The Imperial City remembers

This morning, as I headed to Thuan An Beach (14 km from Hue) for my usual sunrise swim (the sea is calmest at sunrise here, and the heat of the midday sun makes swimming uncomfortable), I noticed that a shrine by one of the entrances to the beach was laden with offerings and had prayers playing all morning. I was mystified until I remembered that today is the 23rd day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar, the day when the city of Hue commemorates the failed attack on the French garrison in Hue in 1885 that marked the beginning of French control over the last free part of Vietnam, Trung Kỳ in Vietnamese (also known as Annam).  The day is known in Vietnamese as Kinh Đô Thất Thủ (京都失守).

While northern Vietnam and southern Vietnam had already come under the control of the French (the north as the Protectorate of Tonkin and the south as the Colony of Cochin China), central Vietnam was still under the control of the Nguyen emperors. When the Emperor Hàm Nghi (咸宜) was crowned, French forces declared the coronation unsanctioned and marched to Hue from Tonkin and took over a section of the walled city of Hue (known as Mang Cá, which translates to ‘fish gills’).  After a defeat of French forces in Lang Son in northern Vietnam, the war faction of the imperial government requested that the French withdraw from the citadel, which prompted the French to plan for an attack of the citadel.  In addition, the French demanded that the imperial government order the acquiescence of all subjects to the French forces and planned to capture the leader of the war faction, Tôn Thất Thuyết (尊室説), during negotiations.

Tôn Thất Thuyết, knowing this, had secretly moved weaponry to a strategic location and tried to preempt the French by attacking the French garrison first. However, the attack failed, and afterwards, French forces rampaged through the city and massacred over 1500 of its people. After this failure, Tôn Thất Thuyết fled with the 12-year-old emperor Hàm Nghi and issued the Cần Vương (勤王) edict to call for a general uprising and restore the full power of the monarchy.  The French, on their part, installed the emperor Đồng Khánh on the throne, ending any meaningful autonomy of the Vietnamese crown.

The day is remembered as one of the darkest periods in the history of Hue.  In 1894, the Ministry of Rites constructed an altar, known as the Âm Hồn (陰魂) altar (Altar of the Spirits) on the spot where Tôn Thất Thuyết commanded his forces next to the city walls. In Hue today, the day is commemorated as a collective day of mourning, with offerings akin to those made during death day commemorations. The offerings are made to the spirits of those who died on that day, and the beach town of Thuan An has a particularly large commemoration due to the large number of people who perished there (the town lies at the mouth of the Huong River and guards the entry to the city of Hue from the sea).  The commemoration is a testament to the fact that despite the city’s brief tenure as the national capital (only 150 years), it witnessed some of the most important events in Vietnamese history and has a unique and complex culture as a result of this history.

This event is even remembered in a nursery rhyme and children’s game, which I remember playing with my dad as a child.  The game is usually played with little children, with the adult prodding the palm of the child for the first five lines, and the child trying to catch the adult’s finger on the last line. However, the lines have more meaning than that. The first line, Chi chi chành chành, sets up the story (a type of “Once upon a time). The second line, Cái đanh thổi lửa, means “the đanh blows fire” (I’m not sure what đanh translates to), refers to Tôn Thất Thuyết firing on the French garrison. The third line, Con ngựa đứt cương, translates to “the horse has lost its bridle” refers to the death of Emperor Tự Đức in 1883, which led to considerable turmoil in the imperial court. The fourth line, Ba vương lập đế, translates to “three kings crowned emperors”, refers to the year 1883, where Vietnam had three different emperors. The fifth line, Bắt dế đi tìm, translates to “Catching the dế (which I would translate as cricket, but may be a variant on đế, or emperor) to search” refers to Tôn Thất Thuyết fleeing with Emperor Hàm Nghi. Finally, the last line, Ù à ù ập, is an onomatopoeia of a trap springing, refers to the capture of Emperor Hàm Nghi in 1888 (Hàm Nghi was eventually exiled to Algeria).

