Vote Charlie!

Vietnam without a Visa

Posted at age 26.

This past week has been largely an effort to get as much work done as possible, partly catching up from traveling to South Korea, and then in preparation for my trip to Vietnam. Punctuating this work week was the biggest gay party in Japan (Asia?), at (where else?) AgeHa. After enjoying my first time there with Taka, but drinking too much to remember everything, I wanted to do better this time. And I did, but this blog post isn’t about that. :-P Here are a few photos from it though:


This is how we pregame in Japan. Not at home, but outside the venue.


The line for Shangri-La at AgeHa in Tokyo


The line for Shangri-La at AgeHa in Tokyo


Shangri-La at AgeHa in Tokyo


Shangri-La at AgeHa in Tokyo


Time to go! Shangri-La at AgeHa in Tokyo

Anyway, yesterday I had to go to the office because Monday was a holiday and this would be the only time I could see my supervisor, Yuji, before I left. He had unexpectedly returned home from the United States a few weeks early, so I wanted to hear if anything crazy happened. I’m still not sure why the plans changed, but I guess everything is OK.

So I worked on Six Apart business all day, though I intended to split my day between jobs. I went home after 7, intending to work on my blogs, but after preparing food and cleaning up, I was getting tired, and I also had to prepare for a conference call at 11 p.m. with a 601am client regarding probably the most complicated project I’ve ever worked on. So, blogging didn’t happen, but I did start packing a bit before the call. By midnight, I was able to resume packing, chatting with Max on Whatsapp about what kind of clothing I should bring.

I settled on bringing only sandals and no shoes, no long sleeve shirts, one pair of pants (per Max’s advice, not per my instinct looking at the forecast) and a rain coat. I also brought my new Osprey Talon 4 dual water bottle trail running belt, hoping to squeeze in a few runs, including a long one this weekend.

By 2 a.m., thanks to some TED talks, I was finally mostly packed. At this point I realized I was out of my mind when I set my alarm for 8:10 a.m. My flight was to take off at 9:30, and the train to Narita takes almost two hours. I don’t know what I was thinking originally, but now I realized I must wake up at 5:50. Ugh. So I went to bed, but couldn’t fall asleep right away of course.

Come morning, I woke up on my own to bright sun, and feared I missed the alarm somehow. I climbed down my lofted bed ladder and checked the phone, and saw it was only 5:30. I knew better than to try to sleep more, and also realized then I had to eat the food I made last night, which I didn’t take into account when determining the 5:50 alarm. Anyway, I ate and showered and headed out the door.

I made it to the Shinjuku line station near my apartment on time (a first), and successfully connected to the correct limited express train to Narita Airport on the Keisei Sky Access line. This is the first time everything went smoothly with my trains to the airport, and for that I am very thankful. Because…

Twenty minutes before arriving at the airport, I had a horrible realization: I forgot to get a visa for Vietnam. I had researched it previously, and noted I needed to obtain a letter of permission from an agency, which I could do online, at least several days before my trip. I decided to worry about this after returning from South Korea, but clearly that was misguided. At least I should have set a reminder in my calendar!

Anyway, I kept my cool and immediately did some research, first to verify I did need a visa and the letter, and second, to try to find accounts of people who had forgotten to do so. All I could find was websites of agencies with FAQs claiming you absolutely need the letter first. I did find a few stories of people who had gotten the letters but had forgotten to bring two passport sized photos (oh, great, another thing I need!), but no one in my exact situation that I found after five minutes of Googling.

I found a few agency websites for rush services saying to call them, but my data only Japanese SIM card would not help me there. Then I found one site that claimed to have a 30 minute turnaround. I doubted it would work, but it had an inviting green button to press, so I signed up. After a few simple screens and after entering my credit card and passport numbers, I was informed I would be charged $200 for the rush service. Better than canceling the trip, so I proceeded. At the final checkout screen, it said only $68, which was odd, but whatever. I completed the process, immediately received some confirmation e-mails, and was told to wait 30 minutes for the letter to arrive.

Dear Charles Gorichanaz,
Thanks for choosing - Member of ST Travel Limited.
* This is confirmation from us to show that you are successful to apply visa to Vietnam. We will send you the visa letter in 30 minutes from now via email
* Please print out the pre-approved letter as we will send you by email & 2 pieces of your picture 4x6cm for boarding the airplane and pick up your visa at Vietnam airports when you arrive. You will see Landing Visa sign and please come to Landing Visa Counter for pick up your visa.
* You must pay in Cash ( USD) for the stamp fee for collecting your visa visa sticker: 45USD for single entry visa or 65USD for 1 multiple entries visa or 95USD for 3 months multiple entries visa.

