8 Exahusted Hours in Korea

Trip Start Oct 24, 2005
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Saturday, June 28, 2008

Despite our best efforts to be ready in time, we truly were running to the finish line as we prepared to leave Vietnam for our first trip back to the States since leaving in 2005.  Work had simply been too busy to get everything done in time -- especially since we had a new teacher induction for 25 people on our last day in the office!  In the weeks leading up to our departure, we'd managed to buy presents for everyone back home, as well as new luggage to tote all those gifts.  Apart from that, there wasn't a tremendous amount of packing to do because we were planning on buying a lot in the States and bringing it all back with us -- so we needed to save as much of our luggage allowance for the return trip as possible.

The really problematic "minor detail" we had to deal with before we left had to do with our money.  Since early 2008, the dong's value (yes, that is the currency in Vietnam - no joke) had been dropping, and there was much speculation that it would actually depreciate dramatically over the coming months -- perhaps dropping from 16,000 dong to the dollar to 45,000 dong to the dollar.  Vietnam had proven a fantastic place to make and save money, and as a result, we had loads of cash in the bank -- unfortunately, it was all in dong, not in dollars.  With the threat of a drastic depreciation, we, like the rest of the country, chose to flip our dong to dollars and transfer it back home to the US -- which was easier said than done.

For whatever reason, the dollar is still the most revered of currencies in Vietnam, and the country wants to hold onto as many dollars as possible.  Our bank, a government bank with appalling customer service, had always been difficult to deal with (in general and with regards to money transfers).  However, with the recent run on dollars, they'd tightened their restrictions and had put a ban on selling dollars.  Period.  End of story.  Not even if you showed them a plane ticket (which we did, and which, in the past, had always worked).  That meant that in order to transfer our money back home, we had to first flip it from dong to another foreign currency, and then into dollars.  And to top it off, all this had to be done through an intermediary bank.  Have you managed to follow all of this so far?  Imagine us trying to sort all of this out with all the other misinformation going around!

So that left us with millions upon millions of dong (over ten thousand of dollars worth), a rumored to be soon worthless currency.  Added to that the fact that we were soon going to be going home and out of the country (and without access to our accounts) for five weeks; in short, we wanted to make sure we got it sorted out as soon as possible.  Unfortunately, most of this was discerned while at the bank, so we weren't exactly prepared for what we were facing.  The teller recommended we just transfer the money to pounds and then into dollars from there.  We thought that sounded reasonable, so took her suggestion and told her to proceed with the transfer.  

Later that evening, while I was in class, I saw Konrad through the glass doors trying to get my attention.  My students were working on something, so I wandered over to see what he was after.  He held up a piece of paper that said something along the lines of "We got screwed!"  I didn't immediately understand, so went out to ask him what we was on about.  He had done the math for the transfer from that afternoon, and it wasn't pretty.  Apparently, the dong was pegged only to the dollar; any other currency's value in Vietnam did not truly reflect its worldwide value, as I had assumed.  

To put it simply, the dollar to pound in the rest of the world was about $2 to 1.  In Vietnam, if you did the math, it worked out to only $1.50 to 1 -- which worked out to us losing over $2,000.  We did our best to stop it by seeing if we could stop the transfer before it left the intermediary bank.  That wasn't possible, so what we did was had our US bank reject the transfer, hoping we could redeem something.  We didn't.  In fact, I think we managed to lose even more money along the way.

Frustrations mounting, we returned to the bank to look into our options -- and returned again, and again, and again....  We had started the process about three weeks before our departure date, but we were still dealing with it on June 27th, the date we were scheduled to fly home.  Essentially, our money had been lost in translation.  In transferring it from Vietnam to Europe to America and back, it had somehow gotten stuck in Germany.  We had been patient, but no one was helping us solve the problem and we were getting extremely frustrated.  We had called our bank in Vietnam numerous times, and were told to sort it out ourselves (I told you their customer service was lacking!).  So we tried to call the bank in Germany, and were then directed to their sister bank, and then their American branch, and on and on.  They told us that they were an intermediary and could not speak to customers -- only to other banks.  We were flabbergasted and had absolutely no idea what to do next.  

We had intended to spend most of our last day in Vietnam sleeping and relaxing, especially since our plane left at 11:30pm and we had a very long layover in South Korea.  Unfortunately, with all this banking business, we didn't have time to sleep, and instead spent the day calling banks around the world and running around from Vietcombank to Vietcombank, all in the hopes of finding someone who could help us.  All our efforts were in vain, and we left the bank around 4:30pm resigned to the fact that we would not get the matter resolved before leaving Vietnam.

