Wow. We hit a big snag at the airport last night – I’m still kind of in shock. Thao and I got to the airport a little before 10:00pm. James and Erin’s flight arrived about 10:20pm, and a few minutes later, we saw Erin come down the escalator into the baggage area. (We were having coffee in a vistors’ gallery that overlooks the baggage area.) I said “That looks like Erin, but she wouldn’t be by herself.” But after a while Erin looked up and saw us waving and waved back and I realized it really was her.
Thao and I thought maybe James had gone to the bathroom and Erin came on out to get their luggage, etc. Then, after we waited 15 or 20 minutes or so, we thought maybe James got lost in the airport. We really had no clue. Erin kept looking up at us and shrugging her shoulders and pointing back inside the airport, etc.
Finally, I motioned to Erin that I would try to meet her downstairs. I went down to her level and we were able to talk. She was still inside the part of the airport where people without tickets can’t get to (supposedly – more on that later) and hadn’t come through customs yet.
She said that there was a problem with James passport, that one of the pages was damaged and that they were telling him he couldn’t enter Vietnam and had to go back to Korea (where their flight to Vietnam had originated from). I was like “What!?!” I told Erin I was going to go get Thao and try to get Thao inside the airport to talk to the immigration people in Vietnamese.
Well, when Thao and I were walking back in – to the same area where I’d just been – one of the Vietnamese airport security guards came over and wouldn’t let Thao in. We explained the situation, but he said no way. That prohibition didn’t apply to me for some reason, so we got Thao situated outside and I went back in. This time, I walked through customs and went up to the immigration area on the second floor with Erin. (Try that in America – walking into an aiport and through customs without a ticket! Makes me feel really secure about Vietnamese airline security – but anyway.)
So Erin and I got up to the second level and there was James in the immigration area. He was on one side of a little fence with some Vietnamese dudes, and we were on the other side of the fence. He and a Vietnamese employee of Korean Airlines came over to us, and I tried to explain the situation to the Vietnamese guy in my limited Vietnamese (which proved to be completely unnecessary because his English was excellent – I just thought that maybe if I talked to him in Vietnamese and he knew I lived there and wasn’t just a tourist, etc., he might be more sympathetic to us – didn’t work).
He was very nice, but he said that the immigration manager had already reviewed the passport and made his decision and said that James would be refused entry into Vietnam. I couldn’t believe that there was nothing we could do, so I kept talking to him to see if there was anything at all we could do.
It turned out that the problem was that James and Erin’s dog, Cinnamon, had chewed up the cover of James’ passport. The identifying information was all intact – including the photo, signature, passport number, etc., but because the passport was damaged, Vietnam immigration would not let him in. James said that he never thought it would be a problem because he’d traveled internationally with that same passport after their dog had chewed it up – and they didn’t say anything at all about it that time.
Anyway, we explored a lot of different options with the KAL employee, but he was convinced that there would be no way to change the immigration manager’s mind. We then called the U.S. consulate’s emergency number, and spoke with a consulate official. She said she’d talk to the KAL employee and/or the immigration manager for us and, if necessary, she’d go to the consulate (she was on her mobile) and process some type of confirmation for James, etc. The KAL employee was skeptical that the immigration manager would even talk to her, but we prevailed upon him to get the immigration manager to come out of his office.
He came out, and he was actually a very nice guy, but he wouldn’t talk to the consulate official and said that the problem was that Vietnamese law was very clear that they simply could not accept a damaged passport. He said there was nothing he or anyone else at the airport at that time could do – regardless of what the U.S. consulate said. We even offered to pay him or the KAL employee $1,000 USD as a “fine” or “penalty” if there was anything they could do – but they said they couldn’t help us. They were both very sorry about the situation – realizing that James and Erin had just gotten off of a 25-hour flight and were now about to have to get on another 5.5-hour flight back to Korea.
When they finally convinced us that there really was nothing they could do, we started discussing how to handle it going forward. They were going to make James and Erin get on a flight back to Seoul that was leaving soon, so we didn’t have a lot of time. The real problem was that they might not accept James’ passport in Korea either – in which case they would put them on the next flight back to the U.S.
But assuming James could get into Korea on his passport, the next step would be to try to get the U.S. embassy there to give him a new passport or some type of temporary certification that would be good enough to get him in to Vietnam – at which point they would fly back. I asked them if they could extend their trip for a couple of days to make up for the lost time, but they said they couldn’t because Erin had to start back to work teaching the day after they were scheduled to get back.
We also discussed Erin staying in Vietnam and James going back to Korea by himself to work out the situation. The problem was that we didn’t know if James would even be able to get into Korea with his passport, and if not he’d be on his way back to the U.S. and Erin would be in Vietnam. (Which wouldn’t have been a problem, but then she would have had to travel back to the U.S. by herself as well.) So she decided to go with him back to Korea.
I felt very bad for them. I’ve made that flight or similar flights many times, and I know how tired you are when you finally arrive. And how the last thing on earth you want to do is to get back onto a plane. Erin said a few times “I really don’t think I can get back on a plane right now.” But in the end, that’s what they decided to do.
So I told them how sorry I was, hugged them goodbye, and they were escorted to their flight back to Korea. (For which they also had to pay $1,000 USD.)
Thao and I felt terrible. We couldn’t believe it and we felt kind of sick for them. But there was nothing we could do other than head home.
We woke up several times during the night and I told Thao “James and Erin are still on their flight.” We just felt awful about it.
This morning, I received an email from james that, after a lot of arguing, Korean immigration finally allowed him to enter Korea. So they are in Seoul now. He was going to try to get in touch with the U.S. embassy today to get the passport situation resolved. I looked online and it said the embassy is not open on Sunday, but there is an emergency number you can call and I emailed that number to James. (Not sure whether they will consider a stranded tourist an emergency but it’s worth a shot.) If he can’t get them to do anything today, they open at 9:00am tomorrow (Monday) morning, so he will try then.
My hope is that they will be able to get back to Vietnam no later than Monday night. We will have to cancel the Mekong Delta trip, but they will still be able to check out Saigon, go to the beach at Phu Quoc Island, and take the boat trip to Cu Chi. But it will turn an already short trip to Vietnam even shorter, so that sucks.
I guess the bottom line is before you come here – or anywhere – make sure your passport is in 100% good condition. I can’t imagine how angry I’d be if I flew all the way over here and then was told I couldn’t enter the country and had to get back on a plane. I’m going to check my passport throroughly every time I travel from now on. It actually has some staple holes in the back cover from where I’ve stapled in my customs declarations to keep from losing them. I wonder if that’s enough “damage” to keep me from entering a country? Maybe I’ll just go get a new passport so that it won’t even be a remote possibility.
I told Thao that James might kill Cinnamon when he gets back home. Not really. (By the way, the photo above for those of you who don’t know is of a dog that won the world’s ugliest dog contest a few years ago. At that time, I saw it online and I sent out an email to my family and friends saying that I’d gotten a new dog (this was a few years after my old dog died) and that the attached photo was of my new dog. In that email, I said that her name was Cinnamon – so James and Erin’s dog, Cinnamon, made me think about “my” Cinnamon.)
I’ll update the blog as I hear from James and Erin.