Monday, January 14, 2002

The Longest Day

Today we are on our way home. I never had a day flying quite like this one. My friend Viet was late picking up Ben and me at the hotel. Luckily, traffic to the airport wasn’t too bad and we arrived at about 11:30 a.m. for our 1:00 p.m. flight. We said our goodbyes to our Vietnamese friends and headed into the terminal. That is when all the trouble started.

We sent our bags through the security check and the Vietnamese flagged one of my bags. I had packed the tote tightly with gifts and personal items, including a couple of bottles of nuoc mam (Vietnamese fish sauce) and a dozen bottles of snake wine. The Vietnamese don’t like the idea of people traveling with nuoc mam. If the bottles should break in transit, the smell of the fish sauce would affect the entire plane. They made me open the tote to inspect the contents. The customs agent started whining "Oh, too many!” I tried to play dumb and not understand what he was talking about. They were about to take away my nuoc mam, when Ben offered the agent a bribe to let me keep my goods.

The tote was sealed with all intact, and we were allowed to proceed to baggage check in. The agent followed us shortly thereafter and waited in the bathroom for Ben to give him the $100,000VND note (about US$6.00) I had tucked into my passport.

The line at the baggage check in was long and moving rather slowly. We were almost to the counter when they started calling our flight to board. I was starting to get nervous. The last thing I needed now was to miss the flight. The lady at the baggage check in told me I had too many bags. We had cleared the extra freight with EVA, but she insisted I could only have one extra bag. Luckily, Ben had extra room and I gave him one of my bags to check through. Finally, we were on our way to Vietnamese customs.

The smug lady at the customs counter snapped, “Where’s you laptop?” The smug little grin went away when I told her that one of her countrymen had stolen my computer. We made it through and were on our way to immigration. We paid our exit tax ($12.00) and proceeded to our last stop before the boarding gate. The Vietnamese policeman on duty at my checkpoint had a hard time comparing the clean-shaven picture on my passport with the bearded individual standing before him. After some scrutiny, his rubber stamp found its mark on my passport and I was on my way to the gate.

Arrived at the gate and went through the final security check. They flagged my backpack this time. “Oh, too many jewelry” sounded familiar; I played dumb again. I wasn’t about to cough up another $100,000VND bribe. We went round and round about the quantity of goodies I had and finally the security guard let me pass. I entered the boarding area and figured all my problems were behind me now.

Wrong, again.

Our flight arrived on time at Taipei. We had a short layover and then boarded the plane for the last leg home. That is, all but me boarded. When I handed the gate attendant my boarding pass issued to me in Saigon, he said, “Where is your ticket?” Here we go again. I explained the boarding pass was all I was given at the airport in Saigon. Not good enough. I had to empty my backpack twice searching for the missing ticket. By this time the entire plane had boarded and they were holding the flight for me. Finally, they said I would have to pay a $50 fee for a replacement ticket. There was no time to take care of the transaction in Taipei; so, they kept my passport and said an agent would meet me in San Francisco to complete the transaction. Whatever! Just get me on the plane and out of here!

A ticket agent met me at the plane in San Francisco, and I paid my fine.

I breezed through customs and was greeted by Ann Spanko and Miss Thuy. Miss Thuy presented all of us with roses and thanked us for helping her people in Vietnam. It was a sweet ending to my nightmare of a trip home.

Regardless of all the hassles on the way home, I can’t wait until Mission Peace returns to Viet Nam.

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