Foreigners distressed as automatic visa extension stopped at short notice

By Viet Anh    January 25, 2022 | 06:22 am PT
Several foreigners stranded in Vietnam because of Covid-19 are distressed at Vietnam's sudden decision to stop automatic visa extension, requiring them to leave within a week.

On Jan 8, Vietnam's Immigration Department said the automatic extension of visas for foreign nationals stranded in the country due to Covid-19 would end on Jan 15 because the country had resumed regular commercial international flights.

From January 1 to 15, Vietnam reopened regular commercial flights on nine international routes covering Bangkok, San Francisco, Seoul, Singapore, Taipei, Tokyo, Phnom Penh and Vientiane.

Flights to Australia were launched on the 15th.

Similar flights to France, Germany, Russia and the U.K. are yet to be added to the list.

With many countries easing travel restrictions, it has not been very difficult for foreigners on tourist visas to leave the country for several months now. The launch of regular commercial flights to some major destinations has further eased travel back home.

But the latest rule has been problematic to many as it came at short notice, especially for people who are stuck here for various reasons without money to afford expensive tickets back home.

"It was a very stressful week because I wasn't prepared for this unscheduled notice. I left on time and am now in Cambodia," said Australian Lucas Smith (name changed), 72, who'd stayed in Hanoi for nearly two years.

Living off his pension after retiring, Smith rented a house and occupied himself by volunteering to teach English.

Smith said he has great respect for the Vietnamese government and immigration agency for granting people like him free visas, but a planned process giving people sufficient time would have made things easier.

To leave within a week, he had to juggle moving out of his apartment, getting a PCR test done, applying for a visa for Cambodia and booking a flight. He said having to leave in the middle of a Covid spike close to Tet (Lunar New Year) was somewhat unnerving. When not many tourists are coming to Vietnam, "asking expats whose spending contributes to the country's economic recovery to leave was not good idea," he felt.

Smith said he loves Vietnam and its "wonderful people," and he will return one day.

"I chose Cambodia to wait for a chance of coming back to Vietnam. If the country introduced a retirement visa, I would stay forever."

Foreigners are in Hanoi in Feb 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Vo Hai

Foreigners are in Hanoi in Feb 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Vo Hai

Brian Matthews (name changed), a British retiree living in Da Nang, said he "panicked" when the official announcement came. His visa extension was granted for Christmas and he had relaxed, thinking it was unlikely to change until after the Lunar New Year.

Matthews, who’d come to Vietnam in March 2020 and had stayed back because of the pandemic, said he expected a properly scheduled notice on the lines of "this is the last month and you must leave." He was surprised when he got a week's official notice and an agent only told him two days before the deadline that "no extensions are available."

Before Covid, Matthews had chosen Vietnam as a base to visit other countries in Southeast Asia. With savings and rental income from his property in the U.K., he had no intention to work in Vietnam.

Matthews said he was grateful to the authorities for giving free extensions to his tourist visa. He said he’d been careful to comply with all country's laws and regulations. He thought he had not been "a burden to Vietnam" and had a good life. In addition, Matthews considered his move to Southeast Asia to be permanent so he went through the process to have his pedigree cat with him.

After experiencing some "stress" amid "unclear" regulations, Matthews was allowed to stay to find a flight back to the U.K. by the end of January, transiting in Qatar. When the Omicron variant made things difficult, he left his cat with a Vietnamese friend, and was checking on the possibility of getting his cat back.

"I'll go back to the U.K. and move on from there later. Hope that I will be able to come back to Vietnam soon."

Frenchman Thierry, also living in Da Nang, said the "sudden" announcement meant that he had to leave when he and his Vietnamese fiancé were waiting for necessary documents to get married. The marriage had to be postponed because of the pandemic.

"It was not easy and there was a lot of drama when it was time to leave and pack almost overnight."

Thierry, 57, had been in Vietnam for over two years after retiring in Singapore. He lived in a hired apartment with his savings. He said "all looked fine till the immigration agency decided to stop any chance of extending or renewing the tourist visa."

After checking his options, Thierry decided that Cambodia was the easiest place to leave to. His visa agent tried to apply for documents needed for him to leave in time, but failed. He was fined and had to wait around two weeks to leave.

At a time when "some places are continuously changing their regulation for transit flights owing to the new development of the pandemic, Vietnam could have been "a bit more lenient towards the few (foreigners) remaining," Thierry said.

Finding ways to stay

Amelia Evans (name changed), an Australian woman, said she was asking an agent to get her a business visa. She wanted to stay in Vietnam because conditions in the country are good for her job category.

With the new visa, Evans would have time to process a work permit, which she could be qualified to get.

"I need to wait for around two weeks to know the result."

She said she had paid the fine for overstaying and was waiting to know the final word on her being able to continue to live in Vietnam.

Louise Janssens (name changed), a Belgian living in HCMC, felt that speeding up completion of paper work for marrying his Vietnamese fiancé was a good way to stay on in the country.

He said he has had trouble in extending his business visa since the lockdown in summer 2021.

For his part, Dylan, 29, a Canadian living in Hanoi, said he had been asked by his employer to get his visa renewed several times so far.

He said he was waiting for his company to process his work permit and would know the results after the Lunar New Year.

"I am worried, I really don't want to leave because it may be hard to return to Vietnam."

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