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I Just Got Kicked Out Of Vietnam

Yesterday. Yes, seriously.

I had my passport taken away and a police escort directly to my seat on a flight out of the country. I got to be the first one on the plane, but they didn’t give my passport back until I was safely inside the Bangkok Airport. All of this while being jetlagged and ragged from touching ground in Cairo, Doha, and Bangkok earlier that day. All because somewhere along the line, someone forgot to send a fax and never told me.

The bane.

Cairo was a lot of fun, though it was surprisingly third world. Peddlers harassing you from every angle, everyone selling something and negotiating the price adamantly. You couldn’t take more than a few steps without someone making a nice gesture, followed by asking for a tip. The area is beautiful, inspiring and left a taste of sleaziness in my mouth I couldn’t wait to get rid of.

So onward to Vietnam, to meet a few friends for a slow journey south to north. I had taken care of my visa a month prior while in Vienna. The main option of visiting the embassy in my home country was out, so I went for the cheaper option of getting a service online to set up a visa-on-arrival. It only takes a few days, and it’s handily waiting for you at the airport. I emailed back and forth, and once it was set, I promptly forgot about it and set to climbing Table Mountain and crawling around inside the Pyramids.

I showed up at the airport in Ho Chi Minh City after a full 24 hours of travel from Cairo, exhausted both from being seated so long (between long flights, a 2 hour layover where you aren’t allowed to leave your seat on the plane is surprisingly painful). I marched right up to the passport control desk and he flipped through my passport, then asked me where my visa was. I told him they said it would be waiting for me, and he shook his head, saying “No visa, no go Vietnam.” He called someone over, who took my visa, and I followed them to a little hidden nook that said “Arrival Visa”. Oh, now I get it. I was supposed to find this place somehow.

I waited while someone with my passport ran around different places in the glass-walled room, then came up to the front and told me I didn’t have a visa. I explained the situation carefully, that I had taken care of the paperwork and payment.

“No visa. You no go in Vietnam.”

I explained the process again, and pulled out my computer to show him the documentation.

“No visa here,” he said, pointing back to the computers behind him.

I tried calling the customer service number for the visa company, but for some reason my Egyptian SIM wasn’t recognizing any combination of numbers I put in. I asked him to call, and he just walked away through security doors with my passport in his hand.

There was an open WiFi signal that was very weak, and I used it to email my friend Lung who was already inside Ho Chi Minh City to ask for his phone number and email the customer service for the visa company to find out what happened. Then I waited.

The security agent eventually appeared again with a woman who spoke decent English, and my passport was handed to her. Apparently the visa agency was supposed to send a fax to them, and they never received it. I asked her to call their customer service, and she helpfully dialed on her cell phone. Unfortunately, there was no answer and no way to leave a message, though we kept trying.

She asked for my boarding pass, and I gave her the ones in my pocket. Then she walked away, too. While I was waiting this time, my friend emailed back with his number. I tried calling on my phone, but again, nothing would work, each time getting a recorded message that the number was dialed incorrectly.

When she showed back up, she told me there was a flight to Cairo that night I was being put on. However, I was planning on meeting friends in the Philippines after Vietnam. Going all the way back to Cairo would be expensive, and the last thing I wanted to do was go through those long flights again, wasting even more time. I asked if they could just send me back to Bangkok, my last stop.

“No. Only origin.”

Well, then. Could I buy a flight on my own? She called her supervisor to ask, and after a few minutes, she determined I could. Wondering if she had ever encountered this issue before, I started hunting around for flights to any nearby country where I could squat while I worked out my visa. Most were sold out, and she helpfully noted that I needed to leave by midnight or pay a $100 overnight fee for sleeping in the airport. Oh, and there was no place to buy food.

Suddenly I perked up. Maybe this meant she was just asking for a bribe. I asked if there were any “special fees” I could pay to get the visa taken care of.

“No. You leave Vietnam.”


Where I spent so many hours.

I used her phone to call Lung, and he worked with his friend to try to help in any way possible by scouring the internet, unfortunately coming up as blank as I did. Afterward, the helpful security agent called the airlines and found the cheapest flight to Bangkok available. I found the same one cheaper online, but they refused to accept purchases within 4 hours of the flight, so I packed back up and she marched me through 3 security checks to the desk where I could buy a ticket. She sat behind the counter with the agents and handled everything, laughing at various things. One of the girls behind the counter kept looking at me and giggling until her coworker told me that apparently I look like a celebrity there.

