The following is a guest post by twice monsooner Ambrose Chu, who graciously asked if he could contribute to the Monsoon Diaries adventures.
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.
The wanderer is alone. He is but a single leaf drifting in a forest, relishing in the anonymity granted by the countless cities that shelter him.
The view outside my window
Hong Kong's Times Square
He will lose himself dancing among the spices of endless food and the flickering lights of faceless buildings before him.
Rooftop swimming pool
But perhaps by choice or perhaps by destiny, the wanderer will learn. Solitude is but another transient state of existence; the world will find him somehow.
3:00pm - David Zhu, my friend from college
8:00pm - Mink and Seiki, two nurses I met briefly 3 years ago while standing in line at passport control in Kathmandu, Nepal
10:00pm - Lise Carpenter, a mutual friend of my high school friend Julian and girlfriend Mar
11:00pm - College friends Amy and Andrea (whom I last saw in Singapore 4 years ago on my first Monsoon Diaries trip), and Lise
Pavilion Rooftop Lounge
And with every discovery the wanderer makes, with every human connection he nurtures from a lonely twilight to the birth of another dawn, with every first goodbye before his next flight, the wanderer will arrive a step closer to whatever he is searching for.
- At time of posting in Hong Kong, it was 30 °C -
Humidity: 79% | Wind Speed: 10km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear
The following is the first of 4 guest posts on China by Lei Zhao, who continues to contribute to the Monsoon Diaries adventures time and time again.
Lei Zhao and I have been close friends since 7th grade of middle school. Saying that we’ve been through a lot together is an understatement. And he’s probably one of the most gifted artists and smartest human beings I have ever known.
Here is his story.
I had the pleasure of visiting Hong Kong and Macau for the first time during this last visit to China. I was delighted to encounter two very unique experiences of China that drastically differed from the Mainland.
One of the best parts about this excursion is that U.S. passport holders can visit both locales visa-free for up to 90 days in the case of Hong Kong and 30 days for Macau. However, be aware that you will need to pass through immigration control when entering and leaving both cities.
Hong Kong from high up. View from the 113th Floor of the International Commerce Center in Kowloon
We didn’t have too much time to spend in Hong Kong, but the city definitely made an impression on us. For starters, it is far and away the most modern Chinese city, boasting a transportation infrastructure that is second to none, an ultra-modern skyline, and all the amenities that you would crave after any jaunt to the Mainland or to other parts of Southeast Asia.
Hong Kong’s Airport Express Line from Chep Lak Kok International Airport will get you to Kowloon in 20 minutes and Central Hong Kong in 24 minutes for $90 HKD (about $15). On your trip back, you can even check in for your flight, including baggage check, at either Kowloon or Hong Kong station on the Airport Express Line, saving you time and effort at the airport.
Our first “we’re not in the Mainland anymore” moment came when we were waiting to get off a crowded metro during rush hour. As we pulled into the station, we could see tons of people waiting to board. Having become accustomed to throwing elbows at people in Beijing to get off the subway there, we were expecting more of the same. Much to our surprise, not only were people standing aside from the doors, but they were queuing up to board! You don’t even see this type of thing in New York. My friends in Hong Kong told me this was atypical, but I beg to differ as I witnessed it on multiple occasions in different stations. My working theory is that this gentlemanly inclination is a lasting legacy of years of British colonialism.
Hong Kong has plenty of surprises for the traveler who is willing to invest the time and effort. I wish we had more time to explore the grittier urban areas of the city, or some of the more remote parks (one of the unique assets of Hong Kong is that it possesses superb hiking areas close to the city center).
However, we did manage to make it out on a day trip to Cheung Chau, a small island southwest of the city center. From the ferry terminal in Central outside of the International Finance Center, it was a quick 30 minute ferry ride to Cheung Chau, at the low price of $24.60 HKD ($4) one-way (makes New York’s ferry system look like a pathetic joke).
Cheung Chau: seafood everywhere
Once we arrived in Cheung Chau, it was easy to get around the island by foot. The island has the unique distinction of being a place where there are no cars. Some of the streets and alleys are simply too narrow to allow for cars anyway, so most people get around on foot or by bike. When you disembark from the ferry, you’ll find yourself in a well-traveled drag with many shops and delicious things to eat. You’ll be able to catch some quality vistas of the harbor and the boats in it, rent a bike, or just browse for trinkets. Cheung Chau also boasts a rainbow of seafood, as it is still a functional fishing port. Try the Cheung Chau fishballs, they’re fresh and tasty.