Surviving Traffic in Vietnam

Anyone who has been to Vietnam knows that our motorbike traffic is the stuff of legends. In fact, it is a common sight in most Vietnamese cities to see foreign tourists stranded on the pavement, looking fearfully across the street to seemingly-unreachable destinations on the other side. This is a particularly serious problem in our two largest cities, Hanoi and Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), where the flow of motorbikes is endless at all times of the day. In fact, the flow is apparently so impressive that I’ve seen tourists taking photos of motorbike traffic (which always struck me as rather odd, since this is essentially our equivalent of tourists taking photos of traffic on Wilshire Boulevard, but who knows what tourists think). I have even seen YouTube videos on traffic in Vietnam.

So in the face of this unceasing onslaught of motor scooters, what is a hungry traveller to do when some of the ubiquitously excellent food lies tantalisingly just across a stream of motor scooters? Simple! Just start walking, don’t hesitate, and stop only for cars, trucks, and buses; the motorbikes will change course to avoid you.

What about driving? Many foreign tourists think that they can rent scooters and drive around Vietnam, Top Gear-style. While getting on a scooter and moving is fairly easy (especially on an automatic), navigating traffic is not, and tourists have the reputation of being particularly bad drivers among locals, as most have little clue how to navigate traffic and as a result cause many accidents (indeed, my car driving instructor warned us all to stop if we saw foreigners on motorbikes, as more likely than not, they would be accident-prone). Moreover, as far as I know, without a motorbike licence from elsewhere, driving a scooter in Vietnam is, in fact, illegal, regardless of what scooter rental shops may tell you.

Let’s assume everyone on the road has a licence. How, then, do you navigate Vietnamese traffic? Most of my driving experience has been in Hue and Saigon. While at first glance, driving in Hue appears easier due to the far lower volume of traffic, in my experience, counter-intuitively, driving in Saigon is in fact easier. Due to the low traffic volumes in Hue, bad drivers can get away with driving quite poorly, and often will merge into lanes or emerge from alleys at higher speeds. Running red lights and abruptly stopping are also lower-risk, due to the overall lower levels of traffic on the roads, and blinkers seem to be mere suggestions. In Saigon, despite the overwhelming volume of traffic, most rules are followed quite closely, as bad driving could be fatal. Running the red light usually means getting caught in a large stream of traffic, and signals are followed religiously by everyone. For example, if I were to put on a left turn signal in Saigon, all bikes behind me will drift to the right to give way. In Hue? Probably no one will notice. Speeding is also a much bigger problem in Hue, as the consequences of speeding in Saigon are far more serious. Sometimes, some young men in Hue will try to drive “dangerously” on the road by swerving and speeding to show off, but ironically, these “daredevils” do not dare drive in bigger cities such as Saigon. Another trick worth remembering in Saigon is that driving is ultimately a group activity. One scooter crossing a busy junction is nearly impossible; however, wait long enough and you’ll have your very own bikers’ gang that will exploit the next opening in traffic and collectively cross. This is particularly important at major junctions with traffic lights.

Now with these rules in mind, armed with a licence and a helmet, you should be able to zip down a tree-lined Saigon avenue in no time! That said, I make no promises about driving in Hanoi. I myself do not dare drive there, so if you find yourself in need of getting around our nation’s capital, I wish you all the best while I look for a taxi…

Turkey Day? Meet Duck Day

Today, the fifth day of the fifth lunar month is celebrated as Tết Đoan Ngọ. The holiday started as a Chinese holiday to commemorate the death of Khuất Nguyên (屈原), who was a respected politician and a poet who lived in the country of Sở (楚) during the Warring States period in China. Disheartened over the state of his country and the scheming of fellow courtiers, he committed suicide by jumping into a river on the fifth day of the fifth month. The local people tried to rescue him to no avail, and began to bang on drums and throw food into the river so that wandering spirits would not disturb his soul and the fish would not eat his body. From then on, on this day, people gather at the river where he died and throw food into the water.

