Like many other foreigners working and living in Vietnam, I had been planning to travel home sometime later this year, once vaccines would become more readily available around the world and border restrictions were lifted or eased. However, the timing would have it that Vietnam would enter its second and harshest lockdown, while most of the Americas and Europe were just opening up in June.
In fact, my quickly planned trip back home to California coincided with the state’s reopening.
In a three-part series, I’ll be sharing my preparation to exit and return to Vietnam. In this kick-off column, I’ll focus on my pre-departure planning, the airport departure, and arrival in America. In part 2, I'll be sharing my experience traveling back to Vietnam. And in part 3, I’ll be sharing what quarantine is like in Vietnam upon arrival.
Arranging my paperwork
While filing special entry paperwork with the People’s Committee and Immigration departments, I had to ensure that my temporary residency card (TRC) and work permit were valid.
I worked with my contact to arrange the necessary filings. If you’re looking to get in touch with someone to help you with this process, feel free to contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
The timeline to secure my working documents began at the beginning of the year, a total of six months to receive the paper copies in hand. My special one-time entry paperwork took me six weeks. I had to prove that our company (Vietcetera) would sponsor my employment.
For those that don’t have the TRC and work permit yet, filing special entry paperwork as a new foreign worker in Vietnam takes extra time.
In the special entry permit paperwork, you can list any airport as your port of departure once going back to Vietnam, but this can easily be changed to any airport of your convenience. Furthermore, I'd recommend working with a trusted agent to ensure paperwork accuracy. Any mistakes will likely delay or deny your application.
PCR test before leaving
This part was the easiest. I made an appointment two days in advance via email to Family Medical Practice at their Diamond Plaza location in District 1. Their COVID testing center is outside on the ground floor entrance of their facility. I checked in, filled out a short medical declaration digitally, and waited for five minutes before getting called in by the nurse for the double nose swab and throat swab. A few minutes later, I paid at the kiosk and was on my way. I received my test results almost 24 hours later by phone. I went back to the facility to pick up the stamped and signed English-language copy of the Fit To Travel certificate, which is needed to get on my flight.
The price for the test was a cool 2,700,000 VND. There are alternatives that are cheaper. However, the clinic was next to my apartment and I didn’t want to jump through too many hoops and queues, so the extra premium was worth it.
You can email their medical coordination team at email@example.com with your scanned passport, home address, mobile number, and preferable time to book the appointment. You can also share your flight booking departure time so their team can advise you on the best time to take your test.
Booking my flight
I waited to book my flight until I received my PCR negative test results. The reason was that flight prices were the same if you booked a month in advance or if you waited 24 hours before your flight to confirm, based on my search results for Singapore Airlines - other airlines might be different. Exiting Vietnam is as easy as your usual pre-COVID flight booking experience. All you need to do is hop onto your preferred airline carrier and book online. In my case, I arranged my flight on Singapore Airlines’ website for a flight going from Saigon to Singapore and onwards to San Francisco.
I paid using a credit card and filled out my passenger details as normal. Aside from a short signed declaration, you’ll need to make at the airport check-in desk about your negative COVID results, no extra paperwork or documentation is required online, at least for those traveling to the US.
At the airport
The international terminal at Tan Son Nhat was empty. Check-in was a breeze and nothing out of the ordinary.
Immigration did make me wait a bit. I had entered Vietnam in March 2020 after a holiday on a single entry visa, since my work permit was not ready then. The immigration officer asked for my e-visa from that entry in March 2020, which I did not have as I had a one-time entry visa printed into my passport instead. That created a bit of confusion on my end, as I had not recalled which visa format I had used to last enter Vietnam. After a bit of back and forth, I told the immigration officer that I did not use the electronic system, and rather had a printed single entry visa in my passport.
I recommend clarifying the visa that you last used to enter Vietnam so you present the correct visa while exiting immigration.
The flight itself was normal and nothing different than a domestic flight experience during COVID. The only difference was that Singapore Airlines had stricter COVID protocols and a few of the other passengers were voluntarily fully dressed in protective suits. The flight was smooth.
Transiting in Singapore
In Singapore, COVID procedures are taken seriously. All airport staffs are required to dress in protective suits and to wear face masks and face shields. It legitimately did feel like a war zone!
At the airport, I was entitled to lounge access which was a converted seating area in the terminal. The actual airport lounges were closed. While deplaning from the Saigon flight and transiting through to the next gate, airline staff were on hand to escort all guests and remain in certain areas of the terminal before the next flight. While I didn’t try to, it didn’t seem like you were able to wander around the airport as you would normally be able to.
Arriving in the USA
The almost 16-hour flight to San Francisco was nothing out of the ordinary. The food service was a bit more limited compared to your usual flight experience if anything.
As a US Citizen, I used my Global Entry privileges when arriving so the immigration wait was short. There was a long line for those traveling on non-US passports, but it was no more than 50 people at its peak. I was curbside, outside of the airport, within 20 minutes of arriving.
A few questions were asked by the immigration officer, though the interaction was short and professional.
Leaving Vietnam was easy and nothing too difficult. Look out for the second and third parts of this column where I’ll be sharing re-entry to Vietnam and my quarantine experience, which hopefully will coincide with the recent reduction in quarantine time from 21 to 7 days.