Since before I arrived in Vietnam, I knew that a border run was something I’d have to do, but it was three months away and, quite frankly, there were bigger things to worry about, so I didn’t give it much thought. Before I knew it, it was time for thought to be given; I was about to outstay my welcome in this country. Every ESL teacher, even the lucky ones who have work permits sorted for them, has to do the border run at least once, so I wasn’t alone in this. Having all arrived at roughly the same time, my now-ex-coursemates began to research and do the border run around when I did. And so, in various small groups, off to Cambodia we went. (Except for Cesar, who did it in style and flew to Bangkok). I decided to do mine with my friend Dan.
(Disclaimer: If you have, by some miracle, stumbled upon my blog whilst looking for a how-to-guide on the border run, you’re in the wrong place. Having only done it once, and still being relatively new to Vietnam and its visa-law-craziness, I’m definitely not the person to tell you what to do. However, http://oneweeknotice.com/vietnamese-visa-run/ has all the info you need.)
Vietnam’s visa situation means that pretty much all ESL teachers come here on a three-month tourist visa. You can renew the visa and remain in the country, but generally only for a month and at a greater cost than doing a border run. However, once you leave the country, you can come straight back in on a new three-month visa. The ideal situation would be to use this as an opportunity to take a holiday and go somewhere exciting, but temporal and financial restraints mean that many people opt to get on a bus to the closest border: Moc Bai, Cambodia. The whole trip can be done in well under eight hours and you’re not out of Vietnam for more than thirty minutes. It’s literally walk out, fill in some forms, walk back in and get on the bus back. Plus, the bus only costs 40k each way (about £1.30). It can feel like a bit of a waste of time but that’s Vietnam for ya, and whilst I wouldn’t do it for fun, it was certainly an interesting experience.
Dan decided that since we were going to be up incredibly early anyway (aiming for the 7am bus), we might as well have some fun and pull an all-nighter. I was exhausted from an 8am to 9pm teaching day, but in a fit of whimsy decided that it would be a shame to waste a night in Ho Chi Minh City, and agreed to his plan. Rather than going so crazy we would miss our bus, we spent the night people-watching and going from bar to bar (we even had a few beers in a rat-infested supermarket at one point: classy). At one point, as mentioned in a previous post, we idiotically wandered off of the main backpacker street to a much darker and quieter one in search of a coffee shop we liked. At 4am. There was a flashing “mug me” sign over both of our heads. Obligingly, two kind gentlemen followed us on a motorbike and grabbed my bag. I tugged back, cried out, and my awful shrillness must have startled him, because, like a twat, the grabber let go and fell off of the bike.
After that, only the safety of Burger King could soothe us, and so we ended our night in the same place it had started roughly six hours earlier. Sadly, our trip was tainted by the presence of a stereotypical obnoxious traveller who who felt the need to tell us how well-travelled he was and bore us with “advice.” And by advice, I mean telling us that the bus was probably going to break down and we were probably going to get stuck in Cambodia for two weeks (bearing in mind that buses go there from the city every thirty minutes). He suggested we’d have a much better thirty-minute form filling in trip in India, which is a mere extra 3000 miles away. We decided to head to the bus station a little early.
It turned out there was a 6.30am bus, so we boarded and began to wend our way to Cambodia. Thankfully, it was air-conditioned and reasonably comfortable. Dan’s all-nighter plan was actually pretty smart in that I was so tired that I was dead to the world for the entire way; when he woke me to tell me that we were there, I didn’t believe him. Right from the second the doors opened, there were people trying to scam us. “Motorbike! Motorbike!” dozens of men screeched, despite that the checkpoint is just a short walk away. As we began the process of leaving, looping round and coming back in, we noticed there were plenty more of these “helpful” people. We decided to ignore everyone who wasn’t wearing a uniform and sat behind a desk: a good decision, and even then not entirely foolproof. The worst was filling in the visa form to come back into Vietnam: even once we showed them our completed forms, the “help you, help you, no money” men would not leave us alone. They were harmless, but rather annoying. Eventually, we gave our forms to the penultimate official, who gives you the ultimate ‘yes’ or ‘no’ as to whether you can come back in, and the according stamp in your passport. We were charged $35, which was more than I remembered it being when I entered Vietnam back in March, but I figured perhaps it cost more at a land crossing. Nope. When I got back to Ho Chi Minh City, a friend who had done the border run the day before informed me that we had, indeed, been had. $10 isn’t, generally speaking, enough money to get upset over, but I was (foolishly) a little surprised and bemused that even the legit officials weren’t actually that legit.
Finally, the process over, we headed back to the bus, where we saw our final scam of the day. There were plenty of the “motorbike” men offering us lifts back to the city- for a fee, of course. We ignored them and climbed on the closest 703 bus home, only to be told by the driver that the bus wasn’t going back to Saigon. We were a tad confused, since the 703 was how we had reached Cambodia, and then we realised… The motos had cut a deal with the bus drivers. The drivers would turn people away (especially people, like Dan and I, with whom there was a good chance they didn’t really know what they were doing). We watched with vague amusement as the bikes would race towards each bus and cut a deal with each driver, before clambering aboard another 703 already filled with locals and refusing to move. Within a few hours, we were back in Saigon, but the city was considerably busier in the early afternoon than it had been at 6.30am, and getting back to the centre was taking forever. We also noticed that there was a man picking up and dropping off various boxes at each stop; perhaps it was just a side-effect of a long day of scammers, but it seemed dodgy. We decided to get off and Uber it to a pool to cool off. I assumed the ordeal was finally over, only I had forgotten that, in Saigon, buses don’t generally come to a complete halt when they let you off. Dan hopped off but like an idiot, I froze and the doors were closed again before I knew it. Luckily, some locals noticed the distressed-looking ginger idiot by the doors and told the driver to stop.
Finally, we were back in Saigon, ready for another 90 days, and celebrated with a trip to the pool and some fast food. After 18 hours together, we said our goodbyes at Uber-ed to our respective homes. My landlord was blaring the television downstairs and, though frustrated, I decided I could hardly ask him to turn it down at 7.30pm. I began watching a Netflix show and didn’t even make it through the first ten minutes; I woke up to my alarm the next day with my glasses next to me and a flat iPad battery.
The visa run could have been absolutely awful, but it was weirdly fun in the end. That being said, with (all being well) more time and more dolla, I’ll probably just head to Thailand next time.