Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

“If you are not a sailor,” asks the Vietnamese immigration officer again, in poor French that is still far better than mine, “why do you have a sailor’s visa?” I’m in a military immigration office in central Hanoi. Apparently, I do not have a valid visa. I have no ticket out of the country. I have no travel insurance to help me out. And now I am without a passport. The stern man behind the grill now has that. He asks again.

Have you ever had travel problems like these? It would not have happened with Wallach International travel insurance .

“If you are not a sailor, why do you have a sailor’s visa.”

In the last day a lot of people – different Vietnamese people in various uniforms – have asked if I am a sailor. I’m not.

But I do now seem to have a sailor’s visa and trying to explain how this happened is proving tricky. The visa was given to me by a very different kind of Vietnamese immigration officer. This Vietnamese immigration officer was so drunk he could barely sit in his chair.

The Vietnamese immigration officer now in front of me is not amused. He clearly does not believe my story.

A little over 48 hours ago I had arrived in the country. I had come on a cruise ship from Hong Kong to Vietnam’s Halong Bay. The ship would stop for a day at this famously pretty tourist attraction before continuing up the Vietnamese coast and then back along the southern Chinese seaboard. But when I purchased my ticket I said I wanted to get off at Halong Bay, travel into Hanoi on my own and then head, via the wonderfully named “Reunification Express” train, into China.

“What a great idea,” said the lady who sold me the ticket. Problem was, once I was on the boat and it was steaming toward Vietnam, the crew said my plan was impossible. Vietnamese immigration laws are strict and it will never be allowed. I would have to leave Vietnam on the ship I came on. But I insisted. I became a pain. So much so that the crew wanted rid of me. So once we arrived in Vietnamese waters I was ushered into the ship’s boardroom and there I saw what must have been 20 or more Vietnamese immigration officers, all in their olive green uniforms complete with impressive red stars on their lapels, sitting around a huge table stamping hundreds, if not thousands, of passports belonging to the tourists about to go on a day trip to Halong Bay.

The ship’s crew told me it is a regular ritual. The officers come out to the ship on a small launch just after dawn and spend the next few hours stamping passports. And, to get through this repetitive chore, they ask the ship to provide breakfast. Along with drink. As in bottles and bottles of brandy.

I walk into the middle of this wonderfully unlikely scene and the man who is clearly the boss of the passport-stamping crew enthusiastically calls me over and motions me to sit next to him. He then pours me a brandy – it’s now after 7:30 am so I accept – and asks me where I’m from and what soccer team I support. And we drink, tease each other about soccer and laugh a lot. And, after a while, I ask him if it’s okay to have a visa that will allow me to head solo in Vietnam.

With much waving of arms and two more large pours of the brandy bottle, he dismisses the question as if it’s a stupidly boring formality and then rummages deep into his big black briefcase.

My new pal pulls out an impressively huge machine with which he gives me a wonderfully ornate and large visa stamp. Cool, I thought, as we both admire his handiwork. We laugh some more, shake hands like departing brothers and I head away from the breakfasting immigration officers and onto a waiting launch that takes me into Vietnam.

I was excited for the adventure ahead. And I should have been. Unbeknown to me, my brandy-loving friend had given me a Vietnamese military visa. I had joined the navy.

I’ve heard it’s changed now but then Vietnam had an odd law that said visitors had to depart the country from the same point that they entered from. If you intended to change that, it had to be done at the point of arrival. I found this out when I tried to buy my train ticket to China at Hanoi train station. “Are you a sailor?” asked the ticket clerk with curiosity after he checked my passport. He then shook his head. I was cocky and I tried to dismiss whatever it was he was trying to tell me.

“Please,” I said, “just sell me my ticket.” I laughed, I smiled, I tried looking worried. And so on. “No,” was his repeated reply before eventually directing me to some kind of small police office in the station. And no prizes for guessing what the cop there asked me.

“No, I’m not,” I said as he flicked through my passport again and eyed me with clear suspicion. When he told me to go to the city’s main tourist immigration office I left without any complaint. But as I traveled on the back of a motorbike taxi as it weaved through the city’s cacophonously crowded streets, I was getting properly worried. What was going on?

I was soon to find out.

“Where did you get this?” said the friendly but clearly concerned young man behind the tourist immigration counter. He looked again at the newly stamped page. “I have never seen anything like this,” he said, shaking his head. I told him my story – the ship, the brandy, my new pal – and he just shook his head more. He actually winced at the brandy bit.

His office had authority, for an admin fee, to change passport exit stamps he explained but “there is absolutely no way we will touch this.” And he gave me the address for military immigration.

Hanoi’s military immigration building, as one would expect, is both austere and serious. And it took minutes for things to go wrong.

My Reunification Express train to China was a weekly service and it was scheduled to leave the next day. So I started to slowly explain my story to the military immigration officer and said, politely I am sure, that I would need my visa changed before my train left tomorrow. He cut me off to say it is impossible for me to have this visa if I am not a sailor.

“Why do I have a sailor’s visa?” he asks. Yes, I’m worried.

He then tells me, without any display of emotion, that I will have to return to the Halong Bay naval customs office, 150 kilometers away, to get this resolved.

So what do I?

Well, I swear at him. Not loudly. In fact really really quietly. Actually so under my breath that I think it was silent. And in English, which he had already made clear he did not understand. But this Vietnamese immigration officer heard it. And he had my passport. And he has the word ‘military” in his job title.

He says again. “If you are not a sailor, why do you have a sailor’s visa?” But now it’s a demand. I say sorry, I look scared – I am scared – and I ask him to give me a few hours. And I scamper back to my savior at civilian immigration and ask him to write me a letter. He sighs. I beg him to write me a letter. And he does. He writes me a brilliant letter.

It’s two full pages in Vietnamese script and with a big official stamp at the bottom of both pages. I wanted to kiss him. He clearly did not want to kiss me. So I headed back once more to military immigration.

“What time is your train tomorrow,” the same immigration officer asks me from behind the big grill after reading the letter. “Noon,” I say, “but I have to buy my ticket one hour before because it is an international service.”

“Come here tomorrow at 11.” That, of course, makes it impossible to make my train and I start to protest but his glare shuts me up. So I go the next day, but at nine, and I sit silently on the hard wooden bench and wait. At 10.45, he calls me to the counter and, without speaking, hands me my passport. I don’t even check it but I leave and head to the station. And by 11 I have in my hand a ticket for that day’s Reunification Express.

The train ride, that clanks its way slowly through Vietnam’s mountainous north, is glorious. It reaches the border at three in the morning and, Vietnam being Vietnam, all the passengers have to get off and walk through immigration. The official there flicks through my passport and stops at the page. Before he can ask I say, “no I’m not.”

The official looks at me, then back at my passport and then back at me again. And then he waves me into China.

It would not have happened with Wallach.

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