Visa Runs for Fun and Profit

Visa Runs for Fun and Profit

American travelers are spoiled – we can show up to almost any country uninvited  and crash for a while. Only a few places require US citizens to get a visa before letting them in. But Vietnam is one of them. (They also strongly prefer you to leave promptly and shut the door behind you.) We settled in Saigon with a 6-month lease and a 3-month visa, so we knew a renewal was in our future. But we were staggered when it actually came due. How had three months gone by already? What were we going to do about the rapidly approaching deadline?

It is supposedly possible to renew a Vietnamese visa within Ho Chi Minh City. But we didn't even bother looking into it. This was our first chance at a visa run, and at least one of us was thrilled to take it.

Conventional wisdom is that visa runs—brief trips out of country to renew your visa—are a massive pain in the butt. But I like them. Enforced international travel is like mandatory cake eating; I could always do with more of it in my life.

A visa run is also surprisingly easy. With a few notable exceptions (’Sup, China?), Asian countries are companionably small and proximate. It's especially snug if you're used to American distances. The distance from Saigon to Bangkok is about as far as my family's trips to Grandpa's house. And that's with all of Cambodia in between.

We made things simple and just stopped in Cambodia, where we'd gotten our visas in the first place.  Traditionally, visa runs are an excuse to visit somewhere you’ve never seen before. We'd seen Cambodia - we were stuck in Battambang for over a week last fall while the Vietnamese consulate decided whether to let us in. But as Sam already mentioned, Cambodia is one of the easiest places to get a long-term Vietnamese visa. As a bonus, we used our knowledge of the Battambang area to land a writing assignment. So apart from our renewal fees, it was the equivalent of a free trip. Good enough for me.

We last saw Battambang in harvest season, when local farmers stood chest-deep in watery rice fields, cutting the grain with scythes. Now, in dry season, everything was coated in dust. Cambodia is often compared to the Wild West, and you can definitely see it on Battambang’s red-dirt side streets, where tuk tuks rattle along like stage coaches and city-slicker dandies like us keep a firm grip on our valises.

But the city is also a tourist destination. It doesn’t have Siem Reap’s obsequious, dollar-grasping ambiance (yet), but it’s cultivated a number of Things To Do. There are cooking schools, historical and scenic tours, a circus, a riverwalk, a few nice Italian restaurants, and the last vestiges of the Bamboo Train.

Returning to a place is in some ways even better than seeing it the first time. We knew which hotel to avoid unless we wanted an army of ticks to descend on us in the night. I satisfied my fish amok cravings while Sam reveled in two of his favorite breakfast haunts (a hole-in-the-wall vegetarian place and a coffee shop specializing in greasy western delights ). We caught the sights we’d missed last time, knew how much to pay the tuk tuk drivers, and didn’t get lost once. It was epic.

Amazingly, the Vietnamese consulate turned our visas around in 24 hours. We stayed a few days more, researching and exploring, before returning to Saigon with fresh visas, a full notebook and memory card, and one tan-line mustache (I require adult supervision when applying sunblock).

The classic visa conundrum was the most fun we've had all month. So in the most unlikely shout out ever, I say thanks, bureaucracy. Thanks for showing us a good time.