Hitchhiking Vietnam
the animal trade

The gate was locked and the windows shuttered. The office boy eventually responded to the rattling chain by sticking his head out the door and squinting into the sunlight. He approached, flourishing our passports, and handed them to us through the narrow bars. "No visa," he said loudly. "Reject."
photo "Your kidding," I said, flipping through the pages.
"That's not possible," Jochen managed.
"Reject! Reject!" the young man shouted and waved his hands about in illustration.
Our old visas were due to run out in twenty-four hours. Neither Cambodia nor Laos would accept us on such short notice. I tried pointing this out.
"One day! You leave! Good-bye!" He walked away, still windmilling his arms. We stood behind the gate and stared at his retreating back. The door closed firmly behind him.
We wandered into a small cafe and sat in silence over several cups of coffee. "It's not possible," Jochen said again. Vietnamese ingenuity had clearly exceeded the orderly limits of his mind. I wasn't much better off. Our circular thoughts were temporarily derailed by Jochen's budding maternal instincts, when an internal alarm reminded him it was time for the gibbon to be fed. We hurried back to the guesthouse.

The leopards were still tucked into the darkest corner of the room, sleeping off their first good meal of milk. The gibbon had shredded everything within reach and returned to her favorite pastime, chewing wrinkly holes in her arms. With great difficulty I convinced Jochen to put the smallest leopard cub, barely the size of a fluffy softball, into the cage with her. I remembered the similar pairing I had seen in the animal market; the mismatched orphans had been a comfort to each other.
Not so these two. Sabine, as Jochen had christened the baby gibbon, seemed determined to take revenge on the hapless kitten for the predatory habits of its entire species. She made full use of her long arms, rapping the leopard on the nose and tweaking his ears and tail. When this didn't make enough of an impression she pushed him against one wall and leaned on him with all her insubstantial weight, trying to squish him through the bars. This time I was the one who objected, though Jochen seemed quite pleased with her new toy. The kitten went back under the bed and Sabine was given a knotted rag to torment.
We climbed wearily back onto the motorbike to make a run on the Cambodian embassy for an entry permit. When we arrived the embassy guard smiled and opened the door for us. We were immediately called into an office, where we were introduced to a smiling Buddha in a coat and tie who bade us sit and politely requested our passports. He leafed through them, asked a few questions, then pulled out some paperwork and began to fill it out. It can't be this easy, I thought as I watched his pen race across the page. It was almost a relief when I saw his brow wrinkled with concern. "The Vietnamese government has assigned you Ho Chi Minh City as your port of exit," he informed me. "Have you already bought a ticket? The flights are often full."
I shook my head. His hand hovered over the phone. "I would be happy to call the airline," he said, "and make sure you have a seat." My jaw dropped open.
"I plan to go by bus," I told him meekly. "I'll change the exit point to the overland border before I leave."
He considered for a moment. "What should I write?" he asked, then brushed away the problem with a flick of his wrist. "I'll just leave it blank, and you can fill it in at your convenience." My jaw fell another notch.
In five minutes he was finished. He stood to hand us back our passports. "Your visas will be ready in two hours," he said. "You may collect them anytime." My jaw hit the floor with a solid thunk.photo
We thanked him and left in a daze, wondering whether the Cambodians were from a different galaxy than the Vietnamese. The mystery was cleared up by an Englishman awaiting his turn in the foyer. "Some Westerners just got shot by Khmer guerrillas," he told us. "The Cambodian government's trying like hell to get the tourists to come back."

Time was running out. We raced over to the nearest Vietnamese tourist agency to change my exit stamp. The wait was endless and the chairs were hard, and the woman who eventually took my passport was indifferent to my pleas. To change the stamp would take a week, she said. I asked for the heavy-duty, no-holds-barred, extortionately priced rush service advertised on the wall. Five days, she said.

We rushed back to the visa extension office, to appeal to their previously untapped altruism in the hopes that they might provide us with a five day extension. After all, if the damned Mr. Tuan hadn't kept our passports for so long then we wouldn't be in this predicament in the first place.
The office boy slouched out to see who was pleading at the gate. "Closed now!" he said through the bars.
"But it's only three o'clock," we argued.
"Closed!" he shouted, cranking up the volume once again. We begged.
"Passports," he said and held out a hand. We fled.

photo It was time to feed the gibbon. On our way home we passed a Western woman in a long skirt, stiffly upright on a one-speed bike. Jochen throttled back and cruised along beside her.
"Excuse me," I said. "Do you like cats?"
She seemed taken aback. I swallowed my pride and explained our predicament, playing down the mischievous claws and midnight feedings, while Jochen swerved around pedestrians and ice cream carts to keep pace. "Would you be willing," I concluded, "to take care of a few very tiny leopards for a week while we arrange for a new visa in Cambodia?"
"Certainment pas!" she said, her body stiffening on the already unstable bicycle. "I work for the French Embassy. Such a thing would be illegal!"
"So is the animal black market," I pointed out, "which nevertheless is advertised in your tourist guidebook." But the Embassy was no longer listening; head held high, skirt swishing, she pedaled off in a straight, matronly line. We returned home to our unwanted orphans.
I left Jochen to pre-chew a quarter pound of meat and mix up a tasty banana-baby formula shake, and sped off to Vietnam airlines to buy a ticket to Cambodia. The line was long, the ticketing agent brief. "We're booked out," she said. "Nothing until next week."

I ran the various scenarios through my mind while threading my way through rush-hour traffic. My visa expired in a little less than a day. My exit stamp required me to leave from Saigon airport. There were no flights available from Saigon airport. There was a bus that left daily to Cambodia , but I couldn't get through the border crossing unless I changed my exit stamp, and that would take three days longer than was left on my visa. Nothing added up. And I couldn't even begin to think about having to take the animals back to the marketplace...

I ran into Jochen parking his motorbike in the guesthouse courtyard. He had just returned from the home of a Vietnamese professor from Hanoi, a woman of thoroughly Western ways who had given him carte blanche to call on her if he ever needed help in Saigon.
"Not a chance," he said. She had agreed, albeit reluctantly, to store the animals in her garage provided they didn't need to be fed more than once a day. We had to find a Westerner. I too, had a connection, even more tenuous than his. I knew that Mobil Oil had an office on the second floor of a nearby hotel. If we could get an introduction into the expatriate community...

The office was far too posh for our bedraggled clothes. The doorman protested with every muscle in his face when he stepped aside to let us in. The president was intimidating in his starched shirt and shiny shoes, but his handshake was strong and he made us welcome. I suddenly didn't know where to begin.
He listened in silence as Jochen spun our tale, then scratched his chin thoughtfully. "Now if you'd just come for money it would've been easy," he said with a small laugh. "How many leopards did you say you had?"
He gave us the names of a few likely expatriate hangouts and promised, with another chuckle and a shake of his head, to ask his wife if she would be willing to take on our orphan charges.