Cheung Chau alleyways
There are a myriad small alleyways and streets to explore where you might see any other tourists. In addition, both ends of the island have hills with temples and hiking trails that lead to secluded beaches. Aside from these, there are a few main beaches as well, the most well-known being Tung Wan Beach. Incidentally, just a few paces past Tung Wan Beach, you’ll find the smaller Kwun Yam Wan Beach, strangely unpopulated given how close it is to the other beach.
When we got to Kwun Yam Wan at about 11AM on a weekday, there were literally less than 10 people on the entire beach, up until about 1PM. If you were to get there earlier, you’d pretty much have the place to yourself.
Beach umbrellas with chairs are set out for rent, at a very reasonable price of $100 HKD ($16) for the entire day. There’s also a small temple not too far up from the beach, if you get bored of tanning yourself or swimming. I also hiked out to the rocky promontory you see on the right of this picture.
Kwun Yam Wan Beach
I didn’t have any serious expectations for Macau, as I’d heard that it was more or less regarded as the Vegas of Asia. Still, my friend recommended that I make the day trip out there and explore the historic side of the city.
It was easy enough to get there, as there are superfast catamaran ferries that run hourly through the day departing from Kowloon (Tsim Sha Tsui) and Central Ferry Terminals. Tickets were $240 HKD ($40) one way. Considering the ferry gets you from Hong Kong to Macau in 1 hour flat, it’s a legitimate deal. Make sure you budget time to clear immigration, which took us about 15 minutes.
As you approach Macau, your first glimpse is of a small skyline dominated by condos and casinos. If you’re into gambling, you could not be in a better place as there are literally dozens of casinos along the main strip, ranging from the older Grand Lisboa to the newer MGM and Wynn. But I wasn’t in Macau to lose money, I wanted to check out the historic center that makes the city unique.
Many portions of the older Macau are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, as Macau is the longest running physical manifestation of interaction between East and West.
Senado Square - nope, we're definitely not in the mainland now.
The Portuguese colonized Macau in the mid-16th century and left in 1999, leaving an indelible mark on the city. All the street signs are in Portuguese and Chinese, even though our pedicab driver told us that most of the Portuguese (whose numbers have dwindled since the handover) had long ago learned to speak Cantonese.
From the minute you step into Senado Square, you feel as if you’ve been teleported to some southern European city, replete with pastel colored colonnaded buildings, and churches.
Ruins of St. Paul's Cathedral: only the facade survives today.
Walk up a bit and you’ll see the promontory where the ruins of the Cathedral of St. Paul sit.
Right next door is the Fortaleza de Monte, the citadel from which the Portuguese fended off many invasions. The fortress complex is amazingly well preserved, with cannon in place. If you’re interested, the Macau Museum is on top of the citadel. You can also savor the sweeping panoramas of the entire city from this vantage point.
From there, we walked through some of the older, small streets of the city, finding ourselves at the beautiful and quaint Largo do Lilau, along the Rua da Barra. This shady little square evoked images of Greece for me. It sits next to the Mandarin’s Court (which was closed the day we visited), a well-preserved historical home of a wealthy Chinese family during the colonial era.
Largo do Lilau, like a scene from Old San Juan
About 10 minutes further down Rua da Barra, you’ll find yourself at A-Ma Temple, a Buddhist shrine that was built well before the Portuguese arrived. Macau itself was eminently walkable, being a small and compact city with few hills, though on a hot and humid day, it can be rough. If we had more time, we probably would have gone and explored Coloane, the newer part of Macau, famous for Hac Sa Beach, a black sand beach at its southernmost point.
One more thing: while you’re in Macau you need to do yourself a favor and sample a Portuguese egg tart and this jerky-like snack which can best be described as meat candy. You will not regret it. The egg tarts are like mini flan pies, and the jerky was melt in your mouth tender, chocked full of flavor.
Customs bans on importing meat products have never hurt me more
How can a trip be complete without something getting served?
The IFC building that Batman jumped off of in "The Dark Knight" just got served
Thanks to Vicky for coming out to see me a day after getting her wisdom teeth pulled! We haven’t seen each other for at least 6 years (since we were seniors in high school), and it was nice to reestablish old connections. See you back in NYC!
I’m now at Hong Kong International waiting for my return flight home. As quick as this trip was (can’t believe I only arrived in yesterday), it does feel like I’ve been here for significant amount of time. But I did miss a lot of sightseeing and I definitely will be back. This time without the jetlag.
A nice view for a lunch
Speaking of which, I think my body hates me.
NYC, here I come!
- At time of posting in Hong Kong, it was 20 °C -
Humidity: 60% | Wind Speed: 14km/hr | Cloud Cover: Haze