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.
I’m currently in Phnom Phen and I wanted to list a couple things learned about Vietnam:
1. Pho bo (beef pho.. or any kind of pho) can be eaten any time of day but it is traditionally a breakfast meal in Vietnam… heavy breakfast.
2. Dress is not conservative at all. The women and men are both quite fashionable (in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh) and try to model their style after Koreans (fist pump!) and Japanese. In fact, I love the style.
3. I still look unmistakably Korean apparently. Even at the War Remnants Museum, the security guard greeted me with Anyong Haseyo. Even at the border crossing into Cambodia – I was called up as Annah Kim and asked what my real country of origin was… “But your first country… Korea right? You have Korean parents? Thought so.”
Didn’t bother to correct him – Americans do not receive any sort of welcoming here and my Korean ethnicity serves as a free pass in some cases.
4. The cars are the same brands but not the same models… for the exception of two Porsche Cayenne Turbos in Hanoi and another in Ho Chi Minh. 🙂
5. There is a curfew and everything shutting down by 9pm (restaurants) and 11pm (bars) makes things difficult in Hanoi. There isn’t such a strict, no more street lights, no more people curfew in Ho Chi Minh, but people still go to bed fairly early.
6. The World Cup is definitely a universal love.
7. They were selling Celtics jerseys in Hanoi.
8. Vietnamese people are generally shy about their English skills and most will just smile and nod. They are exceptionally friendly, however.
- At time of posting in Phnom-Penh / Pochentong, it was 27 °C -
Humidity: 78% | Wind Speed: 4km/hr | Cloud Cover: scattered clouds
Not melancholy and serene as The Philippines, Vietnam is a firecracker; colorful, dynamic, and in your face with no time to breathe. And within Vietnam, you get Hanoi in the North as the city of Old being sprung into the future, while Ho Chi Minh of the South is a city of the future, holding on to the past. As North and South as it is hot and cold, in between is a slow transformation of unforgettable hillsides, mountain ranges, desert plains, and coastlines that make this country as energetic and enigmatic as its tumultuous political history.
Quan An Ngon – 15 P Hang Khay; Ha Noi, Vietnam
The 2 minute pitch was to combine the authenticity of street food with exquisite restaurant-style decor. In other words, it was to make foreigners less anxious about the food they were eating by showing that the establishment had enough money to have servers, nice tables, and of course ice from purified water. So they sold out, and so did we by coming here. Did the food also lose out? Not by a longshot. Although we had expected something much more over the top due to BOTH strong recommendations by Lonely Planet and Rough Guides, we were not disappointed. Food here delivered, although the prices were surprisingly not of “street food” quality.
KOTO – 59 P Van Mieu; Ha Noi, Vietnam
A stylish, beautiful cafe with a cause to “Know One, Teach One (KOTO)”, they take the proceeds to donate and employ disadvantaged Vietnamese children. Can’t complain with that. It’s sleek, it’s spacey, and it would be my new favorite hangout if I were to live in Hanoi and I had enjoyed its drinks more. Although we only had drinks and dessert (I had a cashew nut creme brulee and a taste of its carrot-walnut cake), I was left a bit disappointed in that they were nothing special. The only thing that made it taste better was that we were helping the disadvantaged by being at the cafe. And that it had free wifi.
Bun Cha Hang Manh – Old Quarter; 1 Hang Manh; Ha Noi, Vietnam
I was confused that this place had no menu; once you sit down you’re served with their one and only dish of the day…and for us it was Crab Meat spring rolls and a copious amount of pork noodle soup! And it was fantastic. Simple, no frills, and straight to the point (and taste buds). Highly recommended.
The book says that locals regard this place “legendary” for their one dish: the Banh Xeo. Like the chicken and rice of Saigon? Impossible. So I checked it out for myself: it was spectacularly delicious. Didn’t knock me off as my first platter of chicken and rice, but it was the best pancake I’ve ever had. It’s a well-cooked egg pancake stuffed with bean sprouts, pork and shrimp. You wrap it in lettuce and dip it into their special sauce. The rest is heaven.
No bug bites! No ill stomachs, I feeeeel great. The only time I took a pepto was probably from the airplane food, so ignore that. Otherwise, Vietnam is a healthy place to travel to.
