Living in Vietnam long-term, at some point your visa will expire. And no, extending that crucial little piece of paper isn’t as easy as you think.The Vietnam visa run—a majestic, quarterly migration undertaken by the bald eagle as it travels between Vietnam and Cambodia to extend its hunting permit for another 3 months.
Last year, I wrote about the complete mess that is Vietnam’s visa situation. Somehow, things have gotten even worse.
Because of reasons, it is now
impossible prohibitively expensive to extend your visa within Vietnam. Although a 3-month extension used to cost just $90, I’m now being told that getting extensions longer than 1 month are hundreds and hundreds of dollars.
A 1-month extension got me quotes from $140 to $180. If you’re like me, that probably sounds like complete and utter horse shit.
Update, Vietnam’s visa situation July 2016: Extending a 3-month, multiple entry visa seems to cost more than $200 just about everywhere. A one-month visa costs 90+, which is still complete bullshit.
Because you’re smarter than the Vietnamese government, you’re not going to extend your visa in Vietnam. You’re going to do it in Cambodia.
For less money. And…faster?
Let me introduce you to “The Border Run.”
Conducting a border run simply means exiting a country, obtaining a new visa at the border in an adjacent country, then immediately returning to the first country.
Right, so hop on a bus to…
Ah yes, you can’t obtain a Vietnamese visa at border crossings. No problem!
Moc Bai Border Run: Phnom Penh
This version of the border run is more straightforward, since you’ll be using a tour company like Giant Ibis. The staff will help you at the border with your passports, however you’ll be spending the night in Phnom Penh. From start to finish, takes about 36 hours.
Here’s the game plan for our visa run to Cambodia (assuming you are in or around Saigon), circa January 2016 (still valid as of August 2016):
- (OPTIONAL) Obtain a Cambodian eVisa at this shady-looking but official website. Usually takes 2 or 3 business days. Remember to select the Moc Bai/Bavet border crossing if you’re leaving from Saigon, and print out 2 copies to bring with you.
- Book a bus ticket from Saigon to Phnom Penh. There are several companies, but I’ve used Giant Ibis most recently and prefer their buses.
- Either have Giant Ibis pick you up at your hotel or drive to their office on Pham Ngu Lao (printed on your bus ticket, may change).
- Show them your e-ticket or printed ticket, check your bags with them. Board the bus when ready.
- If you skipped step 1, have them help you fill out the form for a Cambodian visa ASAP. You’ll also be required to fill out an arrival card whether you have a visa already or not. Currently the visa costs $35, which you will pay to the conductor immediately.
- At the border, you will pass through the first checkpoint on the Vietnamese side, which only involves stamping your passport. Afterwards you stop for a meal between the border checkpoints.
- Up next is the Cambodian side, where they’ll check your passport, visa and arrival card.
- Once in Cambodia, make a beeline for Lucky! Lucky! Motorcycle Shop or Cina Travel. Beware because there are a couple fake Lucky Lucky shops in the area, so check the address—No. 413Eo, Preah Monivong (St. 93), 12258 Phnom Penh, Preah Monivong Blvd, Cambodia. Bring your passport, tell them how long you want your new visa, whether you want single or multiple entry, pay them (get your receipt!) and ask how long. One-hour processing available for approximately $10 extra. I found Cina Travel to be slightly cheaper and even faster than Lucky Lucky—walking into Cina after 4 pm, they were able to get a 3-month multiple entry visa processed for $70 by 5:15 pm. Insane.
- Book your return bus ticket if you’re in a real hurry and it looks like the bus will fill up. I just wait until my visa is in hand, but that’s me.
- Same bus procedure. At the border, you’ll get off the bus and proceed through the Cambodian side’s outdoor processing counters. Break at the duty-free shop, then to Vietnam’s side.
- On the Vietnamese side, you’ll face tougher scrutiny. File through the hypermart-turned-immigration-checkpoint, where your bags are actually scanned with real metal detectors. Once back on the bus, your passport will be checked again by another Vietnamese official who boards the vehicle.
- Congratulations, you’ve completed your first Vietnamese visa run.
