Getting a new Vietnam Visa on entering the country
Disclaimer: The visa law in Vietnam is changing all the time and everything depends on multiple factors like your nationality, the time of the year and other stuff. What I wrote down here is my personal experience with visa runs to Moc Bai/Bavet. Yours will be different, but at least you can have a look what can happen.
If you cannot extend your Vietnam visa anymore, but you still want to stay in this beautiful country, you need to perform something that is commonly referred to as a "border run", since it requires you to leave the country and re-enter it. For us in Saigon the closest border is at Moc Bai, where you cross to Cambodia and return instantly. While this procedure is not well-received by some officials, it is still perfectly legal. So, how does it work?
First of all you have to obtain an invitation letter, a document that names you, some of your passport details and the visa type you will get as well as the dates from which the new Vietnam visa is valid and when it will expire.
Most travel agencies in Saigon work together with the one or another visa service or lawyer, so you can get the letter there. Mind that like everything else in this country, also the type of visa invitation letter a lawyer is able to get you depends on his influence, the time of the year and your nationality.
A common invitation letter for a 3-month visa with single entry may cost you between 35 and 45 USD at the time I am writing this article. Other visa types are more complex to obtain and therefore more expensive.
When I am talking about "time of the year", I explicitly refer to Tet holiday, the traditional lunar new year in Vietnam. The government does not work over the holidays, quite like nobody really works over the holidays. Expecting a smooth experience during Tet is like expecting a hedgehog to sing an Iron Maiden song.
Now you get two passport photos and you are ready for your border run. The pictures are easy to get at every decent photo store. I got mine done at Nguyen Hue boulevard right in the centre. You just order, pay 50.000đ for 4 pics, go upstairs and the photographer snaps them. Then you wait an hour or so until the photos are ready.
That hour you can spend well by walking around the area for some sightseeing. Saigon City Hall, Notre Dame Cathedral, Saigon Post Office, just to name a few nice points of interest. You can also go for a coffee at Shin Coffee or The Workshop for example, they have speciality coffee you can only dream of, and read some magazine meanwhile.
With the invitation letter, the passport and the photos you are ready to go.
Here you have several options and I myself tried two of them.
You can go with one of the travel bus companies like Phnom Penh Sorya. They drop you off at the border and pick you up on the way back from Phnom Penh to Saigon. You can book the tickets at every decent travel agency in Saigon and if you talk to the guide on the bus, they may even help you with the Cambodian visa.
The pickup point may vary later on, since at the moment the border control offices are located in an old market hall. I guess they renovate the area. Right now the busses pick up customers right at the exit of the control port.
The ticket is only available for travelling from Saigon to Phnom Penh though and costs 13 USD one way. However, you have free WiFi on board and other amenities.
The other option is cheaper but not as luxurious - the bus line 703. It costs 40.000đ one way and departs in 30-minute intervals from 23/9 Park. Don't wait for this bus at Ben Thanh Station, because even if it's named Ben Thanh - Moc Bai, they depart from the park and head straight through Binh Tan district. No clue why it's named Ben Thanh, probably they planned to depart from the market but couldn't get a license for it or something.
After you arrive at the border, you head into this abandoned warehouse and the official at one of the booths will hopefully give you a stamp that you left the country.
Dude! Or Dudette!
Make sure you got the exit stamp! Last time the guy just waved me through and I didn't get the Cambodian visa without the stamp. I had to "convince" the post to let me back into Vietnam and stamp me out again, which triggered a whole chain of "convincing" measures.
After you got stamped out of Vietnam you make your way to the Cambodian border post. It's currently along the road and left and right, where the lion statues come in their distinct Cambodian style. The visa there costs from 30 to 33 USD. If you pay in USD, that is. If you run on Vietnam Dong you will find that every payment comes with an unreasonable exchange fee. So it is generally advised to visit the gold shops around Ben Thanh Market first and get some USD in small, unmarked banknotes.
There you will find a host of cheerful, multilingual souls who make a living with being helpful to everybody around. If you don't need help, decline politely. If you do need help, prepare to pay a service fee. I will talk about these guys later on, but first let's talk about the normal procedure.
Just fill in the form, add your photo, pay the fee and take a rest for around 10 minutes. Get through customs, stamp your visa, walk around the building, show them your invitation letter and stamp out of the country again. It is perfectly legal to do that, however officials don't like it much. Who cares.
You walk back and into the warehouse again from the other side. To the right you see a police station. Give them the photo, passport, invitation letter and pay the visa fee. Depending on your type of visa, it starts at 25 USD. Wait until they finished and then stamp into Vietnam again.
Depending on what bus you used to come here you get either picked up behind the building (Sorya busline) right where you walk out, or you walk to the official bus station opposite of there line 703 let you off. It's where they sell tons of rice paper salad and stuff. If you are into rice paper, just try it - this region is famous for it. Hop on the bus and go home.
I am pretty sure the guy did not give me the exit stamp last time because I lacked convincing power. Since this convincing method is not only illegal in Southeast Asia, but technically you can be dragged to court by your own government upon return to your own country, I advise not to participate in it. Also, as soon as people realise that you are a convincing type, they all want to be convinced.
For good measure however I have to write down that some processes can be sped up by a symbol of goodwill. Otherwise the guy will leaf through your passport until his fingers fall off. Or, as I experienced one day, until a full bus of tourists arrives and the mass of people put him under pressure... Nudge nudge. You see, I am not the convincing type either, rather the patient one who smiles and waits, pretending to speak only his own mountain dialect.
If something goes really wrong and you are stuck, don't cut your veins in despair yet. The helpful guys lingering around know all about the procedures, the people and the methods of convincing. That's why I said decline politely. For a fee they even do the paperwork for you and guide you through the whole process, even riding you on their motorbikes. Since technically the land between the border posts belongs to nobody, also the helmet law is not in effect. Not that anyone would care about it anyway.
However (there are many howevers here) the whole procedure can get pretty pricey when they guys need to help you. They are only able to work under these conditions by being able to juggle the powers of convincing.
As a European I am used to strict and next to unbendable rules when it comes to visa and border crossings. In the past we had to convince the border guards on our way to Hungary or the Czech Republic, Czechoslovakia back then, when travelling. Stuff changed a lot I believe. The convincing in Europe takes place on a much higher levels. Oh, it is there. More than ever, just normal people like you and me won't see it anymore.
In Southeast Asia however, everything is still developing and every border run, like every other encounter with official entities, may result in a completely different experience. My own border runs are the perfect example. Sometimes they go smooth like the waters of the Fairy Stream, sometimes they are quite chaotic. Soon I hope I won't need these runs anymore, but until then... Well, you gotta live with it.
Few agencies in the city have the knowledge and power to offer a fully serviced visa run - at a price of course. Included is the invitation letter, they pick you up at your hotel in Ben Thanh ward D1 with a van, drive you to the border, guide you through the whole process and drop you off at D1 again. Every fee that may and will occur is already included. While this procedure may be more expensive than going on your own, it also spares you a lot of headache.
Actually my last visa run before I got the very much appreciated resident card I did with this service and it was much more convenient than haggling your way through the mess at the border. So if you have a chance to take one of these runs, I recommend it for your poor, itchy nerves' sake.
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