Why I didn’t travel to Vietnam but to ABC Islands instead

Before I write about my experiences on ABC Islands let me tell you why I decided to visit them.

Well, I was actually planning a trip to Vietnam and applied for visa. According to my researches all German citizens AND citizens with permanent residency in Germany (like me) can apply for it via post by sending the passport and visa fee to the Vietnamese Embassy in Berlin. So I did.

Next day I received a phone call from the embassy telling me that they need an “approval number” for my application because I have a Turkish passport and they didn’t know how to issue visa for Turkish passports in Germany as this happens rarely. Well, they couldn’t tell me how I can get an approval number. They told me to contact a travel agency in Germany who works with a travel agency in Vietnam who again is officially recognised by Vietnamese immigration office. So I did.

Communication Breakdown

I went to a travel agency (yes offline indeed) to ask for help to get this “approval number”. Well, my first conversation in the agency started already a bit odd. The lady asked me how I booked my holiday in Vietnam.

  • Me: I booked only the flight tickets, nothing else, yet.
  • She: How?
  • Me: Directly via the airlines
  • She: Yes but how? Via which travel agency?
  • Me: Errrm… Air France
  • She: But who booked it for you?
  • Me: I did, me, myself…
  • She: ???
  • Me: online… internet… ??? (my inner voice: hope she heard of it before)
  • She: ……….

lonely planet vietnam

She was confused but managed to turn back to the topic “approval number”. She said I can get an approval number if I book something with them. I decided to book the hotel stay for the first 3 nights in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), which I would have done prior to my departure anyways. She gave me a thick printed catalogue (didn’t know such things still exist) so that I can choose a hotel. So I did.

The same hotel would have been 100€ cheaper if I have booked it online, but hey, only this way I get this @!?%§ approval number. So next day I went to the agency to do the hotel booking. She wasn’t there and I had to explain my situation once again to the new guy. So I did.

At the end I booked the hotel and he gave me a lousy e-mail address in return which I myself should contact to get an approval number.

  • Me: ??? I thought you would do that for me automatically if I book something with you?
  • He: Well, yes, we give you the e-mail address of the agency we work with in Vietnam and we give you the booking number and this formula to fill in, scan and send to this Vietnamese agency.
  • Me: WTF ???
  • He: Just send it to them via e-mail and you will get your approval number in couple of days.

So I did.

Lost in Translation

The Vietnamese travel agency responded with following questions:

  1. Exact arrival and departure dates?
  2. Flight number?
  3. Where do you stay? And what do you plan to do in Vietnam?

I gave them the flight dates and the hotel booking number of the first 3 nights and told them that everything else is not booked yet as I travel individually and will decide in Vietnam where to stay for how long. They wrote back: “According to the immigration department’s policy, they just issue approval number for clients who have booked the full itinerary (detailed tour program, guides, hotel, transportation).”

lost in translation

Erm… Aaaallllright… So this meant clearly that an individual traveler with a Turkish passport living in Germany can’t get an approval number (unless they book everything in advance), and this again means the Vietnamese embassy in Berlin can’t issue a visa.

I did not give up and wrote e-mails to couple of vietnamese online travel agencies who offer their services for “visa on arrival“. But all of them gave me the same answer that they can not issue it for Turkish passports. I still don’t know why, by the way. So feel free to drop a comment if you do.

I could have booked some hotels and then cancel the reservations, but it just felt wrong. I could have contacted the Vietnamese embassy in Ankara, Turkey, but I had not enough time for it anymore as I needed my passport for a short trip to Istanbul. I was pissed off and had no ambition to travel to Vietnam after all. At the end I decided to cancel the trip to Vietnam completely and asked the embassy to send my passport and visa fee back, immediately. So they did.

New destination

Now, what happened with the 3 nights hotel reservation and most importantly with the flight tickets, you ask? Luckily I could cancel the hotel reservation without additional costs.

For the flight tickets I called Air France and explained the situation. The travel insurance combined with the flight tickets did not help, because it applies only if you can’t travel because of sickness. Besides because of this travel insurance the rebooking got more complicated than it should be, because we couldn’t do it online on our own, but had to call the call center. AND for the new destination they had to recalculate the travel insurance which again took 3-5 work days. So one thing is sure, that I will never ever again pay for such insurance.

Anyways… If I have canceled the flight tickets I would have gotten back almost nothing. Rebooking costs 120€ per person plus the price difference of the new destination. Well, it’s still a lot but it’s apparently the better option. I checked other destinations in Southeast Asia like Thailand, Philippines and Indonesia but they were all much more expensive. For example, rebooking to Thailand would have cost almost 250€ per person for which I can plan a 3 days city trip in Europe. Not that Thailand is an expensive destination, it is because a) it was too short notice and b) we didn’t want to postpone our travel plans for some reasons.

Then I saw this “world map” feature on Air France website. After clicking on “see prices on a map” you can enter your travel dates (a timeframe or fix dates), up to 3 departure airports and budget and it shows you the destinations that fit.

airfrance destination search on world map

By the way if you’re not bound to a specific airline, there are some search engines which gives you the freedom to explore, like Kayak. For more tips how to find cheap tickets I recommend Matthew Karsten’s blog post on Expervagabond.

Anyways… I guess you can imagine the rest. I saw the ABC Islands on this world map which fit to my criteria at that time and rebooked the flight tickets. Even better, as the tickets to ABC Islands were even cheaper the difference was reduced from the rebooking fee so that we had to pay only 66€ rebooking fee per person.

Lessons learned

  • Rather choose a destination you don’t need a visa for. Or a destination which is able to issue a visa easily online or on arrival. Sending passport and cash via post occurred to me pretty weird.
  • If you don’t want to miss a destination for which you need to apply for a visa in advance (like Vietnam),  then do it months ago… at least 2-3 months prior to your departure. Just in case! I was too naiv believing that I would get a visa without complications. Now, I blame myself for not researching enough and for not taking care of it in advance. So be smart and take care of it before it’s too late.
  • Don’t buy travel insurances combined with flight tickets! Most credit cards cover travel insurance automatically if you buy the tickets with that credit card. Check this with your credit card institute.

We tried to make the best out of the situation. If the decision of choosing ABC Islands was a good one after all? Here I wrote about Bonaire, Curacao and Aruba. Decide for yourself 🙂

UPDATE: Vietnam has changed its visa regulation for citizens of a few European countries, starting July 2015, which enables traveling without applying for visa in advance, as far as I could follow.

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