If you’re planning on visiting The Socialist Republic of Vietnam, and you’re required to obtain a visa, a few pieces of information will help ensure you arrive in Vietnam with the least amount of hassle. From experience, Vietnam requires visitors to jump through more hoops than any other country I’ve visited in Southeast Asia.
Vietnam requires visitors to either obtain a visa prior to arriving, or acquire a “letter of approval” for the visitor to apply for a visa upon arrival. There are three options that will get you one or the other:
The first option requires mailing your passport to the Vietnamese Embassy in your country well ahead of your visit. The second option is to visit a Vietnamese Embassy and apply for the visa in person. The third option involves hiring a Vietnamese travel agency as a middleman to submit the relevant paperwork and forward the government’s letter of approval back to you.
I prefer to keep my passport in my possession leading up to travel, so I excluded option one. One downside to traveling without an itinerary, and a relative lack of wifi, is realizing you’ve waited too long before applying for the letter of approval, which takes at least three business days to process. Aubrey and I were slowly moving through Laos when we decided we wanted to travel to Vietnam, but we didn’t feel that we had enough time to seek option three, the letter of approval. So, we went for option two and planned on visiting the Vietnamese Embassy in Vientiane, Laos to apply for a visa in person. Unfortunately, my mistake was believing the consulate could rush the process and issue a visa application in one day.
Upon arriving at the consulate, I was told it would take at least two business days, most likely three days. That didn’t work, since we had a flight later that day… whoopsie. The advice of the consulate was, believe it or not, contact a travel agent, there’s nothing the consulate could do within one business day.
Determined to get to Vietnam despite our drastic procrastination, we retreated to a coffee shop, soaked up some caffeine and wifi, and started contacting travel agents requesting a letter of approval in order to enter the country. Luckily, we were able to find an agency online that would be able to process our information and provide us with a letter of approval within hours. Time is money, but we didn’t want to delay our plans or our flights, so we paid an exorbitant rush fee. My advice would be to skip options one and two and just go for the letter of approval, but well in advance.
The remaining requirements for the visa upon arrival are $45 USD (in addition to the fee for the letter of approval) and one passport size photo. As for the $45 “stamping fee,” Hanoi’s airport does not have an ATM or currency exchange, so bring dollars, Vietnamese currency is not accepted. I know, convenient right?
As for the photo, Vietnamese customs will take your picture for a fee at the Hanoi airport, but we had already packed a few extras for this situation. Earlier in the day, after finally getting our letter of approval, we walked around Vientiane looking for a place to procure passport photos. After searching in the 108 degree heat for way too long, (where’s a photo booth when you need one) we essentially gave up and decided to see some sights in Vientiane. We stumbled upon the Patuxai gate, which is ironically Laos’ version of the Arc de Triomphe, erected to celebrate its independence from France. I noticed several local photographers lounging around Patuxai offering to take pictures of tourists in front of the monument, and sell printed copies out of the back of a van. Almost like at a theme park, but way creepier since the back of a van is involved.
I saw this as an opportunity. With some pantomiming skills, I was able to convince one of the photographers to take our pictures and cut them to size for use as passport photos. Before we knew it, we were posing in the back of a guy’s van, with a blue sarong as a backdrop. He printed and chopped the photos in a matter of minutes. I think I might have given him a new business idea.
Although it was an experience to remember, if you’re heading to Vietnam, avoid the consulate and the back of some guy’s van. Get the letter of approval in advance, and bring US dollars and a few extra passport photos.