* Please noted: This email is not Vietnam visa approval letter, we will send you the visa letter in next email. Make sure that you have check your email to get Vietnam visa letter. We will not response for any case if you forget to print the visa letter.

Please double check that all information provided is correct as in your passport. Any changes required after approved will incur additional charges.

Apply Visa Information Details

Passport detail of Applications
NameBirthdayGenderNationalityPassportDate of arrivalVisa TypeVisa fee
Charles Nicholas GorichanazJun/02/1988maleUnited StatesXXXXXXXXXJul/23/20141ms*19
Total Visa Fees: $19

1ms*: Vietnam Visa on Arrival - 1 month Single

Information for Visa
Date of arrival:Jul/23/2014
Date of exit:Aug/05/2014
Port of arrival:Saigon or Hochiminh
Number of applicants:1
Service fee:$19
Processing (Super Urgent ) : $49 x 1: $49
Total amount for service charge:$68
Contact information
Phone number: 1267777XXXX
Extra Information:flight number: VN301 and arrival time: 1330
Special Request:Email only, phone doesn’t work here in Japan
OneVietnamVisa.Com Limited - Member of ST Travel Limited.
Add: 184 Le Van Sy, Phu Nhuan District, HCM city, Vietnam.
Tell: +84 908 246 047
Hotline: +84 933 597 360

After about 10 minutes, I got an e-mail asking me to urgently verify my current location and flight info, which I did, and then replied and kept waiting. Sure enough, shortly thereafter I had my letter. The e-mail said to use it to board the plane, but not to use it at immigration. I was to locate someone who would be holding a sign with my name, and they would assist me further.

One Vietnam Visa

One Vietnam Visa

Next I endured a bit of a hassle of trying to find somewhere to print the letter at the airport. Information told me to go to the business center upstairs, but the business person did not speak English. She understood I wanted to print, but I could not access my e-mail for some reason. I suspected there was a difference with some of the apparently familiar characters on the keyboard, as I tried logging in to several different e-mail accounts, and I kept getting wrong password messages. Eventually they gave me an e-mail to send the documents to, and after initially failing to log in with their account as well, I discovered the underscore was the wrong length. At long last, I got the letter printed and rushed over to the check in. She agent spent a few minutes reviewing the letter and my passport, but she finally decided it was legitimate and issued my ticket. Phew!

So I made it to the plane 10 minutes after the initial boarding time, but as luck would have it, a few minutes before the new (delayed) boarding time. I got on the plane without hassle, watched as most of the seats did not fill up (extra stretching space!) and thought about doing some work. As the plane pulled out of the gate and then began to move away, the Japanese ground staff were waving at the plane, and then gave a final, deep bow.


At Narita Airport, waiting to fly to Vietnam!

Hopefully all goes well when I land, but I’ll let you know later!


Life in the clouds


The first thing I did when I got my airplane food was lick the sauce off the lid, which was clearly a bad idea, considering it is metal and the edges of the steam vent are very sharp!


I suspected I was bleeding, but couldn’t feel anything, so I took a photo to see.


My lovely meal on Vietnam Airlines

I didn’t get as much done on the flight as I wanted, but I did catch up on sleep! I woke up in the final hour of the 5.5 hour flight, took a few photos of the clouds, and awaited landing. Upon arrival, we deplaned onto a stairway and boarded a bus to take us to the terminal.


Saigon, Vietnam, has people who live in the water apparently. There are little boats docked around some of the houses.


Saigon, Vietnam.


Saigon, Vietnam.


Deboarding the plane at Saigon, Vietnam.

Per the instructions in the e-mail, I went to the transfer area, but it ended up being the same place as the arrivals area. I didn’t see anyone holding signs at all, much less one with my name, and I wandered for a minute. I saw a landing visa area with a bunch of people waiting around, so I walked there, but still didn’t see anyone. Then I noticed back where people were entering the area a man about my age holding a sign, and sure enough, it had my name on it. I walked up to him, and he made an expression implying, “You must have been first off the plane, and I just got here a second too late.”

