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Border shape-shifting

(No.7, Vol.2, July 2012 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

Faced with a decision, one is advised to consult one’s inner self, for what it feels like, no matter how one has rationalised about it. Sometimes I go along with things my wife chooses, even though they don’t feel right to me. Disaster ensues, big or small, for me at least. Has she consulted her inner self, and is it informed by the same things as mine? After all, she is an ancestor-worshipping Buddhist from the upper Mekong Delta and I am possibly of a Scottish, granite-strewn Protestant background, and possible a milder, sandstone, Anglican one, mixed with an Indian tradition of meditation plus Buddhism, plus the Oxford Dictionary, cricket, table tennis and marbles (big ring). So, I wondered why she chose the ultra-youthful, mossy-behind-the-ears, as well as in-the-uniform, officer at immigration at Tan Son Nhat Airport on the evening of the 7th of June, 2012.
We passed the scrutiny, two facial examinations, for me, of the young man, and he passed us out with a quiet and deeply unpleasant look that seems to be part of the training, as some staff interpret it. The expression was a shock, coming on the well-turned heels of the extraordinary joie de vivre and joie de travailler of the cabin crew of Malaysia Airlines, and the amazing waving good bye of the tarmac staff of the Kuala Lumpur Airport, who used their aircraft-parking bats and their bare hands in the way the Queen of the Commonwealth uses gloves. ‘Would you like a top-up of wine?’ There was a free flow of red and white even for economy-class passengers, such as us. ‘Would you like another meal?’ ‘Have another Kit Kat.’ A stewardess, coquettish if she had not been so suave, looked very like she was the leading actress in the film showing behind her. Passengers clapped at the denouement of a film, though it might not have been, precisely, a visually engrossing one involving cross-cultural encounters between humans and Martians with multiple horns made of papier mâché. A real, beaming, benevolent, possibly Malaysian man in uniform stood at the cockpit door as we got off, like a hen looking at a line of chicks. ‘Thank you, Captain,’ I said. He could have been the one who had written the scripts for the public address on the plane, which always included, ‘boys and girls’ after ‘Ladies and gentlemen’, as if they were Argonauts. At meal time, boys (even ‘big boys’, this enunciated by stewardesses in tones that appraised their growing muscles) and girls were served first. We had looked out the windows on the green, uncrowded, tin-rich countryside and silently promised to come back. We recognised, on the return transit, the tall, moustached security chief, in a uniform crossing between London policeman and black beret, who called down from nearly two metres, ‘Bali, anyone? Anyone for Bali?’ We had gone forward one by one, for the Hindu paradise, like converts at a Billy Graham crusade. On the way back we marvelled at the up-to-the-minute shops, where I tried out a $200 Mont Blanc with a broad nib and we were startled by trains that frequently whispered into a station in an oversized display case in the middle of the air terminal. No wonder we confused Gate C21 with Gate C1 and had to run several hundred metres to just make the connecting flight.
Now we had come to the young man with the official, sickly-green, well-ironed uniform who had developed in his short career an expression that could probably be left, for description, in the same terms as the uniform was. We would not have expected clowns in an operating theatre. But the boy - he was not much more - had not been born and brought up like that: when later I made excuses for him and promised to go easy on him, his face lit up in a most pleasant way. And I want to stick to this latter impression. The lad is OK in his inner self, and no doubt my wife had picked up on this. And I have to say this because I promised, ‘No star where,’ which means no asterisk with footnotes. It comes in part from ‘Khong sao’, meaning, ‘It doesn’t matter.’ Literally, it can be translated as ‘No star’, nothing to be lit on with a dark background, nothing that returns each night to haunt. It can be followed by ‘No table’, which also borrows from English and signifies that no further discussion need to be entered into on the topic. The youthful official looked into his little stamper implement, that went with an ink pad, as if thinking the damned thing had slipped back a month by itself. Apparently all those who had or had not consulted their inner selves and gone for his line had been stamped inbound at Tan Son Nhat on the 7th of May, though it was, according to the Western calendar, which is used for worldly matters, the 7th of June. I was the one passenger, apparently, who had sat down on a chair on the Vietnamese side of the rank of officials and perused his new document. At first, the half-dozen equally uniformed officials alive to my protest gave it a ‘Khong sao’ of the variety that glosses over a disaster waiting to happen. Wouldn’t officialdom, I said, be the first to complain if an international holidaymaker claimed to be in two countries at the same time? And how many such shape-shifters had been through the ineffectual clutches of the young official in Vietnam before me? My protest was loud enough to be heard by an exceptionally tall man in the same boat whose wife or partner was, my wife found out, in the gun in the ‘doing nails’ business for having drawn blood on a litigious customer. It can happen, my wife said, an accident. Too right. What if the erroneous stroke at immigration had positioned me in Vietnam when I had not had a visa, or made my one-month visa stillborn? ‘Damned well sao,’ I said, waving a finger. ‘And if you chaps don’t give me a correct stamp I will take it up with the police in the morning, with Hanoi.’ They had feebly altered the ‘7 May’ with a ball-point, so it wasn’t clear what had gone on. No wonder some weeks later I had walked into the ’SH’ eatery on the south-east corner and of Nguyen Hue and Le Loi Streets, Ho Chi Minh City, and been asked, ‘How many people are you?’ It is hard voodoo to wash off. No doubt they were worried I would overload their natty, little, antique, wool-press-style lift. So I asked them to count the arms and legs and head that I had on by body. ‘That’s all,’ I said. At the airport, once admonished, in Vietnamese, the staff used a proper cancelling stamp and one with the proper date and things were back in order and they said, ‘Sorry,’ twice, in English, so there is no star in the official planetarium on the matter. This article is in a different world, one of discussion, of ideas, not to be acted on except with a broad brush, in the future, in principle. Please leave it there. You will have been advised well enough, on this hazard of travel.
