Our first trip to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam was almost thrown into a turmoil before we could even leave the airport.
My initial confusion turned into fear. My heart beat a alot faster, as I tried to make sense of the situation. My body’s fight-or-flight reaction kicked in unwillingly, and triggered adrenaline throughout my nervous system that turned my fingers numb. I hated it.
This is the story of how my family and I were threatened at Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Our Family Trip
It was our first family trip to Vietnam, and we picked Ho Chi Minh City over Hanoi because the flights had better departure and arrival timings in the afternoon.
To be honest, we didn’t know what to expect from the city. The only reason we chose to go for a family holiday in Vietnam was because we adore Vietnamese food.
Of course, we were considering between other popular Southeast Asian destinations for a short family getaway as well, but none really piqued our interest.
Bangkok? We’ve been there too many times. Bali? Nah, rainy season. Jakarta? Probably inconvenient because it’s Ramadan.
So as diehard fans of Pho and Bahn Mi, we all agreed on Vietnam and then Ho Chi Minh City. What’s better than having one of our favourite cuisines at its origin, right?
After booking our flight tickets and hotel, I decided to comb through Google for some Ho Chi Minh City itineraries. Aside from the city’s best pho shops, I also needed to know where we could explore to burn off the calories.
I managed to find some popular restaurants, as well as famous tourist attractions to visit, and bookmarked them on my mobile phone’s Google Maps as I did my search. Gotta love technology.
Speaking of that, I don’t even print flight itineraries anymore, as the auto check-in function at airports are conveniently paperless. All my travel documents are accessible through email anyways.
Somehow, I decided against my habit and hit the print button on my travel documents. I guess I was slightly worried that in the event we get lost in Vietnam, we could point to our printed hotel address to get us back, or even pass the documents to the taxi drivers if needed.
Bickering at Immigration Counter
It was a smooth flight to Ho Chi Minh City, and we landed just slightly past 1pm in Tan Son Nhat International Airport.
Disembarkation, however, was delayed as the jet bridge took some time to connect. Nonetheless, we arrived happy and safe in Vietnam.
Heading into the airport, passengers from two other flights also disembarked at the their gates further ahead. They quickly trickled into our crowd, ballooning the swarm of travellers, as we all briskly made our way towards the immigration area.
Needless to say, immigration was packed. I definitely missed our airport’s automated lanes.
Well, at least there’s WiFi to kill time. Or so we thought.
The airport WiFi required a Vietnam mobile number to receive a One-Time Password, so we were stuck with no connectivity.
Why would an international airport impose a Vietnam mobile number to access their WiFi? Terrible system for tourists.
About 30 minutes into the queue, we inched closer towards the immigration counters and I noticed some bickering at another counter on the left.
“Yes, I’m going back next week!”
A young lady of Indian descent was assuring the immigration officer – but he didn’t seem to agree.
Donned in a military green uniform with distinctive red and yellow epaulets, the officer shook his head with a disapproving look.
The lady was clearly frustrated with the situation, but it was not before long the officer beckoned her to the back.
I turned around to see what he was pointing at. There was a single black door at the end of the hall.
Ominous… Certainly not a good sign.
It reminded me of interrogation rooms in airports – airless, windowless room where immigration officers search you and even question you for hours. I’ve heard many horror stories of tourists being sent to these rooms, where the officers could act any way they want, away from the attention of other travellers in the arrival hall. I surely don’t want to be in that position.
He handed back her passport, and pointed forward again, signalling her to go towards the room. With a frustrated sigh, she left the counter and walked towards the end of the hall.
I caught a glance of her passport, and saw a familiar red with gold emblem.
Oh, Singapore passport?
Definitely not a common to see an immigration officer deny entry to a Singapore passport holder.
Interrogation Room Awaits
Another 10 minutes later, it was finally our turn.
My mother went ahead first, as I continued to chat with my father and younger brother.
About a minute passed, I turned towards the counter and saw the immigration officer still flipping the passport pages. My mother looked at me and shrugged.
The officer finally looked up, and mumbled something. She looked puzzled for a second, before turning to me and waving for me to go over.
I’m used to these situations – my mother’s first language isn’t English, so she usually requires translation help when talking to non-native English speakers.
“Anything wrong, officer?” I rested my elbows on the counter.
“You going back Singapore?” he mumbled in heavily-accented and incomplete English.
“Yes, we’re going back in 5 days.”
“Show me document.”
“What do you mean documents?”
“I want see document.”
“Yes, that’s her travel document. That’s her passport.” I pointed to my mother’s passport in his hands.
“Show me ticket!” he raised his voice.
What the h- What’s wrong with this guy…
“You want to see our flight tickets?”
