A US passport is an awesome, awesome thing. Americans can visit 172 countries without applying for a visa in advance. All we need is a way to get there, and the patience to wait in line at immigration. But that doesn't mean we can go anywhere on a whim. There are 196 countries in the world. And the ones that aren't as friendly to US passports include some fascinating places - Russia, China, Brazil, the majority of the continent of Africa...
Of course our next destination would have to be difficult. Time for internet research!
Erin and I learned that Vietnam would let us in, as long as we applied for a visa in advance of our trip (coincidentally, how most of the rest of the world has to travel). We then began looking for more specific advice on where and how to actually get a visa. At which point the internet became considerably less helpful. Apparently, we...
- ...couldn't apply for a visa in person at any Vietnamese embassies
- ...could maybe apply through certain travel agencies in select Southeast Asian countries (which doesn't sound sketchy at all)*
- ...or wait, maybe we could apply at the Vietnamese embassy, but it'd take hours and hours, be hilariously expensive, and require a blood sacrifice
- ...might as well not bother with any of that because we couldn't begin the visa application until we had a letter of invitation from a Vietnamese official
- ...COULD SKIP ALL THE HASSLE AND APPLY ONLINE! JUST CLICK HERE!**
Obviously, we clicked away from that last one as fast as possible. Any website that spends its time screaming all caps is best avoided. And never click the link. That's a great way to invite terrible, terrible, terrible things into your computer (terrible).
So we needed a new source of information. We decided to go to our local Vietnamese embassy and ask about the application process.
The visa office was largely empty when we arrived. Perhaps we simply came at a good time of day? Who knows. Within minutes, we were at the counter.
"Hello, can I help you?" the clerk said in fantastic English.
"We'd like to apply for a visa," I replied, and braced for an onslaught of bureaucracy.
Instead, the man looked bored. He nodded, grabbed a couple of single-page forms. "Fill these out."
- $70/person single entry, $110/person, multiple entry
- two passport photos
- a valid passport good for at least six months from the date of entry
- an address in Vietnam where we would be staying
And that was it. We have processed applications in Thailand and Cambodia, and had slightly different experiences each time. In Thailand, Erin and I could not apply for a 3 month visa, but in Cambodia, we could. So visa availability varies embassy to embassy.
The visa processing time also varied wildly. In Thailand, it took 3 business days to get our 1 month visa. In Cambodia, we could have had a 1 or 3 month VISA (single entry) by the next day. A 3 month multi-entry took 5 business days.
But in any event, every time we applied, we were done inside a half hour, our clerk spoke fantastic English, and there were never any hassles or blood oaths.
So my point is that if you look up advice on traveling to Vietnam, be aware that the internet may lie to you. Try to contain your surprise.
* Many travel agents in Cambodia offer visa service for Vietnam. This can actually be a legitimate way to buy your visa, and its one we considered. I would just recommend researching the travel agent in question, and making sure they have a good reputation before you hand over your passport.
** Visa on Arrival websites for Vietnam are ALL OVER the internet. The way these websites are supposed to work, you (the customer) hand an anonymous online company all your information and a credit card number. They then process the paperwork with the Vietnamese government on your behalf. When they're done, they send you an official letter of invitation to Vietnam in your email. You then print the letter and use it to board the plane (as if it were a valid visa). You show it to immigration when you arrive in Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi, along with your passport. Immigration then gives you your actual visa.
I have read about people using these services successfully. I have also seen special lines in Ho Chi Minh City airport for people with Visa on Arrival letters. As such, I know it is possible that some of these websites are actually legitimate. HOWEVER, after seeing the very, very long list of fraudulent sites in the embassy, and the VERY BIG WARNING SIGNS plastered all over the application window urging people to avoid using these services, I personally am never going to risk it.