How I Almost Got Banned From Vietnam
If you thought my border crossing from Laos to Cambodia was problematic, it had NOTHING on my crossing from Laos to Vietnam!
Vietnam is one of the few countries in Southeast Asia that requires a visa in advance – you can’t get it at the border. So I ordered it from a travel agency in Vang Vieng. An agent traveled to the embassy in Vientiane and got my visa for $50.
When I got my passport back, I was met with a shock:
The visa start date was correct, but the end date was in 1900!
Obviously, this was a mistake on the part of the Vietnamese embassy in Vientiane. So I figured that they would realize their error at the border and let me in.
Boy, was I ever wrong.
The bus trip from Vang Vieng to Hanoi was to take approximately 30 hours. While I heard plenty of warnings about this trip – most passionately, from Ryan at Pause the Moment – I decided that I didn’t want to spend extra money on a flight, and at the very least it would be an experience.
The trip began with a 90-minute delay, which we spent sitting in the hot sun. Three hours later, we were in Vientiane. (A fun surprise – while getting into a sawngtaew on a random street in Vientiane, guess who I ran into? Nathan and Sofia from As We Travel!)
The ride was interesting. Local men slept in the aisles. Vietnamese music videos played nonstop. I immediately regretted not bringing more food, having merely one roll of Oreos to last the 30+ hours, and curled up to sleep.
Twelve hours into the journey, we arrived at the border. After three months of warmth and sunshine, it was my first taste of chill – cold, gray, rainy weather.
We made our way into Lao immigration and presented our passports.
Then I was called forward.
“You will not be stamped,” the man said. “This visa is not valid. You must go back to Vientiane.”
I nearly fainted. “The Vietnam embassy made this error. You understand, yes? The start date is correct! It was their error!”
“Go to the Vietnam side and talk to them. But we cannot stamp you.”
I was nearly in tears. As we drove through lovely Vientiane, I had regretted not spending any time in the Lao capital. Had my wish become a self-fulfilling prophecy?
I ran the 500 meters to the Vietnamese arrival office. It was so foggy that I couldn’t see beyond right in front of me, and rain was soaking through my brand-new Vang Vieng: In the Tubing hoodie.
Upon arrival, I explained the situation to the border guards. And so began the most frustrating part of the ordeal: the guards would look at my passport, smile, and slowly, slowly, slowly walk between the offices, all without communicating with me.
It was torture.
I begged. I pleaded. I cried. I would have slipped a nip if it would have helped my case.
I found a friend of mine from the bus – Alex, a 19-year-old guy from the UK . “If I don’t make it through, could you please take my bag to Hanoi Backpackers?” I asked him. “It’s the bright blue one. I’ll be there as soon as I can. Within a few days, surely.”
Alex, the wonderful guy that he was, readily agreed.
But it ultimately wasn’t necessary – eventually, one of the guards handed me a piece of paper:
“$25 if you pay for new visa. Or return to Vientiane.”
Thankful to have American money on me, I dug out $25 and handed it over. Within thirty minutes, I had a fresh visa in my passport and was stamped into Vietnam. I was so full of gratitude, I nearly kissed the guards.
As thankful as I was, there was still one problem – I had no exit stamp from Laos. And with my bus about to leave, I didn’t want to chance it. I got on the bus and left without the exit visa.
From there, it was another 11 hours on the bus until we reached Hanoi. To be honest, I didn’t mind the 33-hour bus ride at all. I simply curled up underneath my blanket and read – and that’s what I’d ordinarily do on a cold, rainy day!
I do want to return to Laos, and I’m unsure what to do next. I just don’t want to be charged for overstaying my visa if I do return. I visited the Lao consulate in Hanoi and I was told that I had to go back to that exact border crossing. That’s not going to happen.
My current plan is to acquire a ton of passport stamps, and hopefully Laos won’t notice that I was never stamped out when I do return.
This incident was beyond traumatic, but I did learn some valuable lessons:
If there is even a tiny error on your visa, get it fixed before you arrive. Check it closely. If the slightest thing is off about it, from a misspelling to a date error, you might not be able to get in.
Get your visa in-person if you can. Yes, it can be annoying to spend a day at the consulate when you can pay a travel agent to do it for you, but this is the way to guarantee you’re getting a correct visa.
Carry US dollars on you in several denominations at all times. This is the currency of choice in Southeast Asia, especially when it comes to bribery.
Be smart when it comes to your visas. Let this be a lesson to you all.