“Yes, and hotel. Show me ticket and hotel.”
“Ok, it’s in my email. But I don’t have data to access it.”
“Use WiFi,” he pointed towards the ceiling.
“Your airport WiFi is not working.”
“Show me ticket!” he demanded loudly again.
“Ok, ok!” I took out my mobile phone and tried to connect to the WiFi again, but the same error page popped out, requesting for a Vietnam mobile number. I showed it to him.
“I cannot connect to the WiFi.”
The officer let out a sigh and flipped through my mother’s passport impatiently again. Why did he keep doing that?
He looked up, pouted his lips and said, “Go back.”
“Huh, go where?”
“Back,” he pointed towards the same black door at the end of the arrival hall.
Why? We didn’t do anything wrong though. Seasoned travellers would always tell you not to leave the immigration counter without a good reason, because you could end up in the interrogation room for hours.
I absolutely didn’t want my family to be interrogated in foreign country.
My father and brother was looking concerned in the queue.
As I tried to think of ways to salvage the situation, I saw the immigration officer staring at me. He caught my eye, and darted downwards twice, signalling me to look down.
Right at the table’s edge, he was rubbing his thumb repeatedly over the tip of his index finger.
My initial confusion turned to fear, as I finally realised what he was doing. The immigration officer was trying to make us look bad in front of everyone, by raising his voice and demanding booking documents.
It all led up to him wanting bribe money.
“Go back!” he demanded, and rubbed his thumbs over his index finger quicker.
I was petrified, I’ve never been in this situation before. Even though I knew the immigration officer was abusing his authority in front of everyone, he managed to conceal his intentions and looked like he’s just doing his job.
My heart was pounding and my fingers felt uncomfortably numb. I was scared, angry, and helpless all at the same time.
The immigration officer smirked while looking into my eyes. He continued to look downwards to his index finger rubbing over his thumb, by the table’s edge, and back at me multiple times.
He knew absolutely what he’s doing, and he’s winning.
What should I do? What were my options? I couldn’t show him my tickets, so do I really give him money?
What if I gave him money and he turned that against me? Would he escort us to the room and demand for more?
If he could be so brazen to demand money in public, God knows what would he do behind closed doors. I was definitely not going to comply and go into the black door room.
But either way, I’m stuck. I can’t win.
My mother, badly alarmed by the situation, turned to me and whispered in Mandarin, “Son… do we have anything at all to show him? Any documents?”
“It’s all in my email, and I can’t access it to show… Wait-“
Wait wait wait wait wait.
Hold up. HOLD UP.
I do have something to show him.
YES, I DO HAVE SOMETHING TO SHOW HIM!
OH YES LORDY I DO HAVE SOMETHING TO SHOW HIM!!
I dropped my backpack to the tile floors and unzipped a side compartment. Oh hell yes.
The folded papers were still there. Hotel and flight bookings that I’ve printed nonchalantly and stuffed into my backpack without much thinking.
“Here!” I exclaimed, stuffing the papers into his hands.
“Our hotel booking for 5 days, and our flight booking back to Singapore,” I deliberately spoke a little louder, so that everyone could hear us.
I wanted everyone in the vicinity to know that we had the right documents, so that the immigration officer had no right to deny our entry, or force us into some dodgy room.
He flipped through my papers unwillingly, and looked a little upset.
“These documents are valid for my mother, myself, and my father and brother in the queue.”
Words couldn’t describe how relieved and triumphant I felt.
After a minute or so, he passed the papers back to me without looking into either of our eyes. He beckoned for me to go back to behind the grey counter line.
He stamped my mother’s passport without hesitation and tossed it lightly back to her.
I got my father and brother to go ahead first, so that I could watch the process in case he wanted to pull other tricks.
What could he do now except grant us fair entry?
Our next 5 days were rather uneventful, other than admiring exquisite architectures and relishing our favourite Vietnamese food in this former French colony.
Ho Chi Minh City, your historically beautiful city (and delicious cuisine) offered us a wonderful family holiday. But perhaps, your immigration officer was the one that gave us a truly unforgettable experience.
Perhaps the unfortunate incident with the immigration officer could’ve been avoided if I had my documents ready, but seeing him gesture for money made me uncomfortable.
Looking back, it’s amusing how law-abiding authorities wanted to extort money, yet nobody on the streets tried the slightest to scam us. How ironic.
General Reminders from YouTrip:
1. Always remember to keep physical copies of your booking documents
2. Know your rights, do not be bullied into unlawful situations
3. For extra precaution, purchase local SIM cards or international portable WiFi to remain connected all the time
Enjoy a worldwide fees-less travel experience!