Time was slipping away from us quickly.  We still had to get Diego across town to Tim and Julie's apartment, where he would be spending the next five weeks.  We had intended to do it around 1pm, but now we were stuck trying to make our way there... during rush hour... in the middle of a massive downpour.  I hopped in the cab with Diego and Konrad followed on the bike.  It took us ages to get there, and we didn't just want to dump the poor lad and run, so we had to hang out for a bit, as it got closer and closer to our departure.  Around 6:30pm, we decided we couldn't push it anymore (our taxi was scheduled to arrive at 8:30pm), and started the journey back home (still raining, mind you).  

About a quarter of a mile down the road, we got a flat tire (yes, this is a true story -- no, I am not making this up).  Usually in Vietnam there are repair shops every other store front.  Despite this fact, we managed to walk for about ten minutes down Thai Ha without finding one.  The situation was starting to get desperate -- the clock was ticking.  At this point in time, we were still renting our bike, and had planned to drop it off that evening so that we didn't have to pay for it while we were away.  In a panic, I called Thu, the owner, and asked her if we could leave the bike and keys at one of our schools (conveniently across the street) and if they could pick the bike up there.  She reluctantly agreed, and we hurried to lock the bike and drop off the keys, finally hopping in a cab around 7:15pm.  After being dropped off, we rushed to shower and eat, making the cab driver wait a few extra minutes, until we were finally whisked away to the airport.  

As usual, we were certainly leaving the country... in style?  Well, in some sort of style to be sure -- not necessarily in a positive way, either.  Regardless, we had made it, and all seemed intact as we boarded our first of four flights over the next forty hours.  We hadn't had the sleep we'd planned on, so we immediately put on our eye masks and tried to make the most of the four hour flight to Seoul.  The four hours was cut even shorter by the fact that the airline served a meal (yes, after midnight; yes, on a four hour flight), and since we had requested vegetarian meals for all of our flights, we felt obligated to wake up and eat them.  

Needless to say, when we disembarked in Seoul at 5:30 am the next morning, we were beyond exhausted.  But we had an eight hour layover, and we intended to make the most of it.  We eventually found the left luggage counter and stored our suitcase of presents, then made our way down to the train that would take us the 1-1.5 hours into the city of Seoul. 

It was a Saturday morning in Seoul, and as we emerged from the underground, we thought we'd stumbled onto the apocalypse.  The streets were absolutely deserted -- eerily so.  We didn't have a very good map, and absolutely zilch handle on the Korean language, so it took us quite a long time to find our way to our destination: Gyeongbokgung Palace.  As we made our way there, we found ourselves in the old section of town, which was very, very cute.  None of the shops or restaurants were open yet, so we hoped to have time to meander through on our way back.  

Gyeongbokgung Palace is the largest of the five grand palaces in Seoul.  It was built in 1394 and rebuilt in 1867.  It was then massively destroyed by the Japanese government in WWII, the results of which are still being dealt with today as they work to reconstruct it and return it to its original glory.  We were eyewitnesses to this reconstruction: it was evident everywhere in the fresh sawdust and scaffolding.  I did my best to take as much in as possible, but by this point I was basically sleepwalking, shuffling my way through the palace grounds.  

We thought we ought to get something to eat in order to: 1) try and keep us awake, and 2) get a taste of some true Korean cuisine.  We made our way back through the old quarter, but there still weren't many places open.  A few had their doors open, so we tried to go in for a bite, but they shooed us away.  The clock was ticking, so we ended up just grabbing something from a convenience store and reboarding the train.  We pretty much slept the entire return journey and found ourselves back at the airport around 2:30 -- only an hour before our flight!  We still had to check in (the counters hadn't been open when we'd arrived that morning, and they weren't able to check us all the way through in Hanoi), collect our other carry-on, go through security, and board the plane -- eek!  

Konrad ran to collect our left luggage and I worked on getting us checked in.  As we were so late, we ended up with awful seats for the next three flights, but we were so tired we didn't know if it would matter (it didn't).  We regrouped and ran through immigration and security, somehow arriving at our gate before boarding had even begun.  It was such a smooth process, all I can do is thank the architects of the Incheon Airport for their wonderful planning -- otherwise we may have missed our flight and been stuck in the airport for another day!

Obliterated, we got on the plane, settled into our seats and pretty much passed out immediately.  We managed to sleep for much of the journey to San Francisco, waking up occasionally because of the awful turbulence we encountered (really, the worst I've ever experienced -- and over the massive Pacific of all places -- I thought we may end up on LOST).  However, we did get a good deal of sleep and woke up back in the US after a nearly three year absence.  We were so close, and yet still two flights and eleven hours from home.  It was going to be a journey, but we'd get there in the end!
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