After a rather chaotic and elongated visa-on-arrival process at Ho Chi Minh Airport, the queues were short at immigration. All the locals had passed through long ago, and the sea of foreigners making the best of it on the airport floor were being awarded their entry permission like a good Vietnamese coffee – at the rate of a trickle.
The muffled microphone calls of mis-pronounced foreign names from behind the desk caused the unorganized numberless ocean to encroach further on the shore, eager to catch a few syllables that somewhat resembled usually familiar sounds. It was getting to that time when immigration cards were doubling as hand-held fans and watches were being checked at a rate only of the impatient.
But then, as if by some divine intervention, the waiting game came to a sudden end with the announcement of Hai’s name, clear and perfectly intonated, a resounding trill over the drone of the crowds and break in the virtually incomprehensible name calling attempts thus far. For once it seemed having a Vietnamese name was advantageous. Through no attempt of our own to expedite the process, which with the quick slipping of an extra note appeared to be a common practice, Hai (and me by association) had unintentionally jumped the queue and escaped high tide.
Despite the quiet splashing of calmer waters, passport control seemed to be taking longer than usual. Hai was ahead of me at the desk while I observed their one-at-a-time rule by waiting behind the colored line. A short time later, Hai called me forward. “He said you can just give your passport to him and go through. I’ll bring it with me when everything’s done.”
Puzzled as to what was taking Hai so long to get through and why I didn’t even warrant a glance up from my passport to confirm my identity, I went and sat down and observed their conversation from afar. Whatever they were talking about was far more extensive than any usual line of questioning but nonetheless didn’t seem serious. I know how Hai’s facial expressions change when something irritates him and this was his usual explanatory/story-telling face like when someone asks him a run-of-the-mill question or what he thought about the last city he visited. With “I’m sorry, sir. Despite having a visa, we can’t let you enter Vietnam” scenarios eliminated, I just waited.
He finally approached with a smile and slightly shaking his head in amusement. As he handed me the passports, “What was that all about?” I asked. “He just wanted to chat it seems.” “About what?” “About how I feel about being back here. What it was like growing up in Australia. Whether I have family here. Whether I’m going to try to find them. He didn’t want you to have to wait in line while he satisfied his curiosity.”
As it turned out, the immigration officer’s questions were the first of many inquisitive conversations with locals during our three weeks in Vietnam.
Heading towards baggage reclaim, we hadn’t even thought about our unclaimed backpacks going round and round during what was nearing a two-hour exit process. We arrived to find them sitting with a couple of other lonely suitcases next to the stopped baggage carousel.