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Visa Run! Crazy Day Trip to Vietnam

Eight hours in a car with the boys to drive to Vietnam and back for the sole purpose of activating our 12-month NGO visas. Loads of fun for everyone!

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The vast majority of the time, Lori and I really enjoy our overseas adventures (and misadventures), even with two toddlers in tow. It’s the little unknowns hidden in everyday life that we especially love about this lifestyle.

But every now and then, the dragons come to call. And just when you least expect it, you’ll be…

…spending eight hours of your Saturday in a hot car with a 14-month-old and a 3.5-year-old, on your way to…

Vietnam!

…and back again.

…in the same day.

That’s right, folks. We’re about to embark on our first ever Visa Run.

A rite of passage of sorts for many an expat.

The thing is, I’ve spent six years of my life as a resident expat in five countries and have so far avoided ever having to leave the country on a visa run. Lori’s story is very much the same. Four years residing in four different countries without a single visa run.

Sure, in Belize, we had to head on down to the immigration office on da pier every 30 days to see our ol’ buddy for a stamp served with a side of stink eye until we received our work permits (which turned out to be never, because the process for a one-year work permit apparently takes longer than the 12 months we lived in the country).

All those trips to immigration certainly wore on us after a while. But we weren’t obligated to actually leave the country to renew our visas.

The Long and Winding Road to an NGO Visa

You may remember how I waxed on about how easy it was for our family of four to get 30-day business visas on arrival at Phnom Penh International. Too easy, it seemed. My gut was right. I really wish it hadn’t been.

Getting that initial sticker and stamp in our passports was about as easy as it gets. Cambodia also allows foreigners like us to get an easy in-country 30-day extension, which was processed by Lori’s employer, making the process even more painless.


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But then, the process became not so easy. To stay in Cambodia beyond 60 days, we’re required to send our passports away so our actual 12-month, multiple-entry NGO visas could be processed.

After the passports are returned to us, we’re required to leave the country and return, which will activate said visas — but only for 60 additional days.

We’re obliged to do this before the expiry of our 30-day extension. We arrived in country on 26 October, which means we’ll need to leave Cambodia by the day after Christmas (Boxing Day, for our Canadian friends, eh?).

Once we’ve accomplished that feat, we’ll need to resubmit our passports to immigration for the real deal, and are forbidden from leaving Cambodia for 60 days, lest we wish to start the process all over again.

Then, on an indeterminate date in early 2020, we shall finally [hopefully!] receive our multiple-entry, 12-month NGO visas, allowing us to remain in Cambodia until the end of Lori’s contract, and come and go as we please in that time.

But Wait…There’s More!

To make matters a bit more complicated (because apparently they aren’t complicated enough already), all those stickers and stamps mean Noe’s plum run out of visa pages.

Yep, our 3.5-year-old filled up his passport 1.5 years before its expiry date. Lucky us!

The past two passports Lori and I have had have been 52-page (double) books. Yet, I didn’t think it was necessary to do the same for Noe’s first passport as well. Instead, we got the standard 28-page book for our newborn and called it good.

My logic behind doing so was that minors’ passports are valid for half the time (five years) as an adult book. Noe wouldn’t be doing any traveling without us during that time (that I know of, at least), so…half the number of pages, half the validity period — no problem.

But there was one small problem. A year after Noe was born, I filled up my double passport book — two years ahead of schedule. Oops.

Call it lack of foresight, wishful thinking, or newborn sleep deprivation. It’s the decision we made and this is where we find ourselves at the moment.

So, how do we move forward with no more visa pages in the kid’s book and all of these visa stickers to contend with?

In the old days, U.S. consular services just added pages. Not anymore.

Not to worry, I’ll just rip out a bunch of Riley’s and tape them into Noe’s. Riley’s a baby. He just toddles around screaming at inanimate objects and drooling on himself. There’s no way he’ll miss them.

Problem solved!

HA! If only it were that easy (and not remotely illegal at all)…

Nope. Unfortunately, we’d need to get Noe a new passport.

