Hurry Up and Wait — Stuck in Hanoi

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Hurry Up and Wait -- Stuck in Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi is an vibrant, delightful city, but I’m getting a bit tired of it. I arrived earlier than planned, so I could meet up with the owner of the bike rental to get my deposit back. He was going to be in Hanoi on Saturday, so he thought this would save us both a lot of hassle. It didn’t.

I was in Ninh Binh when I received an email from Pat — if I shipped the bike back a day earlier than planned, he’d have time to pick it up and could just hand me my money, rather than bother with a wire transfer. It was Tuesday and I’d planned on heading to Ha Long Bay, but a Saturday meet-up wouldn’t allow enough time for it. So, I arrived in Hanoi on Wednesday and spent a few days wandering the streets and taking photos.

When Saturday rolled around, I couldn’t reach him on his phone or via email. Sunday morning I caught him on the phone and he explained that the key and paperwork hadn’t shown up, even though I’d mailed it via registered express mail. He couldn’t pick up the bike without it. I gave him the tracking info and haven’t heard anything more in a week.

More frustrated at the unnecessary change in plans than the delay in getting my money, I came up with a new plan. I’d apply for my Chinese visa, then head to Cat Ba island, in Ha Long Bay and spend a few days there relaxing on the beach and checking out the bay. I’d planned on going to the Chinese embassy Monday, but met a Chilean woman who had just tried it and had been told that they only issued visas for native Vietnamese. Foreigners had to use a travel service.

For Americans, a Chinese visa costs $140 US — most nationalities only have to pay $50 or less.

The hotel I was staying at had a great reputation, so I asked them to help me with the visa. The official cost for Americans is $140 US (most nationalities only have to pay $50 or so) and there was a $17 surcharge. Considering that half of everything I own is made in China, you’d think I’d get a discount.

The visa would only be for a month, she explained — if I’d applied while in the US, I would have received a 3-month visa. I thought I might be able to extend it once I was in China, but failed to follow up on the idea. After some hesitation, I thought “what the hell” and told her to go for it. My passport would be delivered back on Friday and I could head for Sapa on Friday night or Saturday.

Every hotel I checked with on Cat Ba island was full — it’s high season. The only way to see Halong Bay seemed to be a package tour and they were all booked up until Wednesday. A typhoon had rolled through over the weekend, shutting down the entire bay for two days and tours were back-logged. I couldn’t leave Hanoi for good until Friday, anyway, so I waited a couple more days and headed to Halong Bay.

The tour was, as I expected, a massive disappointment with more time spent waiting on buses than actually doing anything fun. On Friday morning, my tour guide got a call from the hotel asking for me. “The Chinese embassy wants to ask you questions,” the manager explained. “They will call your guide and talk to you. This has never happened — I don’t know what they need to ask you.”

By 11:00am, there had been no call and I was starting to contemplate another weekend in Hanoi. I called back, got the embassy’s number and phoned to see what the problem was. The woman on the other end tried to put me off, but finally agreed to ask me their questions. They were the usual “What is your purpose for traveling?” and “How long do you intend to stay?” kind of thing — things I should have been asked upfront, or filled-out in a form.

After just a few questions, my phone ran out of minutes and I was disconnected. By the time I’d bought a new card and called back, it was 11:30 and she wasn’t answering her phone. Lunch time here runs from 11:30 to 2:00, so a Friday delivery was looking bleak. After searching the net for awhile, I found that a month’s extension would cost me another $140 or even more. That detail was the final straw.

I was frustrated with the tour, irritated that the questions were put off until the last minute, mad at myself for not doing more research, and really annoyed that China wanted to tax me $5 a day to visit and spend money in their country. After another call to the hotel, I was told I could cancel the visa and have my passport back on Saturday morning, in time for my night bus to Sapa.

I canceled.

Back in Hanoi, the passport didn’t show up as planned. Somehow, I wasn’t surprised.

Back in Hanoi, the passport didn’t show up as planned. Somehow, I wasn’t surprised. The travel agent said they went to pick it up Friday afternoon and the embassy wouldn’t release it — they want to speak to me again for some reason.

Of course, they’re closed on the weekend, so I’m still stuck in Hanoi. And, now the agent says that my passport isn’t even here in Hanoi, but had to be sent to the Saigon office. They never bothered to tell the hotel or myself about that detail. I have no idea how long it will take to get it back.

It was a purely emotional decision, I admit. I was tired and pissed off. When I think of it now, however, the first thing that still comes to mind is “screw them.” I’d love to go, but I’d like to have time to see more of it and move at my own pace. Thirty days isn’t enough. Money is tight right now — I’ve overspent my budget in both Cambodia and Vietnam. I’ll head to Laos instead, review my finances, and possibly reconsider.

What would you have done?

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Jodi July 25, 2010 at 8:35 am

Get your Chinese visa in Laos. That’s what we did. You can go directly to the embassy. It’s open short hours though like 9am-1pm. We biked there from our hostel in Vientiane. Turn left before the US Ambassadors residence … I can’t recall where we found the map of how to find it. It took four days, and I think we got 3 months. Just FYI, all the hostels will do them – but we saved a considerable amt of money and got more time than folks that went thru the hostels.

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wes July 25, 2010 at 9:38 am

Good to hear! I was planning on checking into it in Vientiane — a 3 month visa would be wonderful.

