Bethy and I are on our way to Thailand to present at the International Association of Dental Research Conference in Da Nang, Vietnam. We are on a panel about “Behavioral Science and Health Sciences,” me to present about Jevaia as a social justice project and Bethy to talk about a system she developed for school-based health care in Cambodia. Between us, let’s call Bethy the scientist. She plans ahead. She calculates things such as time and has an external battery pack with every configuration of port imaginable and a rubberized exterior that could withstand a nuclear attack, and she brings it with her almost everywhere. Bethy is a prepared and organized kind of person. I’m what we could call…the artist. I hit snooze 4 times and borrow chargers from nice people along the way. I don’t travel without chocolate.
We meet in Thailand, the mutual transit point on our respective journeys from Nepal and Cambodia to Vietnam. The next afternoon, at Bethy’s urging we’ve arrived at the airport a solid two hours before our short international flight from Bangkok to Da Nang. How planny of us. As we are checking in, the clerk asks us to display our visas for Vietnam.
We are both surprised. Even the scientist! With our American and New Zeland passports, we thought we could purchase visas on arrival in Vietnam. This is somewhat true, the airline agent tells us. However, there is a new process that requires visitors to submit an online application ahead of time and bring an electronic visa approval to immigration upon landing. Without the approval, we aren’t allowed on plane.
Well then. This is awkward.
The Airline Agent informs us politely that we have 47 minutes before check in closes. I get my phone connected to the WiFi and start googling around for how to apply for a visa to Vietnam. I find a website called Vietnam Visa Online (lovely name, quite to the point) that says this can be done with approval rushed to one hour, for a fee of only $500.
While I’m poking at my phone looking for a less pricey extortion option, Bethy assures the Airline Agent that we’ll definitely have no problem completing the required process in 47 minutes or less. I tap madly at my phone screen, and we decide to go for a rush fee that’s only $100 and might or might not get us the visas in time. I click send. Bethy stalls with the Airline Agent. The check-in line shrinks, I hit refresh on my phone, and by now our window has diminished to 13 minutes.
…Tick tick tick…check in closes.
But not before Bethy casually softens the Airline Agent in to printing out a document that shows we arrived on time, and woos her in to walking us over to another desk where we can stare at my email waiting for the visa approval to arrive on the basis of our $100 rushfee. A new Airline Agent looks delighted that our problem has been moved over to her counter, where I set down my phone and Bethy and I peer deeply in to its icons. We wait. Airline Agent #2 waits.
An email! Is it our visa approvals? No. It’s a reply stating that due to the fact of today being Saturday, urgent processing isn’t possible. However, we do have an attractive option to pay another $300 to get the visa approval today, or we can certainly wait in Thailand until Monday.
We kind of have no choice but to do the extra-special saturday rush fee, which has been specifically designed, after all, for suckers like us. So we pay the fee, and then the screen freezes, and we can’t tell if we’ve paid $300 or not. I get an email saying that we can call an office in Vietnam with questions. But honestly, who has questions?
Calling Vietnam would be a fine idea except that neither of us has phone cards that work in Thailand, so I ask Airline Agent #2 if she can call the Vietnam Visa Online from a land line. She says the airline has no way to make international calls. “But you’re an airline,” I point out. This doesn’t change anything, since apparently Asia Air actually cannot make an international call to a mysterious Visa processing office in Vietnam. I deduce this because eventually, Airline Agent #2 takes pity on us and gives us her personal cell phone. We call Vietnam Visa Online and induct a fourth person in to our lair of chaos.
Mean time, I still can’t tell whether the payment has gone through on my credit card, and my credit card password isn’t working (or theoretically it’s possible I haven’t used it in a few months and I can’t remember it) so I can’t log in and check. For the next twenty minutes, the clock ticks down to our departure while I toggle between my phone and tablet trying to figure out if I’ve paid the fee, and Bethy toggles between Airline Agent #2 and the newly inducted lady from Vietnam Visa Online, whom we have to keep calling from the Airline Agent #2’s personal cell phone. The voice in Vietnam talks us calmly and assuredly through various steps, which I tap out on my phone, as if we are diffusing a bomb.
Eventually, all three of us–Airline Agent #2 is all in now—are leaning anxiously over my phone, hitting refresh, waiting for the document with our visa approval to show up from the Helpful Voice in Vietnam. Whose name turns out to be Selina.
Is it there?
How about now?
We may have to carry on our bags.
…Should we call again?
……Is it there yet?
……..How about now??
The email arrives. All three of us bounce up from my tablet screen and give a shout. Airline Agent #2 triumphantly passes our boarding passes over the counter and we run to the gate. I won’t see it until we’ve already arrived in Vietnam, but another email has popped up from Selina at Vietnam Visa Online. It is highlighted in an alarming fluorescent yellow the color of a radioactive duck.
HAVE YOU RECIEVED YOUR VISA YET? IS EVERYTHING OKAY NOW? PLEASE ADVISE!
I write Selina back after we land in Da Nang.
We are here in Vietnam and everything is fine! I didn’t get your mail until we landed. Thank you for all your help today!
We’re aware that it would be responsible, at this stage, to be upset about the insane amount of money our visas just cost, but instead we are delighted with the exchanges of the day, the managing and wooing and reassuring and eventual co-conquership with strangers of our last-minute visas. In fact, we were so irresponsibly pleased by this accomplishment that Airline Agent #2 didn’t even seem bothered when I wanted to take our picture, regardless of the fact that we were holding up an otherwise orderly process of reasonable people getting on a flight from Bangkok to Da Nang.
And we were able to recharge our tired devices on the fly.
I was sweating right along with you! Well told. (You always make me laugh.)
And don’t you just love how our brains not only accept but feel proud of such a workaround on the day of travel, but if given that pricey option well in advance, we would balk big-time? I recently forked over several hundred dollars in Ethiopia for a better seat (after seeing what I had actually paid for), but I had categorically refused to pay that upcharge a few months earlier in the planning stage. Glad things worked out for you!
Ha, thank you! It was a bit hairy but it worked out, plus we made a new pal in the airport 😉 it is amazing how ones sense of what’s “reasonable in the big scheme of things” changes when faced with severely boggled travel plans!
Had this happen to my wife when we were heading back into Vietnam. We knew we needed visa’s but the one provided by her work wasn’t valid. Cue the same frantic calling, being informed of the $500 fee and its near impossible chance(because it was Sunday). In the end we just booked new flights and new hotels and enjoyed a longer vacation in Bangkok.
it is strangely reassuring to know that this happened to other people also! Our vacation was starting in Vietnam (plus there was a conference) so….we just shelled out 🙂
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You had me on the edge of my seat with this story! So glad it all worked out. You have a great gift for writing! Thanks so much for sharing an almost-disaster that most of us will probably have some day. So thankful that you had such helpful and understanding airline agents. There are still great people in this world!