Through some fancy finaglery, we managed to time everything just right so that the extension would go into Noe’s old passport, and the initial NGO visa would go into his new passport when we head over the border in late December.

All of this, of course, hinges on whether the U.S. Embassy can process the new passport in time (which shouldn’t be a problem as long as we have all our ducks in a row — overseas passports typically take 2-3 weeks to get processed and make it back over the Pacific. We’ve got 3.5 weeks. No problem.).

Some of you might ask, why don’t you just pay the expedite fee and get the passport sooner? Well, unlike getting a passport in the U.S., expedited service doesn’t really exist overseas. The standard processing time is about two weeks, regardless. If you need to travel in less than two weeks, there are limited validity emergency passports that can be issued.

But an emergency passport is not something you want to slap a 12-month visa into, because they aren’t full validity passports. They’re a stop gap for getting you on your way for emergency travel until you can apply for the real deal.

That’s not going to cut it for us.

We are, however, able to expedite Noe’s Cambodia visa extension so that we can get his passport back from immigration with enough time to submit it to the U.S. Embassy.

Yay.

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Fast-forward to Late November

Lori and I drag our three-year-old up to the U.S. embassy for his appointment (right smack in the middle of nap time, of course, which adds more fun to the afternoon — whoever at the embassy decided to only offer passport appointments between 1pm and 3pm does not have wee ones’ nap times to contend with).

I emphasize to the consular officer that we’d very much like a double book for our son. The consular officer replies that that’s all they offer overseas now.

Excellent.

Less than two weeks later, Noe’s brand-spanking-new passport arrives. I fight traffic for two hours there and back for a five-minute face-to-face with the consular officer to retrieve the precious cargo.

Mission accomplished?

Well, not quite. We’ve still got this visa run to do. Which, honestly, I’m not looking forward to.

I voice my apprehension about the impending day to Lori, saying something along the lines of wishing I had a root canal scheduled instead.

I’m not remotely concerned about Noe. He’s been through the ringer a time or two with this travel stuff (we just had to renew the kid’s flippin’ full passport for crying out loud).

Riley, on the other hand is…well…he’s a bit of a wild card these days. The kid’s an animal! And not at all accustomed to being corralled in a car for eight hours.

OMG, does it really take four hours to drive between Phnom Penh and the Vietnam border each way? That can’t be right, Lori?

…Lori?

There’s one other potential snag in all of this, because of course there would be!

We’ve consulted a number of experts on whether we should be concerned that Noe’s future NGO visa is currently being processed by Cambodian immigration under his old passport number, when it’s ultimately destined for his new passport.

The consensus seems to be that it shouldn’t present too much of a problem. But I’ve dealt with enough immigration officers to know there’s always room for a little problem or three.

At any rate, we’ll bring along his old passport, just in case (which has already been canceled, because, well, there’s just no more room at the inn!).

And Riley’s random banshee screams should act as a good distraction once we’re at the actual immigration desk coming back into Cambodia.

The Big Day

The big day is finally upon us! We opt to do this on the Saturday before Christmas rather than waiting until the last minute.

It only makes sense to do it on the weekend, but it does mean we’re burning one of our precious days together with the four of us.

We’ll still be together…it just might not be as fun as, say, every single other Saturday we’ve ever had with the boys.

We initially planned on arranging a car and driver for our day-long escapade, but Lori’s employer offered up one of their drivers and rigs, so we went that route, instead.

Not to confuse matters (which is easy to do in Phnom Penh), we opt for taking a remorque (Cambodian style old fashioned tuk tuk) to Lori’s office to meet the driver, rather than trying to direct him to our place over the phone.

We had fun unpacking and dusting off the ol’ car seat, which we haven’t had a need for in over three months since Lori left her previous job (and the vehicle fleet that went along with it).

Riley had an infant car seat in Laos, which we sold before leaving the country. We figured, by the time we needed a car seat again, Riley would be big enough to fit in Noe’s.

