How to save money when flying into Vietnam…
For everyone that has been following my blog posts, you might recall that I was going to take the train to Cambodia, but instead ended up at the wrong station and had to change my plans altogether. I wrote about that experience in this post. I was going to travel through Cambodia and then on to Vietnam by bus. Now, because of that missed train, I changed my plans and decided to fly directly to Saigon and skip Cambodia altogether. SO, the first thing I needed to do before flying to Vietnam, is what this blog post is all about! If I can spare any of you a bit of anxiety and apprehension on what you need to do to secure a VISA for your passport when traveling by air to Vietnam, then this blog post will be worthwhile. I hope by writing this story I can help many of you so you don’t have to go through the same experience I went through when I traveled for the very first time to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City. I have already helped one of my friends avert disaster from my experience, and hopefully I can help other travelers, too!
This post is only important though, to anyone that is traveling to Vietnam by air, INTERNATIONALLY. This information does not pertain to anyone that is traveling by land or sea! First, I would like to let everyone know that there are actually two ways to get a visa for Vietnam. The first way is to contact a Vietnamese Embassy in your country, or a country you are staying in, and get your visa directly from them. That way is fine, but it will typically cost you a LOT more money! I don’t like spending a lot of money so I thought I would write about another way to get a visa. The second way to get your visa for Vietnam is called a Visa on Arrival (or Visa upon Arrival…same thing), also known as a VOA. It will cost you a lot less money, and really isn’t that hard to do.
It WILL take you a bit more time at the airport, though, depending on the time of year and how many people are arriving when you queue up to the visa counter. I have only had to wait on the two occasions I have entered the country around 30 to 45 minutes. BUT, your savings can easily be close to $100 USD, depending upon your country of origin, and how many days your visa is good for, and one hundred dollars goes a LONG WAY in Vietnam! I checked on the pricing for the different types of visas by calling the Vietnamese Embassy in the US and asking them how much each type of visa would cost, and was surprised at how much they charged. AND, at least in the United States, you have to send them your passport for them to issue you the visa! I don’t really like sending anyone my passport if I don’t have to. So, my advice would be to save your money, use it for your trip (especially if you are cheap like me) and do the VOA! Now on to my story…
Last October of 2014, I made a decision that would ultimately change my life. I had traveled several times in the past to Hong Kong and the Philippines, but never anywhere else in South East Asia. This would be the first time I would travel to other parts of the area. I had been hoping and planning for many years to teach English somewhere in the region, but I really had no idea WHERE I wanted to teach. After several months of research, I had narrowed my choice of countries down to Taiwan and Vietnam. The only way to make an intelligent decision though, was to travel to both countries and experience the daily life and culture of the Vietnamese and Taiwanese people.
Typically, I do a bit of research on each country I will be traveling to before I get ready to go overseas, BUT this trip was a last minute decision, and I had actually been spending most of my free time before I left the United States securing cheap flights and reading reviews on hostels that I might like to stay in. So without the typical preparation I usually do, two days before I was about to leave I discovered something about the visa process in Vietnam that I was absolutely unaware of. Thankfully I came across this information before I left the US, so I still had some time to do something about it!
I can’t recall exactly how I learned what I would need to do to secure my visa in Vietnam. I think I typed up a search about Vietnam visas on Google’s homepage to check into the duration of the different visas, the cost of the different lengths of stay, and anything else I might need to know so I didn’t have any issues. I’m pretty sure I did the search because of a situation I luckily avoided in the Philippines when I nearly overstayed my visa.
Anyway, I realized I might have a major problem only two days before my flight was about to leave. I can’t remember what happened next, except almost passing out from hyperventilating, and freaking out about what was I going to do? I had no idea who to get it from, how to go about getting it, and what it was going to cost. The “it” I needed was called a “Letter of Approval” that is issued by the Vietnamese Immigration Department. Who knows what the Letter of Approval is based on, my guess is maybe they do some type of background check or something…I can’t find anything on the internet as to what exactly the letter is for, but I would think that if you are on some country’s terrorist list you AREN’T going to get approved!
