Whenever people asked me what my most memorable experience on the road is, I always mention them what happened on December 17, 2016 while I was crossing the border from Cambodia to Vietnam. Although it happened years ago my memory of this event is still clear.
Warning: This could be a bit of a horror story and you might see it as a negative side of Vietnam. I am asking you to look at my story as a travel experience and not as a backlash.
Disclaimer: This post is not in any way throwing shade or negativity against Vietnam. I love Vietnam! It is one of my favorite countries in Southeast Asia and honestly I am looking forward to living there again in the future. I am just simply sharing my experience in crossing the Vietnam- Cambodia border.
Mộc Bài is an international border gate between Vietnam and Cambodia located in Tây Ninh Province, Vietnam and Bavet border gate, Svay Rieng Province, Cambodia. It is a popular and the busiest gateway from Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam to Phnom Penh, Cambodia and vice versa.
I crossed this border thrice. The first two was when I was living in Vietnam and the most recent one was when I was backpacking in Southeast Asia.
For Philippine passport holders, we are visa free for both Vietnam and Cambodia for 21 days. If you are not applying for a visa on the border then your journey will be smooth sailing because the bus assistant will do the job for you. He will just simply collect you passport, guide you with immigration procedures then finally return your passport with entry stamp. However, if you are applying for a long term visa then that’s a different story.
I was living in Vietnam for three months with a business visa. When my visa was about to expire, I am advised to renew it thru exit/ visa run. As per my agent’s advice to leave the country and go back after few days because it will be more costly and complicated to extend my visa without leaving Vietnam.
A month before my scheduled exit my friend told me that she paid $50 for her single entry business visa in the border. I got confused because to my knowledge it should only cost $25. I entered Vietnam thru Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi with the same visa and it only cost me $25 with a receipt. According to my friend she doesn’t have a choice because she was scared that her bus will leave her on the border. This alarmed me so I contacted my agent immediately. I told her about the situation that my friend had and she promised to look into it. Two weeks later I received a call from her. She notified me that my invitation letter is ready and reminded me that I should only pay $50 in the border.
*To obtain a business or long term tourist visa you have to get an invitation letter from a travel agency. The price varies depending on what visa and the duration of your stay. As for my second visa, I opted for 3 months multiple entry business visa which cost $200 invitation letter and another $50 for the visa sticker. It is processed in the visa desk by the immigration officer in the airport or border.
*The fees are collected in USD.
The morning before we board our bus to Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam after spending 3 days in Phnom Penh, we had a chat with my friend’s housemate over breakfast. We talked about the difference of extending visas between Vietnam and Cambodia. He mentioned that in Cambodia, it is cheaper to extend your visa in the immigration office without leaving the country. He also mentioned the small corruption that is going on. According to him he should just pay $30 but he paid $40. The $10 is for the immigration officer’s tip that is pretty common. I suddenly remembered my friend’s story from last month so I quite expected that I could be charge more in the border. I decided to screenshot an English phrase in google translator to Vietnamese language, “give me a receipt”.
At 8 a.m we took the bus to Saigon. As usual, the bus assistant collected our passports. We also gave him our invitation letters. When we reached the border at 11 a.m, he called us to take the two motorbikes waiting for us. He told us in broken English that they are his friends. They will take us to Vietnam border to get our visas. Confused, I asked him why we are going with these guys and our stuffs are still in the bus. He explained that while other passengers in the bus eat, we should go ahead because our visa application will be take some time. My friend who is with me starts to panic and doesn’t want to go on a separate ride so we squeezed ourselves in one tiny motorbike. It was a 15-minute muddy and dusty ride. We exited the Cambodia border pretty quick but when we entered the Vietnam border that’s when the drama happened.
