mount or The Church of the Holy Sepulcher), the sculptures and decorations were still striking through the haze of burning incense.
By this point, we were thoroughly soaked in our own sweat, thanks to the grit and exhaust fumes of the city streets on a swelteringly humid 95 degree day. That only left one logical next destination: spa and massage parlour. A shower and ninety minutes of being thoroughly pounded, poked and physically manipulated… all for $20.
Relaxed and refreshed, we found dinner and a beer, sat for a while watching the street before hopping the bus back to the airport five hours before our flight to Manila and Dumaguete. We would not be missing that plane again, damn it!
The lesson here is twofold:
- It is always better to have a flexible itinerary when traveling. Most of the world does not operate with the same sense of artifical urgency we do in America. Things run late, and nobody cares about the inconvenience to you or anyone else. Our usual mode still seems the best: buy a ticket in, and leave the rest to whim and circumstance.
- Roll with the punches, even when it costs you. Am I annoyed we wasted almost $900? Of course I am. Is $900 worth ruining my vacation over? Not on your life. And besides, we got a great unplanned day in Saigon out of the deal, plus a direct flight from Manila to Dumaguete instead of a 7-hour journey on a chicken bus and ferry from Cebu. Things have a way of working themselves out for the best.
On to the Philippines!