We arrived at the Chinese embassy in Hanoi bright and early on Monday morning, freshly scrubbed and with our best tourist smiles firmly fixed on our tired faces. With a six week love-hate affair with China only a recent memory, we were unexpectedly going back for more. Our cargo ship was leaving from Hong Kong in three weeks, and to get to it without flying we’d need to cross China. We were even hoping to see some sights along the way. So we needed another visa.
Armed with online assurances that getting a Chinese visa in Hanoi was pretty straightforward, we were feeling optimistic. Confident that we could jump though the hoops, if a little nervous that they might move them.
I don’t know what we were thinking. China. Straightforward. Ha.
They didn’t so much move the hoops as set fire to them, replace them with different hoops, then hide them, refuse to let us anywhere near them for several days, convince us that we’d successfully jumped through them, then tell us that actually there weren’t any hoops right now, and even if there were we weren’t going to jump through them in time so we might as well just leave.
But lets not get ahead of ourselves.
Getting a Chinese visa in Hanoi should be easy
Our shepherd for the application process was NOMADasaurus’s excellent guide to applying for a Chinese visa in Hanoi. They’ve got all the practical details you need: where the embassy is, opening hours, costs, issuing times, and a walk through of the whole process. It’s a brilliant guide, and you should absolutely use it.
There are lots of documents to prepare for a Chinese visa, wherever you apply. You need a passport photo, copies of your passport photo page, copies of your travel insurance, accommodation bookings for your stay, and tickets in and out of the country (it says flight tickets, but we were assured in the embassy that bus or train tickets are fine too). If your’re applying in Vietnam you also need a photocopy of your Vietnam visas and/or entry stamp.
So it’s a bit of a pain in the neck to prepare, but once all this is sorted it should be straightforward.
According to the signage outside the embassy in Hanoi, and numerous online accounts, the normal processing time for Chinese tourist visas in Vietnam is four working days, including the day you submit your application. So if you submit your passport on Monday, you should be able to pick it up on Thursday. So that’s what we planned to do. But…
Chinese and Vietnamese public holidays slow down visas
Three days before we arrived in Hanoi, rolling through the mountains of northern Laos on a 20 hour night bus, we discovered that the following Friday was a public holiday in Vietnam.
Excellent, was our first thought. Public holidays are great, there are always special events going on, everyone’s having a good time, and it’s the perfect opportunity to get chatting with locals.
Only 12 hours later, after a hot shower and a strong cup of coffee, did it occur to us that in the context of arriving in Hanoi to apply for a visa, a public holiday might not be excellent.
But, submitting on Monday and collecting on Thursday should have been OK, it’s four working days. We arrived in Hanoi at 3.30 on Monday morning, and we were at the embassy by 9.00.
Things started well…
We were scanned at the door with one of those plastic ping pong bat devices, then looked around a bit lost for a while until we spotted the stack of application forms on a table next to the (switched off) bag scanner.
The embassy was busy, but we managed to find a pen (better bring your own), and filled in our forms. There are four pages to fill in. Have a look at the NOMADasaurus post for photos of the form, the version sitting in the embassy as of September 2016 is identical.
All was going smoothly so far, we had all the bookings we needed prepared in advance, so filling in the form was fairly easy. We gave our completed forms and wodge of documents to the security guard/visa oracle, and he told us we needed a photocopy of the Vietnamese stamp in our passports. We hadn’t thought we needed one because we only an entry stamp not a visa, but it was no trouble to nip out and have our passports photocopied again.
If you find you’re missing some photocopies when you get to the embassy, there’s a cheap photocopy shop a couple of blocks away.
Motorbike taxis outside the embassy will try and take you to do photocopying for 30,000 VND, but you can walk in 5 minutes. Photocopies are 1,000 VND a page.
We were back in the embassy with the photocopies by 10 am. The guard let us up to the window to submit our application at about 10.20.
That’s when stuff started to get weird
The lady at the window accepted our paperwork stack and leafed through it for a while. She asked what a couple of the bits were — our cargo ship ticket out of Hong Kong, and our insurance document.
We’re standing there apprehensively, trying to look relaxed and amenable. Everything’s in order, so this should be a formality, we’re just waiting for her to tell us to come back tomorrow to collect our payment receipt, as we’ve read is standard practice.
She puts down our stack of paperwork and leans into the microphone.
I cannot take your application.
For this initial application we ‘d booked a fully cancellable flight as our entry ticket. Though standard practice is to issue a 30 day visa usable within three months, we had heard of people being granted the exact days they asked for. So we’d booked this flight for the following Saturday so our visa would start then at the latest. This, it turns out, was a mistake.
The problem was, that only left four working days for the application to be processed. The embassy lady informed us that the application would take 5-7 days, so she could not accept it, because it wouldn’t be done before our flight.
