Ambrose first discovered us when googling how to obtain a tourist visa for Iran. He reached out and met me in NYC to see if we were the real deal. Two trips later, Ambrose has proven himself a dedicated monsooner and is now one of our guest contributors. Here is his story.
FYI Please do not use this article as legal advice, the purpose of this article is to show how he got his visa to Vietnam and his personal experience with the Vietnamese immigration authorities when he departed Vietnam.
A couple of weeks ago I used Vietnam E-Visa Site to apply for a multiple entry visa. I paid stamping fee and signed up for an airport “fast-track” service (to skip the line) since my transit was less than 3 hours. I then got a visa approval letter via e-mail the day after, which I needed to show to the Vietnamese immigration authorities when I arrived.
December 15th, 1:30 PM — When checking into my Vietnam Airlines flight from Hong Kong to Siem Reap via a layover in Saigon, I was asked by the Vietnamese Airlines agent if I had a Vietnamese visa. So when I produced the visa approval letter, I got back a broken record:
“That letter will not work. You need to apply for visa at a Vietnamese embassy and get the visa beforehand, there’s reports that these letters do not work. You can try, but it will not work.”
That made me a little worried, mainly because I didn’t know whether to trust the website I used or the Vietnam Airlines ticket agents in Hong Kong. They nevertheless let me head to the gate and board for my flight for Vietnam. At that time, I was hoping that the ticket agents in Hong Kong would be wrong, otherwise, I wasn’t sure if I was going to get my Vietnamese visa and continue with my travels.
Ho Chi Minh City
December 15th, 5:15 PM – Once my plane touched down in Saigon, I grabbed my bags, got my passport out, and readied my visa approval letter. When I arrived at the immigration section, a young Vietnamese man dressed like a hipster was holding a sign with my name on it. I showed the man my passport and the visa approval letter.
He then smiled, took both, and escorted me to a counter in the immigration section where after waiting for 15 minutes and paying $5 USD to have my picture taken, I got my passport back with the visa inside.
I was relieved, but I had to run to the boarding gate before 6:20 PM for my flight to Siem Reap at 7:10 PM. Since I didn’t want to risk standing in line clearing immigration and going through security again, I walked over to my connecting flight. By 10:00 PM, I was already in Siem Reap, partying with my new travel buddies.
December 18th, 9:00 AM – After a great day at the beach in Nha Trang, I returned to Saigon for my connecting flight to Hong Kong. The past few days — with Dave Zhou leading a joint Monsoon Diaries/GN Tours trip — were a whirlwind. Within a period of five days, I visited Siem Reap and Phnom Penh in Cambodia and Saigon and Nha Trang in Vietnam with four travelers that turned out to be really wonderful. Admittedly, I was a little sad that I had to leave my new friends so soon but I was also looking forward to a relaxing weekend in Hong Kong with relatives and friends.
After standing in line and going through security for about 20 minutes, I proceeded through immigration and handed in my passport to the Vietnamese immigration officer. The immigration officer looked young, probably in his early twenties. After a few minutes, he began to flip through all of the pages of my passport looking for something. I began to wonder why he was looking through the next 30 pages of my empty passport.
The young immigration officer then called over another immigration officer, and began talking with him in Vietnamese. I didn’t understand anything that they were saying. The other immigration officer took my passport then motioned me to follow him to a bunch of doors leading to the interrogation rooms. I was beginning to feel worried.
Fortunately, I was stopped several meters away. An older, more experienced officer arrived. The following conversation ensued:
“When did you enter Vietnam? Visa says you entered on the 13th, but stamp says you entered on the 15th. Where were you from the 13th to 15th?”
“I was in Cambodia on the 13th to 15th.”
“But you enter Vietnam on the 13th! And you enter on the Vietnam 15th! How you get visa on the 13th?”
“I got the visa at the airport on the 13th. I flew from Hong Kong to Ho Chi Minh on the 13th.”
“You have your ticket?”
I showed the superior officer the boarding pass from my December 13th flight from Hong Kong to Saigon.
“You entered Vietnam on the 13th, but stamp says you entered Vietnam on the 15th, where were you from the 13th to 15th?!”
“I was in Cambodia on the 13th to the 15th. I got my Vietnam visa on the 13th, I didn’t leave the airport, because I had to fly to Cambodia.”
I showed the superior officer my Cambodia visa and the entry stamps proving that I was in Cambodia on the 13th to the 15th.
I also showed him the boarding pass from my flight from Saigon to Siem Reap, Cambodia. Then the superior officer grumblingly said:
“OK, next time you get the visa, you go through immigration.”
I was then escorted back where the younger immigration officer looked at my passport, got a confused look on his face, and then sought help from a female immigration officer sitting next to him. He gave her my passport, and she briefly looked at my Vietnam visa, Cambodia visa, and the entry stamps, after which she gesticulated to the young (and I assume inexperienced) immigration officer to just stamp my passport.
The young immigration officer, however, kept shaking his head, snapped at the female immigration officer, grabbed my passport and ran to the other side of the immigration section of the airport. I then followed him once more to see the older officer lecturing the younger officer. Suffice to say, my passport then got stamped.
So in retrospect, the Hong Kong staff of Vietnam Airlines was partially wrong about my visa on arrival not being accepted. And if you are transiting through a Vietnamese airport, but plan to come back to Vietnam by land or plane within several days, it’s worth paying the extra money for the airport “fast-track” service from the website.
However, if you have extra time and your Vietnam visa is a multiple entry visa, it might be worthwhile to go through immigration and return to the airport for your connecting flight. That way, you’ll avoid this kind confusion with the Vietnamese immigration authorities when you leave Vietnam, but I believe I may have had a very special case with a very inexperienced Vietnamese immigration officer.
Although my time here was really short, I had a great time with my new friends in Saigon and Nha Trang, and I really look forward to returning to Vietnam.