Sabbatical Week 1 - Vietnam Visa Nightmares and Salvaging the Trip

Days 1-2: Shit hits the fan

I was so prepared for this trip. In February, I applied for and got my visa, booked my flights, made a rough itinerary, and booked a few days in a hotel. What could go wrong?

I had an uneventful flight to LAX, grabbed dinner there, then leisurely made my way to the gate.

“Passport and visa, please,” the gate agent said. I handed them over. She looked at them for a moment, then a puzzled expression came over her face. She pulled a coworker over and asked him something quietly. He looked at my documents, and nodded in agreement.

“Your birthday doesn’t match your passport,” she said. She showed me.

Vietnam, like much of the rest of the world, uses the day-month-year format for dates. I recalled vaguely using autofill to fill out many of the fields in the application.

“Oh,” I said. “Well, they can just correct that when I get there, right?”

She shook her head. “We need to correct it before you get on.”

I found out later that it was strict China Airlines policy to not deliver a passenger to a destination where they would be denied entry. The agent told me to sit while they called Vietnam immigration.

I sat for about 20 minutes, and then the agent came back. “It was denied,” she said. “We pulled your bags for you.”

I felt like I got hit by a ton of bricks. This couldn’t be possible. Completely frazzled and frustrated, I walked out into the midnight Los Angeles air, not sure even where I was going to stay. I caught a Lyft to the nearest cheap hotel I could find. I tried to sleep but my brain was still going full-tilt. I finally managed to get in a few hours of tossing and turning before rising again.

The next day was a blur. I canceled all my flights and was able to recover half the cost. I tried applying for a new visa on my phone but the Vietnamese immigration website was broken on my phone, so I hauled my luggage to the Inglewood Library half a mile away. The security guards were really confused, but I explained my situation and they helped me get a temporary library card so I could apply for a new visa on one of the computers. I knew it could take up to a week to get the visa issued, so I came up with an alternative plan to fly to Taiwan in the interim, because there were no visa requirements.

I booked a flight there for the next morning which had an 18-hour layover in Tokyo. I knew the Vietnam visa turnaround would be slow, so I had some time to kill and thought it would be fun to visit Japan again. I got a hotel near the airport so I could get there early. Feeling a small sense of relief that I had salvaged some of the wreckage that was now my trip, I grabbed a few beers at the hotel bar and looked at things to do in Taiwan. I crawled into bed pretty early. As I drifted off, I felt grateful for everyone who had helped me today–from the library security guards who got me the library card to the guy at the hotel who upgraded my room for free. I slept like a rock.

Day 3: Tokyo, Japan

The flight to Japan was about 10 hours. It was during the day, so I didn’t get much sleep. I mostly read and played Advance Wars on my Switch.

I landed in Haneda. Japan’s quarantine before customs was pretty impressive. They had this carpet that disinfects your shoes, and a pretty sophisticated thermal camera system to detect anyone running a fever. While in line for customs, I ran into a dad who was wearing a Bend, Oregon shirt. I chatted with the family briefly and explained that I grew up there. Small world.

I found a tiny, cheap hotel off of the first train stop from the airport and checked in there. I spent the evening wandering around Akihabara, aka the “Electric Town” and one of my favorite areas when I’d last visited in 2005. It was fun walking through all of the arcades there. I stumbled across this drumming game that I’d played a bunch with my host family on my trip in 2003, which I was surprised to see. There seemed to be several multiplayer games that people would play on banks of computers right next to each other. A few of the gamers had their phones on tripods and were streaming themselves playing.

I had dinner at a sushi train restaurant. Afterward, I grabbed some green tea ice cream, a favorite treat. I was struck, especially having come from the particularly dirty city of Portland, by how Tokyo seemed to simultaneously have zero public trash cans and zero trash. I Googled it and discovered that this had been a change due to the 1995 sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway. Apparently people are just really good about carrying their trash with them until they get home. The respect and consideration of the Japanese for their surroundings never ceases to amaze me.

I was tempted to visit a maid cafe, a staple of Akihabara, for the novelty of it, but ran out of time, alas. Next time, Tokyo. I managed to sleep about 6 hours, which is about what I expected, given the jetlag. I grabbed a surprisingly delicious breakfast at the hotel before heading back to the airport.

