Vietnamese Visas: Heed my Warning

It’s funny to think about how awful I felt when I first arrived in Seoul, it just seems so silly now. Instead, I’m wishing I didn’t have to leave so soon because there’s so much more to do in South Korea! I plan to come back one day with more time…and more money.
I am pretty pumped to be flying to a country where I can survive on $15/day. My love affair with South East Asia can be revived once more!

I have to check out at 10:30 which is less than ideal, but Kimchee Guesthouse has been good to me. Actually, they technically gave me my first paid writing gig. This morning I got W10,000 ($10) for writing about Seoul during my time here. I was gonna do that anyway…for free! The W10,000 is a sweet bonus.

I somehow accidentally walk into a Japanese noodle shop for lunch. I thought it was Korean food, but noooooo. I eat it anyway because I love Japanese noodles, I do what I want, and because I can still have a Korean dinner before I go. I feel like I’ve had a pretty decent fill of Korean cuisine in 5 days. No dog or penis worms consumed though, I’m happy to say!

I spend the rest of my afternoon wandering around Myeong-dong for the last time. I wanted to check out some other areas, but I don’t feel like I have an abundance of time before I need to leave for the airport. I’ve never missed a flight and I’d like to keep it that way! I buy a couple silly Korean accessories because they’re awesome. Cat ear headband, anyone?
I then rush back to the hotel to pick up my backpack, and get on my way to Incheon Intl. The airport subway line takes about 45 minutes from where I’m staying, and I’ve left myself some buffer time just in case.

Arriving at the airport with lots of time to spare, I mosey over to the check in counter, hoping I can leave my bag early and go grab some food before the inevitably awful meal they’ll serve on the plane.
This is when the party starts.
I am asked for my passport, ticket confirmation number, and visa letter. Umm…what is a visa letter? A visa approval letter you say? Why no. I do not happen to have one of those handy. How do I acquire one? Oh…. It takes a few days? Wonderful. My flight is in a couple hours.

I’m passed over to the manager, who is supposedly going to help me, but I don’t see how. I have no visa. I’m thinking at best he’ll just hook me up with a low cancellation fee. I’m already wondering if Kimchee Guesthouse will have an extra bed for me tonight. The manager is super friendly and directs me to a website called Vietnam-evisa.org, which can apparently get you this entry letter ASAP. He warns me that it’ll be expensive. I ask HOW expensive. Am I looking at $1,000? $100? He says this happened to an American traveler a couple weeks ago and it cost him $400. I’m hoping I’ll get a better deal as a Canadian. I’m trying to do the mental math; is it better to cancel and buy a new flight, or dish out $400 for a visa right now? While weighing the pros and cons I continue filling in the online info. Just another fun fact…I have 3% battery left on my phone.

The manager tells me that he has another option for me, and points to a large, rough looking man in a black suit and with slicked back hair. He’s talking on the phone to someone. He gestures for me to hand him my passport so I do, and he snaps a photo of it. I’m not a big fan of that, like who are you and what are you doing, sir? He hangs up the phone and tells me it’ll cost me 200 USD to get a visa on arrival at Hanoi’s airport. Luckily, I’m a quick texter and have already filled out all the information on the online visa form. they’re quoting me 67 USD. The manager assures me that this scary man in a suit is legit, but something about him rubs me the wrong way. I don’t generally do deals with what looks like maybe a member of the Korean mafia. Then they’re telling me that $67 is just the processing fee and that I’ll owe more at the airport. I’ve got like 2 minutes to make the call, and have no idea which is the better option but I choose to go with the online visa people who aren’t trying to charge me a shady $200 cash to skip around the rules. Online, they’ve promised to get me an approval letter anytime between now and 4 hours from now. This is clearly a gamble in itself…but I just have a good feeling about it. Well, a better feeling. I click send and kindly tell the mafia man that I appreciate his help…but no deal.He doesn’t seem too stoked.

I wait at the desk for about 10 minutes, chatting with the check-in people and just like, praying that I’ve made the right call, when I feel the buzz of my phone notifying me of an e-mail. I’ve got a letter! Not all hope is lost! With this letter I can now board the plane, though it still doesn’t mean I have a visa. That’s good enough for now! Goodbye kind check-in humans, you’ve been great!

I see a kind of problematic side note in my confirmation e-mail from the visa people. I need to bring two 4×6 photos of my face with me to the visa issuing office. When was the last time you saw a headshot machine at the airport? Never. I’m pretty much out of time, so I keep my eyes open as I run through the airport, but I’m sure there’s no way in hell I’ll be able to get these pictures taken! I wonder how Vietnam will feel about that.

My flight is in another terminal. Classic. The security line is nightmarishly long. When does that ever actually happen? Things are not going my way today. I wish my flight had been booked on Sunday, when everything was just miraculously working in my favour.
I rush through the airport and make it to the shuttle train that takes me to the proper departure terminal. I don’t understand how, but I make it to my boarding gate with a few minutes to spare. I even get to sit and charge my phone for a few beautiful moments. I know I’ll need this when I arrive in Hanoi. If I don’t have any 4×6 photos…maybe my Facebook prof pic will do? Same same but different, right?
…I’m totally getting deported.