One Vietnam Visa

He took my passport immediately and then went to a window to talk to the landing visa people

Anyway, he took my passport immediately and then went to a window to talk to the landing visa people, who also were mostly my age, it appeared. He came back with a paper and told me to write my name, date of birth and hotel. I told him I was staying with a friend in a different city, and he said to just write any hotel, as if I should know what a real hotel name in Ho Chi Minh would even look like. I looked at him incredulously, and he nodded and took the paper. Then he went to a booth and presumably wrote a hotel, went back to the window, and then asked me to stand by the wall. He took my photo with a handheld digital camera – I had also not brought two passport photos as I was supposed to, but they will do it for $5, less than I’d pay for those passport photos – and told me to wait more. Then he came over and asked for $50, which was legit, as the signs said $45, and I read online they charge $5 to 10 for the photo. Then he went back to the window and came back with my passport, yielding a fresh single entry Vietnam visa. The man then told me to go stand in the line, and I said thanks.

Now for the moment of truth. I picked a line with a young boy working the desk, waited five minutes, and then gave him my passport. I observed his sparse desk featuring a decade old home brewed desktop computer with some missing slot covers on the back. The blueish desk surface clearly has a history of use as a passport stamp testing surface. Then two other immigration officers (all younger than 25) came into his booth for some reason, apparently unprompted, since I didn’t observe my dude call anybody. But then one of them gave me my passport and said thanks. Phew x2!


The arrival greeting area

It took me a while to find out where to get on the next flight, as all the signs said exit and arrivals and I saw no departures sign. I asked a woman, and she directed me to go outside, turn right and look around. Sure enough, departures, but it turned out to be international, I think. I just had to walk to the next building down, and found the domestic departures area. Overall, things went pretty smoothly!

Now I am awaiting boarding time for my final flight to Hue, where hopefully I will meet Max, but I can’t find free WiFi here to confirm with him I made it past immigration. We shall see!


Waiting for my flight to Hue, I sat near this family of five, all of whom were reading books! A sight I haven’t seen in many years.

Shortly before boarding time, I heard intense rain hitting the airport roof, but thankfully it lightened a bit and apparently wasn’t going to be a problem for the flight.


We took a bus to the plane in the rain.

That short flight went fine, and featured a cute, almost certainly gay, flight attendant named Trung Nguyen who served me some water in a paper cup with a “Trung Nguyen” beer logo on it. How funny. Upon landing, we did the bus transfer across the airplane parking lot thing again, and then I prepared myself to try to identify Max.


I looked around for Max, but did not see him. Eventually the entire place cleared out, as I was apparently on the last flight of the day.

Upon first scan, I did not see him. I began to worry I just missed him or didn’t recognize him, but there were not that many people. Trying to play it cool and casual, I walked past again and then got on my phone, looking for WiFi. There were two networks without passwords, but I couldn’t get either one working. I waited around a while, and then eventually went to the cafe to ask for their WiFi password. Thankfully the woman told me without asking for me to buy something first (not that it would have cost much). I texted Max, but he didn’t respond for a while. Eventually he did, and eventually he showed up, on a motorcycle. I did, however, recognize him immediately, so that was good at least. Then we headed to his family’s home!


Having finally found Max, he took me home by motorbike. I guess I assumed we would take a bus or train, heh.

Meeting Max’s family was fine. His parents don’t speak English, but they asked a few questions through Max. Mostly, he talked to them in Vietnamese and didn’t tell me what he was saying. It has been a little bit frustrating not knowing everything that is said, especially when I know it concerns me, but I’m trying to get used to it and not have expectations that will frustrate me.

Then we rested a bit, and I showered. The bathroom was decent, of the “whole room shower” style with both a toilet and a urinal, interestingly. This did make it tough to do anything in there without getting your feet wet, but it wasn’t the end of the world. I was just glad there was a normal (“Western”) toilet.

We went out on the motorcycle again to get some food. Max took me to a woman on the sidewalk making sandwiches for a bunch of people seated around her on these red plastic stools that would become quite familiar to me over the next few days. I hoped to sit on the outskirts so I could sneakily photograph the ordeal, but Max found us two seats smack in the center in front of the woman. I was a little nervous squeezing in there, being the only white person in sight and carrying an expensive camera. I had to get used to it, though.


After tea, we got sandwiches from a street vendor. They cost about $0.50 each.


This is what street vendors in Vietnam look like. They are basically mini restaurants on the sidewalk, complete with chairs and payment upon completion of the meal.

And that was about it for my first evening in Vietnam! I’ll write more later.