Tuesday, April 29, 2008

SE Asia XXXIX - Hanoi Visa Woes

I had a love hate relationship with Hanoi. The city is vibrant. The Old Quarter is full of old buildings and has lots of atmosphere. However, the city is manic. The narrow streets of the Old Quarter are full of traffic. It feels like you are part of the traffic as you walk around and dodge the motorbikes. It felt stressful simply wandering the streets. The Old Quarter reminded me of the packed streets near the riverfront in Phnom Penh. While they are not as chaotic or dirty they feel suffocating especially when the traffic backs up during rush hour.

The traffic in Hanoi is amazing. The motorbikes swarm the streets in a constant whir of action. The sight of western tourists standing by the side of the road waiting for a gap is common. The trick to crossing is to step out and keep walking whether there is a gap or not. Moto's will carry everything and anything. A mattress presents no problem, even a family of five on a motorbike is not a problem. In such chaos I was surprised at how rare it was to see an accident.

A must see in Hanoi is Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum. You would be forgiven for believing that Ho Chi Minh is still alive with the number of images you see of him across Vietnam. White uniformed guards line the way as you walk single file into the mausoleum. They are there to shush anyone who dares to speak in Uncle Ho's presence. It is a bit strange seeing his grey frail body lying there.

The first place I stayed in Hanoi was Thien Trang. I had a broom cupboard of an ensuite room for $10. When I got back from Halong Bay I moved to Real Darling Cafe. I had an ensuite for $8. Real Darling also had dorm rooms and there was a travellers atmosphere in the cafe downstairs. I stayed there for two weeks and get on well with the staff. Real Darling Cafe were very helpful and charged one of the better prices for organising visas.

I spent a month in Hanoi because of problems procuring onward visas. The first problem was that the Chinese changed their visa rules. The change occurred just a week before I applied. The change made it much more difficult to get a visa and nigh on impossible to get a double entry visa. The stop in issuing double-entry visas was a problem because my plan had been to go to Hong Kong to get my Russian and Mongolian visas. It is not possible to get a Russian visa in China as a tourist. If I went to Hong Kong then I would have to get another Chinese visa which could prove expensive or impossible. I decided to try and get my Russian visa in Hanoi. Unfortunately the Russian Embassy require that you have the original copy of the letter of invitation to Russia. It costs $35 to obtain the letter from an agent on the internet, however, getting it sent from Russia took 4 working days and cost me an extra $75! I then discovered that the Russian Embassy would only issue me a visa if I had at least a 90 day Vietnamese Visa. I only had a 30 day Vietnamese Visa which I extended once. The 90 day visa cost me an extra $115. In the meantime I got my Mongolian one which was a relatively straightforward affair.

The Russian Embassy is a huge concrete complex which is ugly even by Vietnamese building standards. The address of the Russian Embassy is 191 La Thanh. However, the Embassy is located next to 1133 La Thanh. I don't know if this is a cunning deception to confuse enemies. The Consular is on the other side of the complex down an obscure alleyway. If you follow the high walls round you will eventually find some benches opposite a steel door. The only thing to tell you this is the place is a plaque with opening hours, and a glass cabinet with pictures of Russia. Apparently Russia has aircraft carriers, women and missiles. The steel door opened a little after 9am. It did not open so much as you heard a click, whereupon the Vietnamese guard opened the door. Inside the steel door was a small square with a single door in the corner. There was no sign of the person who unlocked the steel door. I wasn't sure whether to open the door in the corner. I nudged it and it opened. I was presented with a small room and a huge metal detector. On one side was a large window with a letterbox at the bottom and a very tall beautiful Russian woman standing behind the glass. I showed her my passport and she gave me an English application form. I filled it in. While I was filling it in the Vietnamese women who had been sitting on the benches outside came in. I queued up behind two of them. A third walked in and moved in front of me. A fourth walked in and managed to squeeze herself between me and the newly arrived third woman. I was somewhat amazed and tapped the woman on the shoulder. She looked at me and giggled. These four women were thoroughly enjoying themselves peering over one anothers shoulders to see what the Russsian official was doing. The Vietnamese don't really undertand queueing and my tap on the shoulder rather than eliciting a realisation of her queue jumping seemed to signal a different intent on my part. She wouldn't make eye contact with me but her compatriots did. They looked at me, chatted with their friend, giggled, and looked at me again. The Vietnamese left and the Russian offical looked at my papers. They all seemed to be in order. It turned out that she did speak English as she asked me when I wanted my passport back. One day processing costs $55. All in all my 30 day tourist visa cost $255.

The first time I went to the Russian Embassy it was very quiet and I was shown in ahead of the few Vietnamese who were waiting. The second time it was absolutely packed and I had to wait an hour before I could skip the queue and queue inside for another hour. How quickly you can skip the queue depends on what Vietnamese guard is outside. I went back because the machine readable line at the bottom had a spelling mistake in my first name. Apparently this doesn't matter so long as your name is spelt correctly on the main part of the visa. (I didn't have any problems in Russia with the misspelt machine readable line).

The Mongolian Embassy in Hanoi is the least official embassy I have visited. The Embassy is in the new diplomatic quarter. It is off the main road behind the Pakistan and Nigerian Embassies, and the opposite the Brunei Embassy. The address is Villa No. 5 but consular activities take place at Villa No. 6. A Vietnamese guard pointed me across the road. I rang the door bell and a gentleman opened the gate for me and showed me into the house. I was lead into what appeared to be someone's living room. A large desk sat at one end with a computer and some seats. A large Mongolian with a Russian accent sat behind the deak. He gave me a form in English which I filled in, I asked for same day processing which cost $60. (I got a 30 day visa with up to 90 days before entry). I did not require a letter of invitation or an itinerary.

I arranged my Russian and Mongolian visas myself. I went through Real Darling Cafe for my Vietnamese visa extension, 90 day Vietnamese Visa, and my Chinese visa. There are a few people who work there but the best person to use is Mrs Nguyen Thi Luong who always knew what she was talking about and if she did not know the answer she phoned someone to clarify. Real Darling Cafe Guest House, 33 Hang Quat Street (0084) 48269386. I found them to be very helpful.

How to find the Russian and Mongolian Embassies in Hanoi

To find the Russian Embassy you head west along Kim Ma St until you reach the huge Daewoo Hotel, from here carry straight on along Kim Ma St until you pass a boating lake on your right (Swan boats). There will then be a large junction over to your left is a huge ugly concrete complex, this is the Russian Embassy. Follow the high walls along to the right (as you face the Embassy) and you will come to an alleyway. If you walk down this alleyway you will come to a row of benches and a steel door. The Russian Embassy in Hanoi is open Monday 9-12, 16-17, Tuesday 9-12, Wednesday 9-12, 16-17, Thursday 16-17, Friday 9-12.

To find the Mongolian Embassy go to the Family Medical Practice (on the Lonely Planet map) 298i Kim Ma Street. From the clinic walk west to the first junction with traffic lights, turn right and cross over the road, about halfway down the road is the Nigerian Embassy turn left along the street between the Nigerian and Pakistan Embassies. Follow the short street to the end, on your left is Villa No. 5, infront is the Brunei Embassy, and on your right is the Mongolian consular Villa No. 6. It is only open Tuesday and Thursday morning to process visas.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for the detailed information. I'm about to get my visas out of Vietnam and reliable info is hard to come by, so I appreciate you detailing all your experiences.