If only that helped.

After paying for the flight, we began marching back through the series of metal detectors, x-ray scanners, and listless guards. She told me that she learned from the airline agents that on weekdays, there are companies that will “sponsor your visa” for $100-200 and take care of it then and there.

So apparently they only take bribes on weekdays. Great to hear on this beautiful Sunday. I could have camped out overnight and paid that fee and the following one for less than the airfare there and back, but it was too late. I had already bought the ticket, and my flight left in 15 minutes. I was better off going somewhere I could actually sleep in a bed for the night.

Once we got back to Passport Control, she handed me off to a new guard who spoke even less English, but was enthusiastically chatting with me regardless of my ability to understand him or respond. I was given paperwork to sign that said I had done something horribly illegal with no recognizable penalty aside from not entering the country. She handed over my passport and brand new airplane ticket to yet another person, and I followed him back to the gates.

My police escort and I arrived at a gate, and when I looked up at the sign, it said Taipei. He told me to sit down.

“I’m not going to Taipei.”


This did nothing to quell my nervousness. I tried again, explaining I was going to Bangkok.


In the immortal words of Charlie Brown, Augh!

So I sat down in the seat he had designated, between a flight attendant and a woman waiting for her flight. Faced with the prospect of sitting next to someone a police officer just ordered around who was probably a horrible criminal deviant, she immediately stood up and walked somewhere else. I smiled a little, thinking about how terrible this must look to everyone around. Some random longhair being led around an airport by police. He must have done something horrible.

I took solace in the fact that if I missed my flight because we were at the wrong gate, they would at least have to let me starve in the airport for free until I could handle my visa the next day. Time passed, and the policeman whiled the time by walking in and out of nearby security gates (I assume just because he could) and standing in front of the large TV Samsung had installed as a promotion that happened to be playing a football game. I kept an eye on him, as now he had my passport and ticket.

I hadn’t realized how helpless a feeling it was to have your identity taken from you and be made completely mute and helpless. I was a prisoner. No escape, no way of communicating, and nobody was helping me with the real problem, getting my visa. They just wanted me out. I sat there for what felt like ages feeling like they were even getting that wrong. Even worrying seemed pointless, as nobody could contact me, and I wouldn’t be able to communicate a brilliant idea anyway.

Eventually the crew behind the counter shifted out, and my flight was announced, though quite delayed. My escort walked over and chatted with them for a second. Before anyone was called on board, he motioned me over and we walked down the long, empty corridor to the plane where the attendants were still getting in their positions. He handed over my passport and ticket to the first attendant and they muttered back and forth. I sat down near the front and watched as everyone filed in.

Once we landed, everyone did the obligatory “standing up in the aisle before you” rush, and I just sat there. Suddenly a flight attendant pointed at me from the front and said “You! Come here.” I pulled down my bag and squeezed through the people who barely moved, afraid to lose their pole position in the aisle, and was escorted down the stairs to a waiting van.

There was one other passenger from the flight in the van, who was glowing with praise for the airline. Apparently she had expressed concern about making her connecting flight and had been led down to the van. I let her know she was just riding the wave of my criminal delinquency, and she didn’t say anything else for the rest of the ride.

Once we got to the airport, the attendant stood still on the phone for a while, talking to someone very urgently. Then she gave me my passport, shook my hand and showed me where to go. I breezed through Passport Control and headed toward town and a place to sleep.

By the time I arrived at my hostel, a man from the visa agency had sent an email, asking if I received any paperwork. I told him I hadn’t, and he said he would send it first thing in the morning. Apparently they had dropped the ball. To his incredible customer service skills, he said it was my fault for not babysitting them at every step and not knowing something I had never been told.

I rerouted my flights and made a friend in the hostel from Canada. We headed out into the Bangkok night, ate some fried grasshoppers and pad thai, fended off all the people shouting “ping pong show” at us, and laughed at other tourists. All in all, not a bad ending for a day of long flights and being ordered around by police while they withheld my identification and kicked me out of their country.

Tomorrow morning I board a flight to Vietnam for round two. This time I hope I make it past the guards, though it would be amusing if they recognized me. Wish me luck.

On the road again...

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