This is my third visit to Viet Nam and my third three-month multiple-entry visa expires on 17 February. Many Việt Nam visa law changes went into place on 01 January 2015, so I started looking into renewing my visa before the date creeps up on me.
A couple weeks ago (21 January) I got a call from my friend G. He was stopped at the airport by Immigration on his way home to Canada because his visa expired back in November. He thought he'd renewed it, but that was right after he was bitten by a viper while walking through his yard. He spent the next month-plus going to "the snake lady" every day to save his foot... so he hadn't finished the renewal process. It is impossible to legally leave Việt Nam unless you have a current visa, so he missed his flight and headed back into town. He would get to pay a significant penalty and get a new visa before he could leave.
G asked if I wanted to go with him to the visa office. Since I was unfamiliar with the visa renewal process; heard different visa "facts" from different ex-pats; and had plenty of free time, I walked with him to the office.
Like every government office everywhere, there was a queue. We each took a number and a seat and, after about 30 minutes, it was G's turn. He is here until 2017 under a marriage residency, though he is now divorced. Even with this residency, he needs a native female to sponsor him for a visa renewal every three months; something the wife would normally do. The visa office told him that they could not help him until he finds a sponsor—a difficult task because sponsorship is a serious commitment.
He headed outside for a cigarette while I continued to wait for my turn. Even though my number was the one immediately after G's, it was another 10 minutes before I was called. The Immigration Officer looked at my passport and visa before asking the purpose of my visit to Việt Nam. When I told her "tourism", she said that I could not both change my visa and renew it. When I asked for clarification, she informed me that my C2 visa is for visiting relatives. My next question was, "How I could have a "relatives" visa when I have no known relatives anywhere in Asia AND my visa application very clearly stated 'tourism'"? She told me that I would have to ask the Consulate that issued it. She also told me that I would have to leave the country on or before 17 February and get a new visa before returning.
I went to find G and he told me that while having his cigarette, one of the omnipresent moto-taxi drivers approached him and asked if he could help. When G outlined his predicament, the guy said he knew someone who could help and offered to take him to her office. Cool!
As with any predicament/challenge in Việt Nam, there is someone who says they can help you. Sometimes it's a scam and sometimes it's real. Only by checking it out can you determine which it is. We followed our new friend a few blocks down the street and up to the seventh floor of a relatively empty building. There we were escorted into the office of Tomateco Tourist Travel Service Center. The small office is overflowing with two desks, about 10 tightly-packed chairs, and dozens of passports in rubber-banded stacks piled everywhere. Behind each of the desks was a woman who alternated talking on one of two (each) cell phones and with the person sitting in front of her. Talk about multi-tasking!!!
G went first. After listening to his situation and asking a few questions, the woman told him that she could help him. She said that he would have to pay a hefty fine, but that she could have a visa for him in two days. Total cost for the fines, visa, and her fee would be a bit over US$400, payable when he returned to pick up the visa. After turning over his passport and getting a receipt, G left to wait for me in the hall.
After hearing my story, the woman told me that I would have to leave the country and return for my new visa. She told me that she would check with the authorities and let me know my options in a couple days. I thanked her, took a card, and left. On the way out, G and I thanked our new friend and I gave him 500,000VND for his time and recommendation. G and I then walked back to the hotel.
Two days later, I went back to the Tomateco office and Truc (the woman I'd spoken to earlier) told me that I had two options:
1) Go to a Vietnamese Embassy or Consulate; wait in another queue; then go back a couple days later to pick up the visa. Using this option, I could either fly or take a bus with the nearest option being a full-day's ride away in Phnom Penh.
2) Go anywhere outside Việt Nam and fly back in, getting a visa-on-arrival (VOA) at the airport.
Visa-on-arrival is only available at airports and a border-issued visa is not an option for new visas if you hold an American passport. Since I'm NOT a fan of queuing up, I opted for a VOA. The VOA is $100 payable at the airport; her fee for generating the proper letter to government authorities for them to issue the VOA letter I turn in at the airport for my visa was also $100, payable immediately. The cost of the trip in/out depends on where I go.
One of the places on my original itinerary over a year ago was Lao and, due to the L1 vertebrae fracture suffered on Việt Nam's roads, I never made it. Now seems like a good time, so on 07 February I will fly to Vientiane, Lao. There I will rent an enduro (on-/off-road motorcycle) that I will ride through northern Lao for eight days before returning to Sài Gòn on 17 February to collect my new visa.
If you are a foreigner in HCMC and want to avoid time delays, hassles, and exorbitant fees when renewing your passport, contact Truc.
Ngo Thi Xuan Truc
Tomateco Tourist Travel Center
79 Truong Dinh Street (Floor 7)
Ben Thanh Ward, Dist. 1, Ho Chi Minh City
Phone: 090 3748801
Tell her I sent you...