I spend my flight feeling as if I’m in limbo. They’re the worst 4 hours of my life, just trying to keep my mind off what waits for me in Hanoi. On the bright side, I finally finish my book about the North Korean Labour Camp Escapee. On the down side, someone sneezes on my tooth brush on my way to the plane bathroom.
I honestly don’t know what I dread more; living in a society where everyone is neurotic about hygiene and wear face masks out in public, or living in a society where people sneeze and spit wherever they please. He doesn’t even apologize. Just continues going about his life, as I stand there in horror, ready to drop the toothbrush and walk away right there and then. I don’t though. Instead, I carry it to the washroom with me and toss it in the garbage. I’m too polite.

Alright. It’s landing time. I’m so nervous! I am quite literally the first person off the plane. I’m that annoying passenger who starts undoing their seatbelt and packing up all their stuff well before they’re actually allowed to. I can’t wait any longer, time is of the essence here people!
Because it’s just that kinda day, being first off the plane means absolutely nothing. We go from the plane to a shuttle bus that will take us to the terminal. So being first to the bus has 0 advantage besides being guaranteed a seat. I don’t super feel like sitting anymore though.
Let’s go people! move move move! board this bus! You can do it! I have no time or patience when my fate lies 500 meters away. We get to the terminal where someone is holding up a sign with my name on it. Fun! It’s almost like I’m important. Really though, it is SHE, the lady with the sign who is important. She’s going to hook me up with a visa. She charges me another $43USD for the visa processing fee, and apologizes that she has to charge me $2 because I don’t have any 4×6 photos. I think it would have cost me more to have the photos taken…so that $2 is all yours lady. You keep it.
She’s the nicest, cutest little thing ever. I had arrived in Hanoi feeling so stressed about my visa but she’s adorably excited that we were born in the same year. She makes me feel way more at ease. I think I’m actually going to get into Vietnam!
I’m now at a total of $112USD for the Visa. Not bad. Definitely cheaper than having to stay in Seoul and book a new flight.
She instructs me to sit down while she deals with the visa desk. I guess everything goes okay, because she comes back 10 minutes later, passport in hand, with a fancy full page visa sticker. Hella yeah! She waits with me to pick up my baggage and asks me some questions about why I’m in Vietnam. She says she feels sad for me that I’m traveling alone. I laugh and try to explain that it’s a choice, but she doesn’t seem to understand that and just gives me sad eyes. Maybe because she feels so sorry for me and my lonely life, she offers to help me get transportation downtown. Apparently a bus will cost $3 and take 2 hours, where as a taxi costs $18 but takes 1 hour. I know I’m supposed to be aiming for thriftiest of travel, but it’s 9:30pm (11:30 in Seoul time) and I just want to get settled into my hostel. I’ve already spent a small backpackers fortune on my visa, why not go all out? I take a taxi. She helps me find an ATM to pull out 350,000 Dong (can I just make ONE joke about the hilarious name of this currency?) and goes with me to hail a taxi with a meter. She says it won’t cost more than what I’ve put aside. Smiling, she waves goodbye and says “see you later!” She was so lovely, but I hope I do NOT see her later. Her, or any other emergency visa official of any sort. Ever.

I finally feel like I can relax, here in the back of this taxi. It even seems totally legit, which I was never expecting. I visualized arriving in Hanoi and having to fend of swarms of thieves while haggling with shouty tuk tuk and taxi drivers. That’s what people prepared me for.
My driver gets a little bit lost among the labyrinth of streets in the Old Quarter. I don’t blame him, this place is crazy. Groups of people sit on small stools outside restaurants, eating bowls of noodles and other yummy looking meals. Motor bikers whiz by our car, texting while they drive, and somehow manage to dodge pedestrians carrying huge baskets of bananas, grapes, and other fruit.
This, in a nutshell, is what I love about South East Asia. The absolute chaos that miraculously manages to work harmoniously with such ease.

I arrive at my tiny little hostel, whose front doors are just barely wide enough for me to squeeze through with a backpack on. The people at reception are extra friendly and offer to help me book any tours or transport. I say thanks but tell them that I’m too tired to think about it now. All I want to do is sleep!
I am shown to my 8 bed dorm room where I meet a group of 4 travellers from Hong Kong and a French dude. They all have plans to move on from Hanoi tomorrow.
I only paid $4 to stay here tonight (with free breakfast!), so I’m not really sure what I expected, but this is by far the weirdest and dirtiest hostel I’ve ever stayed in. I don’t get a key to my room, there are no lockers, so my things are just out in the world basically asking to be stolen. Beside the washroom, there is a random closet (I guess?) without a door and only contains a couple plants, a table, and some miscellaneous mannequin body parts. Ya.

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Within an hour of being in my room, I’ve gotten a pretty substantial amount of bug bites. The only downside to my handy-dandy bug net tent, is that it’s not compatible with bunk beds. My sheets feel damp, but that’s not the hostels fault, that’s just the intense humidity of a Vietnamese summer. I try to go to sleep, using my heavy duvet to shield me from further bug bites, but sacrificing my body temperature to do so. I sleep with my wallet in my pillow case and hug my day pack to prevent anyone from trying to steal what little money I have.

I’m so happy to be back. God I missed South East Asia.

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