Drew and I have gotten so used to our bus trips, plane trips, tuk-tuk rides, long walks, etc, but we have to admit that each time we get where it is we meant to go, it is nothing short of an absolute miracle. There is a reason why other travelers spend months preparing and meticulously planning each detail of their international trips, but Drew and I make so many last-minute decisions and revise our plan so often that we’ve gotten used to just arriving some place and figuring things out as we go. Not to mention, we are both kinesthetic learners who prefer to make our decisions and plans while we’re actually carrying out the motions.
To be honest though, whether you make plans or not, travel has a way of throwing curve-ball after curve-ball. Strange and new places come with unexpected details that no one can plan for.
All of this is only semi-relevant to the story I’m about to tell because, honestly, I made a mistake. I thought that Vietnam’s online visa would be very much like Cambodia’s online visa was. We simply applied online and within a few hours we had an email with our print-able visa. It turns out that the Vietnam E-visa is very different. Perhaps this story will be best told in a list of obstacles between us and Vietnam.
1.) We applied for our Visa on a weekend and received a pop-up message informing us that it wouldn’t be examined until Monday, the day we intended to cross the border.
This turned out to be a blessing in disguise as it gave us more time to hang out with the wonderful community we had befriended during our time with the DFCC Bible/English school. A woman from a school called the BEST Center let us stay in her beautiful facility in the teacher’s quarters while we waited for a response from the visa people.
2.) When we got to the Cambodian exit station, the man pointed out the fine print on our E-Visa papers: “this visa is eligible for entrance at an airport only.” This man felt very sure that the Vietnam border would not accept an air-visa at a land border, and therefore he did not want to give us our exit stamps.
Drew calmly and tactfully begged for permission to ask the Vietnam checkpoint staff if they would accept our e-visa. We have a flight from Vietnam in just a few days, and we were afraid re-applying for our visa would mean missing our flight and costing us large sums for a last-minute flight to replace it. The man at the Cambodia exit border allowed us to quick run through the awkward middle-zone between Cambodia and Vietnam to ask for Vietnam’s permission to use this incorrect VISA, mostly because he felt sure they would say “no” and wanted us to see for ourselves.
And so we entered that strange, interum space between countries.
The man at the Vietnam entrance didn’t understand our English, so he directed us to a small barracks beside the entrance building. There was yet more pleading and explaining and at last an extremely kind woman agreed to help us out….
3.) But we had to provide a passport-sized photo: photos I knew I had somewhere but could not possibly find, though I emptied my backpack right there on the cement floor of the barracks. It was decided that one of the men there would go get his camera and take the pictures for us if we paid him. “5$ each” he requested, and we agreed.
So, we dashed back to the Cambodian exit border where the man who had spoken with us earlier simply said, “I told you so.” He assumed we had found out how “disagreeable” the Viatnamese border could be. Drew informed him that actually, Vietnam was going to let us in.
4.) “I don’t believe you.” he said. This was discouraging. We had a helpful group of Vietnam officials waiting to help us get our proper visa…if we could get this man to believe us and stamp our exit stamps. He persisted, insisting that he knew the Viatnamese and that there was no way they would be letting us in. I don’t know if he has a bad impression of the Viatnamese or if he was waiting for us to bribe him. Likely both.
We had to have enough money for a room that night…so we had nothing extra to bribe, besides it being such a despicable thing to have to support. No bribe.
Finally he stamped our passports and let us in, assuring us that he did not think kindly towards us.
We rushed back to the barracks where the man arrived with his camera. We handed him the 10$ we had promised.
5.) “Money.” he said. “Money.” He wanted more money. He had agreed on a price simply to establish how much money we had, it seemed. This was his starting price and now that he saw how much we needed his help, he wanted more.
Drew showed him two dollars, saying that this is all we could afford to add. The man argued for a bit, expecting that we surely had more than two dollars to spare. When we didn’t budge, he left with our 12$ saying “ok ok ok ok ok.”
I hoped that “Ok” meant, yes I’ll take it, but it made me nervous that he left.
We filled out paperwork and waited in a little office. A woman printed our new Visa’s and joked around with us a bit. I was so grateful for her kindness as well as her pleasant attitude toward us. She wasn’t going to ask us for any bribes. “Your photos?” she said. I pointed toward where the man had walked away saying that yes he had taken them but he hadn’t given them to us.
She accepted this and sent us to the entrance.
6.) Our bus had left without us of course, because no one is going to ask 30 people to wait on two goofy American tourists who printed the wrong visa, nor would I expect them to.
We waited for the woman who had helped us, as she had said that she too needed to go to the capital city and that we could meet up and share a bus. She was nowhere to be found, though I wish she would have showed up simply so that we could thank her again and again for helping us in such a stressful time.
A bus arrived with two seats left. They did not take advantage of our desperation, but simply charged us for the distance left between here and the capital, about half of the original ticket price. We were grateful for this fairness, boarded the bus, and sighed with disbelief to be heading into Vietnam.
Despite having the wrong visa, not having enough money to bribe those who pushed us, and missing our bus…we somehow made it to Ho Chi Minh.
Like I said, each time we arrive somewhere we intended to go, it is an absolute miracle. This morning I looked out our dirty hotel window at a bustling city of signs and shops. It’s not the most glamorous place on earth, but I am so grateful to be here.
Thanks to all of those who think of us as we travel and pray for our safety. We are well cared for by everyone we encounter.