“Please come this way.”
The young immigration officer ushered me towards an open door, his immaculately-polished shoes squeaking slightly on the waxed airport floor.
“Is there a problem?” I asked, as innocently as possible.
“Maybe. Maybe not.” The officer’s face gave nothing away, but I already suspected that my afternoon was about to get a whole lot worse.
A few minutes later, it did.
It all started when I’d arrived in Ho Chi Minh City four weeks earlier, walking across that same polished floor. With the flight landing around dinner time and after the usual hour of lining up for an arrival visa, my mind was set firmly on a cold beer and a steaming hot bowl of pho. It wasn’t until I was in the taxi on the way to my hotel that I happened to open my passport.
“Wait. That’s not right,” I muttered, peering closely at the full-page sticker in the dim light. “It’s only 28 days!”
Vietnamese tourist visas come in four variations – 30 or 90 days, single or multiple entry. I knew that from my last visit less than six months earlier, and had even double-checked both my old visa and the new official approval letter before booking my onward flight. For thirty days after I arrived.
Somebody in that little visa office at the airport had made what would turn out to be a rather costly mistake.
Last time I flew in to Vietnam I got a 30 day visa & stayed 2 weeks. This time I have a flight out in 30 days and got a 28 day visa. Great.
— Dave Dean (@driftingkiwi) May 19, 2013
With a non-transferable ticket, it would have cost several hundred dollars to move my departure date forward a couple of days. Figuring that there had to be a better way, I asked my local friends for suggestions. No matter who I posed the question to, the answer was the same.
Don’t worry about it.
Stories abounded of travellers overstaying by a day or two. Most of the time, they received a dirty look or a stern warning not to do it again. Worst case scenario: an on-the-spot fine of around $25. That was about half the price of a visa extension — and given that my “overstaying” was caused by an error by immigration officials in the first place, the general consensus was that there wouldn’t be a problem at all.
Now, as much as I love Southeast Asia (spoiler: a lot), that affection doesn’t usually extend to border officials. Underpaid and a law unto themselves, rules tend to be flexible to say the least. Fortunately, one of my friends knew someone who knew someone in the immigration department. Contacts are everything, and Vietnam is no exception. If anyone could give me a definite answer, surely they could.
After a few minutes on the phone and plenty of rapid-fire Vietnamese, the answer came back: any more than two days would be a problem, but you’ll be ok. A small fine at best.
If only that had turned out to be true.
I turned up at the airport well ahead of time, with a copy of my visa authorisation letter and around thirty dollars worth of Vietnamese dong in my wallet. Surely that would be enough?
After reading online that it was best to sort out any visa issues before trying to go through passport control, I told my story to the agent at the check-in counter. He also didn’t think there would be a problem, but suggested talking to an officer at a nearby desk just to make sure.
And so it was that I found myself being led through that open door in the immigration hall and ushered into an office. Seated behind the desk was another uniformed official, the stripes on his shoulder confirming what his aura of authority had already suggested: this was the man in charge. On a nearby chair sat an upset backpacker, her red face and exasperated expression telling of a lengthy argument that I’d just interrupted.
Oh great. If she’d been there for a while with no success, my chances of getting out without incident weren’t looking good.
“So why did you overstay your visa?”
With the relaxed expression of someone with power and all the time in the world, the officer leaned back in his seat and gazed at me. “Don’t you know that’s a serious offence?”
“Indeed I do, sir, and I’m very sorry” I replied. “Unfortunately there was a small mistake made when I entered Vietnam, and one of your colleagues accidentally put the wrong date on my visa sticker. See, here’s the authorisation letter, and here’s my previous visa for 30 days, and here’s my current visa for only 28 days. My flight was already booked, and I couldn’t change it, so…..”
My voice trailed off as he pushed himself back from his desk.
“You overstayed your visa,” he snapped. “You need to pay the fine.”
“Even though I should have been given 30 days?”
“That doesn’t matter. When did you find out that the visa had the wrong date?”
“About five minutes after leaving the airport.”
He smirked widely. “You should have checked when you got your passport back. That was your mistake.”
We went back and forwards a little longer, but he wasn’t going to budge. I was going to pay some money to leave this country — the only question now was the amount.
Now it was my turn to stare. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
“Two million dong.”
At approximately $100, this was far more than I’d ever heard of anyone paying for overstaying by a couple of days. Almost certain that the rest of the money was going into the official’s pocket, I protested that the usual rate was 200,000 dong per day.
“The fine went up at the start of the year. Two million dong for up to 15 days, five million after that.”
I asked to see the official memo that outlined the new system. There wasn’t one. I asked if I would get a receipt for paying the fine. Of course I wouldn’t. Was there anyone else I could talk to about this? No.
Pulling out my wallet, I took all the cash I was carrying out and placed it on the desk.
“I don’t have that kind of money. Can I just give you what I have?”
He slowly flicked through the notes — around 600,000 dong and a few dollars in Australian currency — before looking back at me.
“No. You need to pay it all.”
“What happens if I can’t?”, I asked.
“Then you don’t get on your plane.”
Five minutes later, I walked dejectedly back through the immigration hall. After telling the official that I had no more cash, he’d escorted me out the door and pointed towards a distant ATM. “Use your credit card. Get the money out. You need to pay somehow.”
I toyed with the idea of waiting a little while, then trying my luck at passport control anyway. It seemed appealing, but if I’d been sent back to that same official after trying to sneak out without paying, I expected a $100 “fine” would quickly have become the least of my worries.
Grudgingly withdrawing the cash, I returned to the office and handed it over. Placing the large wad of notes into a filing cabinet, the officer asked me to sign a document (in Vietnamese), wrote something in my passport and then broke into a smile for the first time since I’d met him.
“You’re lucky. This is the first time you have overstayed your visa, so you will still be allowed to come back into Vietnam.”
“Thanks”, I replied, “but I think I’ll go somewhere else next time.”
The grin disappeared from his face. “Why?” he asked. “Don’t you like Vietnam?”
I stood up and headed for the door.
“Actually,” I said over my shoulder, “up until an hour ago, it was one of the countries I loved most in the world.”
Have you ever overstayed your visa? What happened when you did?