This month has been a bit of a tight one financially, a product of two consecutive months of friends leaving Vietnam and having to party, and me perhaps *cough* not budgeting correctly...anyway to cut a long story short I ended up having to organise a money transfer from England. After initial scepticism from my mother, we managed to sort out a transfer.
So first I had to go to a branch of the Saigon Bank in Hang Ma street, but due to the vagueries of the time difference, it was going to be a tight schedule. British post offices open at 9am while the bank shuts at 4.30pm. This left us with a half an hour window to complete the transaction. The night before we agreed a list of codes or passwords we would use for security reasons...neither of us had done an electronic transfer before and we didn't know that they provided us with the number once the transaction was underway. So the next afternoon, I dragged myself off my sick bed (I've been down with the annual flu dose I seem to organise whenever British Summer Time comes to an end), and made the short way to the Saigon Bank.
Interesting looking place, the Saigon bank branch that I visited, an almost completely empty room with a cash machine and a counter with no protective glass, another sign that Vietnam isn't familiar with violent crime. I parked my bike up and hopped off. As I walked towards the bank's entrance a man shook his head and after a few abortive attempts managed to explain that I could only use the cash machine, and that if I wanted to do anything else I would have to visit the Vietcom bank just around the corner...at this point I was a bit perplexed as I had definitely been told that this was the branch that the transfer would take place at.
Thankfully for once I managed to bring my trusty pocket guide to Vietnamese with me. I rapidly flicked through the pages, dreading the thought that it wouldn't have any references to electronic transfers, but there it was! "Toi co the rut duoc tien chuyen tu ngan hang cua toi den day khong?". No, dear reader, I'm sorry to say that my spoken Vietnamese isn't that good, so I pointed desperately at the sentence, my eyes darking to the clock showing it was already 9.10 in England and my mother had already begun the transfer. The man relented, as smiled, opening the door for me as I darted into the spartan room.
Three Vietnamese peered up at me from behind the low desk. The man who had waved me in quickly explained my request, and they then asked me... "have you got your reference number?". Oh. No. They apologised and said it wouldn't be possible to let the request go through without the necessary number, so at this point – 9.15am in England, I raced out of the door and tore back to my house, hammering away on the keyboard to my mother's email address urgently asking for the number...seconds ticked away, as I continually refreshed the screen of my yahoo account waiting for the return message...9.20...9.22...9.25....Bing! The message turns up...I race out the door, slam on the bike and zoom back to the Saigon bank....I ramp up the pavement, and crash through the doors...hastily handing over the reference number scrawled on the back of a pizza delivery reciept...unscrewing the piece of paper, the woman who had seen me 10 minutes or so previously goes to check her files...comes back to the counter, and then points at the clock... "sorry, too late..." I peer up...4.35...damn.
The staff are most apologetic and give me the address of the head office of the bank where I can collect the money the following day, even being so kind to tell me that the bank opens at 7.30am (yeah, right! Like I'm going to be up at that time!)...I smile, thank them for their efforts and make my way home...
Right, so I haven't risen with dawn chorus, but at least it's still morning...as I make my way southwards to the headquarters of the Saigon Investment and Development Bank...there's something still kind of old skool about them...there's actually an army bank still (which apparently is very highly regarded), and the snappily named Vietcom bank which when I first arrived thought was called the even cooler VietCong bank but alas no.
Anyway, this time I go in the front entrance and it definitely has the feel of a bank, again a slightly relaxed security one at that. Behind the low plexiglass counter about a dozen people are working, a few have computers, but most rely on handwritten scraps of paper and crotchety dot matrix printer for statements and receipts.
Predominantly young women, dressed in casual clothing (no daft looking nylon corporate clothing here...yet) in the early twenties they look up at me blank faced. One kindly manages to explain that I need the other office just around the side of the building...I thank them and make my way around the outside of the building, finding another almost identikit looking room, with an even larger contingent of staff beavering away.
Again I am faced with a minor language hurdle which thankfully is overcome by a staff member speaking English. I'm told to wait ten minutes while they process the transaction. At last my passport is requested and I hand it over, feeling as though the process is actually getting somewhere...I'm not so keen that my passport then leaves my sight and my only piece of official documentation in the entire world is no longer in my possession...ten minutes starts merging into a quarter of an hour, when the woman returns with my form and passport and shunts me onto another member of staff, who fills in another form, which I have to sign - without any idea whatsoever I'm agreeing to – Is Ho Chi Minh cool? Yep! Where do I sign!? Am I a fat westerner? Yeah! That's me!...well that's just some of the guesses, I think it was just a receipt actually.
Finally, I was told to go back to the front office where I could collect my hard won shekels. Again my passport makes a break for freedom as I forlornly watch it disappear again behind closed doors. I return to the front office again, now over flowing with security guards tucking into huge plates of food at what is now 11.30, and pretty much the beginning of lunch time. Counter-intuitively going to the bank around lunchtime (well before they actually SHUT for lunch at 12 is pretty much the best time to visit a bank in Vietnam), means that I'm the only customer left.
My passport and it's courier enter the room from behind the counter, the women who had previously been busy now have plenty of time on their hands...and so begin passing my passport around between themselves...each one in turn looking at the photo of me from 1997, then squinting at the older, heavier more grey haired version now standing at the counter...after the discussion about where I am from and how decrepit I look has finished, a detailed examination of my visas begins, with the odd laugh and giggle as they analyse my adventures abroad...these women shouldn't be working in a bank, they could be top officers in customs or immigration!
Eventually the matriarch of the group has a look, and solemnly announces something to the giggling hordes...and I am put out of my misery as they do a final, and at this point, semi-serious attempt to compare the photo in my passport with my current apparence...then the notes are totalled and finally I escape the Vietnamese inquisition with my loot...quite fun actually, I might do it again someday just for the entertainment value!