There is a big sign outside saying you can purchase express processing, in three or two working days rather than four. We’d heard about this in advance, which is why we’d felt OK taking the risk of a fairly last minute application: if we were delayed we could get the visas done express.
So we asked. What about an express service?
No express service, my manager is in a meeting.
If we’d known how many times we’d hear that phrase in the next week, we’d have burst into tears there and then.
We tried saying we wanted to apply anyway, and if it takes too long we’ll change the flight. No, we had to change our itinerary to apply.
There was no way we’d be able to prepare a fresh application by 11 am, when applications close, so we gave up for the day. This was a setback, it meant we’d be unlikely to have time to sight-see in China, but not a disaster. We still had 8 working days before our Vietnam visa waiver ran out.
After spending over an hour on the phone cancelling the flights, we decided it was such a hassle that we’d try with train tickets instead the next day. Really we wanted to take the train into China, as we had in the other direction a few months earlier. Arthur went to the station to try and buy tickets, but they wouldn’t sell them without a visa. We’d read that people had successfully got a visa before by explaining they wanted to take the train, and they couldn’t buy a ticket without a visa.
So this was our approach the next morning.
Day Two: an exercise in absurdity
On Tuesday we arrived at 8.30 am, and there were five or six people in the queue in front of us. Soon they opened the doors and we were ushered straight up to the counter to submit our fresh applications. (We’d picked up new forms the day before and filled them in at our hostel.)
She wouldn’t accept applications without a ticket. We explained that they wouldn’t sell us a train ticket without a visa. She explained that they wouldn’t give us a visa without a train ticket. This went on for a while. So we changed tack. What about a bus ticket?
Yes, a bus ticket is OK.
So the application is OK if we have a bus ticket?
Off we went to get a bus ticket. We didn’t have time to shop around, so just asked at our hostel. The lady at the travel desk phoned around a bit for us and found somebody who could sell us the ticket for 750,000 VND (about $35), delivered within 45 minutes, and date adjustable so we can change our travel day after the visa is issued. Sold.
The tickets arrive at 9.30, and we’re back to reapply by 9:45. It starts badly.
Why did you come back? I told you yesterday to come back on Monday.
The lady seems to have entirely forgotten we were there an hour earlier. She does look briefly at our new itinerary and our tickets when pressed, and seems to assent that they’re fine. But she won’t let us apply.
When are you travelling?
On the 10th, we have to say. Really we want to travel on the 4th, but we can’t say that because we’ve put the 10th on our application, so that she can’t reject it for being too last minute.
Come back on Monday. My manager is in a meeting.
How long will it take if we apply on Monday?
So if we apply on Monday it’s definitely OK to travel on the 10th?
Yes. Come back on Monday.
So it’s Tuesday, but she’s saying come back on Monday. Her manager is in a meeting. Long meeting? This is when we should have smelled a rat.
Day three to day seven pass in apprehensive waiting. We stay in Hanoi rather than exploring further afield because we don’t want to miss the National holiday on Friday, which is supposed to offer military parades and fireworks. But those don’t happen.
Day 8: we come back on Monday
She looks through the application quite quickly, doesn’t ask any questions. Smiles!
I hope this is the last time you come back here.
At the time we thought she was genuinely being a nice human. She understood how much hassle this was causing us and didn’t like it either. Later I began to suspect she meant don’t ever come back here again. We were asked to come back the next day at 4 pm to check the application is OK. So far so good, this is normal procedure.
Day 9: lock in at the embassy
We come back at 4 pm, which may have been the latest in a long list of mistakes.
It’s very busy but nobody is going up to the desk. We ask the Australian guy sat next to us what’s going on. He and an American have been waiting since 3 pm, and nobody’s been allowed up. At 4.30 they lock the front door. Some people give up, and when they unlock the door to get out more Vietnamese people come in and submit applications. Turns out you can’t submit applications in the afternoon, except that you can. If only we’d known that earlier.
Lots of men come out of the back office and start measuring up a door for a new lock.
Then the door through to the back room is unlocked, which makes us wonder if we’re finally making progress. We’d read you go through to the next room to submit your application, but we hadn’t been let through yet. Maybe today they’d properly accept our application and tell us to pick up our visa in four days, on Friday, the last working day before our Vietnam entry stamps ran out.
It looks likes something’s happening. All the desk staff disappear for a bit, maybe they’re going to start doling out visas next door? Then the door’s locked again. The security guard goes to change out of his uniform and comes out in a jazzy floral shirt. At this point there are still 20 or 30 people sat quietly waiting. Nobody has been called to the window.
At 5.30 the American guy is called up and told the manager is busy and hasn’t had time to look at his application, come back tomorrow. He tries a bit of cajoling with no success.
Then the Australian guy gets a payment slip. There’s some debate, she doesn’t want to give him a date to pick his visa up. Eventually she relents and tells him he can get his passport on Friday, though his flight is tomorrow (Wednesday).
