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XXXIV: Visa Run!

The most expensive purchase so far!

sunny 39 °C
View RTW 2013 on WorldWideWill's travel map.

WorldWideWill's Quick Guide to Vietnam Visas:

Getting a visa for Vietnam is a fairly straightforward, albeit ridiculously expensive, process. There is no 'visa on arrival' option for Vietnam, so you must have either a valid visa or letter of visa approval before you cross the border. This can be done in four ways, take your pick (any prices are as of May 2013 and WILL CHANGE)!

1) Send your passport to the Vietnamese Embassy at home before you go [$40-$70]

Pro: very simple; no need to worry about it while you are travelling; can often be cheaper; visa issued within 3-4 working days
Con: you must set your arrival date into Vietnam and cannot change the visa start date (for free); pay recorded postage both ways to the embassy (unless you go in person)

2) Apply for visa approval online (only for flights into Vietnam, not for land crossings) [$55 - $100]

Pro: quick and easy; can be done any time and from anywhere with wifi (no need to be in a city with an embassy); no need to be separated from your passport; in advance it can work out cheaper
Con: there are hundreds of websites offering the service at different prices, you need to find one that is legitimate (use recommendations from travellers); if done last minute it can get very expensive to pay for the "rush" service, up to $50; no visa is issued, only an approval letter - you must wait for this to be emailed to you, print it out and present it at the airport before boarding your flight to Vietnam; on arrival you have to queue up at the visa desk to have a visa issued to you (an extra $45 stamping charge), and then queue again for passport control

3) Arrange your visa through your hotel [$45-$60]

Pro: efficient service; can be very cheap in some countries (e.g. Cambodia if the passport is sent to Sihanoukville); you can carry on with your trip while you wait; you are issued with a visa within 2-3 days; no waiting for approval emails
Con: you're trusting your passport with a stranger; you may end up paying over the odds for the transport costs depending on how many passports they can collect

4) Apply in person at the Vietnamese Embassy/Consulate [$60 + $10 for on-the-spot processing]

Pro: stress free, official processing; visa can be issued on the spot if needed immediately (for a fee); no processing or stamping fees; no waiting for approval emails; good place to meet other travellers!
Con: you need to get to the place, not always easy (especially in big cities); price changes are not advertised on their website - visa price went up from $45 to $60 in January 2013

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The Vietnamese Consulate Office in Phnom Penh opens at 8.30am on weekdays, and I had decided to get my visa issued in person purely for convenience and a reluctance to entrust my passport to our receptionist! I was up and fed by 8 and started the 4km journey from hotel to visa office on foot to avoid tourist-inflated tuk-tuk fares. My web research told me that I would need $45 for the visa and another $10 for express processing, and I had $10 plus a slightly torn $50 bill that had come out of an ATM in Siem Reap and been flatly refused as legitimate tender at every hotel and restaurant (the Cambodians will only deal in pristine US dollar notes, no rips allowed). I managed to change the $50 at the bank but the ATM wanted to charge a 'hefty' 1.5% withdrawal fee so I stuck with my 60 bucks and planned to find a Canadia Bank later (the only bank whose ATMs are charge-free). For the first time I accepted a streetside offer of a motorbike taxi ride and we agreed a $2 fare, though he seemed a little unsure of the address. It took a good 15 minutes to get there, and my knuckles were bright white from clinging onto the back of the bike for dear life as we weaved in and out of Phnom Penh traffic. Great fun though!

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The driver offered to wait outside but not knowing how long it would take I sent him away after paying him and went inside to fill out the application form. I found out that they could turn it round in 5 minutes for the $10 fee (I was one of just two people in the office), but of course that would have been too easy - a homemade sign next to the desk ruined my morning, stating that the visa price had gone up from January to $60. My argument about the out-of-date prices on their website fell on deaf ears and I was directed to the nearest ATM to make up the $10 deficit in my funds. A five minute walk brought me to the traveller's worst ATM: ANZ Royal. Infamous (to me at least) for charging super high fees, I always avoid them like the plague. This one wanted to charge a flat fee of $5! I couldn't stomach it, particularly as I had a secret mission to spend less than Felix had on his online visa process and a $5 ATM charge would have been counted by the judges. So a standard Will mission unfolded as I walked and walked through the blinding heat looking for a free or at least cheap ATM. I tried and abandoned six in all, the last of which was attached to a money exchange. Thankfully I still had a 1,000 Thai baht note in my money belt, and the lovely lady in the air conditioned office politely ignored me dripping all over her kiosk and gave me $32 - an incredible rate for Cambodia! For some drama-loving reason I decided to jog the mile and a half back to the visa office and five minutes later I had my lovely new visa.