Now, the way the holiday is celebrated in Vietnam has diverged significantly from these origins. After going to the same high school with some people from northern Vietnam, I found out that out north, they celebrate the holiday by eating lots of fruit and bánh tro (a kind of rice cake wrapped in leaves – yes, I know this describes dozens of Vietnamese cakes, but we don’t really eat it where I’m from) and drinking sticky rice wine. Friends from Hanoi have also told me that the festival is celebrated much less there than in Hue (my hometown), where it certainly is among the most important festivals in the year. We don’t bother with the fruit and wine however; we do it with a nice duck meal.

Yes, you read that right. It’s the day when we, for reasons unknown to me, eat lots of duck dishes. In fact, it’s quite common to see motorbikes driving around in Hue around this time where the driver and/or passenger is holding two, three, or even four or more live ducks bound for slaughter.

Anyway, I usually spend the holiday out at my paternal grandparents’ place in Quang Tri, about 60km north of Hue – this year, my cousin came to pick us up in the morning and dropped us off again in the afternoon. All my aunts and uncles had gathered in the morning to cook the day’s array of duck dishes, which, this year, included duck noodles, duck soup, boiled duck dipped in fish sauce, and of course, the all time favourite, tiết canh (coagulated duck blood with meat, herbs, peanuts, and various spices, eaten with crispy rice cake).

The meal was great, and it was a lot of fun to catch up with all my aunts, uncles, and cousins, most of whom came for the meal, and, of course, my grandmother (who is now 96). In the evening, I headed to my maternal grandmother’s place, and once again, was offered (surprise, surprise) duck. As I really like duck, this really isn’t a problem – in fact, everyone has a great time during Đoan Ngọ each year, with the probable exception of the ducks.

Memories of Diyarbakır

I was reminded of Diyarbakır today when I remembered a story from the New York Times in March about a Banksy mural protesting the imprisonment of Zehra Doğan, a Turkish artist.  Zehra Dogan was jailed after painting Turkish flags over ruined buildings after the bombardment and partial destruction of the town of Nusaybin in 2015.  It reminded me of a very friendly young man from Nusaybin whom I had met very briefly in Diyarbakır who had tried to convince me and some other travellers to come visit his hometown.  I hope his family was not affected.

I did not plan to visit Diyarbakır when I came to Turkey in the summer of 2012.  Armed with funding from the economics department at my undergraduate university, I had gone to Turkey to conduct research for my senior thesis, and the plan was to go to İstanbul, Ankara, Konya, Kayseri, and Malatya.  In Malatya, I had decided to take an overnight trip to watch sunrise on Nemrut Dağı, and there, I met an Italian couple from Milan who convinced me to come to Diyarbakır with them.  Since I had another week before my flight out of Istanbul, I agreed.

Diyarbakir, the centre of Kurdish culture in Turkey, is often the centre for conflict between the Kurdish insurgency and the Turkish government and was often considered off-limits for travellers (it is again considered off-limits today); I was lucky enough to have been there during the relative peace of the ceasefire between the PKK and the Turkish government. However, the city dates back to Assyrian times and boasts impressive historical monuments.

I remember looking out of the window of my bus and seeing a river flowing by the road.  I looked over to the man sitting next to me and asked “O nehrin adı nedir?” (what is the name of that river?).  The man answered, “Fırat”. Fırat. Euphrates. The city of Diyarbakir itself lies on the bank of the Tigris. I was entering Mesopotamia, one of the cradles of human civilisation.