Then it’s our turn.
My manager hasn’t had time to look at your application, come back tomorrow.
She insists only the Australian guy can have a visa, everyone else has to wait. In retrospect we should probably have argued more at this point, but then maybe no. We were still trying to jump through her hoops, even though they were both flaming and invisible. This is when we began to wonder if we’d have to fly to Hong Kong…
Day 10: hope dies
In our lengthy expletive peppered debates about what the heck is going on here, Arthur and had been wondering if they were operating a system where only one person a day gets a visa. So today, Wednesday, we’re at the embassy when it opens at 3 pm.
Except it’s already open. The American is already there waiting at the window. The embassy lady ignores him for a while.
After about 20 minutes she gives him a slip and says he can collect his passport on Monday. His flight is on Saturday, he explains. He needs to pick up his visa on Friday. This goes back and forth for a while. He gives up and leaves. We start panicking.
Another lady sneaks in in front of us to submit an application and gets turned away. Then we try.
My manager has not had time to look at your application, he is very busy. If you want a Chinese visa you have to wait.
But we’ve already waited seven working days from when we first gave you our application. Ten days have passed.
I know. My manager has not had time to look at your application.
We can’t wait any longer, we need to get our visa on Friday, our bus is on Saturday. And we have to leave Vietnam by Sunday.
If you want a Chinese visa you have to wait.
But you said last week that we had to wait until Monday to submit, and then it would be done in four days, definitely ready by Friday.
My manager is very busy.
I don’t understand what the problem is.
There is no problem. My manager does not have time to look at your application.
Can he look at it now?
He is not here.
Can you phone him?
I do not know his phone number.
I don’t understand what the problem is.
I don’t understand either. My manager does not tell me. I am just staff, I cannot look at your application. I think you cannot get a Chinese visa this time.
She tries to give the passports back. We shake our heads. We need a visa to get to Hong Kong.
I think you can get your Chinese visa in Hong Kong.
We need the visa to travel to Hong Kong, we are taking the bus.
I think you can get a Chinese visa in another country. You cannot get a visa this time. OK
Not really, no.
You can get a Chinese visa in another country OK I think.
We don’t have time any more, we have waited too long here. You said it would take four days this week.
We tried asking for express service, if there was anyone else we can talk to, and whether she could phone her manager (again).
You want to pay more money for express but my manager does not have time to look at your application. There are many people waiting.
She shows us basket full of foreign passports. Points at the lady before us who’s application she’s just rejected.
That lady wants to go to China to visit her son but she cannot have a visa.
We don’t know what to do. We take the passports, and we leave. I get about six metres down the road before spectacularly bursting into tears.
The sob fest continues in Lenin park for several minutes before I pull myself together. What would Lenin think?
We could perhaps have tried waiting one more day, but seemed that even if we got the go ahead she would say at least Monday to pick up. Too late for us.
We’d taken the passports back in the vain hope we could use an agency to get our visa, or go to another country to apply. Some manic googling ensued, but it was too late, there wasn’t enough time left for either option.
There was nothing for it
We were going to have to take a flight. Which was disconcertingly, if mercifully, easy. There was a budget flight on Sunday with seats available.
Eleven months on the road, all the way from London to Singapore without flying, and now we had to fly just to hop over 800 km of China that we weren’t allowed to cross.
There’s probably a lesson here somewhere. The ubiquity of flying is eroding the possibility not to? Bring snacks when you go to the Chinese embassy?
We felt pretty sorry for ourselves at this point, booking a flight felt like the end of our trip. We’d set out to travel round the world without flying, and in simple terms we were going to fail. Self involved perhaps, but in a sense this had been our purpose for nearly a year. And now it was gone.
But we weren’t alone!
We quickly stopped feeling sorry for ourselves, when we got chatting at our hostel to the Australian guy from the embassy, who had finally got his visa. He had been teaching in China for a year, and was trying to get back in to start teaching at a new school. He’d been waiting three weeks, and had eventually got the regional head of Education to make the embassy grant his visa. But not before losing £500 in tickets for two missed flights, which they’d insisted he’d have his visa in time to make.
And it wasn’t just him. There was a Spanish guy who’d just been told that he didn’t need to go to China, and turned away without even applying. The Australian had seen the same happen to a Dutch guy who had all the paperwork prepared. They wouldn’t even look at it.
Once we’d calmed down a bit, I asked around travel contacts to see if anyone knew where we’d gone wrong. A friend who’d got a visa in July with no trouble had heard it might be to do with the G20. Other theories include fisticuffs between China and Vietnam over islands in the South China Sea. Who knows.
The bizarre thing is that the reason she rejected our application in the first place was that the visa wouldn’t be granted in time for the flights in the application. But both the American and the Australian got their visa after they’d already missed the flights in their application.
Ah, China. You make so much sense.
Good news is, we made the cargo ship!