The night before our visa run, I plopped Riley into the seat to adjust the straps for the baby. No adjustments needed. Yep, this kid’s catching up to his big bro pretty darn quick.

We’re on the road at 8am. Four hours to go until we reach the border!

It takes a little over an hour to break out of the slow-moving traffic of the capital sprawl. After that, it’s follow-the-Mekong along Route 1 until we cross the river at Neak Loeung.

Lori and I were prepared for a bridge, but not prepared for the gleaming gold Tsubasa Bridge.

 

Opened in 2015, the bridge is a generous gift from Japan — Cambodia’s third bridge donated by the Japanese, in fact.

We’re enjoying getting to know our new home, but it’s nice to be out of the capital for the day. Lori and I joke about the countless bus trips we did together before the boys, and how we’d spend hours staring out the window at the world whizzing by (me) or reading a book (Lori).

The boys definitely keep us much busier on these long road trips, so there’s not a lot of time for reading or staring out the window, these days.

I started up front in the passenger seat while Lori took first baby duty. I might’ve felt a tad bit guilty when things started to hit the fan back there, if it weren’t for the countless hours I, alone, entertained/ consoled/ defended myself against Noe during our first two years in Laos.

At that time, Lori nearly always had a work car on evenings and weekends, but she was the only one allowed to drive it. That meant, if we went out of town (which we did quite a bit), yours truly would be on baby duty for the duration — a pretty significant role reversal from our first six years together when I almost exclusively drove on long trips, which we both prefer.

We were thankful for regular access to wheels in Laos, though it would have been nice to relieve the other on those long holiday trips.

About halfway along, we stop at a rest complex and switch seats. Lori gets some well deserved down time and I get to play stickers with Noe and “Here’s your 14th book and please stop screaming so the driver doesn’t suddenly decide he’d be better off reincarnating sooner than expected” with Riley.

The Long Way Round

At this point, it might be time to tell you that there is actually a much closer border crossing into Vietnam — three of them, in fact.

The drive from Phnom Penh to Chrey Thum, the closest border crossing of the three, takes just over two hours — half the time of our journey.

When we first learned that we’d need to do a visa run, I pulled up an online map and thought, Bingo! Chrey Thum. Two hours and change. Not an ideal way to spend a Saturday morning, but totally manageable.

When it came time to apply for our Vietnam e-visas online, I needed to select the port of exit / entry. But I couldn’t seem to find Chrey Thum on the list.

At that point, I began to wonder which crossing of the three I should be applying for. So, I asked Lori to consult the logistics people at her work and they informed us that none of those three crossings were going to work for our purposes, as the Cambodian side would not be able to process the NGO visa we needed to get when we re-entered Cambodia.

The nearest border for our purposes was, unfortunately, Krong Bavet — a journey that typically takes twice as long.

Just after noon, we roll into Krong Bavet. We’ve arrived at the crossing.

At the Border

All things considered, the boys were pretty good on the four-hour drive.

Now comes the fun part. Checking out of Cambodia, walking across the border to Vietnam, checking into Vietnam, then immediately turning around and checking back out.

Then, the moment we’ve all been waiting for — checking back into Cambodia and — hopefully!!! — receiving four NGO visas in four passports.

The driver drops us off at the main entrance to the immigration building. There’s no separate pedestrian corridor, so we simply walk down the last bit of Cambodia’s highway to the outdoor booth, get our exit stamps, and continue on our way.

It seems we’ve lucked out on the wait as there isn’t anyone else trying to get out of Cambodia at the moment. We know all too well that things can change on a dime at the border when the big buses roll in, so we know we’ve dodged a bullet in that respect.

On to Vietnam!

We’ve been prepping Noe this past week for his mini-trip to Vietnam.

He still talks about the week we spent in Hanoi this past April. Immediately after learning we were going to Vietnam, he set aside his Vietnam shirt for the trip.

Of course, we went to great lengths to emphasize we weren’t going to Hanoi, just to the border and back. Noe didn’t seem to have any issues with that, he was just excited about the journey.

