Border crossing diaster: Cambodia to Vietnam

It’s Friday and today, we’re heading to Vietnam. We rush down breakfast and say goodbye to the FCC Phnom Penh. A minibus takes us to the Giant Ibis Cambodia office, where we transfer to an air-conditioned coach. Once settled into our seats, the attendant gives us a Blue Pumpkin pastry and a Giant Ibis branded bottle of water. He double checks our passports.

We sit in the city’s congestion for well over an hour. As concrete morphs into rice paddies, we pick up speed. I close my eyes and avoid watching vehicles chaotically overtake one another.

At precisely the two-hour mark, we cross a cable stay bridge over the Mekong River and pull into a petrol station. The town’s called Kompung Soeng. Stuffing a note into the clear plastic box outside the toilets, we then compete to get to a cubicle first. The petrol station only has squat toilets, with buckets of water to scoop from and wash down your business once you finish. A communal sink stretches the length of the outdoor cubicles and offers harsh, industrial soap to wash your hands.

The scenery is calming but doesn’t last. Rice paddies and houses on stilts become high-rise casinos with Chinese characters splashed across their entrance. We arrive in the border town of Bivet.

The coach parks and we walk over to the Cambodian border control. My dad and I take out both our passports – one Australian and one British. I will be leaving Cambodia as an Australian and entering Vietnam as British (as the British had a 10 day tourist visa waiver).

I give the Khmer immigration officer my Australian passport and he flips through it. “Other passport?”, he asks. He has obviously dealt with dual citizenship before. He stares at my British passport, turns back to the Australian, stamps it and ushers me to move on.

We are under what appears to be a drive through immigration station, under one huge tin roof. There is an office, but no one is directed to go there. Our coach is waiting at the far end of the drive through.

Once everyone is back on, we drive a short distance to a big duty free complex in ‘no man’s land’ and are instructed to wait there with our luggage – a different coach, with Vietnamese registration, would collect us. Some of our fellow travellers order food in the food court, but we aren’t hungry, nor do we want to buy anything duty free, so we sit and wait.

The new coach is older and decorated with Vietnamese yellow curtains. People coming from Vietnam get out and we swap buses.

We again drive a short distance but this time to the Vietnam border. The Giant Ibis attendant collects our passports and walks into the office building. There is no drive through. We follow him, lugging our bags along with us. He tells us to wait inside in the hall. We have no idea what is happening.

The official finally begins calling up passengers, one by one. My partner is called (he had purchased a Vietnamese visa in Chile). “See you on the other side,” he says, hesitantly. We can see him join the queue just past the immigration booth to have his luggage scanned.

My dad and I are the last ones to be called. At first, we think we should have registered for our visa waiver, but then the real news sinks in. They are denying me entry – I only have five months and two weeks validity left on my British passport and not the required six months. My passport had, effectively, become redundant without me realising.

I can’t use my Australian passport. I don’t have a visa stamped in it and there is zero chance for Australians of buying one at a land crossing. The official isn’t budging, not even for a cheeky bribe. The Giant Ibis attendant is distressed – he had checked my passport at the beginning of the journey, deeming it safe to travel. The Cambodian immigration officer had also missed the error.

I have no choice but to say goodbye to my dad. He will have to tell my partner that I wouldn’t be joining them. I stand there for a while, wondering what to do.

The attendant takes me outside and hails over a motorcycle. I climb on behind the driver with my big travel backpack, my little backpack squeezed in between our two bodies and my bag of gifts filling his front basket. I hold my hat down on my head.

It’s a wobbly ride back to the duty free complex. I pay the driver with my remaining Khmer money and make my walk of shame back into the building. Tears begin to roll down my cheeks. The place is now empty, except for the staff, who look at me with curious expressions.

I log onto the wifi with my iPhone and research what to do. My partner, using the wifi on the Vietnamese coach, is messaging me frantically. I call my friend in Phnom Penh to tell her I would be returning and ask for her help. She doesn’t know what to do – perhaps I would have to spend a few more days in Cambodia to renew my British passport.

