Everyone has heard of being denied entry into a foreign country before. It happens for all sorts of reasons. Maybe you didn’t secure the right type of visa or you didn’t provide sufficient proof of onward travel. Well, we somehow managed to turn the tables on that one recently and were actually denied departure from a country. We were told we were not permitted to leave Vietnam at a northern Vietnamese border checkpoint, and so we were effectively kicked INTO the country. The reasoning isn’t that obscure, but the inconvenience it caused is worth the tale in itself.
The story really begins back in Cambodia. We were staying in a town called Kep that is right on the border with Vietnam. Cambodia is full of scammy rip-off travel agencies and one of the many “services” they offer is visa processing for tourists going to Vietnam. Assuming it would be just as much of a ripp-off as everything else the agencies provide, we decided to investigate if there were any other ways to get our visa and cut out the middle man. Our embassy website pointed out that there is a new online (E-visa) program for purchasing and processing Vietnamese visas. It looked like a great deal because the tour agency was charging $55 usd per visa and the online E-visa was only $25. We filled out the paperwork, paid the fee, and waited for the response. We received approval three days later and were able to print out our visas and head to the border.
So this is when I first became aware of a potential problem ahead. I had actually read on the travel.gov website after applying for our visas, that when entering Vietnam, you should make sure you are given a full page sticker visa in your passport and not just the rubber stamp. It implied that some border checkpoints will not honor your visa as a legitimate otherwise. This was not something that could be done at the border checkpoint we arrived at, though. So, despite extensive efforts on my part to communicate what I needed, the mix of Khmer and Vietnamese language barriers did not get us very far. However, I was repeatedly assured that my e-visa and rubber stamp would get me into and out of Vietnam with no problems. So with that we were on our way, stamped out of Cambodia and into Vietnam.
Fast forward 30 days later and we had been in Vietnam for exactly one month. We made our way from that southernmost border with Cambodia all the way to the northernmost border with Laos, which we planned to cross into next. We were staying in a town called Dien Bien, which was the closest we could get to Laos without crossing. It is a very rural village and very far away from Hanoi or any other major city. As we are preparing our things to leave the following morning and cross the border into Laos, I just so happened to click on the border checkpoint on Google Maps and see a troubling review. It was from an individual who was recently denied exit only because he possessed the new E-visa. He said he was not allowed to exit and was subsequently turned away at the border. However, he did say that within his group, those who were on the very last day of their E-visa were still permitted to exit. I guess they would rather let you cross without the proper paperwork than send you back in with an expired visa.
With this new information we knew we had to make a choice. Our Vietnam visas were set to expire in two days so we knew we shouldn’t to go to the border the next day. We also knew that one way or another we had to be out of Vietnam in two days, which left us with few options. We could either get on the very next bus back to Hanoi which was about 17 hours away and fly out of the country, or we could stay an extra day in Dien Bien and try to cross the the next day when our visas would officially be expired. If we played it safe and left right then we would never know if we could have gotten into Laos or not and we would be un-doing the past week’s worth of travel in a matter of one day. On the other hand, if we decided to roll the dice and try to cross the border on the day that our visas expired, we would risk still being denied exit and would then be overstaying our Vietnamese visa, and still having to go back track all the way to Hanoi. Overstaying a Vietnamese tourist visa potentially comes with huge fines and in some cases a stamp in your passport that bars you from being allowed back in after you do leave. After much deliberation, we decide the risk is worth not having to go back, and we waited another day in Dien Bien.
Two days later we awoke at 4:00 am and walked in the rain and drizzle to the bus station. We got seated on a rickety old short school bus and are soon joined by a few other foreigners who are hoping to cross into Laos. The bus drives in the dark up the winding mountain road. It begins to leak heavily through the ceiling because of all the rain. No one is really phased by it though. If you’ve made it this far into Vietnam nothing really surprises you. Everyone is silent as the bus chugs along. We finally arrive at the border around 7am and all the passengers que up inside a seemingly abandoned building. We have to wait for the border agents to come into work for the day…
When the Vietnamese border agents finally arrive, the line gets a little unruly. Another bus has just shown up and, in typical Vietnamese fashion, all of the locals push their way to the front of the line. The driver of the other bus attempts to hand a stack of about 20 passports from a tour group over the heads of everyone in our group who have been waiting in line for an hour. Again, most of us are un-phased by this sort of behavior at this point, but a few French tourists get pretty riled up about it.
