How I Almost Got Banned From Vietnam

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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 MomentI 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.

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44 thoughts on “How I Almost Got Banned From Vietnam”

  1. Wow! What an ordeal, you would think with an error like that they could have easily just corrected it, but then again this is border control… That is great that you were able to get a visa into Vietnam, but I would be a little uneasy about returning to Laos. Maybe the ‘ton of stamps’ will work, but I don’t think I would chance that. If it was me, and I was returning to Laos in the short term, I’d probably go back to the border crossing and get it cleared up. If it was long term, I wouldn’t worry about it… Regardless, great story, and I’m glad you made it in to Vietnam! Cheers and safe travels!

  2. Sometimes these things have to be learned the hard way!
    I remember having the same problem with my UK Working Holiday Visa. I had been living and working in London for the past 8 months, and the immigration officer wasn’t too keen on letting me in again because she was convinced I was working past my allowed date, although I wasn’t.

    I think that no matter where you are in the world, customs are always a stressful experience.

    I hope you don’t get any problems with Laos.

  3. Yikes! I would have been freaking the fuck out. Seriously. You sure do have some stories to tell on this trip!

    I’m glad you were able to bribe your way across the border, and I hope you don’t have any problems if you do decide to head back to Laos.

    Also, glad to hear you didn’t have to flash anybody to get into Vietnam. 😉

  4. Wow! I hope you don’t have any problems when you go back to Laos… but I’m sure you’ll be able to talk your way out of any mishaps! What an ordeal–I’m glad it all worked out!

  5. Ouch, that sounds about as much fun as pneumonia…

    Good to hear you made it back into Vietnam again. I think I might have flipped being stuck between the borders like that, and not knowing any of the language.

    Had to go back through immigration in Mexico City once 2 hours after being stamped out, because they messed up my flight to the U.S., but the lady at immigration was supersweet and just asked if I already missed Mexico!

    The answer to that, btw, was ‘Yes!’. Still do.

  6. Doesn’t just have to be the Visa. I got stuck for a couple of hours at the Seim Reap airport because the Phuket airport stamped me out for the 18th when I was flying out on the 17th. Eventually it got figured out without any money changing hands on my part but the airline got into big trouble for letting me on the plane with the wrong stamp in my passport.

  7. Wow, props on manning up with the bus ride. I said “No FUCKING way” and flew.

    I later ran into a couple that said it took them nearly 36 hours, including several spent stranded in a bus station in the middle of no where and getting two replacement buses.

    Gotta love travel in Southeast Asia!

  8. Wow! Glad to hear you ended up safe! I tried the visa-stamp-confusion game in Europe with the Schengen Agreement when I was overstaying and it worked. Good luck to you if you chose to go back to Laos!!!

  9. Wow, that’s such a frustrating experience. I’m glad the $25 do the part, but hopefully you will resolve the exit stamp problem too. Borders could be really miserable. Once I had to drive to Canada-USA border just to get my exit stamp too.

  10. Crap what an annoying mistake to have the embassy make in the first place. Glad it did all work out without you having to ‘slip a nip’ (I snorted reading that!) and hopefully you figure out a way to get back to Laos one day soon. Maybe you can just do the border crossing between Thailand and Malaysia (since it’s free) 30 times in the space of a week to get those extra stamps.

  11. Being a paranoid freak, who hates to be without a passport at any time, I always do our own visas – for future reference, Snookay is a really easy place to get a Nam visa. Wrong date? Crikey, that’s FUBAR.

    What’s weird is what folk will let pass. Z has a really long name — three first names and a lengthy surname — so it never fits on visas. Missing last five letters? No problemo. Anywhere.

    Erm, so far…

  12. Glad it all worked out in the end! It’s enough to make me very paranoid about visas and passports, glad to be able to learn from someone else. Thanks for sharing experiences like these!

  13. This is too funny. I think it was done on purpose. How can you make a typo of one nine zero zero? Glad it worked out though. I’ve been backpacking in that area too and I am a freak when it comes to my passport. You can rob and take all my possessions, but don’t take my passport!

  14. Any other country I would’ve been surprised, but Vietnam no. We had a horrible time when we flew in from Taipei for a long weekend in Saigon last year. We got all our stuff ahead of time and the pre-approval letter (we couldn’t actually get the real visa because of being Americans living in Taiwan), but it was a chaotic mess. People were being turned away if their letter was not clear enough, the picture they brought was not the right size, and there was no order. People were mobbed around the one window and I was so crushed in I couldn’t breathe at one point. Some ppl were passing some guys American $$ and managing to get their passports back i record time while others had been there for 4 -5 hours at that point. I wanted out of there so bad I told my husband to give them $$ but we heard the couple before us get denied so we didn’t try. Somehow we lucked out and were only there an hour or so, while the earlier people still sat. That whole experience is the one reason we haven’t traveled back to Vietnam, not until we can get the complete visa ahead of time — I cannot even fathom taking the bus in — you are far more brave than I am!

