Visa Hell, but we made it to Vietnam

Today started off like every other in our beautiful colonial style hotel in Laos (apparently, the leader of the IMF stayed there when she visited – who knew?). We proceeded to breakfast, where I tried a much more upscale version of the noodle soup that we had yesterday outside the temple. It is interesting how much different chili pastes can change the flavor of a soup – this was a really good take! Both soups were good, but in very different ways.


With our morning, we wandered around, taking in a couple Wats and grabbing a few cups of Lao coffee before the monsoons came back out to play.


Then, we arrived at the airport, and were all prepped and ready to go for our flight to Bangkok and connection on to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. We went to the airport especially early at my begging because we had purchased a liter of Lao rice wine to support the local villagers and had to check our bag. I prefer to arrive early and lounge around, as you do. We are second in line and get bad news: we can’t board the flight, because we aren’t approved to enter Vietnam. At this point, we’re freaking out. Even early, we still only have about an hour until the flight boards – can we even get an “approval” before then? My heart sinks and I feel like the ice cream in the poster of the coffee shop we had been in hours before.


Apparently, and how this escaped the MANY (and I repeat, MANY) times I checked online regarding the Vietnam visa approval process is still unclear, you need a “letter of welcome” before you can board the plane, which then allows you to apply for a visa upon arrival. This reminds me of what I’ve seen for Russia, which requires a similar letter. Clearly, we missed something, and either we figure it out extremely quickly, or we are stuck in Laos for at least another day due to the one-flight-in, one-flight-out issue, effectively missing one full day in Vietnam (we arrived at around 9pm). At this point, we are trying to figure out a way, in broken English, to get this approved. The one representative suggests we might be able to use the one computer in the airport to do it – we head to the office, but the person to log in isn’t there.

Time is ticking, and we start to unpack to throw out the wine or gift it to a lucky local so that we can get on the plane to Bangkok at least where we know there’s an embassy. Turns out, they won’t even let you get on your connection without the letter, so we would be SOL regardless. The computer is finally unlocked, and it turns out you can expedite a visa approval letter in about 30 minutes – at this point, we have about 17 before we board.

Miraculously, and through a series of pictures of our passports and boarding passes and several calls to Vietnam, we get an approval letter with about 7 minutes to go, probably in record time. We repack our bag, and head to the check in counter, where we are informed that now we need to go back to that office and pay for the baggage fee, and that takes at least 5 minutes. Fortunately, four other folks who have checked in online haven’t yet showed up to the airport and they really don’t like leaving people behind, so that buys us a little bit of time. Then, with 2 minutes, we clear immigration and run upstairs… where our flight isn’t even boarding yet. We arrived in Bangkok and expected to need to show the letter and get approval again. We did not. We literally only needed to complete that step to be allowed to leave Laos. We literally never showed the letter to anyone after boarding our first flight. Overall, a good lesson in bureaucracy and being willing to accept help when it is given to you.

It might not sound stressful, but the process was pretty darn harrowing at the time. Then, when we arrived, we were met by a visa specialist, who helped us fill out the visa upon arrival form, and somehow helped us to miraculously bypass the massive wait line (almost everyone just gets the visa upon arrival). Then, he helped us clear immigration in the shortest line and met us at baggage claim. He was the nicest guy and extremely friendly, and of course, we’re Facebook friends now.


Overall, the biggest lesson from today is that even when things go utterly, entirely wrong, people have your back. Despite the miscommunications, extreme time crunch, and our apparent incompetence, we made it (so did our bag!). Everything works out in the end as long as you smile, say thank you, and trust that the people who know the system will work it hard to get you where you need to be.


From the taxi ride to the hotel and the view from our window, Ho Chi Minh City looks incredible – we’ve already decided to get up early to start exploring.

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