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$70 lighter I walked outside to find a ride back, adamant that I would spend no more than $2 (to keep the total outlay under the suspected $75 that I thought Felix had spent!). A tuk-tuk driver agreed to take me as far as the Royal Palace for my money, but not without several attempts to convince me that he could drop me at my hotel and wait for me to get some more cash out for him! I walked back to the hotel and met up with Felix, then booked onto tomorrow's flight to Hanoi for a slightly inflated last-minute fare of $200. I had originally planned to cross into Vietnam overland between Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City, but I was enjoying travelling with Felix and as he only had 5 days in Vietnam (an expensive stay considering the visa price!) he was keen to see Hanoi and Halong Bay and I was happy to do Vietnam from North to South. As I was booking, F received his letter of approval and we both breathed a sigh of relief.

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With everything so expensive, and now with a firm departure sorted we saw no reason to spend unnecessary money on lunch and walked back down for our 'usual' at Happy Herb. We met our favourite tech-savvy kids again, and enjoyed watching the girl beating the boy over the head with a water bottle when he claimed she was his girlfriend! The burger and beer combo was good enough and cheap enough to buy two but we wanted to squeeze a little more culture into our stay and walked down the street to the National Museum. On the way we passed a naked baby lying on the pavement (we had seen it being washed the day before in a roadside puddle) - the mother was a few yards down the street tending to her 'legit' Lonely Planet guidebook stall!

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The museum was more expensive than we'd bargained for - $5 - and was so small that we managed the circuit in under half an hour at a leisurely pace. We had a rest in the courtyard watching the obese koi carp bobbing around in the ponds, then took a detour through the local market back to the hotel. I'll describe this experience in tomorrow's entry - it needed to be revisited and photographed.

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We rewarded ourselves for our visa success with a mango ice lolly on the roof and an iced tea in the pool, something that Cambodians haven't quite got right - a tea bag dipped in iced water... We'd had such a good experience at Friends last night that we wanted to try out their sister restaurant, Romdeng, a little further from the river. As we left the hotel I was asked by two forlorn looking Brit girls if there were many English people staying here. I jokingly asked if she was trying to avoid them and reassured her that it was largely Indian and she looked crestfallen! I don't understand people that come travelling, eat Western food and crave company from their own nationality - I pointed her towards the cockroach inn next door.

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Romdeng was outstanding. It's in a lovely setting, a beautiful French style building with a huge balcony overlooking the leafy courtyard below. The only drawback was their fame for 'crispy spiders' on the menu, and we were presented with one of the poor things (a rather large, though tame, black tarantula) which sat nervously still in Felix's hand until our food arrived. Seven years of chivalry in saving Lucy from house spiders still haven't completely eradicated my childhood arachnophobia so I sat on my hands a safe distance away, and then watched as F handed it over to a petrified waitress! The food was amazing and wonderfully presented, I had been eager to try the traditional 'amok' curry and my pumpkin, bean curd and mushroom amok came in a banana leaf bowl. We made the mistake of having a dessert each, and three giant crispy rice flake banana dumplings with palm sugar syrup nearly finished me off!

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Our walk back towards Friends brought us into the backpacker territory and PP's equivalent of Pub Street. It was good to see that we had chosen the quieter street to stay, and we picked up pace at the first sight of drunken Westerners. Felix bought a handmade 'magic wallet' from the Friends & Stuff charity shop next to their tapas restaurant though we ended the night on a bit of low as we wandered past the overflowing bins and even an old woman rummaging through the rubbish outside our hotel.

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Back at the hotel with mixed emotions about the city outside (the food was worth a lot of points) I couldn't resist a picture of the in-house rules on our wall - sums it up nicely I think.

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Posted by WorldWideWill 14:31 Archived in Cambodia

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