Health Rating of Vietnam after 7 days…
# of bug bites: 0
# of Immodium used: 0
# of Pepto used: 1
# of Advil used: 0
# of prescription meds used: 0
# of total medication used: 0
Creams used: 1% Hydracortisol Cream for skin rashes developed in the Philippines (bug bite rashes)
Quality of healthcare: Like The Philippines, if you have anything beyond broken limbs, fever, or other basic ailments, you should head into the big cities like Ha Noi and Saigon (Ha Noi being considered not as good as Saigon). And given a large French expat population, you can find good healthcarebut you have to look for it and be willing to wait. Interviewing a few locals and healthcare folks, the waiting time for an outpatient clinic for things like urgent care or ambulatory care is quite inconvenient and long, with no particular preference for foreigners or locals. If you need specialty care, however, then you have to do extensive research or find them through word of mouth. Therefore, finding good quality specialty care exists, but is considered “far and few between” according to a few people. As for health insurance, it’s cheap: $30 USD for a whole year of basic coverage. Finally, the following hospitals can be found in Ha Noi: Viet Duc Hospital, Saint Paul Hospital, Bach Mai Hospital, 108 Hospital, L’Hopital Francais De Hanoi, International SOS Clinic, Institute Acu picture, National Institute of Tradition Medicine, and the Vietnam-Korea Friendship Clinic. In Saigon you have: Cho Ray Hospital, Hoa Hao Medical Diagnosis Center, FV Hospital, Franco-Vietnam Hospital (FVH), International Medical Center, and the International SOS. So if you got the cash and know the right people, you’re set. Just hope your doctor can speak your language of choice (most likely either French or English).
Sanitary Conditions: It’s much better than that of the Philippines, from what I’ve seen. The rampant homelessness in Manila is replaced by rampant traffic and smog, of which Manila also has a lot. However, unlike in Manila I did not see kids running around barefoot in pools of standing water that had some purplish-green color. And everyone wears flip flops or sandals in Vietnam whereas in Manila half of the people I saw were comfortable with strolling around on their bare feet. Also while driving down the entire country from Ha Noi to Ho Chi Minh, I did not run into any roadside slums and everyone seemed to have at least some sort of dignified house to live in. Food also appeared to be always cooked fresh, and people pay a lot of attention to looking healthy. Although it is still considered as a developing country, Vietnam does a pretty good job of at least having their citizens give off a healthy attitude.
Including lodging, food, transportation, nightlife, admission fees, and all other costs in Vietnam, I spent approximately 4,598,000 Vietnamese Dong in 7 days, which approximates to $34.5 USD/day. The goal was to spend no more than $35 USD/day.
Breakdown for 7 days: $97 spending money + $51 Ha Long Bay Inclusive Package + $62 Bus from Hanoi to Saigon + $12 Hanoi’s lodging + $20 Saigon lodging.
Since they were not able to confirm with us via e-mail, they unfortunately had no room to house all 3 of us. Nevertheless, they still sent a driver to pick us up at our airport and housed us at their sister hotels down the street: Rendezvous Hotel the 1st night, then Hotel Rose the 2nd night, and then back at Rendezvous the 3rd night. I would rate Rendezvous Hotel the BEST in terms of overall quality: big lobby restaurant with free breakfast, huge and clean rooms, clean and spacey bathroom, and fast computers with fast internet and free wifi. Hotel Rose had an amazing balcony view over Old Quarter, your own personal (and desperately broken and slow) computer, and a decent bathroom where the shower is your bathtub. The rooms were decent size. Finally, from what we did see in Liberty, the rooms are the smallest but they more than make up for it with the best hotel staff I have ever had, especially the wonderful big sister I never had: Rose. Upon the moment we arrived Rose and her friends took our bags and offered us free drinks and food. Then they were so helpful in booking us very affordable, cheap tours (we saved so much money!). Then whenever we had a problem, they helped us for the whole 9 yards:
Annah needed skin cream so Rose took Annah on her motorbike to get some
I lost my cell phone so Rose’s assistant walked me over to the internet cafe where I though I dropped it to speak with them in Vietnamese
I wanted legit Banh Mi’s from a food stall and instead of showing me where to get it, Rose’s assistant went to get some for me within 5 minutes.
Annah brought in a pipe she bought with $10 USD and Rose’s assistant bought a pipe 5x as big for the same price for Annah.
When we got worried about boarding a 50 hour bus ride, Rose asked if she could book us plane tickets instead.
Hope that gives you a good idea of how amazing Liberty Hotel is. Go for the staff; they saved our lives.
Price: $6 USD/night per person
Internet: Free! (best is Rendezvous)
Other Amenities: A lobby restaurant (best is Rendezvous), free breakfast (most friendly at Liberty), AMAZING staff at Liberty, great balcony views at Hotel Rose.
After a long 50 hour bus ride, this is exactly what we needed: a 3 star hotel with 1 star prices. Adequately friendly staff with amazing everything else, plus FREE snacks for those watching the World Cup! Why NOT? Laundry is a bit expensive, but you know they’ll do a good job with the other amenities they serve up. Breakfast is free, computers and internet are fast.
Price: $10/night per person
Other Amenities: Free snacks and drinks if watching the World Cup, fast internet, top of the line quality rooms for budget prices
There you have it. As we say goodbye to a week of nonstop walking, crossing, and dodging everything from touts to motorbikes, we wish Vietnam well and to never lose its whirlwind charm. Next up: CAMBODIA.
