I have avoided writing about this for a few reasons. First is that I didn’t want my family to panic, and when you read about what I went through, you will understand why. Second, I wasn’t sure what the Vietnamese government would say, or do, if this story was online; many things here are known, but not acknowledged.
Because Christmas isn’t a huge thing in Vietnam, it isn’t hugely recognized, but because the foreign population would practically have a revolution if they didn’t get a Christmas holiday, most places give a Christmas holiday to westerners. Some, like my girlfriend's school are a bit more generous with vacation time, and some, like mine, are more…conservative with their holiday allocation. With just over a week of free time, we decided to go to Cambodia. But, to fly into Cambodia is pretty expensive, so we chose to fly from Hanoi, to Ho Chi Minh City in the south. From there we planned on taking a bus with some friends of ours, across the border to Phnom Penh. When you fly with JetStar, few things are a guarantee, but time and time again they will be late. And you know that if they are not late, or delayed, your flight has just been cancelled without your knowledge. In some very rare cases they will leave early. This happened to two friends of ours while they were trying to get back to Hanoi. They arrived at the airport to be informed that the flight had left 45 minutes early, and they would have to fly back the next day. Customer service.
I say all this so you understand my frame of mind after working a full day with and talking to rude taxi drivers. I knew our flight would be late- that was a given- it just meant that we didn’t leave Hanoi until about 10:45 at night. We landed at just past 12:45, so we actually left the airport in HCMC at about 1:00. After arriving at our hotel, we were informed that they had, in fact, moved us to a different hotel of theirs, a couple blocks away. Sure. I really don’t care at this point. So, by 1:30-1:45 we arrive at our other room. They had the audacity to upgrade us to the deluxe room. How nice of them; we were only going to be spending a few hours there anyway, as our bus left the next morning at 7:30. As I’m getting into bed the phone rings.
“Sir, do you have the newest copy of your visa?” the voice asks.
“yes…it is in my passport, which I’m sure is in your hand”. I was quite confused, and very tired.
“Sir, your last visa in here is expired. You cannot stay here tonight.”
“Well that’s not good” I figured that it was expired by a few days. Truth be told, I planned it that way. Every day you overstay your visa is $5 USD, but I planned on overstaying about 3 days, and this would mean it would be much more expensive to buy a new visa, seeing as I was going to be leaving the country.
“Can we just deal with this in the morning?”
It was a rough sleep that night, because I wasn’t entirely sure that the lady downstairs wasn’t going to call the police. Anyway, after about 4 hours of sleep we went downstairs, checked out, grabbed my passport, and looked at my visa. What I saw was not good. My visa had been expired for 2 months…for those of you not good at math, like me, 2 months is not 3 days.
Now, I was slightly panicked. As far as I know, the longest you can overstay your visa is 15 days (also not 2 months). But, nonetheless I was boarding a bus that was hurling me towards the people I was now hoping to avoid. Confrontation was inevitable. In those moments of fear and panic you grasp onto little stands of hope. You tell yourself things like:
“Maybe because I’m on a bus full of tourists they will just fire all the passports though quickly”, or “maybe they won’t even look at them”, as I got off the bus to walk up to passport control there was still that ember of hope inside.
It was extinguished as soon as I heard a woman “Sir, is this your passport?”… I think at this point I should point out that when the Vietnamese are going to tell you something you don’t want to hear, they are going to say “Sir” before. Sort of like an early warning sign.
This woman knew it was my passport so I didn’t need to say anything. Looking up was a confirmation for her. I mean really, she has my picture in front of her, obviously she knows it’s my passport.
“Sir, can you come with me?” She phrased it as a question. I’m not sure why. I resisted the urge to correct her: yes I can come with you, but will I come with you is a different matter.
She led me to a room quite far away from the main area. There was a rusty metal bunk bed in the room, two chairs, and a desk. I sat down. She left. I was worried. I see this military man coming towards me and he is wearing the typical green and red uniform, let’s call him Carl. The whole outfit was intimidating, but it was offset because Carl was wearing flip flops; you can’t be scared of a man in flip flops. There was some discussion in Vietnamese. Then out comes a calculator, and they informed me of the fine: $375 USD, payable in cash. I’m sure Carl, the border patrol man in flip flops ,didn’t take credit cards.
There was a certain amount of relief when I heard about the fine. First, it meant that I wasn’t going to jail. Second, I had $500 USD on me; Carl didn’t know that, or I have a sneaking suspicion that my fine would miraculously be $500. And then I heard something that made me smile. I couldn’t help it. Carl said, “I don’t think it needs to be that much”
I knew what was up. Carl knew what was up. We had an unspoken understanding. I had mentally prepared myself for this moment, because as a Canadian, I don’t have experience in bribing government officials. How do I start? What do I open with? “may we commence the bribing?” seems a bit formal and forward. I was lucky then, that he went first, Carl and his flip flops.
We walked to Carl’s bike and I hopped on the back. We started driving away from the border. It did cross my mind that I was sitting on the back of a motorbike, headed in the wrong direction, no idea where I’m going, and where the bus was. I also wasn’t wearing a helmet.
Done. Money in his hand. But then we kept going. Why? He had his money, and now we should go back. Nope. We went to what I think was the barracks. There was a group of guys playing cards and drinking iced tea.
“sit down please” Carl said as he gestured towards the guys. Okay. They handed me some cards. One of them said “tea?”. Wait…what is happening? Am I still in trouble? Where is Carl? So I sat for a few minutes with a hand of cards, some really refreshing tea, and a group of soldiers. Don’t forget that while all of this is happening a bus full of people are supposed to be waiting for me.
After a few more minutes Carl comes back in and says “Can we go?”. Seriously, Carl? No, I don’t want to leave, I want to finish my hand. Yes, of course I want to leave. So, we jump back on the bike and head, thankfully, towards the border. Now, the bus is gone- where is the bus? I see the same woman from before, she has my bag, and another bike. I jump on the back of her bike, and head off towards the Cambodian border. My passport has been stamped, and I’m free to leave the country….wallet slightly lighter of course.