Diyarbakır’s giant city walls are the most immediately noticeable feature of the city.   The first walls were constructed during the Roman era, and today, they encircle the historic centre. with only one gap at the Dağ Kapı Meydanı (Mountain Gate Square).  Inside the walls, the old city has a layout reminiscent many walled cities in Europe, with a tangle of narrow lanes cut through by several major streets.  After I found a room, it was already late afternoon, and I wandered out to the market nearby just as the sun was starting to set.  The vendors were closing their stalls, and I remember seeing a young man rush past me pulling a handcart laden with watermelons as the sound of the muezzin echoed from the 11th-century black-and-white banded Ulu Camii.  It was then that I truly understood that I was in a different Turkey, a world away from the cafes and plazas of the Mediterranean coast.

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The alleys of Diyarbakir conceal surprises at every turn, with dozens of mosques and churches of numerous denominations.  Guidebooks will tell you that exploring the warren of alleys alone may be dangerous, and you may have issues with children along the way.  Fortunately, I had the opposite experience – a group of children on their summer break took it upon themselves to lead me around several of the sights while even occasionally chasing away children who wanted money.  Perhaps they found my accent in Turkish amusing.  Before I could thank my little heroes for their help with some candy, however, they had already disappeared off to their next great adventure.

Thanks to the children, I managed to visit quite a few historical sights, testaments to the city’s historical diversity.  A friendly imam took me up to the dome of his mosque.  Churches peppered the landscape, many of which were in disrepair – I remember one was being used by a group of women as a place to do their weaving.  Others still had congregations of varying sizes.  The churches bear testament to the changes that have happened in Southeastern Turkey over the last one hundred years – almost all the Armenian churches in the city, for example, no longer have active congregations, while the docent at the Syriac Orthodox Church of St Mary (completed in the 3rd century) told me that the other Syriac churches in the city have all closed, and only a few families remain in his congregation.

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The alleys of Diyarbakir also conceals other surprises.  I remember walking down an alley and peering into a courtyard that turned out to be a cultural centre.  The group of people were there to watch a performance of dengbêj, a form of Kurdish song that is used for storytelling and has no musical instrument accompaniment.  I joined a circle around the performers and listened as they sang and improvised.  I do not understand Kurdish, but the passion that the singers had for their art was palpable.  Afterwards, I went with a Kurdish family who had moved to Denmark to visit a Kurdish music shop, hidden up on the third storey of a shopping centre.  It’s also then that I realised that despite the city’s being majority Kurdish, I did not see a single sign in the Kurdish language in the streets.

Other moments from my time there still make me smile.  When I headed towards the city walls, a man, seeing my camera, insisted that I take a picture of his friend who was napping on his tractor in the shade.  The exquisite stonework on the black-and-white bands stone bands in some of the old houses in the city, a style which I have been told is also found in Syria.  The friendly waiter in the restaurant in the old caravanserai insisting that I try the local specialties.  Even six years later, the memories of Diyarbakır still feel fresh.  The hospitality and incredible resilience of the people continue to linger in my mind, especially as the conflict in Syria and south-eastern Turkey drags on.  I hope that one day Diyarbakir will again find peace.

Reflections on Điện Biên Phủ

Like generations of Vietnamese school children, I was taught from a young age that the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, where Viet Minh forces defeated the French Empire, “shook the globe”. As children, we are all familiar with the sense of pride as we see the famous photo of the flag of the Viet Minh flying over the headquarters of the French forces in the valley at Dien Bien Phu. It was, after all, possibly the most prominent example of an indigenous army in a colony defeating an imperial power in a conventional modern battle and marked the end of the First Indochina War and the collapse of French Indochina. The war was not kind to Vietnam – in addition to the military losses, the French also made an effort to destroy priceless cultural relics that had little military value, beginning with much of the Imperial City of Hue (including the priceless scrolls in the Imperial Library) upon reoccupying the country in 1946 (aided by the British, who were tasked with disarming the Japanese south of the 16th parallel) and ending with the One-Pillar Pagoda in Hanoi as they withdrew – the pagoda had been constructed in 1049. More than simply smashing the myth of French military supremacy – after all, the French Empire was defeated even when 80% of the French war effort was being funded by the United States – the First Indochina War was the final nail on the coffin for French claims of cultural and moral superiority; after all, such wanton destruction inflicted by a losing army seeking to reimpose control over a colony spoke not of dignity or cultural refinement, but rather of a desperate moral bankruptcy.

