Yes, travel is exotic and life-altering and profoundly moving. Yes, you encounter new environments, new people, new customs, and in that way, also encounter some new piece of yourself. Yes, you become more cultured, more able to pepper cocktail conversations with ledes like, “Well, when I was learning tango in Buenos Aires…,” and “There’s really no comparison to actual Italian gelato…”
But there’s also the nitty-gritty, the laborious and unglamorous, the tedium of trip planning. It’s not fun, there’s no scene cred, and no one likes to talk about it.
So, with twelve days left until my departure to Southeast Asia, I’m taking a pause in the string of earth-shattering lyrical narratives to discuss the oh-so boring details necessary to Vietnam travel: visas.
The first step to any obligatory activity, whether it’s commuting or house cleaning, is to get yourself a killer soundtrack to lessen the annoyance. For this, I suggest listening to Abner Jay on repeat.
Having to obtain a visa before visiting a country is a strange and confusing process to those of us native to countries of privilege. As an American, you’re more or less used to waltzing up to a customs window, flashing a smile that gleams of tourist dollars, and getting your stamp. Some countries, like Chile and Brazil, charge you of reciprocal entry fee, a kind of fuck-you I can appreciate. But needing to arrange a visa prior to arrival? What kind of criminal do you think I am?
Once you get over the indignity that the majority of the world’s other citizens are subjected to, you’ll need to actually procure the said visa. Here’s what I learned, thanks to research and Thorn Tree, one of my all-time favorite travel resources.
There are no “visas on arrival” for Vietnam.
Other countries in Southeast Asia, yes. Vietnam, no. It’s pretty simple.
There are different types of visas.
For your basic Vietnam tourist visa, there’s a few options. You can go for a one- or three-month visa; you can also opt for single- or multiple-entry. There are no longer six-month tourist or business visas. This means that, if like me, you’re planning on cruising in and out of Vietnam for a period longer than three months, you’ll need to get a visa extension while you’re there. That’s a beast I’ll tackle when the time comes…
Visa costs aren’t fixed.
Figuring out exactly how much a Vietnam visa will cost is an adventure in obscurity. The Embassy and Consulate websites conveniently don’t tell you how much visas cost. Through poking around, I discovered that if you go directly through official channels—that is, the Embassy or Consulate—you can expect to pay anything from $70 for a one-month single-entry, to $150 for a three-month multiple-entry.
There are several companies (like this one) that facilitate visas, and their prices are far from fixed. Discounts apply for groups; the larger the group, the deeper the discount. Prices for these service range from a $20-$50 discount from official prices.
Going through the Embassy or Consulate is expensive, time-consuming and worrisome.
In most situations like this, I’m skeptical of companies with cheesy websites that offer deeply discounted prices on official services. So I’d decided to stick with getting a visa from the Consulate. But this meant handing over my passport. I’d either have to mail my passport to the Embassy and wait for it to be returned (hello anxiety), or get up early one morning and head out to the Vietnam Consulate in San Francisco. Here, I was told I’d need to give them my passport for processing, which would take around 5 days, and then come pick it up again. It sounded like a pain, but preferable to mailing my most sacred of travel possessions.
The night before I was to roust myself and cram onto the train with all the suit-and-ties, I discovered that…
There’s a way around all this. Kind of.
So, you can actually negate the visa process, in a way. You can get what’s called a Visa Approval Letter, an official document that allows you to get what is essentially a visa on arrival. The pluses are that it’s much cheaper, your passport doesn’t have to leave your possession, and you can do it from your computer. The two big catches are that you need to be arriving into one of the international airports (Hanoi, Da Nang, and Ho Chi Minh), and you need to be ready to pay a $25-$50 “stamping” fee.
I used Vietnam Visa Pro, and while the actual entry into Vietnam remains to be experienced, I’m so far super happy with them. I paid $30 for an approval letter for a three-month multiple-entry. I paid via Paypal, which I liked since I’ve heard horror stories about stolen credit card numbers from shady foreign websites (incidentally, just had my credit card number stolen, but that’s another story). I heard back from the company promptly, and had my approval letter emailed to me in 2 business days. Printed it out, made copies of my passport photo, and am ready to roll!
Now all I’ve got to focus on is amassing some more exotic-sounding stories.