My flight from Luang Prabang was to leave Laos at around 5pm and arrive in Vietnam a little after 6pm. I was nervous from the start, because the process for getting a visa for Vietnam is extremely confusing and there’s no official information online. Before I left home, I applied and paid for an “approval letter” that is basically just a document from the Vietnamese government saying I had permission to enter the country on a tourism basis, but I would still need to get a visa before entering. From my understanding, this meant that I could get a visa on arrival using the letter, but everyone else I’d met so far on my trip that was planning to go to Vietnam had been going to the embassy and paying something around $60 to get the visa beforehand.
Louise, the Australian girl I met in Pai, used to work for immigration in Ho Chi Minh City, so I kept asking her to make sure my plan was ok. Even she wasn’t totally sure, but she said I “should” be ok as long as I had the $25 in US dollars to pay for the stamping/visa fee when I arrived at the airport in Hanoi. My backup plan if I was denied entry to Vietnam was to find a cheap flight to Bangkok and go from there (since flights to pretty much anywhere in Southeast Asia are cheap from there).
I took a tuk-tuk to the airport, probably the smallest airport I’ve ever been to, and went through security assuming there would be a currency exchange on the other side where I could exchange my Lao kip for USD for my Vietnam stamping fee. I was wrong, so I sat at my gate panicking even more about not being able to enter Vietnam. I was also pretty annoyed, because the Lao kip is a closed currency, meaning it can’t be exchanged for different currencies once you leave the country, so I’m stuck with about $50 worth of money I can’t use or exchange… If you know anyone heading to Laos (or Morocco – same thing happened to me there haha), let me know and I’ll give them some spending money.
Once I got to immigration in Hanoi, everything was SO much easier than I’d expected and it turns out I was worried for nothing. All I had to do was fill out an application, hand over my approval letter and extra passport photo, and wait about 20 minutes. Thankfully, there was an ATM next to the visa application office and they accepted Vietnamese dong for the fee since I didn’t have US dollars.
I found a second ATM outside of security to withdraw more cash to make sure I had enough money to cover a taxi ride to my hostel (about 45 minutes from the airport), my night’s stay, and a bus ticket to wherever I decided to go next. After I’d withdrawn cash, a man showed me a business card and asked if I needed a taxi. I asked the price and he told me 460,000 dong (about $20), about the same price my hostel had quoted me. I agreed to the price and he told me to wait at one of the taxi bays and he would pull up to me. When he pulled up, he was the passenger in the car with a second man driving, which immediately made me uncomfortable as it seems unnecessary and strange. When I asked him to pop the trunk for me to put my backpack in, he said no and told me to have it in the back seat with me. Also strange.
Tired from my day, and with my guard up, I sat quietly in the back seat, but the guy in the passenger seat kept talking to me with a lot of excitement and energy – asking where I was from, how long I was staying, if I’d been to Vietnam before, etc. Then he told me I’m “very beautiful” and asked if I had a boyfriend. I told him I have a husband back home and held up my left hand to show him the (fake) wedding band I wear – women aren’t very respected in a lot of the places I’m visiting, but I’ve found I get more respect when people think there’s a man attached to me.. Basically, people will respect the man a woman is married to, but not the woman herself. Better than nothing.
I started getting even more uncomfortable, because the man in the passenger seat would speak really nicely and excitedly to me, but when he would speak to the driver, his tone change to low, stern and angry, and the driver seemed to be somewhat afraid of him. I know the Vietnamese language is one that naturally sounds angry, but it was his tone that was worrying me.
I’d shown him the name and address of my hostel several times to make sure I was being taken to the right place, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something bad was going to happen. When we got close to the area of the city I was staying in, he started asking me about payment. I said I had enough and told him not to worry. He had seen me use the ATM, after all. He kept asking, though, and I wasn’t understanding what exactly he was looking for. He showed me a stack of small bills (1000 and 2000 dong notes) and asked I had small bills. I did have some that I got as change when paying for my visa, so I told him yes, thinking he was trying to sell me small bills (he kept saying “in Hanoi, small small small). He kept showing them to me, and I kept saying I didn’t want them, and then he suddenly got really angry. He was yelling at me in a mix of Vietnamese and English, and all I could understand was him continuing to say something about small bills.
I tried to think of what he could possibly be wanting from me and we argued for awhile – our agreed price was 460,000 dong, so small bills had nothing to do with anything. He told the driver to stop and said he would take me to the ATM and show me what he meant because I wasn’t understanding. I refused to go to the ATM with him, saying I had just gone to an ATM and had enough money to pay my fare. We sat there, stopped by an ATM, with him yelling at me and me refusing to go to the ATM until a policeman walked up to my window. I gave him my most scared look, hoping he would help, but then the driver drover away.
I told them to just take me to my hostel and I would pay them the fare however I wanted – he hadn’t mentioned anything other than price when we agreed to the fare and I wasn’t going to go to an ATM to accommodate whatever it was he was wanting. I took out my wallet and showed him my 500,000 dong note that I planned to pay with and told him, “I’ll give you this and you can just keep the change. Just take me to my hostel.” We pulled to a stop then and in a split second he had gotten out of the car, grabbed my whole wallet (with the equivalent of $150 in it) and threw my backpack on the curb. I’d been so scared the whole way that something worse was going to happen to me – my first thought in a sketchy situation with two men was sexual assault – so I was honestly grateful that it appeared to just be money they wanted to steal from me and jumped out after my bag. The passenger slammed his hand on the trunk of the car as if telling the driver to go, pushed past me to get in the car, and they drove away. Thankfully, I had put my debit card in my pocket after using the ATM instead of back in the wallet, so the only thing that was taken was cash.
Once I got my head straight, I checked to see if I was near my hostel and I wasn’t. They’d literally just taken my money and dumped me in a random part of Hanoi. I tried asking a few different women for directions to my hostel, showing them the address (since I don’t have service on my phone in Vietnam without wifi), but no one spoke English or knew where it was. Hot, scared, frustrated, and tired, I wandered around until I saw a hostel and went in the first one I saw. It was $5 for the night, and I was able to book a train to Cat Ba for the next morning at 7am. Get me out of Hanoi!