The immigration officer couldn’t stop laughing for five minutes whilst my eyes were full of tears.
“I’m serious!” I claimed.
“Don’t worry! Vietnamese are very friendly!” She said.
“To Koreans?” I asked.
“No, to everyone! Don’t worry! You’ll be fine!” She answered.
“So, I won’t go to jail?”
This is the answer I got at the end of 573 km trip in one day.
Jail? For what you might ask.
Okay, here’s the whole story; it starts in Nanning, China. For my month visit to Vietnam, I went to Nanning to buy a Vietnamese visa and cross the border by a bus. As a Korean, I get 15 days free entry but I wanted to stay a month. My hostel in Nanning was supposed to take care of the visa business for me. However, the consulate wanted a flight number for my visa because I requested ‘unusually’ long permission. The hostel wanted me to go to the embassy by myself, but I knew if I went, I would return without gaining anything. I predicted this based on my countless number of encounters with Chinese bureaucracy. So I decided to extend my visa while in Vietnam.
I entered Vietnam without a visa on 22 April and got a stamp for 06 May: 15 days.
In Hue, Vietnam, when I was trying to extend my visa; it was a national holiday. The next destination: Hoi An. Everyone said ‘Yes, you can do it in Hoi An. It will take 2 or 3 days. Don’t worry!’
Okay, so there I was in Hoi An, at a nice homestay. I asked about the visa extension and apparently, it’s only possible in Da Nang, 25 km away from Hoi An. After an hour bus ride, I arrived at 4:15pm, just before the office was about to close.
“Where’s your invitation?”
The immigration officer wouldn’t allow me to fill out the form because I didn’t have an invitation. Based on her explanation; travelers cannot travel Vietnam alone. They have to have an invitation from a Vietnamese tour company in case of some accident might happen. And this is the law. To this day, I’ve never heard of the requirement of invitation to travel to Vietnam. Have you?
Long story short, I had to go on a border run to the Vietnamese border town of Lao Bao. I really didn’t want to, but I had to. I didn’t want to take a chance of overstaying my visa. I honestly thought they could put me in a jail for it.
The itinerary I was looking at was:
Hoi An – Hue, Hue – Lao Bao, Lao Bao – Hue, Hue – Da Nang, Da Nang – Hoi An
Total: 573 km.
Saturday, 05 May: I took a bus to Hue at 2:00 pm. (130km)
Sunday, 06 May: I took a bus to Lao Bao at 6:30 am. (161km)
I arrived at Lao Bao around 10:30am. No problem at the exit counter. I paid 20,000 Dong for something and got an exit stamp. The Laos entry office was quite far from where I stood. Maybe it wasn’t too far but it was quite a distance by foot and the weather was just too hot. Technically, I didn’t need to go Laos to renew my visa; all I needed was an exit stamp from Vietnam. So, I walked around the Vietnamese custom office and went to the entry counter on the opposite side.
The immigration officer gave me until 20 May 2012.
“Excuse me… I’m sorry but could you give me two more days? My flight is on 22 May.”
And he called the other officer who could speak English.
“Show me your itinerary.” He said.
A little hope; he was willing to listen to me. So I pulled out the itinerary from my backpack and showed it to him, but he was impatient; he was gone already. A female officer offered her help. I explained the situation to her, thoroughly.
“Sorry, I really want to, but I can’t. It’s the law.”
I started explaining to her what I’ve been through. How I couldn’t even buy the visa, how I got rejected to extend the visa, how I’m a good person and I just want to travel in your country for two more days. My eyes were full of tears whilst I made my case; it was unfair that I had to go through this much trouble.
“It’s okay, it’s okay. I’m sorry, it’s the law. I really can’t.”
She came out from her booth to talk to me. I explained everything once again.
“Two days is okay. You maybe have to pay the fine, but it’s okay. You’ll be okay.”
I wasn’t sure what was okay. So I popped the question: “So, they won’t put me in jail?”
She couldn’t understand the word ‘jail’.
“Jail. Prison? Bars. Prison. Jail.” I made the gesture of handcuff. And then she goes.:
“Jail? Oh, jail. Ahahahahahaha-!!!!”
She just couldn’t stop laughing. And she told the story to all of her coworkers at the immigration office. Oh well, at least I made them laugh.
Sunday, 06 May: I got a stamp that’s good until 20 May. I caught a minibus to Dong Ha. (81km) Changed the bus to Hue (71km) and after a two hour search, I finally was able to catch a minibus to Da Nang, and it was packed like sardines, seriously. (99km). From Da Nang, I got a local bus to Hoi An (31km).
I arrived in Hoi An at 7:30pm.
So, I traveled 573 km in 29 hours. Five buses, two motorbike taxies, one taxi and one bike ride home sitting on the back. It was a hell of a journey and still I didn’t get what I needed. But at least I’m valid for another 15 days. And hopefully, like the lady said, they won’t put me in a jail for overstaying two days. Or maybe another border run to Cambodia? Maybe not.
Wish me luck!