But I write this not as an attempt to list the crimes of French colonial system; the sins are self-evident and have been enumerated by much better scholars. The legacy of Dien Bien Phu extends much further than its influence shaping the political future of Vietnam. Paradoxically, I never truly understood Dien Bien Phu’s impact on the rest of the world until I left Vietnam. Even as we commemorate almost sixty years since the battle, the memory of it lives on beyond our shores. I still remember the first moment I realised this, when I talked to an old Algerian couple on the shores of the Red Sea in Egypt. When they had heard that I was from Vietnam, they immediately recounted to me their memory of receiving the news of Dien Bien Phu on that fateful day in May 1954. The man told me he still remembered waking up to the news as a teenager and what it symbolised for Algeria. The French Empire in all its might was defeated by some indigènes in Indochina! The names Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap were on everybody’s lips. If it could happen in Indochina, it could happen in Algeria! Dien Bien Phu became a beacon for decolonisation all over the world. I felt pride mingled with humility and awe with this realisation. We fought to liberate ourselves, yet our actions had great repercussions for the rest of the world. Even as we struggle in our corner of the world, we do not stand alone, and our struggle carries meaning beyond our borders. We were the fabled city on the hill, and I only hope that since then, we have managed to live up to our reputation.

It wasn’t until later that Dien Bien Phu began to carry even more meaning to me. In Vietnam, Dien Bien Phu is often talked about as the moment when we gained our political freedom. However, as I progress further in my studies and my travels, Dien Bien Phu has taken on new meaning. As I became exposed to post-colonial studies, I often found that despite coming from a former colony myself, the social structures and attitudes described in these texts often seem very foreign to me. The remaining deference to the white man despite independence did not seem reminiscent of the people I grew up with. Yet, as I travel to other former colonies, vestiges of the colonial system still lingered in many places, internalised by post-independence elites, whether through the continued use of the colonial language, the maintenance of the colonial political system, or the implicit elevation of the white foreigners above natives. It was through this experience that I realised that Dien Bien Phu did not just liberate us politically; more importantly, it liberated our minds. How could we continue to perceive Europe as superior if it could be defeated so utterly in open battle? How could Europe claim to be morally and culturally enlightened when its actions in defeat spoke of such terrible moral corruption? Through Dien Bien Phu, we as a nation found the courage to break the bonds of colonialism and smash the colonial system to reclaim our destiny. Perhaps on that day in May, we gained not just our political independence, but also a psychological freedom that allows us to perceive ourselves as an equal member of the global community. It is a freedom so complete that millions of us who grew up with it do not even realise the incredible privilege that it has brought us. We see the right to be masters of our own fate as a birth right and our self-assurance as equal to anyone in the western world to be self-evident. The rest of the twentieth century was not kind to us, but nothing could take away our dignity and our sense of self. We have been through destructive war and crushing poverty, but we remain confident in our ability to stand on our own two feet and stand proudly as an equal in the world.

Today (7th May, 2018) is the fifty-fourth anniversary of the battle, and while we commemorate the great losses we suffered during the French War, we must also remember that we freed our minds that day. That hard-gained freedom is priceless, and as we look towards the uncertainties of the future, I hope that independence continues to be an anchor for us to remind us that we are privileged in being the sole masters of our own fate.

