I am putting together a collection of my travel reminiscences to be called Looking For My Elephants (with some appropriate subtitle). It will be a mixture of memoirs and practical advice. My nonexistent faithful readers will remember “Weird stuff that happens to you in other countries“, a typical example of a memoir chapter. Here’s an advance of a more practical chapter:
A lot of people have trouble with the Vietnamese pre-approved visa process, leading people to believe it is complicated. It is not, in fact, complicated. It’s fairly simple. It is, however, insane.
Here’s how it works.
You go to a website like MyVietnamVisa or VietnamVisaPro. The site looks like it’s selling maple syrup or home-made sex toys or something eccentric like that, but no, it’s legit; go ahead and enter your name, passport number, and credit card. They’ll bill you $9.99 or $19.99, and in return they will call the passport people, who put your name on a list, and fax that list back to the people at the website.
(Seriously, who faxes in this day and age? Even for the Third World, that’s retro.)
The website people scan the fax and email you a JPEG of the whole list. It’s the list of every tourist who is entering Vietnam on a pre-approved visa that day. So the names of fifty people or so with your name halfway down the list. You print this out and put it in your backpack.
(BTW, carry a backpack. It’s really the only sensible way to travel. You start using a suitcase and in a little while, you’ve filled the suitcase and start thinking about… another suitcase. Pretty soon, you’re shlepping every promotional t-shirt and pair of socks you own across Indochina. With a backpack, you know: you’re carrying one and you’re carrying on your back, so you’ll pack smart.)
When you land, after what feels like a four-day flight, at Tan Son Nhat Airport, in a corner the big hall before customs is a window for the visa office. Get in line behind six other people, each clutching the same print-out you have, all held up behind a 45-year-old Romanian woman who looks 60 and doesn’t understand the visa process and is arguing through the window with a uniformed 25-year-old clerk who looks 15. They will be arguing in English, a language neither of them speaks.
(If you get bored in line, you can try to match names from the long list with faces from the long line. Is that chunky blonde girl in the flannel shirt and crocs “Ursula Muller”? That subcontinental guy in the proto-turban, “Anandan Ramanathan”?)
Eventually, you’ll get to the front of the line and hand over your list, your passport, and a $25 “stamping fee” to the clerk, the only one of the eight or nine people in the office who has any duties beyond chatting with each other and smoking cigarettes. You go and slump into one of the plastic chairs by the window, dazed by the long flight, the time-shift, and the buzzing fluorescents. That funky odor you notice? That’s you.
(During your wait, you can contemplate the purposelessness of the whole process. Wouldn’t it have been easier and more profitable just to charge you $45 — or $65 — and wave you in?)
The clerk supposedly compares your list with their list and who knows, maybe she does. Is there a big problem with people sneaking into Vietnam? In any case, she stamps your passport and then, to celebrate, goes and has a cigarette of her own and discuss soccer with her colleagues. At some point, she’ll remember you and your passport, and come back to the window and make a truly sincere effort to call your name.
I want to be fair here. The Vietnamese language is written in Latin characters, but has no other connection with any Western language. If you asked any Western person to pronounce a Vietnamese name, he’d mangle it badly. For example, given Trang Nguyen, he would say “Trang Nguyen” (when the correct way would be by asking the question “Trah Ween?”)
So, tired though you may be, listen carefully when they call out names. If your name runs heavily to letters that by sheer coincidence have the same pronunciation in Vietnamese, like M, N, and of course V, it shouldn’t be too difficult. If you’re Frederick or Gerald or Larry, well, consider Canada as a vacation destination. My own name, Michael, was — no joke — pronounced with surprising (and I assume accidental) fidelity to the original Hebrew: “Meek-ha-yell”.
When they do call you, remember to check that they did in fact give a fresh visa stamp and more important, they gave back the right passport. If you want to, you can thank the clerk (“Cảm ơn, chị”), but she’ll already be off smoking another cigarette.
Now, except for immigration (where they look at the stamp the visa people just applied and then glare at you as if you were in a shirt reading “I ♥ molesting Asian children”, and then grudgingly let you through), customs (where they ignore you completely), and the taxi (where they charge you between $8 and $50 for cab-ride that would cost you $4 if it started anywhere in Saigon except the airport and $50 if it started in any US city), you’re practically in your hotel room now.
If you don’t agree that this process is insane, compare it to the visa process for Thailand:
1. Show up in Thailand with your passport
2. Be white
Works like a charm.