The ABSOLUTELY most important thing about the letter, though, is that you HAVE TO HAVE IN IT IN YOUR HANDS to get on your flight when traveling internationally to Vietnam. The airlines WILL ask you for it before they give you your boarding pass!!!! Then, you have to present it to the visa counter once you get to one of the three international airports (Da Nang, Hanoi, Saigon/HCMC) to get your visa entered and stamped into your passport. Just to make it clear, you only need the Letter of Approval if you are doing a VOA or Visa on Arrival. If you already have your visa through the Vietnamese Embassy you don’t need it, BUT you paid too much money…haha, shame on you!
So, here I am flying in to Hong Kong in two days, then on to Saigon four days later, and I don’t have the letter! As you can imagine, I was very concerned!!! I started frantically Googling on what to do, and then once I found out there were several agencies that would provide me with the letter, I wanted to know which one was the most reputable. Now I was back to more Googling. I found my answer in this forum on Lonely Planet. Several people on the forum suggested a company called Vietnam Visa Pro. They have two websites, www.vietnamvisapro.com or www.vietnamvisapro.net.
I am very happy to say that things worked out great for me. I emailed Vietnam Visa Pro right away and then received an automated reply back almost immediately. The email instructed me on what I needed to do and my options for payment so that they could get started on the letter. The fee for their services is very inexpensive, $10 USD. I was also able to pay them with Paypal, which is nice. I always feel more secure using them to pay someone I haven’t dealt with before. When I landed in Hong Kong two days later and checked my email, I found they had sent me a PDF file with the letter attached. I would highly recommend this company. They guarantee you will have the letter within two business/working days, depending on when they receive your email letter based on their time zone, be aware of that! If you need the letter sooner, they can do that for an additional fee. They will also give you instructions on additional things you will need at the visa counter in one of the three international airports in Vietnam. In addition, they will also send you a form that you can fill out before you arrive to save you a bit of time.
I would like to add that it is VERY IMPORTANT to bring $45 USD to pay the Vietnam visa counter at the airport for your visa stamp. It has been written that they will take Euros, or possibly even Australian dollars, but I wouldn’t count on it! In addition, they might not have correct change, or might not even decide to GIVE YOU CHANGE AT ALL. Many countries in South East Asia are corrupt, and they can pretty much do whatever they want. Don’t count on getting back change if you give them a $50 bill. It is likely you will get some change back, but you never know. If you take $45.00 you will have NO PROBLEM!
Here is another link that is also very helpful with the Visa on Arrival process. Because it is through Trip Advisor, they will not allow anyone to post a link to an agency. Again, I would highly suggest Vietnam Visa Pro, as I had very good luck with them, but there are others agencies you can use, and the Lonely Planet forum I linked to above gives you some of those choices.
I would like to add that from searching the internet, NOT ALL countries require the letter. I believe there are at least 30+ European and Asian countries that can receive a fifteen day visa when flying into the country. With the list changing so frequently, I am not going to provide a link as it might not be accurate. I would just check with the Vietnam Embassy in your country to find out what you need to do when flying into Vietnam (if you are reading my blog and are NOT a US citizen). In addition, there is a very real possibility that Vietnam will be allowing US citizens in the near future to stay up to one year without having to renew their visa, AND possibly not even requiring the Letter of Approval. This hasn’t happened yet though; the government is only talking about it to increase tourism.
Because I seem to almost always screw up and make silly traveling mistakes, I have yet another lesson to be learned about the process when applying for the Letter of Approval! I again used Vietnam Visa Pro so I could have my letter before I flew out of Bangkok to travel on to Saigon/HCMC. I contacted them the morning I set out on my journey when I met Pierre and Bila, and received their confirmation email. I left the hostel thinking I would have no problems in getting the letter in time to fly to Vietnam the following week. BUT things don’t always go as planned, for anyone that has read about my travels… so stay tuned and keep reading about more of my crazy adventures!