I flew to the Philippines in mid-January to be with my family in what was the most trying time of our lives. It was supposed to be just a two-week vacation. I left Vietnam feeling confident I’d be able to come back as scheduled, without any hassle.
My business visa expired four days after I left, but I thought getting it renewed would be easy and fast. My work permit was also being processed at that time, so I only really needed to wait for it and my new visa to be approved and sent to the Philippines so I could process my exit certificate.
But as I read the news about Vietnam’s COVID-19 situation and the entry policies, it dawned on me there’d be a big chance I won’t be flying back after the Tet holiday. The agent, who was helping me with my work permit and visa application, tried so hard to be comforting, but said she wanted to be totally honest, “It’s going to take months.”
Vietnam’s coronavirus infections by February were rising, recording more than 50,000 cases daily. Come March, nearly half a million cases were reported in just one day. It was scary — knowing Vietnam might go into full lockdown like what happened in the second and third quarters of 2021, and the probability of me not being able to come back at all.
The visa waiting game
It didn’t help that the Vietnamese government was constantly changing its policies and postponing border reopening. I was given the option to process my visa through the Vietnam Embassy in the Philippines, which was a plane ride away from my city. After I got a confirmation from the Embassy that they could accommodate me, my visa agent called and told me to stay put. “The government might lift some restrictions next week, so let’s just be patient.” By then, obviously, my visa application was temporarily shelved. “Let’s wait and see,” I was told.
When Vietnam finally opened the borders and lifted some entry restrictions on March 15, I got my hopes up again. But Vietnam’s new policies then were made to serve tourists, not foreign workers. If I were traveling for leisure, I would have been allowed a visa-free stay in Vietnam for 21 days. Alas, I can't do that.
It was either the fact that I knew that everything would turn out fine somehow or the fact that I could not afford to lose my job that I remained faithful. I cried and got frustrated, yes, more than a dozen times. But I was almost certain I’d get through it and will be back in Vietnam in no time.
By mid-April and just days after Vietnam’s COVID-19 cases surpassed 10 million, I received my pre-approved work visa letter, entry permit, employment contract, and work permit neatly wrapped inside a yellow DHL envelope. It was, by far, the most valuable package I have ever received; I thanked the heavens nonstop that day.
The one-month single-entry visa and entry permit cost $450.
After some more hiccups with the Philippine department processing my exit certificate and flight booking, I finalized my journey back to Vietnam.
My flight was on May 1, before the Vietnamese government decided to scrap COVID-19 testing. So I had to take a rapid antigen test (VND300,000) before I boarded the plane and had to make sure my travel insurance covered COVID-19 (VND510,000). I had one bag solely dedicated to my documents: Work permit, visa and entry letters, contract, and probably more than ten photocopies of each.
With all that I had to go through just to be allowed entry to Vietnam again, losing a single document would be enough to finally make me go insane.
The flight from Cebu to Manila and then to Saigon was smooth. I had every possible paperwork with me. I went through the Philippine Immigration without any fear.
But what I didn’t expect was how easy things would be when I landed in Saigon. I was not asked for anything else after getting my work visa glued on my passport (that's an additional USD25) at the counter beside the Immigration booths. I didn’t have to present my negative COVID-19 test or show proof of travel insurance, my PC-COVID app, and electronic health declaration.
While it was a relief — and honestly something I shouldn’t even complain about considering the trouble I went through for my work visa — the actual entry to Vietnam was easy, too easy perhaps.
I know Vietnam’s trying to speed up its economic recovery. The government’s been gradually scrapping entry requirements in the past few days (inbound tourists don’t need to undergo any kind of COVID testing from May 15). But I also personally believe that it should not be lenient. The pandemic is far from over, and a new outbreak can pull this beautiful country back to square one.
Seeing how alive Tan Son Nhat International Airport was when I arrived two weeks ago compared to how quiet and eerie the place was back in January, I know Vietnam is making incredible progress.
I wish for nothing but full recovery and healing for my second home. I am happy to be back.