Thursday, April 12, 2012

One Week!

Well, it's getting very close - one week until we leave! Next Thursday we fly from Townsville to Sydney and spend the night in Sydney, before flying out of Sydney Friday morning. Excitement! I'm even looking forward to our time in Sydney. I've lost track how many times I've been there, but you find something new every time. I'm hoping this time to check out the view from Mrs Macquarie's Chair as I've never been there before - yes, I know, I'm a very bad Sydney tourist.

Virtually everything is sorted. We are intending to enter Vietnam for a day on our way back from Europe (our stop over on the way there isn't long enough to justify the visa fee). Applying for a visa via the Embassy in Australia will set you back over $70, but I found an alternate way to get a visa for much cheaper. While the embassy will never tell you this, you can get pre-approval for a visa prior to leaving Australia, and when you land in Vietnam and show the pre-approval letter, you'll be given your visa then. This is different to 'visa on arrival', where you just turn up and get given a visa. 'Visa on arrival' does not exist in Vietnam for Australian citizens so don't get the two confused. At first I thought the visa pre-approval process was a scam. The site was dodgy and when I checked the embassy website it was obviously reluctant to endorse the pre-approval process (but, importantly, did not disown it as a scam). However Timatic, a service of IATA (the International Air Transport Association) verifies that you can get pre-approval for visas to Vietnam. Many airlines use Timatic on their own websites, so this was information I took straight from the Vietnam Airlines website, courtesy of Timatic -

Visa Issuance:
- Holders of an approval letter stamped and issued by the Vietnamese Immigration Department can obtain a single-entry visa on arrival, provided it states that the passenger will pick up pre-arranged visa at Noibai (HAN), Tan Son Nhat (SGN) or Da Nang (DAD) international airports. This single-entry visa is valid for:
- 1 month if traveling as tourist; or
- 3 months if traveling on business purposes.
The approval letter must:
- be both in Vietnamese and English, and
- contain passengers' data; and
- be arranged by either a sponsoring company or a local travel agency.
- Holders of a letter issued by the Vietnamese Immigration  Department confirming that a visa is ready for collection,  can obtain a transit visa on arrival provided arriving on  Vietnam Airlines (VN). Fee: USD 25.-.

I ascertained from other travellers (on Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree Forum) that they had indeed used this process many times successfully, and one user (employed by a european airline and works in a european airport) recommended using Vietnam Visa Pro to get our letters. Other users agreed. The best bit? US$9 each for our pre-approval letters, and US$25 each for the actual visa when we land. Much cheaper than $75 each, especially for only one day. If you are still uneasy about the process, PayPal is available as a payment option. The embassy website warns that it cannot endorse any such letters and that you could get turned away at customs, but most people suggest this is because the embassy is not happy with losing revenue with people getting their visas elsewhere. I tried checking the their Dept of Immigration website to verify the process, but it looks just as much like a highschool project as the Vietnam Visa Pro website, and doesn't contain a lot of useful information. And hey, if we don't get in, we have only lost $9 each.

Fortunately we don't need visas for any of our European destinations!

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