The Great Schengen Adventure

In the previous post, I complained at length about my visa struggles. However, the one visa that is the bane of my existence (and thus deserves special mention) is the Schengen visa, which allows entry to the Schengen Zone (EU minus the UK and Ireland, but plus Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein). While the US makes an effort to expedite applications of those who have been to the US before and will grant longer-term visitor visas, the Schengen countries will give you just enough for your visit and make you reapply again. And again. And again. The requirements are also quite elaborate and seem to be at the whims of the visa officer. The insurance letter, for example, MUST state a very specific combination of words (never mind synonyms), and be prepared to give your last three pay stubs, bank statements for the last three months, flight reservations, and accommodation reservations. If you want to stay with a friend or family, be prepared to deal with the letter of invitation. As I usually stay with my aunt in France, she has to provide me with an Attestation d’Accueil, which is essentially a form that says that she has a house and is willing to host me. To get this form, she must go to the local mairie, fill out a form, pay a fee, wait for a week before picking it up, and then mail it to me. Yes, snail mail (this may be France-specific, as I recall reading that the Austrians let you do this all online). Then I must take the form to my visa appointment, which usually has to be planned at least a month in advance. If something happens to your visa application and you must reapply? Too bad; once the Attestation d’Accueil is used in a failed application, you have to get a new one. From France. By snail mail. Maybe I’ll just go to Las Vegas and see the Eiffel Tower there…

The consulates also vary in their policies. The French consulate in New York is wildly inconsistent in attitude (here is their Yelp page for reference), while the French consulate in Los Angeles was a delight to deal with (and seemed very short-staffed, so I really appreciated the effort). Also, last I checked, for whatever reason, Vietnam is in a list of countries that requires extra time for processing, so lucky us (we’re mysteriously on this list only in New York but not at other consulates in the US). I’ve heard the French are moving some of their visa procedures online, but as with most things related to French bureaucracy, I’m not keen to try it out unless I have to.

You also have to carry all these papers with you when you travel. This happened to me, my mother, and my sister as we were going from Cairo back to Paris to catch a flight to New York. A German guy with CSA Czech Airlines (to this day I don’t know what his official capacity is) refused to let us board because we didn’t have our insurance letter with us, even though this insurance was a necessity for getting the visa in the first place. We tried to explain this to him to no avail – he did not speak English or French, and the Egyptians could not help us since he also did not speak Arabic. Goodness knows what he was doing there. And because European airlines are especially awful, we had to buy a new ticket with Cypriot Airways, and, armed with our insurance paper, went back to the airport the next day where the Greek guy at the counter asked for…nothing. I have also never been asked for this form since, but I still always carry it. Arbitrary bureaucracy at its best. Don’t expect to get sympathy from many Europeans either – when I told a Dutch cyclist I ran into in Uzbekistan about this, he sneered and told me that it was necessary to “keep out the migrants”. I suppose transparency and efficiency are too much to ask for.

As harrowing as these experiences sound, they are far from uncommon. A Vietnamese friend studying at a well-known university in the US wanted to do an internship in France for the summer, so she went to the French consulate in New York. No such luck, since her US visa expires before she leaves France, even though her round-trip ticket was from Vietnam (where she would also be renewing her US visa). No matter, she thought; she tries to apply for it in Vietnam, only to be told that since she spends more than six months out of the year in the US, she cannot apply in Vietnam since she is not a resident (never mind that she is a citizen). It also doesn’t seem to be limited only to the French – a Chinese friend of mine had to shuttle back and forth from central Virginia to Washington, DC because of some paper technicalities demanded by the German embassy. Such is life.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The US, as already mentioned, allows visa renewals to be done by mail. The UK will give six months automatically. Australia allows online applications. Canada encourages people to apply for longer visas, and in my experience, their consulates have been unfailingly polite. Of course, all this has enormous implications for my travel patterns, and I’d imagine the travel patterns of lots of other Vietnamese. This summer, for example, my mother wants to treat herself and take her first proper holiday in many years. She really wants to go to Greece, but decided not to based on the onerous visa requirements (which would have meant that she had to go to Hanoi to do an interview). Instead, it looks like we might go to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, both of which offer visas on arrival for us. So long, Santorini, I guess. Europe has made its priorities clear, so we have to make our choices accordingly.