And I would not have gone to this much trouble in description if I had not had to deal with the eccentricity of Vietnamese ‘visa on arrival’ in the first place. Malaysia Airlines would not allow me on board in Bali, at my first try, on the 6th of June, because I did not have a document from Vietnam saying I had been approved for visa on arrival. These approvals are sold on line by not dozens but scores of little, competing companies, who have to provide lots of approvals for people who suddenly find out that ‘visa on arrival’ is substantially on-line. The approval can be got even during check-in, as long as you can find a computer and printer and make it to the boarding gate before it closes. Approval generally has to be on paper, and a colour printer is better, as it picks up the blue of the signature and red of the seal, at least in a washed-out form. I think they might let you on if you held up the document on a MacBook Air, or other aerodynamic machine made of aluminium. According to the site of one of the little on-line companies, the price of a ‘rush visa’ ‘will be quoted for specific case depend on how rush the visa is’. VietnamVisacorp.com could do an approval in ’30 minutes’. I think I got ‘super rush’ through Vietnam-Visa.com, though at some point I was virtually signed up with Vietnam-Visa.org, an easy mistake to make, at such speed. I forked US$61. But that was later. By the time I had had long discussions with the smiling Mr Sardana and sincere, if curiously named, Ms Ngurah Rai, senior officers of Malaysia Airlines at Ngurah Rai Airport, Bali, I had decided to stay another night in the Hindu paradise. I was initially discombobulated when the covering e-mail from ‘com’, not ‘org’, with the approval, addressed ‘Mr Merlon Bute’, a person who had written for another magazine in Vietnam and given his name to my present e-mail service, a fictitious person but perfectly legal identity as an e-mail account. But all that was needed in Bali was the ‘approval document’, and in Vietnam, as well as this document a personal-particular form to be filled in twice, with two 4 cm x 6 cm photos attached, and US25, making, in my case, a total of US86. You can see how much better it is to read something like Vietnam Heritage and know the difference between ‘visa on arrival’ and ‘visa on arrival’, however similar these phrases may seem just by looking at them. When we had arrived in Bali we had received an Indonesian ‘visa on arrival’ that was entirely on arrival and took about two minutes, one to pay $US 25 and one to have a sticker put in the passport. ‘Visa on arrival’ in Cambodia is the same, according to the Cambodia Airports site, though peril is not far away, even there, where one of the requirements for a ‘visa on arrival’ is, ‘Passport valid for at least two months from the expiry date’. This evoked another penumbra with zombies in impossible states, international shape-shifters, like the ones created in Vietnam, where no doubt some people who read his are going to try to come out of the interstellar cold and seek a more concrete identity at a police station. Some people, of course, are right now holidaying in the air, which is at least a less shady state, with, if Malaysia Airlines is anything to go by, very good chicken biryani. The Malaysia Airlines officers in Bali cited two recent cases brought to mind by my own, a man from Australia sent back there by Vietnam and a man from the United States rebounded there by Indonesia. I understood the first case was about insufficient documentation and the second about a passport with not enough time left on it. We would have to ask how legal it could be to assert that a document could expire twice, and what kind of spooky space existed between the two dates, and how unusual the personalities were that inhabited it. Ms ‘Ngurah Rai’ said Vietnam had recently claimed a fine against her employer for allowing boarding with insufficient documentation. By contrast, the ‘immigration’ officer at the airport where she was stationed waved the document for Vietnam away, knowing, no doubt, that if I bounced off Vietnam I would be windfall on Vietnam Airlines, high above Indonesia, bound for Australia, where, if I carried a youthful example of its passport and a didgeridoo bought in Bali but not containing borers, I would be allowed to settle down. Undoubtedly the confusion - and the ‘super rush’ service - will be a money-spinner while the sign above the counter at Tan Son Nhat keeps on announcing ‘Cap thi thuc tai cho,’ where ‘Cap’ means ‘issue’, ‘thi thuc’ visa and ‘tai cho’ ‘on the spot’. Take the phrase to be ‘sacked on the spot’. This means to be dismissed from an employment in the instant and in the place where the misdemeanour has just occurred, and it does not mean to be delivered a dismissal pursuant to advance notice. In other words, it does seem that Tan Son Nhat still has the prerogative of issuing a visa on the spot, in the English-language sense, if it decides to say that this what it means. Given that the little on-line services are, at least the ones I encountered, ‘24/7’, then, if you had a printer small enough to go in your backpack and you were given access to wi-fi at the visa counter, you would be in in 30 minutes, on the spot, under ‘super rush’. If Tan Son Nhat went so far as to supply wi fi and the printer as well, it could attract in-house a lot of the ‘super-rush’ business, and an ‘on the spot’ visa would cost $US86 or so. This would make Vietnam substantially more expensive than other ASEAN countries - Indonesia and Cambodia are the examples I have given - but this would not be inconsistent with Vietnamese economics, which lately, it is being remarked around town, position Vietnam as considerably more expensive than a European country for travel. While one can obviously be converted into a ghost, by a mishap with a stamp, one must wonder as well whether with an $US86 visa one is a more substantial a wanderer than a ‘person’ with a $US25 visa shuffling in another part of the sub-region. Can a ‘person’ subject to a two-minute procedure claim to be more than a cypher? Won’t a person with a train ticket have a different air about them from a mere holder of a platform ticket?

By James Gordon
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