Accidentally travelling through Vietnam: please explain visas to me!
July 6, 2013 1:54 AM   Subscribe

I'm flying from Australia to Europe with Vietnam airlines. I think I might have a hidden domestic leg of the flight in Vietnam on the way there, or maybe on both routes. My travel agent says I don't need a visa for this domestic flight. I suspect he is wrong. Has anyone done this flight before who can give me more info?

On my itinerary, it says "Sydney - Hanoi" then "Hanoi - Frankfurt" for the trip there, and "Frankfurt - Ho Chi Minh City" then "Ho Chi Minh City - Sydney" on the way back. But there is also an ominous line for the trip out that says, "There is one stop in this itinerary. Visas are your own responsibility". Since it doesn't say that for the way back, I assumed the "one stop" is an extra stop over and above the stop in Hanoi.

I booked this through a travel agent, not myself on the internet (due to a requirement of my workplace), so I called the travel agent, who seemed to have no idea, but eventually sent me an email saying that yes, there's a hidden domestic transfer from Hanoi to HCMC on the flight over, but no hidden transfer on the way back. He said that I need a visa for the way back, but not for the way there, which is the exact opposite of what I would expect. He said that is because the stop in HCMC on the way back is more than 8 hours. But I would assume in that case I would need a visa in both directions, due to the domestic leg. He said this is not true, but even though I have this in writing from him I'm reluctant to just trust him because it will be a total disaster if I am refused boarding on my flight out.

Has anyone done this flight before and knows for sure whether there is actually a domestic leg on either or both routes, and whether I need visas? I have a New Zealand passport. I tried to call the Vietnamese Embassy here in Canberra, but the phone number on their website doesn't work. I also emailed the airline, but they replied with a confusing email that basically said to call them, and when I did (an international number) I just ended up on hold.

It would also be nice to know:
(1) how much a visa costs if I get it at the embassy here in Australia
(2) whether any of those "visa on arrival" agents where you pay for a letter in advance and then get a stamp at the airport are legitimate (the Australian travel advice page for Vietnam specifically warns against them)
(3) if they are legitimate, do you have to wait so long for your stamp on arrival that it might cause me to miss my connecting flight? I'm not sure how long I have exactly, but I think it's only around an hour.
(4) I have found reference online to Vietnam Airline's "transit tour program" (pdf), which looks awesome for the way back when I have 13 hours in HCMC. My travel agent has never heard of it and won't look into it for me. Vietnam Airlines didn't reply to my emailed question about it. Does anyone know the secret of how to book it?

I will go into the embassy in person next week, but I doubt they will know the answers to any of these questions besides how much the visa costs.
posted by lollusc to Travel & Transportation around Vietnam (17 answers total)
Some poking around on the schedules area of the Vietnam Airlines website shows it's the same flight number from Sydney to the hidden stop in Ho Chi Minh City, then on to Hanoi, with a 2:45 delay. I suspect the process will be similar to what's reported in this review (search for "same plane"), even though that stop-over occurred in Frankfurt.

So it looks like you'll stay in the secure area of the airport, and not very long, and then reboard and continue the flight to Hanoi.
posted by WasabiFlux at 2:17 AM on July 6, 2013

At any rate, if you are an Australian citizen, you can get a vietnam visa on arrival as long as you apply for a visa approval letter a few days in advance. It looks like it should cost 9usd for the letter approximately and maybe another 45usd if you do need the visa.

If you are that worried about it, apply for the letter (it's only 9 bucks) and then if you don't need it, no big deal.
posted by Literaryhero at 2:51 AM on July 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I used My Vietnam Visa two years ago with no problems, although the letter I received had several other people's passport details in addition to mine (which means all those other people got mine too). However, they may have changed this now - I used them after a recommendation in the New York Times. It was not a long wait on arrival (about 15 mins?).

I find the International Air Transport Association (IATA) Travel Center tool for visas to be quite helpful in cases like these, and you will be able to get an answer from the embassy over the phone.

But see this review and these examples from Vietnam Airlines (there is an Australian number here).
posted by AnnaRat at 2:59 AM on July 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I know that what WasabiFlux says is the case in Frankfurt is how some internal transit legs work on some airlines in some places. But I'm looking for confirmation that this is or isn't specifically the case for a Vietnam Airline transfer between HCMC and Hanoi.

