It’s January, winter has just about worn out its wonder for me, and it’s time to hit the road. It’s gloomy enough at 10 am on a Sunday that I have the lights on while I’m typing this. The bags are more or less ready for tomorrow’s departure. Everything lies spread out on the floor until tonight.
The next trip once again takes me all the way around the world in one direction. That’s the third time in a year — which surprised me a bit when I thought about it. This round will last four months and take me to Thailand (for our initial home base), then Vietnam, Myanmar, China, Taiwan, Japan (twice this time!), South Korea, Austria, Germany, Hungary, (likely) Slovakia for a couple days, and finally a week (and wedding) in Turkey. (How I’ve missed Istanbul!) A work appointment in Astana, Kazakhstan in the middle of February, fell through. (whew! -30F and high winds? Um…)
Timing was bad. Additions to the back end of my trip meant that my passport was going to expire within 6 months of my last country visit, which meant I’d likely be refused entry. So I had to get my new passport just four weeks ahead of my trip (and the rushed mail time wait was 2-3 weeks) AND I needed three visas, one for Vietnam. I rushed a same-day passport renewal at the Chicago Passport Agency, but needed the passport for another embassy. Americans can get a Vietnam loose-leaf visa by mail (see my post about that – it’s pretty easy)
But I screwed it up anyway. There’s always one little piece of drama in an otherwise well planned or at least flexible/easygoing trip. Last year I totally forgot to get my train pass ahead of the Japan trip (as one must) and so I learned how to get a last-minute Japan Rail pass. See? Not a disaster, but a learning experience. Sure.
Earlier this month in Chicago, with my new passport in hand, I went to the post office next door. I prepared the Express Mail package with the help of a clerk. When she weighed it all, she seemed surprised it was lighter than she expected. I had to put a money order inside and I didn’t have it with me. So I included an extra sheet of paper when she weighed the envelope. I got everything stamped and paid for, including a nearly $20 charge for the return mailer with tracking. (I did not track the outgoing envelope, however. #FAIL) The next day I put the money order inside, sealed it, and dropped it in a mailbox in Holland, MI (we were on our last beer road trip for the Michigan beer guide). And promptly forgot about it – I had lots of other work and prep to do, and I figured that was a done deal. Can you see where this is going?
Sorting through my mental checklist at 4am on a Friday, just 3 days before my Monday departure for Asia, I bolted upright in bed: holy CRAP! [*edited for the children] I never received my [*edited at length] Vietnam visa!! While my wife tried to understand if the house was on fire or if I was fighting off a burglar, I ran to the laptop and began a couple hours of panic. Three possible solutions, the third one miraculously worked and was best but perhaps not always repeatable: (read about How to Get a Vietnam Visa for the full analysis)
a. find an online travel agent to buy one that would (hopefully) be waiting for me at the airport in Ho Chi Minh City,
b. try to rush one at the Vietnam Embassy in Bangkok during my short time between flights, or
c. Wail and gnash my teeth, vacillate between anger and despair, rock back and forth like Rain Man and fail to go to my happy place, and then pace back and forth muttering to myself about disasters and how stupid visas are until the Vietnam Embassy in Washington DC opens for business. That’s 9 am Eastern Time (though the web site actually reads 9:30am). Jab at buttons per instructions and get disconnected 6 times when it says it cannot connect to the number, and then get disconnected when it asks you to leave a message and then changes its mind and says Goodbye. (true story). But right down at the bottom of the instructions on the embassy’s website is a phone number: In case of emergency. Hm… It FELT like an emergency. I called it. Bracing myself for a bureaucratic nightmare that is particular to embassies, consulates and obsessive/compulsive disorders, I got a very calm, pleasant and helpful man on the line.
I explained I had sent my application in with the money order back on January 5. Using my passport number and the date I mailed it, he attempted to locate the package. No luck. “What do I do?” I tried to keep the panic out of my voice. He asked me if I’d been to Vietnam before. I had. He asked me when my departure from the US was. He gave me a gmail email address and told me to email the application, a copy of the passport, a JPEG of a passport photo, and my credit card number and address. He charged $100 for the application and $20 to overnight the loose leaf visa to me. It arrived on Saturday just over 24 hours later. I was speechless. He didn’t even charge the expedited fee.
This whole drama could have been avoided had I 1) updated my passport sooner rather than trying to get a full 10 years out of it, 2) tracked the original package to the embassy, 3) remembered to contact them if I hadn’t gotten my visa within 7 business days.
And what happened to my original application? I dunno. I put the stop payment on the money order (from my bank). My best guess is that when we weighed it at the post office and the clerk expressed surprise at the lightness, she had done something wrong. Perhaps it was insufficient postage and because I mailed it far from my home, it never got returned to the return address. It’s a first time that I’ve lost something in the US mail (FedEx and UPS have screwed up many times and by proportion of use the USPS would have to lose a lot more of my mail to ever receive the same level of my disdain.)
So with a travel hassle narrowly averted at the last minute, we now await our departure for the Next Big Trip!