That’s our boy!

He never asked any questions as to why we weren’t staying longer, and there were no complaints or pushback when we turned right around and went right back to Cambodia. Lori and I often wonder what goes through his mind in moments like these (and there are a lot of them these days).

Arriving at the immigration office on the Vietnam side, there’s a bit of confusion as to which window we need to go to. The signs above the various windows say one thing, but the hand motions of various officers seem to indicate another.

A senior looking officer bruskly indicates with his arm to go stand by an empty desk. There isn’t anyone else around, so we hover halfway between the two windows to cover our bases, returning to the senior officer again and again for confirmation as the minutes tick by with no other immigration officials in sight.

Suddenly, the flood gates open and in rush several dozen travelers. We could see them quickly making their way down the serpentine queue towards the empty window we were told to be at, so we dart back over there to secure our place in line.

Losing our spot at the front of the line would have spelled doom for the four of us (and everyone else around us for that matter) — easily an hour’s wait in the midst of nap time.

Several minutes later, an officer finally arrives at the vacant desk. We place our stack of passports up on the counter and smile. Without looking at us he suddenly disappears again.

Five minutes later, he returns with an electric kettle. After sitting in his chair and shuffling around under his desk for a moment, he runs off again.

Another agonizing 5-10 minutes pass before he returns with…a mug and tea bags.

Now that we’ve covered the important matters of your office, do you think we could maybe get a few stickers in our little blue books, please?

With that formality out of the way, we walk right out the exit door and down the stairs, give a wave to Vietnam, then walk right back up the stairs and through the entry door on the other side of the building —

— marking the half-way point of the day’s journey. We proceed to the exit counter.

Our e-visas had already been paid for prior to our arrival, and I knew there weren’t supposed to be any more fees. But of course the immigration officer at the stamp desk insists that there is a US$1 fee per stamp (which he could not provide any written proof of).

Prior to having kids, I stood my ground and fought the “good fight” against “third-world corruption” ’til the bitter end, and in most cases, won.

To do so takes the luxury of both time and patience, and I’ve spent up to an hour holding firm, calmly engaging in circular logic, until I eventually outlasted the official — on principal, but also on account of having more time than money in those days.

With two hungry and tired little boys on our hands, we hand over the four bucks and move on, vowing to give others a heads up. So, here you go.

Now…we’re in Vietnam (actually Noe and I are still in Vietnam, while Riley and mommy have gone on ahead to Cambodia)…

…and now, we’re all back in Cambodia. Phew…

With that out of the way, time to make it official…

But not before the Orion Snack truck guy hands out free samples to the kids, straight from the freight truck. I’m familiar with duty free at the border, but this is on a whole other level.

The $4 “donation” to the Vietnamese government irked me. But it paled in comparison to the shadiness we were about to encounter back on the Cambodian side of the border.

If I’d done my due diligence and read up on this border crossing, we would have been prepared for what came next.

After two decades of dealing with small-scale corruption, overbearing officials, and scams, scams, and more scams across dozens of developing (and advanced economies alike), crossing countless land borders on five continents and so on and so forth, I went into this whole thing feeling pretty confident.

I should’ve known better.

Immediately, after arriving at the immigration office in Cambodia, we’re greeted by a guy keen on assisting us with our paperwork. There isn’t a lot to the forms — a pretty standard immigration form, really.

But the guy insists his job is to help. I kindly, yet firmly insist, several times, that his assistance isn’t necessary and we can manage on our own. Yet, he politely persists.

The whole thing reeks of some sort of scam, but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out how the guy ends up getting paid.

I ask the guy if he works for immigration (he isn’t wearing a uniform), and he responds with an emphatic, “Yes!” Followed by, “Immigration, me, we are the same.”

That, coupled with the fact that I still can’t figure out the scam, is enough for us to give the guy the benefit of the doubt.

It seems strange that a country like Cambodia would put aside public funds to pay staff to help foreigners with their forms, but maybe there had been a lot of issues in the past. Perhaps it was due to the large influx of Chinese tourists who can’t read the Khmer/English instructions on the forms.