Here’s How It Works
It took just 36 hours for me to go from Saigon to Phnom Penh and back to Saigon, and my visa only cost $75.
Total cost of the trip? Let’s assume a “normal” domestic visa price in Vietnam, so we’ve already saved a bare minimum of $25. Add in the $35 for the Cambodian visa, between $30 and $40 for bus tickets, and $25 for a hotel (stuff you wouldn’t normally have to pay). So about $70 more than a “normal” visa.
That doesn’t take into account how fast visas are processed in Phnom Penh. Standard processing usually takes at least 5 business days in Vietnam.
You’re probably not paying the standard rate for a visa in Vietnam, either—if I’d stayed home and accepted my fate, I probably would have paid several hundred dollars more.
Moc Bai Visa Run: Speed Run Edition
As of August 2016, I’m now aware of an even faster and cheaper method for obtaining a new visa.
This technique requires some critical thinking and independence on your part, but it’s SIGNIFICANTLY faster.
Alright, here’s the plan:
- Obtain a business or tourist visa invitation letter from a travel agent. This shouldn’t be very expensive, especially if you only want a 1 or 3-month visa.
- Remember that optional first step in the Phnom Penh section? I actually recommend getting a Cambodian eVisa here, since it will save you a fair bit of time at the border.
- On your day of reckoning, head to this location and board public bus #703. God forbid they change the bus number, so please make sure the bus goes to Moc Bai before you call me in tears after riding to Hanoi by accident. The bus leaves every 30 minutes, starts running at 6 am, and costs about 40k VND.
- Before you get on the bus, make sure you have your Cambodian eVisa (or money for the visa at the border), passport, invitation letter for your Vietnamese visa, exact change for the Vietnamese visa stamping fee (please check with your travel agent), 2 passport photos, money for the return bus ride, money for extra passport photos in case you lose yours, extra cash in case you need to bribe someone, and some water.
- Disembark the bus at Moc Bai. The trip should take less than 3 hours unless you hit extreme traffic.
- Walk to the Vietnamese side of the border, where your passport will be stamped and your old visa invalidated.
- Amble on over to the Cambodian side. If you didn’t get an eVisa, fill out the application form and the arrival card. Scan your fingertips at the border checkpoint and enter Cambodia.
- Loop back around and pass through the Cambodian entry checkpoints. The past few times I’ve done this, they’re the little toll booth areas where buses can also pass through. Totally impossible to miss. Admire the speed and professional manner in which Cambodian border police process your visa.
- Back to Vietnamese immigration. I’m sorry if you’re tired of walking. Vietnamese immigration is inside the gutted carcass of an old shopping center, and it’s one of the most depressing places you’ll visit in your life. Right after entering the main door, your goal is the little box with the frosted glass windows to your right. Inside is Moc Bai’s Saint Peter, he who ultimately passes judgment on your visa letter and grants you entrance to the rusty gates of Vietnam. Be nice to this man. Smile a lot.
- St. Peter hands you (or crumples up and throws at you) a visa application form. Feel free to ignore ridiculous sections like your family information. Even though I got a business visa, I didn’t even fill out the section on my business sponsorship. Attach one of your precious passport photos. If you forgot your photos, nearby hucksters in dark gray will offer to take one for you. It’s legit, but prepare to get bent over. Hand over your application, invitation letter and stamping fee. If St. Peter or his lackeys demand significantly more money, you have two choices—cave and encourage the further extortion of all foreigners who come after you, or stand resolute and delay your processing time indefinitely.
- Freshly stamped visa in hand, proceed through the visa checkpoint nearby. Scan your bag at the metal detector afterwards, and head through your final passport check at the far door. Congrats, you’re back in Vietnam.
- Look for the bus back to Saigon (again, every 30 minutes), and be happy you don’t have to do this bullshit again for a while
Business VisasWant to avoid more visa runs? Get a business visa.
Border Run? More Like Border FUN
If and when immigration gets their act together, visa costs will drop. Border runs might even become obsolete. But don’t hold your breath.
Keep a finger on the pulse of the ever-changing visa fees. Whenever your visa is due to expire, run a quick cost analysis of your options and pick the cheapest, easiest, fastest method. That’s all we can do for now.