When I was little, I thought travelling abroad was an impossible dream. My dearest ambition as a teenager was to have travelled to ten different countries by the time I turned thirty. Beyond the financial considerations (as Vietnam is still a very poor country), travelling on a Vietnamese passport was not (and still is not) easy. It was beyond my wildest dreams that now, as I celebrate my twenty-seventh birthday, I have surpassed that dream and feel incredibly privileged.
Travelling independently on a Vietnamese passport is challenging at best. Visa requirements are complex (often with additional complexity as a special “bonus” for us Vietnamese), which drastically changes the preparations needed for travelling. That last-minute flight deal to Europe? Good luck getting that visa with less than three months of preparation. Want to pop over to Jordan from Israel? Go without me, because who knows when I’ll get that visa. Fancy a short hop into Guatemala from Mexico? Have fun, because I can’t figure out what a visa consultada even entails. Since not many Vietnamese people travel to more “unusual” destinations, finding visa help can also be quite difficult online (although this is changing very quickly).
Because of this, when I came across the page of a Filipina traveller on visas, I felt an immediate sense of solidarity (however, a Philippine passport gives visa-free or visa-on-arrival access to 63 countries, clocking in at 75th in the world, compared to just 49 for a Vietnamese passport, putting us at 88th). Quite a few countries have special hoops just for us Vietnamese to jump through: we require prior security clearance in both Lebanon and Jordan, require an advanced visa in Macau, must get prior approval from the Ministry of External Affairs to enter El Salvador, and cannot enter Armenia without a special invitation letter (which appears to be impossible to obtain). I’ve had to change my travel plans multiple times due to visa snags, and the bureaucratic hoops are never-ending. Neither is there rhyme or reason for these policies: while it is impossible for me to get a visa to Armenia, both Azerbaijan and Georgia are quite open with their visa policies; on the same trip where I could not get a Jordanian visa, the Israeli visa was fairly straightforward; and despite my difficulties entering El Salvador, I can go to Panama and Chile visa-free (along with Mexico and Costa Rica with a valid US visa). There’s a special place in hell for the Schengen visa, so it’ll deserve its own dedicated post.
Of course, there are a few perks for Vietnamese passports. Russian visas are quite straightforward to get and don’t cost much (although Russia doesn’t seem to apply its policy of reciprocity to Vietnam, as Russian citizens can enter Vietnam visa-free for two weeks) – the Russian consulate even made sure I got my visa in time and gave back change in cash (however, I just checked the website of the Russian embassy and it turns out that processing times are now 20 days. So much for that). We can theoretically stay indefinitely in Kyrgyzstan and don’t need to register with the police under 60 days (whatever the land border officials might try to tell you). The requirements also have been getting easier – Chile just abolished visas for us in 2018, and many other visas are much easier to get than before. Travelling on a Vietnamese passport also makes you inherently unsuspicious in a few places, which makes checkpoints much less of a hassle. We can also travel visa-free around Southeast Asia – however, there may still be problems at borders. When I tried to cross from Singapore to Malaysia, I was taken into a separate room, questioned about why I travel so much (heaven forbid someone from Vietnam likes to travel), and then allowed in…while they forget to capture my fingerprints, which would have happened had I gone through the regular line.
As nightmarish as this all sounds, it is a huge improvement to what it had been before. My mother, who had first gone abroad in the 1980s as a student to Australia, is still stressed out by the prospect that border guards will arbitrarily stop us. Because of all this, I always feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to travel. I suppose all these visa stickers also make my passport more “interesting” to some people (which causes my friend to retort: “what you mean is I’m very good at jumping through bureaucratic hoops”). So, next time you go anywhere on a whim because you don’t need a visa, spare a thought for our struggles.