Days 3-7: Taipei, Taiwan

I landed in Taipei around 11:30 am. I originally planned to stash my luggage somewhere and hunt for a hotel, but saw that the lockers cost 80 dollars. I learned, to my slight embarrassment, shortly thereafter that Taiwan’s currency is also called the dollar and is much less valuable than the US dollar. I found a cheap hotel about half a mile away and set off for it on foot with all my stuff. I felt completely ignorant and lost. I knew nothing about Taiwan. I wasn’t even sure what the rules were for crosswalks. It was muggy as hell. My brain felt foggy from the jetlag.

I stashed my stuff at the hotel and set off to explore. One of the first things I noticed was how many museums Taipei had. I thought the Stock Museum sounded particularly interesting. English-language tours had to be booked in advance, but they were nice enough to give me a private tour on the spot. It actually ended up being really fascinating learning about Taiwan’s economic development and how it had become a manufacturing powerhouse. I was glad that I’d visited that museum first.

I spent the next few days exploring Taipei while waiting for my visa to get processed. Some highlights:

  • Going to the top of the Tapei 101 Tower. It has the fastest elevator in the world, which goes 37 miles per hour, and a pretty impressive damper system to conterbalance the wind.
  • Meeting Mickael for dinner a couple times and hearing about his experience living here.
  • Hiking up to Elephant Mountain and getting a great view of the city.
  • Visiting Daan Nature Park. There was some amazing wildlife here.
  • Eating stinky tofu at Shenkeng Old Street. It tasted like it smelled: Essence of dirty socks.
  • Accidentally setting off the fire alarm at my hotel with my shower.
  • Learning all of two words of Chinese (hello and thank you).

I ran into someone who had the same visa issues I’d had with Vietnam, and they pointed me to a private company which expedites visas that had helped them sort it out. I’d seen things along these lines on Google, but it always struck me as a scam. But having this validation from someone else, I decided to give it a shot. I paid $300 for the expedited visa and was immediately contacted by an employee there. I was so grateful for this, as it had been nearly impossible to get ahold of anyone at Vietnam immigration. They promised to have my visa processed by the next business day. I was so relieved and immediately booked a budget flight with Tigerair to Da Nang.

Getting on the flight ended up being a headache. They needed my visa printed, so I ran down the escalator to 7/11 and struggled to get the printer to work. It was completely in Chinese with no English option. Finally got it with help from a cashier. Then, my luggage ended up being over the weight limit, resulting in a $150 fee on a $200 flight. I was hemorrhaging so much money by this point to just fucking get to Vietnam that I just shrugged exasperatedly and paid it. Then they needed return flights booked, so I hurriedly booked those. The transaction ended up going through twice on my phone. I got it refunded later, but yeah, headache.

Day 8: Hoi An, Vietnam

I landed in Da Nang at 5:30 pm and caught a ride to Hoi An. It was a relaxing, 45-minute drive down there. I spent the evening wandering around the beautiful, lantern-lit Hoi An waterfront and ate some delicious street food for dinner.

The next morning, my driver Bao took me up to Da Nang and I met with Julie’s birth family. It was an incredibly emotional, loving, meaningful time with them, one that I’ll remember the rest of my life. I was able to set up a FaceTime call with Julie. This was the first time she had seen her mom since she was 18 months old. We learned during this conversation that her mother lived on some farmland about 45 minutes’ drive from Da Nang. She kept chickens. As a child, her mother struggled with mental illness, and she herself had been adopted by her aunt and uncle. The farmland she lived on belonged to them.

I spent the afternoon exploring Marble Mountain, a favorite spot from my last visit to Vietnam. One of the things I remembered most starkly was climbing all of the stairs to get to the temples. Funnily enough, they had built an elevator in 2011. It totally felt like cheating, so I took the stairs.

I grabbed drinks in Hoi An that evening. Afterward, I wandered around more of the shops in the old town. I stumbled across a shop called the “Man Emporium” that had some good-looking tailored clothing. I ordered two shirts.