I'm glad to hear that My Vietnam Visa is legit. I will probably get the letter just in case, and then I've only wasted $40 if it isn't needed (it's not 9 USD, Literaryhero - I don't know where you found one that cheaply. It's $19.99 on My Vietnam Visa for a single entry visa, and they don't seem to have a multi option, so I'll have to get two. If anyone has successfully used a different cheaper agent, or one that does letters for multi-entry visas, I'd be interested to know about it.)
posted by lollusc at 5:04 AM on July 6, 2013

Response by poster: On closer inspection, I think AnnaRat's final link suggests I will need a visa for the domestic transfer.
posted by lollusc at 5:05 AM on July 6, 2013

Best answer: Seems like their standard MO is to land in SGN on the way SYD-HAN (and vice versa) but not change the plane. (The flight number does not change, so it continues on the same plane. If they make you leave the airplane or not is another story.)
I would be very surprised if they required passengers to arrange visas beforehand as this is transit only. (Even if you physically have to leave the plane, you are virtually on the same flight(number) and only enter the transit zone of the airport. Calling it "a hidden domestic transfer from Hanoi to HCMC on the flight over" is plain confusing).

Regarding the flight back, specifically this: "He said that I need a visa for the way back, but not for the way there, which is the exact opposite of what I would expect. He said that is because the stop in HCMC on the way back is more than 8 hours."

My guess is: the travel agent does not believe you would WANT to stay 13 hours inside the airport (people even sleep there). He probably assumes you would prefer to visit the city/sleep at a hotel. If this is the case, yes you would need a visa to leave the airport. Anyway, it would be good to find out about the specifics of boarding zone/ check-in, if you wanted to spend the 13 hrs at the airport (see link above).

(1) This would be a single entry tourist visa. Here people quote $85 for 2013, via embassy in Australia. Look into visa on arrival though, used to be way cheaper.

(4) I'd contact one of the travel agencies that offer transit tours and ask them for details (regarding visas, transport in/out the city, duration etc.).

Sorry, if I misunderstood. The terms you use in your question are a bit confusing. A leg (of a flight) would be a flight, not a mere change of planes or stop. In your trip, as posted here, there are no domestic legs. You are not leaving the international terminal.
(A domestic leg would be for example SGN-HAN with a separate flight code, which would require a visa as you would physically check out at the international terminal, walk over to check in at the domestic terminal and fly a domestic route.)

posted by travelwithcats at 5:18 AM on July 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

FWIW, if you come to the conclusion that you need a visa (for part or whole trip) it might provide more peace of mind to get a multi entry visa (because you'd be entering and leaving Vietnam twice).
posted by travelwithcats at 5:35 AM on July 6, 2013

Response by poster: Sorry for being confusing with terminology. I guess my question then is whether the same flight number is a guarantee that you do not leave the international terminal? I found a few worrying stories in this thread, but most of them did not specify whether they were travelling all the way through on the same flight number. The reply number 12 seems worrying similar to my situation though.

And yes, I'd happily get a multiple entry visa, but My Vietnam Visa website doesn't offer it, and I'm reluctant to use a random VOA website no one here has vouched for, as the Vietnam Embassy website warns about scams.

Thanks for the link to those transit tours, travelwithcats: they sound perfect if I can't figure out how to book the supposedly complimentary one.
posted by lollusc at 6:27 AM on July 6, 2013

Isn't this what the Australian consulate in Vietnam is for? It would seem like they would have the answers for you.
posted by gjc at 9:46 AM on July 6, 2013

Best answer: I used in March 2013, and everything worked as advertised. I paid $20 for a single entry, but it looks like they have multiple entry (within 1 month) for $25.

The above fee was for the approval letter and excludes the visa fee at the airport, which according to the e-mail they sent me is $45 for a single entry and $65 for multiple entry (pre-fill the given form and bring passport photos for quicker processing).

As with AnnaRat's experience, there were other people's names, nationalities, DOB and passport numbers on the approval letter. It looks like the Vietnam Immigration Department processes several applications together.