- At time of posting in Ho Chi Minh, it was 26 °C -
Humidity: 100% | Wind Speed: 1km/hr | Cloud Cover: few clouds
What better way to explore the nightlife of Saigon than by being led down a very dark alleyway?
This might disappoint a few loved ones back home (one in particular), but we were led to a sheesha lounge, my weakness (I’m really trying to quit!)
Drinks otherwise weren’t too bad..
Afterwards my friend Van (who’s a local) and her brother, Lam, took us to Lush nightclub, where apart from 5 minutes of dancing we ended up watching the entire Japan vs. Cameroon World Cup game. GOOOOO ASIA!:-D
And now we’re back, 11pm, and it’s raining HARD. Finally, we see some rain during monsoon season (I’m going to regret saying that soon).
And I’m very sleepy.
- At time of posting in Ho Chi Minh, it was 23 °C -
Humidity: 100% | Wind Speed: 6km/hr | Cloud Cover: broken clouds; thunderstorm & rain
The challenge was 12 hours. We did it in 8. Because we’re badass. And how did we do it? Just take do a very simple walking tour in this order and you can’t go wrong:
Mariamman Temple on D Truong Dinh
Walk right around the park to hit D Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Street; enter the Reunification Palace (15,000 dong = $0.90 USD)
Walk back out and take a left until you hit D Nguyen Thi Minh Khai. Take a left and walk down until you hit D Le Qui Don. Turn right and you’ll hit the War Remnants Museum on your right (15,000 dong = $0.90 USD)
Exit back out and walk north until you hit D Nam Ky Khoi Nghia. Turn right and walk down until you hit D Han Thuyen. Turn left and walk up until you hit the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Post Office.
Exit and walk westwards down D Dong Khoi until you hit D Dong Du. Turn left and the Saigon Central Mosque will be on your right.
Take a cab to the Jade Emperor Pagoda. Don’t waste your time in finding it…it’s pretty hidden.
If you still have the energy, take a cab to Cholon to see the rest of the pagodas!
Now we’re showered up and getting ready to meet my friend Van Nguyen and her brother, as they take us around the Saigon nightlife.
Some highlights of what we’ve seen. The photographs at the bottom are from the War Remnants Museum are pretty graphic and disturbing (don’t worry, there’s a warning before you hit it):
We found an oasis in a city of chaos: Saigon’s Central Mosque. I met a Bengali gentleman who talked about his son living in Jackson Heights of NYC also studying medicine. We exchanged information and I spoke to him a little bit in Hindi and bid farewell to him in Arabic.
Saigon Central Mosque
After almost an hour of searching, we found the elusive Jade Emperor Pagoda:
In the middle of this we took a visit to the essential War Remnants Museum, which was extremely unsettling. I was really moved by the exhibits and could not leave without taking with me a few reminders of how fortunate we are for not having endured first-hand what it means to be a victim of War…
There were a few more disturbing exhibitions and photographs so if you’re interested, you can view the rest of the photographs here: Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam
- At time of posting in Ho Chi Minh, it was 33 °C -
Humidity: 59% | Wind Speed: 9km/hr | Cloud Cover: few clouds
With the departure of our dear Corinne, an awaited meet-up with Caitlin in Laos, and one day to do everything in Ho Chi Minh (Saigon), Calvin and I set out to cover the city’s attractions and do errands before Cambodia.
Bus Station – buy tickets ($10 USD) to leave Saigon for Cambodia.
War Remnants Museum – one of the most depressing points of our day – an embarrassing moment for me as an American to see and read about everything we did in Vietnam.
Post Office – Calvin and I have already accumulated a few items to be sent home/to friends.
Bank – I needed USD in order to leave Vietnam – I need to pay for my Cambodian visa and the “processing fee” at the border in US cash.
Saigon Central Mosque
Bahn Xeo – the best yet!
Pit-stop for Che
Jade Emperor Pagoda – it only took us forever to find it among the myriad of streets and lack of adequate identification on a map.
All finished before 3:30pm.
Streets of Saigon:
Burning Incense at the Hindu Temple:
My first experience with the snack beverage “Che” – a Vietnamese food stall commodity. It was great for taking the place of Taro-Coconut boba tea that I’ve been CRAVING since leaving home. I’d like to stock up on it before leaving Vietnam… but I leave tomorrow morning and I didn’t exactly bring Tupperware containers with me to Southeast Asia.
Jade Emperor Pagoda Videos:
Taxi Driver in Saigon:
The interesting thing is – he’s less bold than the drivers in Hanoi.
- At time of posting in Ho Chi Minh, it was 31 °C -
Humidity: 70% | Wind Speed: 11km/hr | Cloud Cover: few clouds