What do I need to know regarding visas to enter Vietnam?

The most important thing is to make sure your Vietnam visa is stamped with the correct dates and the correct entry and exit points. The standard tourist visa is valid for a period of up to 30 days. If you’re going for less than 30 days you can either specify the exact dates, but it is probably best to ask for the maximum period to give yourself more flexibility. Processing normally takes between a week and ten days (some embassies offer an express service for an extra fee), but longer for overseas Vietnamese. To be on the safe side, allow several weeks as mistakes are common and inexplicable delays often occur.

When applying for a Vietnam visa, in general you have to fill in two application forms and provide two passport photos. One of these forms, with photo attached, will be returned to you with your visa. For some odd reason many people throw this form away. Don’t, because you’ll be asked to hand it in at immigration on arrival. If you don't have it with you, blank copies are available at immigration. If you’ve got a spare photo, all well and good. If not, you’ll have to engage the services of a handy airport photographer for the princely sum of $2-5.

If you need to extend your stay for any reason, it is relatively easy to apply for a visa renewal at present. Again this is handled by tour agents. The first renewal costs around $25-30 (including a handling fee) and takes three working days to process (please note that government offices are only open Monday to Friday). The maximum period you can ask for is 30 days and it costs the same whether you ask for 1 day or 30 days. A second 10-day extension is possible at a cost of around $35-40. For this second extension you will be asked to show an air ticket dated after the expiry of your visa.

Visas for those entering or exiting other than the airport

The standard entry and exit point is “Noi Bai/Tan Son Nhat”, ie. you can enter and depart via either Hanoi or HCMC airports. If you plan to enter via one of the land border crossings, then you should specify the name of the crossing when you apply for your visa. Check what you eventually get because some Vietnamese embassies seem reluctant to issue anything other than the standard entry/exit points. If you can’t persuade the embassy to give you the entry point you need, you could try getting it changed in the neighboring country. If that fails and you turn up at the border with the wrong entry point, you’ll either get sent back, or - more likely - asked to pay a “fine” of maybe $40-50.

The same applies for exit points, though this is less of a problem as it’s fairly easily to get them changed in Hanoi or HCMC. Most registered travel agents, including the popular “travellers’ cafés”, can handle this for you - you can't go to the immigration police in person. Rates vary (US$15-25), so shop around. It should take three or four days to process.

Are there any other entry formalities?

On the plane you’ll be given an Arrival/Departure Card and a Baggage Declaration form.

Hand in the completed Arrival/Departure Card with your passport and duplicate visa application form at immigration in Vietnam. The Departure Card will be returned to you. Keep this safely. You usually have to show it when checking into hotels and will be asked for it in when you finally leave Vietnam.

You should list all valuable items on the Baggage Declaration form, such as video cameras, portable computers and expensive jewellery. The duty-free allowance is 200 cigarettes, 2 litres of alcohol plus perfume and jewellery for personal use. You can take up to US $7000 into Vietnam in cash or travellers’ cheques; anything in excess of this sum has to be declared.

Hand the completed Baggage Declaration form to the customs official checking your baggage, who will give you the yellow duplicate - again, keep this carefully as it is required on final departure. (NB. You have to show your baggage check when reclaiming your luggage at the airport on arrival; the stub should be attached to either your airline ticket or boarding pass.)

Finally, it’s a good idea to make photocopies of your Departure Card and Baggage Declaration form at your hotel and keep them separately, just in case you lose the originals. They won’t be accepted in place of the real thing, but may make things slightly easier.