As soon as we entered the building our driver nodded to some guys who are waiting by the stairs. Three guys approached me and the other two went straight to my friend. They started mentioning visa so I thought they were there to assist us. But judging the way they look, I don’t think they are immigration officers. They are wearing a dirty utility or construction suit. Even though I was doubtful, I still followed them. They led us to the side where the filthy lockers full of web are located. It looked so creepy but I tried to stand it. They collected my passport and invitation letter along with my 2×2 ID picture. One of them is filling up a form with the details on my passport. The form was in Vietnamese so I don’t understand what it said. When they were done they asked me money. I asked them how much. The guy with the form wrote “$70” on his palm. As expected I am being ripped off. I told them it should be $50. I also heard my friend having an argument with the other two guys to pay $50 when it is supposed to be just $25 for her Single Entry visa. I explained that my agent told me that I should just pay $50 but these blokes can’t speak English so they gestured that my visa is Multiple Entry. I insisted that I know everything and mentioned that the airport charges $50. One of the dudes argued in broken English “Moc Bai Border different. Airport $50, OK! Moc Bai $70.” It was an endless tiring debate until I raised my hand and loudly said. “OK OK OK. $70! Fine but give me receipt!” The three guys got confused. “Receipt?” They looked at me wondering what I’m talking about. I took out my phone out and showed them the screenshot of the translator I had before. “Give me receipt!” One of them responded quickly, “No receipt. Moc Bai, receipt no.” I looked at the three of them with my roundest eyes, my resting bitchiest face with my both hands on my waist and I screamed, venting all my frustrations. “NO RECEIPT?! NO $70!” They instantly realized that I am not here to be deceived so the man holding the form said in a trembling tone to give him $1 for the form. My face didn’t change as I hand him the $1 bill. As he intimidatingly received it, he pointed the small immigration office near the creepy lockers where we were. He told me to submit all my documents there. When I turned around I saw around 40 people looking at us. They must have been bothered with the commotion I caused considering how loud my voice was. I smiled at them as a sign that everything is fine.
I lined up to the small booth. The motorbike driver followed me and asked me to pay him for the ride. With an irritated tone I asked how much. “$3” he replied I gave him 3. Instead of leaving he asked me for another $3 for my friend’s ride. “$3 for you, $3 your friend.” He said. My eyes got rounder again and place them closer to his face. Before I start saying something, he took off at the speed of light. People around me noticed it and started laughing. A co-Filipino told me that’s how it is in the border so I have to be extra careful with people approaching me because they usually take advantage of foreigners. A second later there was a tap on my shoulder. It was our bus assistant. He handed our backpacks to us. I was baffled. I held his hand and asked “Are you leaving? Wait for us. OK?” He just smiled and left. A foreign guy answered on his behalf “Don’t worry they will wait.” But that didn’t calm me because I can’t see him. Disturbed with the situation I asked around if there are buses from the border to Ho Chi Minh. Gladly, some people answered, there are and they don’t cost much but they advise me to be vigilant again of whom to inquire because some sees the situation as an opportunity to charge me three times more than the fare. After an hour or processing and waiting we got our new visa. We walked outside the building and good Lord our bus was parked on the side waiting for us. We walked in and saw dozens of annoyed people. We smiled and apologized for taking so long at the immigration and delaying the trip.
The Visa Process
The whole visa process from standing in line, submission of documents, waiting up to the releasing of visa took more than an hour. I am considered lucky because some people had to wait longer. One of them even complained to the officer when I had mine since he had been waiting for three hours already. I felt sorry for him and I understood how he felt but I am also not sure what the process is like as they just collect all our documents and we were asked to wait for our name to be called. While waiting I had a chat with some Filipinos whose been crossing the border many times. They told me that Asian passports are given more privilege and processed faster than the others. I don’t know if it is true since I only applied for a long term visa in that border once.
Regarding the scam that I almost fell into, just in case I paid $70 they will submit my documents to the immigration officer and they (scammers) promised it will be piled on top and will be the first to be processed. That is what I heard as they desperately try to deceive other people when I was observing them. The building was quite small so I can pretty much see the movement of the people. Also, I ended up paying $60 to the immigration officer without receipt. I didn’t argue since I am already tired, hungry and just wanted everything to be done.
You might think it is only $20 and that’s a dirt cheap amount of money. However in Southeast Asia $20 is a huge amount. You can do a ton of things with that money. I’m a budget traveler so my fund is limited. If we give in paying them $20 for me and $25 from my friend, imagine how much bucks they can get in a day considering the number of people applying for a visa in the border. It will also encourage them more to continue this kind of business and corruption.