In my last report, The Club of 174, I lauded the wonders of the American Passport and of being an American traveler in general. 174 doors are open to us across the globe. That’s pretty great.
However, some doors are trickier than others. Some you kinda hafta jiggle the handle a little before they will yield. Vietnam is one of these.
You can’t just waltz in there like you can in places like England or France or all of Europe, flashing your blue passport like a police badge, expecting to get the run of the place. Americans need a Visa to enter Vietnam. When I heard this news I groaned inwardly. Come to think of it, I groaned outwardly too. My mind flashed to the hoops and shenanigans I had to navigate to acquire my Chinese Visa back in Milan (I’ll tell that story another time). If this process was anything like that…well, it would be a nightmare.
“Just get the Visa on Arrival,” someone suggested, after they heard my grumbling.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s a Visa.” Another pause. “That you get…upon arrival.”
It was. And it was almost as easy as it sounds.
In a nutshell, a Visa on Arrival is easy. It’s like one of those old fashioned letters of introduction people used years ago, only this letter is written by the same people who will be receiving it, and it costs money.
First you go to any number of Visa On Arrival websites (I used this one) and pay $17 US to receive a letter from the Vietnam government with your name on it. Bring this letter with you when you fly into Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh and present it, your passport, and a passport-sized photo of your shining self to the little window with the line of mostly other people in The Club of 174, and in less time than it takes to clean the bathroom, you have your Vietnam Visa. You are free to proceed through Passport Control.
Sounds easy, right? It was. I visited that website, printed out my $17 letter, stopped by a photo booth and thought I was good to go. Thought, being the keyword…
‘You know the thing about fine print? It’s so damn fine.’
Which is why I overlooked the actual cost of the Visa Upon Arrival, payable to the stern and small-shouldered people behind the little window. That $17 was for just the letter. For the Visa? Another sixty five American Dollars.
Sixty five dollars?! I hadn’t been to the US in almost a year. 65 dollars?! There was a better chance of me having a baggie full of chicken gizzards in my front pants pocket than US of A folding money.
The woman behind the glass cleared her throat and adjusted the collar of her fatigue green uniform. Waiting.
“How about Euros?”
A stern shake of the head.
“How about the Yuan?” I still had some in my bag.
I was starting to feel a little warm around the collar. The line behind me at the window was growing longer and more impatient. Okay, I thought. Okay. I’ll just hit up an ATM or a Currency Exchange. No worries. I’ve got this. No reason to panic. Surely you aren’t the first one to face this problem…
“Is there an ATM or Currency exchange around?”
This time the stern shake had been replaced by the stern nod. But nothing more.
After a long pause, I asked the obvious, “Where is it?”
The woman pointed and my eyes followed it, up over to the other side of Passport Control.
“It’s on the other side of the border.”
“But I need the Visa to get across…”
“And I need the $65 before I get the Visa…” I let my voice trail off into a pleading interrogative.
Talkative bunch, these Viet. Stoic bastards.
Later, over 25 cent beers, amid the chaos and flames and madness of Bùi Viện, I would hear the stories. People bribing officials to walk across the border and exchange currency; people stuck in the no man’s land that is an international airport before Customs; people haggling with citizens of their own country for a short term loan to be paid back not 15 minutes later, on the other side; stories of corruption and charity and humanity and pride in one’s countrymen. Luckily, I didn’t have to resort to any of these.
Luckily, my sister is a boy scout, apparently the only one among us boys.
“Jeff, I brought US money for you to pay this.”
I took the money open-mouthed, and eternally grateful.
“You are a hero.”
She shrugged. A kind-of, no big deal, all-in-a-days-work, sort of shrug.
After that, in less time than it takes to clean the bathroom, I officially crossed over into Vietnam.