Not all passports are created equally, some possess more border-crossing power than others. This seems obvious but sometimes when you’re so used to not having to worry about visa application, you might forget how difficult it is for some of us. In that sense, the Vietnamese nationality doesn’t have good standing. More than 40 countries and 3 passports later, here are some of my experiences as an ordinary Vietnamese passport holder.
Let’s start off with a few things that make me roll my eyes (or shake my head) every time.
Visa visa visa (not your financial services)
For all my fellow frequent Viet travelers, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Don’t you find it amusing when you hear a European complain about one visa application (sorry no offense) that stresses them out, besides two hundred other countries they can freely enter and exit? Because the situation flips the other way around for us. Visa application is the norm: bank statement, flights proof, accommodation reservation, application fees, visit invitation, labor contract, you know the drill.
Some real-life “tourist” visa adventures I’ve been through:
- The Chile embassy in La Paz (Bolivia) didn’t even look at my application, “Bolivian residency first,” they said. This was two years before Chile enacted visa exemption for Vietnamese nationalities.
- Paraguay consulate in Los Angeles held hostage my passport and 100USD visa fee for two weeks only to tell me they missed the deadline to issue my visa.
- The Argentina consulate also in Los Angeles declined my application because “this is too far in advance” referring to my open-ended backpacking trip.
- Picking up my Hong Kong visa from the Chinese consulate in HCMC on my way to the airport a few hours before my departure after one full month of waiting
- Japanese visa arrived two days after my flight (of course I couldn’t get on the plane).
Thank goodness our Government understands the struggles and generously grants each passport 48 pages with 39 pages for visa stickers and stamps! (For your reference, the US passport has 17 pages for visas/stamps out of 28 pages in total, and Spanish passport has 25 out of 32.)
Okay, you might argue that every country ID photos are equally disastrous. But tell me, are you required to have “hair up” and “ears shown”? True story, I am blessed with a very very round (squarish) face with hidden ears. If you look straight at my face, my ears are not so visible which I have zero problem with until… I need to have my passport photo taken.
“You need to show ears, take another photo!” – coldly demanded by a public worker at the immigration office.
“Excuse me, I wish I could flap my ears open like that, but I can’t” – okay I didn’t exactly say that out loud but that’s definitely what I thought.
The lady decided to show some mercy, “Look, if you think your big face is the problem, tie your hair up! Don’t show any hair around the ears area!”
Thanks to her wise advice, I turned out to look… older than my mom in my passport photo.
Let me also share a bonus story for this one: when my hair was short and ears were visible enough, they still printed my photo with such low quality it looks like I had a burnt face!
E-passport, uhm, what is that?
On the cover of most strong passports, you can find the biometric symbol that represents the electronic passport. The passport holder’s identity can be authenticated through the embedded electronic microprocessor chip. Sounds fancy? It IS fancy! The biometric uses of identification are facial, fingerprint and iris recognition.
As of 2017, 120 countries has move toward issuing e-passports publicly. Guess who has NOT joined the cool kids’ club? Yup, Vietnam!
And before even digging so far into the e-passport topic, let me just tell you that a simple scan of passport doesn’t always work because of the low quality of the paper. As a matter of fact, my passport seems to do everything possible to prevent… automation – it doesn’t cooperate with any scanner of any airport, and thus, the only way to acquire my info is to input everything manually. It’s fine, I have more time at the check in counters, they are nice people most of the time.
The name game, oh boy!
“So my last name goes first, my first name goes last and everything else is my middle name.”
Wait, what?! Let’s try that again,
“My last name goes first and everything else is my first name… yes all three of them.”
Well, for a typical Vietnamese name, the family name goes first — heck yes we’re family-oriented like that, then the middle name (could be one, two or sometimes three names) and finally the given name. Take my name for example, my full official name on my Vietnamese passport is Nguyễn Thanh Vân Anh: Nguyễn is my family name, Thanh is my middle name and Vân Anh is my given name which is compound, but I prefer to go by Anh which leave Thanh Van my middle name. It’s quite common to have that many names, gotta combine something from both parents if not grandparents, you know (since each family has less and less kids now).
Anyway, my point is not trying to confuse you, I’m just letting you know that it’s not always easy to have our official paperworks filled out correctly when we travel. All accents and Vietnamese characters not being considered, our names still often get messed up.
Passport loss is a nightmare!
I get it, this applies to every nationality. True! HOWEVER when Viet backpackers travel outside of Southeast Asia and of other developed countries, the chance of having a Vietnamese embassy or consulate becomes very slim and sometimes doesn’t even exist. I got robbed a few times traveling through South America but I was extremely grateful for not having lost my passport once. No Vietnamese diplomatic mission stationed in the countries I traveled through: Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, etc. If my passport had been taken too, I really don’t know what I would have done.
Well, I experienced something similar enough I guess. I once got rejected at the Bulgaria border with an official letter from the police and all, not because I didn’t have my passport but because I didn’t have my Spanish residency card (it went missing along the trip). Had I held a stronger passport, I could have entered the country without needing the Spanish ID instead of getting kicked out.
But enough of the disadvantages, there are perks of carrying a Vietnamese passport too:
We “conquer” Southeast Asia.
Delving more into the visa “privilege”, South East Asia is the golden region for us as Vietnamese nationality is exempted to obtain any visa from the 10 neighboring countries. Yay! And Southeast Asia is the dreamland for any backpacker, Vietnamese included! Tropical weather, great food, gorgeous beaches, cheap accommodation, friendly people, everyone wants to be in Southeast Asia! We can literally ride a scooter to see Angkor Wat or take a weekend getaway to Koh Phi Phi within a heartbeat. What a blessing!
We get a lot of attention!
“I’ve never seen a Vietnamese passport before”, an immigration officer in Ecuador once told me despite the irony that Ecuador exempts visa for a lot of countries, Vietnam included.
Less common also means more special. I find that having a minority passport is a great ice-breaker. The first conversation goes far beyond “Where are you from?” but “I have only heard of Vietnam from history books, tell me more about your country!” People are curious to learn about Vietnam and that is definitely something to be grateful for!
We’re expert at exchanging money
Well not passport related but I thought I’d mention since it ties to our Viet background. By no means geniuses, we’re pretty good at making out the difference between currencies like a boss, simply because we grow up with inflation. A lot of it! For instance, any single Vietnamese note has anywhere from four to six digits, making us talk thousands and millions (VND – Vietnamese Dong) on a daily basis. Does it scare you off?
Well 13,500 Indonesian rupiah which is 1USD probably freak out the majority of people, but Vietnamese. The Vietnamese equivalence almost double those digits! Yes, 1USD goes a long way in Vietnam, far more than just crappy products from the Dollar-tree! At the same time, it doesn’t mean you could buy a thousand things with that money (maybe two sandwiches). It seems absurd if you don’t live there. But once you do, you’ll nail calculating exchange rates and handling multiple-digit money, too!
That said, holding a Vietnamese passport isn’t so bad after all
Vietnamese can happily travel to 49 countries visa free or on-arrival! I’m thankful for every country that opens their frontier entrance a little wider to us. And for the visa application, the process gets more bearable after each time and becomes just another step of the pre-travel.
I know some of the above are not Vietnamese passport exclusive, many international friends can also relate. Despite of the color of your passport, you know there’s nothing can ever hold back the itchy feet. Happy traveling!