When we finally get to the front of the line there is a handmade sign displayed in the window that reads, “Anyone in possession of the new E-visa will not be permitted exit at this port.” The sign then goes on to suggest the next closest border point to enter Laos, which is even further away than the 17 hrs it takes to get to Hanoi. We still push ahead and show the agent our passports. He very politely throws them back through the window and shouts “no!” in our faces and gestures to the sign. I open my passport to show him my stamp and indicate the date of expiration is today. I tell him we will be breaking the law and overstaying our visas if we are not permitted to leave. He spends about 15 minutes typing something into his phone’s translator. Of course when he shows it to us it is just complete gibberish, but I understand the general sentiment of what he is trying to say. N-O- means NO. In a last ditch effort, I call our embassy in Hanoi and ask them what to do. They tell me what I already assumed, and that’s that the decision is ultimately up to the border agent, who rode up late to work on a bicycle this morning and is now smoking cigarettes and licking chicken grease off his fingers outside the building.
We walked out back to the bus and the driver starts yelling at me to go through to the other side of the border where he will pick us up with the rest. I tell him in fluent Vietnamese, “us…NO…Laos….” In a gesture was in itself symbolic of this whole experience, he gets out his clipboard, finds our names, crosses them out with two quick swipes of his pen, and then drives away. So there we stand, on the wrong side of the Laos-Vietnam border, with our bags and expired visas. We both know what plan B means and it certainly isn’t pretty. We now have to get the heck out of Vietnam as soon as possible and we are literally in the furthest possible corner from making that happen. Step one is just getting back where we started our morning, Dien Bien.
It is 2 hours waiting at the deserted border crossing before a bus finally comes through going the other way. The driver wants almost triple what we paid to get there and when we refuse we are quickly left in the dust. It is another 2 hours waiting before the next bus comes by. This driver proceeds to charges us double we paid to get there, but at this point we are ready to go and reluctantly pay. The driver knows we have no other option and taking advantage of foreigners who are out on their luck is probably a normal part of his day. Our mood comes in sharp contrast to that of all of the other foreigners on this bus. They have all just entered Vietnam for the first time and with no difficulties. Many are curious about why we were picked up on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere just over the Loas border.
We get back to Dien Bien and now know that the quickest way to get out of Vietnam will be to fly out of Hanoi. We had to buy a bus ticket to Hanoi from the same lady who sold us our ticket to Laos. She undoubtedly knows exactly what happened, otherwise she would have been more surprised to see us back. She didn’t dare warn us the first time though and risk losing a ticket sale. The bus to Hanoi won’t leave until 4pm and it is only noon. We have some pho bo across the street and then get a coffee at a shop next door. The bus will arrive in Hanoi at 8am the next morning which means we’ve got about a 16 hr ride ahead of us. Once we are actually on the bus and for sure heading towards Hanoi, we start looking for flights out.
The cheapest option that had us leaving the soonest was to fly to Bangkok at noon the day we arrive in Hanoi. We get off the bus in Hanoi after an excruciatingly long ride and walk down the street to catch the city bus to the airport. We were going to take a cab, but we had some extra time and no matter how defeated you are, it is very hard to shake that budget backpacker mindset once you have it. It takes us about 2.5 hours and one bus change before we are finally at the Hanoi International Airport and checked into our flight. The border patrol agent here notices that our visas are expired by one day and for a moment we are scared. Fortunately, he had no idea what the protocol was for this, so we are promptly waved through and stamped out of Vietnam. Three hours later and we are laying on a rock hard bed in a dirty hotel room in the heart of Bangkok, a city we had previously swore off of just 2 months prior.We started this little endeavor at 4am just 50km away from entering Laos and it ended 30 hours later with us in Bangkok, Thailand. It’s amazing how quick plans can change, but what makes you a good traveler is your ability to roll with the punches. I don’t think we will go back to Laos now. We gave it our all and it didn’t work out. Sometimes it’s best just to make totally new plans instead of trying too hard to make your original plan happen.