(I can't say as to whether you need a visa or not, but looks like you already have that answer)
posted by Gomez_in_the_South at 3:47 PM on July 6, 2013

It's sketchy as fuck that you don't know exactly what flights you have booked, and your actual flight info will give you the answer. Don't use this travel agent again. I can't imagine not having tickets in my hand (or e-versions anyway) when I've already paid.

You don't need transit visas in Vietnam (I checked the google), and you only need a tourist/transit visa if you're going to clear immigration. You will only have to clear immigration if you have a domestic flight that is entirely separate from the international flights. From the information you've given the answer is unclear.
posted by MillMan at 9:42 PM on July 6, 2013

As Edward Snowden has demonstrated to us, you technically don't enter a country unless you clear customs. Which means if you stay in the secure area of the airport and don't have to wander about, you probably don't have to worry about it. But, then, I'm not an immigration lawyer.
posted by driley at 11:37 PM on July 6, 2013

Best answer: gjc - I didn't think that was what your consulate in another country was for - I thought they were only there to help you out after you got into trouble, not to answer questions about travel plans. I looked at the New Zealand Consulate in Vietnam's website (note: I'm a NZ citizen, not Australian) and couldn't see anything relevant or any indication that they would welcome this sort of inquiry.

MillMan, I agree that it is sketchy and I hate this travel agent. Unfortunately my employer has an "preferred supplier" arrangement with them and requires us to use them for work travel.

I do have (e)-tickets in hand, but I don't know what bit of them gives me the answer to my question, when you say "actual flight info". Do you mean the fact that the same flight code is used all the way through? Or is there something else I should be looking out for on the e-ticket. The only reference to visas is the line: this flight stops one time on route to your destination. You must ensure you check your passport and visa requirements for this transit

I also have now found this review from someone on a similar flight (my bolding):
Sydney to Frankfurt, on return, London to HCMC for a holiday, then HCMC back to Sydney. Check in - despite the flight having the same flight number all the way to Hanoi we were told at business class checking that we needed a visa for our transit! Because the HCMC to Hanoi sector was domestic! $137 and a very stressful hour later we had our visa's. No apologies from VA staff that their itinerary gave no indication of this. Land in HCMC and have to go through immigration and customs - at peak arrival time, then change to the domestic terminal. Back through more security to finally connect with our flight to Hanoi and onto Frankfurt.
So unless anyone who has actually taken this flight turns up here and tells me otherwise, I think I will get a visa on arrival letter just in case.
posted by lollusc at 5:55 AM on July 7, 2013

As Edward Snowden has demonstrated to us, you technically don't enter a country unless you clear customs. Which means if you stay in the secure area of the airport and don't have to wander about, you probably don't have to worry about it. But, then, I'm not an immigration lawyer.

This is true if you are in a Russian airport with an international transit zone (and Russia has an interest in it being true). Don't count on it being true in other countries or airports - not all airports have international transit zones. And, some countries specifically require visas in order to be in their airports for transfers, though I have no idea if Vietnam does.

I second the idea of contacting the Australian consulate/embassy in Vietnam.
posted by insectosaurus at 7:32 AM on July 7, 2013

I don't know what bit of them gives me the answer to my question, when you say "actual flight info"

Actual flight numbers. Based on the review you found you have three separate flights but only have one flight number shown on your itinerary. Had you bought tickets through a regular online ticketing system yourself you would have had this information when you bought the tickets.

VA and the travel agent are both sketchy in this case. It's too bad you have to use them.
posted by MillMan at 9:28 AM on July 7, 2013

Response by poster: For anyone following along at home, I am now at the airport and Idid need a visa. other people got turned away from the flight for not having one. It's a good thing I got an approval letter as suggested above. It's weird though, even my boarding passes disguise the domestic leg. I got two passes: one says Sydney-hanoi and the other Hanoi-Frankfurt. But the woman at check-in says I have to collect my luggage at hcmc and leave the terminal,passing through customs.
posted by lollusc at 3:56 PM on July 27, 2013

Really interesting. Thanks for the update & have a safe trip!
posted by travelwithcats at 4:12 PM on July 27, 2013

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