  15. Laos has all their entry and exit data on computer, I think only a new passport would save you.

    A friend of mine got stamped into Thailand only for 2 weeks (standard visa-free stamp) though she had a double-entry tourist visa. only found out when she was already overstaying for 6 weeks. she had to pay overstay of 500 baht a day even though her only fault was not checking the stamp right there at the border.

  16. Wow that is an awful situation. I would have hated to pay that $25 because it is such obvious extortion. They saw you were in a bit of a bind and instead of helping you fix the problem, which was not your fault, they saw an advantage to extort money out of you. When they were walking around smiling to each other they were probably talking about how much money they could get out of you.

    I really hate paying up in those circumstances, because I think that doing that just encourages them to extort bribes out of the next visitor by letting them know they can get away with it.

    When we entered the Cambodia border from Vietnam, the guys at the border asked us for a “fee” of an extra 100 baht each. We had done our research online and we knew this “fee” was bogus so we just politely said, “No, actually we don’t need to pay that.” They just shrugged and carried on and processed our passports through just fine.

    We try to avoid paying more here in Southeast Asia in any circumstance where it encourages corruption. For example, we would rather walk than pay a taxi driver in Bangkok who refuses to use the meter. First of all, it’s illegal to refuse to use the meter and the prices that they quote you, although they are cheap by Western Standards, are usually twice what you should be paying. If I did pay, I would be showing them that they can get away with getting more money by being deceptive.

    I don’t know what I would have done in your situation. It’s always hard when you are in a position where they have power over you and you NEED their services, such as in your case, and they can pretty much name their price.

  17. On my way out of Hanoi, I was waiting in line at the airport. You know how slow that can be. When I finally reached the booth, and the guy looked at my passport, he saw something very bad. He tried to point it out to me, but there was nothing bad there. The walkie talkies came out and more uniformed guards appeared. They escorted me back the way I’d come, into a hidden office, at some point scrounging up the English phrase “passport cancelled.”

    That’s some scary shit. I traveled on my first passport for 10 years, got a new one when the old one expired, traveled a couple more years, never had any problems, never dodged the tax man or got myself on America’s Most Wanted.

    Cancelled? Why wasn’t I told? Was I gonna be imprisoned or deported? What about Jan and Picasso back at our Hanoi apartment? How long must I wait for the English speaker?

    Guard number one waited for guard number two, who punched up my number on the computer. Still nothing irregular that I could see.

    I was left alone in that office for ten or fifteen minutes. Presumably someone was guarding the door from outside. I sent Jan a few text messages, and she sent me a few useful phone number such as the US Embassy, just in case. I snooped around my little cell to see if there was a bathroom adjoining it. There was not.

    Finally, a uniformed guard came to me, laughing his ass off. He took me back to where I’d been before. I waited about ten minutes for my passport to reappear. Then I was rushed through as if nothing had ever happened. No apology, no explanation, nothing.

    The guy who originally busted me was obviously new on the job, so I speculate that he misread the expiration date. Expired, cancelled, it’s all the same when you don’t speak much English.

    Lesson number one: Always go to the toilet before you stand in that big ol’ immigration line.

    Lesson number two: Getting busted in an airport wakes you up much better than coffee does.

    Returning to Hanoi, I got a different trainee, and she had a supervisor looking over her shoulder to get her past the panic attack. I’ve never done that kind of work, but I’m guessing every trainee should have supervision. Put it in the manual and make it company policy.

  18. I’ve had a few difficult situations with visas in the past. It makes everything so difficult when you have to get them out before arriving, as appose to getting them at the gate.

  19. Money talks ‘eh. I agree with your advice that no matter what you do, always have some cash ($US are ideal, but local currency also works) because as bad as it is to say, it’s often these small bribes that make problems like this go away very quickly!

  20. Just read this out to my girlfriend and she is so looking forward to going to Asia now.. ha ha..

    I just sent away for my Thai visas to the embassy in New Zealand and I got a phone call from a guy who used to live in my house. He had called up and taken my mail by mistake and had my passport a few hours down the road.. Almost a disaster!

  21. Nightmare story. Thank you for sharing it. It will be so helpful for upcoming travelers. The officer had a lucky day though, he just needed to replace the wrong existed visa to the new one to get 25 bugs. As stamp a new visa on this case is not allowed to.

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