Obtaining Your Visa to Vietnam
Behind Vietnam's sun-washed beaches, behind its star-spattered tropical nights, behind its exotic and exuberant cities, behind all this lies the bureaucratic paperwork and cold cash of a tourist visa. These days descriptions of the country tend to focus on the fine cuisine, the sultry climate and the ancient culture. They rarely dwell on the prosaic pre-trip process of obtaining a tourist visa, yet this obligatory procedure remains as integral to a trip to Vietnam as a visit to Hoi An or Hue. To put it simply: no visa, no Vietnam.
The good news for Americans is that obtaining a tourist visa for travel in Vietnam remains relatively simple. I found procuring my visa to be quite easy compared to some other visas I've had to obtain. My entry-by-air-only Sudanese visa involved complicated negotiations and false airline tickets; later in my travels I received an issued-upon-arrival Israeli visa that rendered my passport useless in the rest of the Middle East. My Cameroonian visa required bottles of beer for the consulate staff, and my Chinese tourist visa, which I acquired in Japan, came with a truly spectacular price tag. My Polish work visa involved multiple trips to the byzantine corridors of the office; my Japanese work visa required that I first be fingerprinted. When my Sri Lankan tourist visa expired I could not find the requisite officials to renew it and hence became an illegal alien. Not that anyone really cared; the country was paralyzed by a transport strike and not one but two civil wars. Compared to all this, getting a Vietnam visa was a breeze.
I obtained my Vietnam visa from the Embassy of Vietnam in Washington, D.C. I called the visa section and asked them to fax me a visa application form, which they did promptly. You can reach the visa section at 1-202-861-2293 or 1-202-861-0694. They are open Monday through Friday, 9:30-5:30 (Eastern Time), though they sometimes knock off early.
Currently, the Embassy of Vietnam asks that you send two completed copies of the visa application form, your passport, two passport-sized photos and a visa fee of $65 (company check or money order only). Most importantly, you need to send some sort of self-addressed envelope with sufficient return postage. The embassy recommends Federal Express. I used a self-addressed U.S. Postal Service Priority Mail envelope with a $3 stamp. The embassy's mailing address is 1233 Twentieth Street, NW, Suite 400, Washington, D.C., 20036.
With your passport, the embassy will return one of your two visa application forms. You must present this form to the immigration authorities upon your arrival in Vietnam. When I entered the country at Ho Chi Minh City's Tan Son Nhat Airport, I noticed that most of the other westerners going through passport control lacked this crucial piece of paper. Apparently the embassies that had issued their visas had not given them the form. These unlucky travelers had to fill out this paperwork on the spot'fortunately the immigration counter had a stack of blanks for just this eventuality. Less fortunately, each application form required a passport photo, which turned out to be difficult and/or expensive to obtain at the airport. For this reason, if you arrive in Vietnam without your application form, be sure to bring along a spare passport photo. Having said all this, you might not be asked for the form at all; travelers who'd entered Vietnam via Hanoi's Noi Bai Airport told me that nobody had shown any interest in collecting their application forms.
(Traveler's tip: At eight to ten bucks a pair, passport photos in the States are outrageously expensive. If you own a Polaroid camera you can save some cash by taking photos of yourself against a plain white wall and then cropping the photos to passport size. I've used cropped Polaroid portraits for visas from Poland to Laos and never had a problem with them.) The embassy claims to take seven to ten working days to issue a visa. The visa section actually processed my visa in less than a week, but given weekends and mail time, I recommend budgeting at least two weeks for your visa. Should you be pressed for time, however, the embassy can issue a rush visa in four working days for an additional fee.
Tourist visas can be applied for within six months of the date of travel to Vietnam. Each visa is good for a single one-month stay. Double-entry visas can be obtained as well, but require additional itinerary and flight schedule information. Be aware that tourist visas specify the point of entry into Vietnam. For most travelers, this is either the Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City airport. You must state on your application form which airport you will arrive at and this will be stamped into your visa. In other words, while you don't have to buy your ticket before applying for your visa, you do need to know where you will be landing because your visa will only be valid for the airport you specify. Once there, you can change your exit point at any big-city immigration office; it is also possible to extend your visa. Both procedures cost a modest fee and may involve several days' processing time.
Many travelers obtain Vietnam visas in other Southeast Asian countries, particularly Thailand. One advantage of this is that visa prices vary from embassy to embassy, and a tourist visa issued in Bangkok may be cheaper than one issued in Washington, D.C. Visa regulations and processing times can vary as well, so in my opinion, it makes sense to get your visa issued before leaving the States. Doing so leaves you with one less thing to worry about once you're traveling.
Though you might be asked to fill out a short Ministry of Health form upon arrival, they do not currently require proof of any immunization to enter the country. However, you should get the standard package of traveler's immunizations before heading to Southeast Asia. These include typhoid; hepatitis A; polio; tetanus-diptheria; and measles, mumps, rubella (MMR). If you are traveling outside urban areas, malaria pills may be necessary as well. See your physician for details.
Travel insurance is also a good investment. You can get insurance that reimburses you for a trip cut short or canceled; you can also insure the contents of your bags. This may or may not be something you need. The most useful kind of travel insurance reimburses you for health-related expenses overseas, plugs you into a 24-hour international emergency hotline, and most importantly of all, provides for medical evacuation back to the United States. Given the limited medical facilities available in-country, obtaining such coverage makes good sense. For travel insurance, I recommend Travel Assistance International in Washington, D.C. (1-800-821-2828).
The Embassy of Vietnam cautions travelers that all visa regulations are subject to change. What's true now may not be true in six months (and what's true at one entry point may not be true at another). When you call the embassy to request your visa application form, be sure to confirm details like the cost of the visa. Half the fun of travel is that it is unpredictable and it begins with your visa. With a little planning and perseverance, you'll have that magic stamp in your passport and be on your way.
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98-03-11 10:14:48 EST
From: PVeuthey@steds.org (Patrice Veuthey)
Visa fees have changed. Tourist visa has now jumped to $65. But turn around time seems to have improved. Less than a week this time, versus almost three weeks last November. The VN embassy web site has not been updated, but this site has the current data.
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