Travelling on a Vietnamese Passport

When I was little, I thought travelling abroad was an impossible dream.  My dearest ambition as a teenager was to have travelled to ten different countries by the time I turned thirty.  Beyond the financial considerations (as Vietnam is still a very poor country), travelling on a Vietnamese passport was not (and still is not) easy. It was beyond my wildest dreams that now, as I celebrate my twenty-seventh birthday, I have surpassed that dream and feel incredibly privileged.

Travelling independently on a Vietnamese passport is challenging at best.  Visa requirements are complex (often with additional complexity as a special “bonus” for us Vietnamese), which drastically changes the preparations needed for travelling.  That last-minute flight deal to Europe? Good luck getting that visa with less than three months of preparation.  Want to pop over to Jordan from Israel? Go without me, because who knows when I’ll get that visa.  Fancy a short hop into Guatemala from Mexico? Have fun, because I can’t figure out what a visa consultada even entails.  Since not many Vietnamese people travel to more “unusual” destinations, finding visa help can also be quite difficult online (although this is changing very quickly).Vietnamese_passport

Because of this, when I came across the page of a Filipina traveller on visas, I felt an immediate sense of solidarity (however, a Philippine passport gives visa-free or visa-on-arrival access to 63 countries, clocking in at 75th in the world, compared to just 49 for a Vietnamese passport, putting us at 88th).  Quite a few countries have special hoops just for us Vietnamese to jump through: we require prior security clearance in both Lebanon and Jordan, require an advanced visa in Macau, must get prior approval from the Ministry of External Affairs to enter El Salvador, and cannot enter Armenia without a special invitation letter (which appears to be impossible to obtain).  I’ve had to change my travel plans multiple times due to visa snags, and the bureaucratic hoops are never-ending.  Neither is there rhyme or reason for these policies: while it is impossible for me to get a visa to Armenia, both Azerbaijan and Georgia are quite open with their visa policies; on the same trip where I could not get a Jordanian visa, the Israeli visa was fairly straightforward; and despite my difficulties entering El Salvador, I can go to Panama and Chile visa-free (along with Mexico and Costa Rica with a valid US visa).  There’s a special place in hell for the Schengen visa, so it’ll deserve its own dedicated post.

Of course, there are a few perks for Vietnamese passports.  Russian visas are quite straightforward to get and don’t cost much (although Russia doesn’t seem to apply its policy of reciprocity to Vietnam, as Russian citizens can enter Vietnam visa-free for two weeks) – the Russian consulate even made sure I got my visa in time and gave back change in cash (however, I just checked the website of the Russian embassy and it turns out that processing times are now 20 days.  So much for that).  We can theoretically stay indefinitely in Kyrgyzstan and don’t need to register with the police under 60 days (whatever the land border officials might try to tell you).  The requirements also have been getting easier – Chile just abolished visas for us in 2018, and many other visas are much easier to get than before.  Travelling on a Vietnamese passport also makes you inherently unsuspicious in a few places, which makes checkpoints much less of a hassle.  We can also travel visa-free around Southeast Asia – however, there may still be problems at borders.  When I tried to cross from Singapore to Malaysia, I was taken into a separate room, questioned about why I travel so much (heaven forbid someone from Vietnam likes to travel), and then allowed in…while they forget to capture my fingerprints, which would have happened had I gone through the regular line.

As nightmarish as this all sounds, it is a huge improvement to what it had been before. My mother, who had first gone abroad in the 1980s as a student to Australia, is still stressed out by the prospect that border guards will arbitrarily stop us.  Because of all this, I always feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to travel.  I suppose all these visa stickers also make my passport more “interesting” to some people (which causes my friend to retort: “what you mean is I’m very good at jumping through bureaucratic hoops”).  So, next time you go anywhere on a whim because you don’t need a visa, spare a thought for our struggles.