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Shawn July 25, 2010 at 9:15 am

Well it is great you are traveling slow, I agree a month is not long enough in a large country such as China. I find it amazing that the world progresses since most people can’t figure out how to accomplish tasks in a timely manner, nor can communicate clearly. I run into this continually, sometimes it is best just to bypass the idea.
.-= Shawn´s last blog ..FeedBurner’s Delusional Subscription Statistics =-.

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pirate63 July 25, 2010 at 4:46 pm

Wes dont get to disheartned,its just the way they do things over there,frustrating at times even infuriating but its the joy of traveling! Lao is a lot more laid back ,make sure you get up to Luang Phrabang,keep safe
cheers

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wes July 25, 2010 at 5:06 pm

Thanks for the kind words. At this point, all I can do is laugh. Spent the day reading a good book and doing nothing else — much-needed downtime…

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Mitch July 25, 2010 at 6:42 pm

Apparently if you get a one month visa you can extend it fairly easily within the country. That’s what I’m hoping to do, since as well as seeing the country I also need to apply for a Mongolian visa in Beijing.

If you do make it to China, you simply MUST sample the delights of the sleeper bus.
.-= Mitch´s last blog ..DAY 83- On The Topic Of Honesty In Travel Writing =-.

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wes July 26, 2010 at 9:07 am

Yeah, the only bummer about the extension is that it apparently costs as much or more than the visa itself — $140-160, depending on where you apply.

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Mitch July 26, 2010 at 6:32 pm

That sucks. For Australians (and pretty much everyone else I think) it’s only $30. The guy was going to charge me $100 until I held up my passport and pointed at the kangaroo.
.-= Mitch´s last blog ..DAY 83- On The Topic Of Honesty In Travel Writing =-.

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wes July 27, 2010 at 9:50 pm

*draws a kangaroo on his passport in crayon*

Nick Laborde July 25, 2010 at 11:10 pm

“Considering that half of everything I own is made in China, you’d think I’d get a discount.” Yeah I would think so too, almost 3 times as much for us Americans is absurd …
.-= Nick Laborde´s last blog ..Weekly Dose of Travel Awesomeness – Planning =-.

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Audrey July 26, 2010 at 2:00 am

When we applied for our Chinese visa in Uzbekistan years ago, we balked at the price, especially as it was so much higher than our EU buddies were paying. The Chinese consular officer barked back, “Americans rich!” If only…

We flew to Luang Prabang from Hanoi a couple of years ago. Although we liked Hanoi, we needed a change after being there a few weeks. Luang Prabang was so relaxing. I think you’ll enjoy the change you’ll see in Laos. Enjoy and good luck with the three month visa to China!
.-= Audrey´s last blog ..Couch Surfing with KGB Agents =-.

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wes July 26, 2010 at 9:14 am

Thanks, Audrey! I really like Hanoi, too, but after nearly two weeks I’m looking forward to moving on. I’m really looking forward to Luang Prabang — I’ve heard so many good things about it.

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Eli July 26, 2010 at 3:03 am

Damn, Wes, this sounds like a nightmare. I would love to visit China but it sounds like hassle after hassle trying to get in. $140 is quite a bit to pay for a Visa, that’s like the cost for a week in Vietnam. And your passport is out of your hands now, too? I hope this all turns out alright for you.

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wes July 26, 2010 at 9:17 am

Yeah, it’s been a bit of a bummer but I’m trying to make the best of it. It’s given me time to catch up on writing and I have a freelance project that I’m working on, so it isn’t wasted time. I heard from the agency that the embassy has agreed to release my passport, so hopefully I’ll have it in my hands tomorrow evening or the next morning. *crosses fingers*

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Dave July 27, 2010 at 4:11 pm

Hey mate,

I’ve just got into Thailand (Chiang Rai) after three glorious weeks in Laos – you’re going to absolutely love it there! Wonderful countryside and even more wonderful people. Luang Prabang was one of those places that I went for a couple of days and struggled to leave a week later. The two day slow boat to the Thai border was brilliant – infinitely better than a bus of any description – and if you’re happy to do a bit of a loop (or are just looking for an excuse to head back into Cambodia…), the south is well worth checking out as well – esp given your mad motorbike skills, some time around the Bolaven Plateau would be a must, not to mention kicking back on Don Det or one of the other 4000 islands.

Yeah, can you tell I kinda liked the place? :-P

Vientiane is a bit of a hole (although nowhere near as bad as some other capital cities) but the embassy runs are pretty straightforward – you can walk to most of them from the main guesthouse area in about half an hour if you can’t be bothered arguing with the pot dealers … I mean, tuktuk drivers.

Have fun my friend!
.-= Dave´s last blog ..Water and wheels on the Bolaven Plateau =-.

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wes July 27, 2010 at 9:46 pm

Oooh, thanks for the inspiration — I’m really looking forward to it. After 2 weeks in Hanoi, I really want to rest up somewhere quieter for awhile….

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ayngelina July 29, 2010 at 1:09 am

How frustrating! I’ll have to admit at that point I would have had hot tears streaming down my cheeks, wailing on about how life isn’t fair.
.-= ayngelina´s last blog ..When a local coffee grower decides to go organic =-.

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wes July 29, 2010 at 7:14 am

Nah, you’d have made the best of it, I know it!

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Nancy July 29, 2010 at 10:32 pm

I remember that it seemed to take forever to get anything done in Vietnam. Everyone seemed to have an excuse. I’m not sure it isn’t because they’re waiting for a little “extra”, if you know what I mean.
.-= Nancy´s last blog ..Monkey King =-.

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