[I had tried and failed to renew it when I was in England earlier in the year. There is a spelling mistake in my name which I wanted to correct. Little did I know that because of this, processing would take longer than my actual stay in the country. I had to cancel and it was a fight to get a refund.]

The wifi keeps cutting in and out, but I manage to contact two visa companies. I go with the first one to reply. I can get a visa upon arrival for my Australian passport, but only if I fly into Ho Chi Minh City. The company is going to supply me with an approval letter “to apply for a visa upon arrival at an international airport”. I pay online for their ‘super urgent (4 working hours)’ service. I call from Skype to confirm my request and they assure me I will get my letter before the day’s end.

Next, I try to buy a plane ticket but I can’t connect. Strangely, I have no trouble booking accommodation near the airport. My partner is messaging me again, asking why I’m not replying.

My friend in Phnom Penh calls me back to get a progress report. I also message my friend in Ho Chi Minh City – we were due to stay at her place that night. I tell her that it’ll just be my partner and dad, both whom she’s never met.

I try again to book the flight but my payment is rejected. My eyes flood up, partly from frustration. Two sales assistants come up to me and ask if they can help. I explain my situation – there is nothing they can do. I can tell they feel bad. They return to their colleagues, who nod their heads as they learn of my disaster and steal glances at me with their kind eyes.

I am not ready when the coach arrives. I have to move fast – the new attendant is not as sympathetic to the situation and immediately reprimands me. He is going to have to explain the mistake to the Cambodian officials when I attempt to re-enter the country. I don’t even have time to message everyone that I am leaving.

I’m frustrated with all the little bits of luggage I have. I race them over to the coach and go to get on board but am directed to a little buggy car instead, which takes the attendant and me to the Cambodian border. The attendant takes both my passports and tells me it is likely that I will have to pay USD10 to get my tourist card back. I only have a USD100 note – I’m nervous they will be annoyed. I know that finding change for such a large amount of money in Cambodia is often a burden.

The attendant walks me over to the immigration official that had processed me earlier that day. He’s sitting at a concrete table by his outdoor booth with a group of plain-clothed men, presumably taking a break. He steps aside and discusses the matter with the attendant in Khmer, occasionally looking at me – the silly white girl with blood shot eyes, who should have known better and who has caused this embarrassment.

He goes into the office with the attendant. I’m told to wait outside. There is no wifi and I desperately want to connect to buy my flight and contact my friends, my partner, my dad, someone – so that I don’t feel so alone.

The attendant comes back out and tells me to look for the coach when I’m done. The official comes out with my passport not too long after. They have re-stapled my tourist card inside and crossed out the exit stamp. He doesn’t charge me. I thank him profusely, avoiding eye contact, and then rush to the coach. I pass the attendant on the way, who is smoking out the back of the office. He looks surprised that I have my passport, my lifeline, back so quickly.

The coach is only half full, mostly of foreign, youthful backpackers. We don’t get far. The traffic is gridlocked. Lucky for me, there is wifi on board. My family, now in Vietnam, are trying to get me a flight. I re-read my email from the visa company and it dawns on me that same-day processing for an approval letter is unlikely on Friday after 12pm (I had submitted my request at 2pm). I panic and call the company. Once again, they reassure me that I will get my letter; it will only take another 45 minutes, maximum.

I haven’t eaten and I need to go to the toilet. We are still sitting in traffic – the border crossing still visible behind us. Out of the blue, the coach pulls over onto the side of the road. We are changing vehicles – the attendant tells us we need to change because “the new bus has a Cambodian visa.”

They have parked in mud so we have to dredge our way across to the other coach, which is parked about 100m away. There is nowhere nearby that has a toilet. I position myself towards the back of the new coach and go to check my emails, which has become my obsession. There is no wifi and there won’t be any from then on. I literally go dark.

How did I get myself into this mess? I had had to get so many visas over the past few weeks – when was I supposed to fit in getting another one? I try my best to rest, to listen to a podcast, to avoid thinking about it.

We pull into the same petrol station in Kompung Soeng. I rush to the toilet, beating the others. Afterwards, in the shop, I break my last USD100 note to buy a tube of Pringles and a local sim card. The attendant ushers us back onto the bus – we are already late because of the traffic – but I need to wait for the girl behind the counter to finish setting up my sim card.