Who knows?

The guy collects our forms, takes them to the window, then returns with new forms. Identical forms. Hmm. Ok. Let’s do this…again.

We finish up our second round of forms and the guy offers to take them to the window, along with our passports.

Thank you, but no thank you.

For one, we know better than to give these guys our passports. Two, we need to make absolutely certain we receive that NGO visa, and not simply a tourist visa, or else this whole escapade is pointless.

We take our paperwork up to the window, submit it, and within minutes, receive all four passports with our hard-won NGO visas!

But the battle isn’t over yet.

We thank the “helper” guy and proceed to the immigration building to get stamped in. Then, the helper guy tells us we need to pay a laughable amount money for the stamp and that he’s the one we pay.

Ah. That’s the gig.

We know for certain there’s no stamp fee for Cambodia and that all the fees had been covered by Lori’s employer prior to today. That much is very clear.

I chuckled and simply reply, “Mmm…Nope. I don’t think so.” And walk off.

Finally, we approach the immigration desk, the last step in all this madness. All we have left to do is get our shiny new NGO visas stamped and we’ll be on our way back to Phnom Penh.

We walk straight up to the counter and hand over four passports. The first three are stamped in fairly quick succession: Me, Lori, Riley. Boom. Done. — along with offering up a couple of fingerprint scans (Lori and mine, not the babies’, though Noe REALLY wanted his fingerprints scanned. I worry about that kid sometimes.)

But the officer is clearly uncomfortable with Noe’s passport. Crap. Here we go. It’s the mismatched passport numbers, I know it.

How is this going to end? Am I going to have to bring Noe all the way back to the border? What kind of insane hoops and red tape are they going to make us jump through this time?

I offer the officer Noe’s old (canceled) passport, stressing it’s full (canceled, all finished, no good — any way I could get the point across), so that he could at least match up the number.

Then, an audible, “OHHHHHHHH!” from the immigration officer, followed by a nod, a stamp, and…

…we are done!

Back to Phnom Penh

The four-hour journey back to Phnom Penh is about as pleasant as it gets in-transit with wee ones, apart from the fact that we couldn’t find a single place to eat remotely close to the border.

I even run into a casino at one point to grab something quick, but all they had were sodas, a buffet, and poker chips.

We would have loved to sit down for a hot bowl of noodle soup or meat on a stick. But no, nothing, within twenty miles that we (or our driver) could see.

We ultimately settle for some barely edible packaged snacks from a Chinese grocer and are on our way, once again.

After a long and eventful morning, the boys sink into a deep sleep for a couple of hours. A welcome respite after our 90-minute border crossing fiasco.

 

Just after 5pm, we roll into the capital, greeted by rush hour traffic (yes, even on Saturdays in Phnom Penh).

We cross one of the worst bottlenecks I’ve seen in years, the Old Monivong Bridge. All traffic along National Route 1 (the country’s busiest route to/from Ho Chi Minh City — the next nearest major city and 8 million people at that!) must squeeze its way over this narrow, two-lane bridge, to get into Phnom Penh.

Crossing the bridge, it’s a view of a very different Phnom Penh than we’ve grown accustomed to, with its own impromptu landfill along the banks of the Tonle Bassac river. Yet another stark reminder that center city, where we spend most of our time, is very much the exception rather than the norm here in Cambodia.

At this point, we spot the towering Rose Condos and the Bridge, just 2 km away (and very close to our apartment). Yet, it would take us another 30 minutes to get home from here.

Just before sunset, we arrive back at the office, and a little after 6pm, we finally arrive home — ten hours after we left for the day.

Mission accomplished!

21 Dec 2019
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Barry Till

What a journey … kept me on the edge of my seat to see if you got what you needed . Congrats ! Am sure it was all worthwhile to get the peace of mind in the end.

Shirley Northcraft
Shirley Northcraft

Whew-congratulations on your accomplishment!