I immediately check my phone. There are tons of anxious messages asking if I am OK. The golden email from the visa company catches my eye. I have received my approval letter. A weight lifts from my shoulders. My name is among a list of others – it’s normal process for the Vietnamese Immigration Department to issue only one approval letter for a group of travellers, even if they’re not travelling together.

I call my friend in Phnom Penh using Facebook. I desperately need to find a printer. She offers to meet me at the Giant Ibis office with all the printouts. I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have her help!

I also have a whole lot of messages from my friend in Vietnam, asking where to find my family. I had forgotten to share her number with them. Their coach had been stuck in traffic and was very late. My friend had been waiting for two hours. I scroll further down and am relieved to read they have found each other, despite the crazy rain. Once at her apartment, they had managed to buy a flight for me.

I calm and let the exhaustion envelop me as we slowly make our way to Phnom Penh. It’s past 10pm by the time we arrive. My friend is there. She has come from the hospital nearby because her brother had been in a motorcycle accident a few days prior. She’s going back there as soon as she knows I’m safely in a taxi on my way to the hostel by the airport.

The attendant says something to her in Khmer as he leaves. She informs curious locals of my story. They all want to be involved somehow but she lets them down softly. She insists I eat, so I order vegetables and rice from the deserted restaurant next door. The taxi arrives and waits for me to get my food. I load my friend with gratitude and get into the vehicle. The driver has already started charging me. I’m too tired to argue.

The small hostel is surrounded by a mote of mud. The taxi driver tries to avoid it but can’t. It’s late. I’m not hungry anymore but I force down some of my food. After a cold shower, I fill in the visa application form my friend had printed for me, and set my alarm to 4:30am.

I awake before I need to and stuff everything back into my bag. A tuk-tuk takes me to the airport. It is only about 20 minutes walk away but Phnom Penh can be unsafe in the early hours of the morning and besides, I have too much luggage to carry after such little sleep.

I check into my flight and seamlessly pass through immigration. In the waiting hall, the same man that checked me in approaches me – it turns out that my ticket didn’t include luggage. I need to pay USD85 for excess luggage. I wander around trying to find an ATM to withdraw cash to pay for it. 

The flight is short and there aren’t many people at Ho Chi Minh airport when I arrive. I submit my visa application and letter of approval. I don’t have a passport photo so they take one with their digital compact camera and charge me about 45,000 Dong (USD2). I also pay for the visa using the cash I had exchanged back in Australia.

Success at last! I connect to the airport’s wifi to let everyone know. I’m so relieved. Just before leaving the airport, I buy a local sim card full of data. My bus is already there and I take it all the way to my friend’s apartment. I’m only less than 24 hours late.

I get diarrhoea from the food I had forced down the night before and go to bed early…

 

Travel details

Transport: we took a Giant Ibis coach from Phnom Penh, Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. As I was denied entry into Vietnam via the land border crossing, I flew to Ho Chi Minh City with Cambodian Angkor Air.

Travel time: six hours by coach + traffic time, 45 minutes by air

Visa advice: make sure you have the appropriate visa (always double check what you need by visiting your local embassy website. British citizens no longer have a 15 day visa waiver to Vietnam).

Your passport needs to have at least six months validity left on it and must include at least one blank page. 

Visa agency: if you’re like me and it’s an emergency, you can purchase an approval letter online, giving you permission to apply for a visa upon arrival. I used the ‘super urgent (4 working hours)’ option from Vietnam Visa for USD37.

Copies of your Approval Letter are forwarded on your behalf to the Vietnam Immigration checkpoints at each of Vietnam’s three international airports (Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang). The letter only functions if you fly into these airports and not if you are travelling by land or sea.

You will need to print off the documents and complete the application form. You’ll also need a couple of passport photos. If you don’t have any, you’ll pay an extra USD2 on top of the USD25 for a tourist visa.

It’s normal process for the Vietnamese Immigration Department to issue only one approval letter for a group of travellers, even if you’re not travelling together.

Accommodation: I stayed at Top Hostel and booked via booking.com. It was good enough value for money and was super close to Phnom Penh International Airport.

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