Haggling for a Visa at Ho Chi Minh Airport

Our plane was scheduled to land in Ho Chi Minh at 10:30 PM and we were planning on taking a low-cost shuttle to our hostel. Unfortunately, we were flying from China, so naturally, we got in at 2 AM.

We had filled out our visa papers in advance and we only had carry-on luggage, so all we had to do was pay $25 each for the visa fee. Although we expected to haggle with the drivers for the price of a taxi ride, we did not expect to do it with the border police…

Since the exchange rate for dollars is pretty horrible in Asia, we decided to pay the fee in CNY. The officers looked up something on the computer, nodded at each other and typed 500 into a large calculator. Our jaws dropped to the floor because 500 CNY is almost $75. Defeated, I was ready to hand over the cash when Isaac spoke up.

Isaac: “No, that’s too much, $50 is 330 RMB.”
Officer: “Go to the exchange office then.”
Isaac: “Come on, it’s 2 AM, I don’t want to go to the office.”
Officer: “Then pay 500.”
Isaac: “I’ll give you 400.”
Officer: *stink eye*
Isaac: “Here’s 400″ *hands him 400*
Officer: *accepts money and gives us our passports”
Me: “Run before he changes his mind!”

I don’t know how common this is and I definitely wouldn’t recommend trying it. We probably got lucky because it was 2 AM and the officers wanted to get to bed as much as we did. We did not arrive in Vietnam with the intention of underpaying for the visa and probably risked deportation for arguing with them.

We were also told in advance to bring the exact change in US dollars. The issue was that the exchange office in China also charge closer to 500 RMB instead of the fair 330. The reason the guards asked for so much in the first place is because they themselves will have trouble to get a fair exchange rate. Anyway,  haggling for our visa was a fascinating way to start our trip to Vietnam!

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What to Expect at a Chinese Visa Health Check

What to expect at a Chinese Visa Health Check!

I’m not going to lie. The visa process to come to China is one huge headache. It requires a lot of paperwork and everything has to be certified, translated and super official. But that’s not the worst part! Before arriving to China you need to go through a very thorough and unnecessary health check. Once you arrive, it is repeated in a Chinese hospital.

When the health check is done in your home/residing country, all you need to do is find a general practitioner who will do all the checks, do a blood test and then send you off for a chest x-ray. However, once you arrive in China, things will be very different. They have entire hospitals dedicated to foreigners who are going through this health check.

The process starts with your employer giving you the forms (sometimes they will fill everything out for you). They will also provide you with an employer letter and may photocopy your passport for you. Generally they will also make an appointment for you and send you off with instructions to not eat 10 hours before the appointment, remind you to bring your passport as well as 4 photos.

Pro tip: order a ridiculous amount of passport-sized photos before you even begin the process. I ended up needing at least 20 for the visa application and renewal.

Keep in mind that whenever you reapply for the visa (every year) or if you end up switching visa types, you will need more photos, paperwork and extra health checks. As much as it all sucks, yearly blood tests are good for you. Also, lung x-rays may be dangerous because of the radiation but they are also very important when you live in polluted China!

Once you’re in China with the necessary paperwork and a hospital appointment, the process can still be quite an adventure. Since every foreigner needs to go through this health check, the Chinese have become experts at getting you in and out quickly. Unfortunately, you will probably feel like cattle…

When you get to the hospital, prepare for lots of lines. First they will check all your paper work, attach photos and they will tell you what to sign where. The second line will check that you look like your passport photo and will give you a bunch of stickers with your name and a bar code. The last line will collect your money (a fee of 500 – 600 RMB that is usually refunded by the employer after your trial period).

Pro tip: bring cash. They do not accept credit cards or WeChat payments. I happened to forget my money and credit card at home. My foreign card didn’t work in the ATM so I had to run around asking strangers for cash in exchange for a WeChat transfer. It was embarrassing but it worked!

Once your papers and payments are in order, the real fun begins. You will walk through a maze of numbered rooms that usually start with a sort of coat check. Here you will be asked to take off your shirt (and bra) and put on a hospital gown over your pants. They will give you a key to a locker to store your clothes and other belongings. You are allowed to bring your phone with you, but you’ll barely have time to glance at it, so I recommend you leave it behind too.

Although most of China doesn’t speak English, these nurses and doctors do. They will yell clear instructions at you like “passport”, “next”, “room 208”, “relax”, “breathe”, “don’t move” and so on. If you’re scared of doctors or needles, prepare to not be coddled. Their ultimate goal is to get you out as soon as possible and it’s nor personal, so don’t get offended!

Speaking of blood tests… people will try to scare you. Just keep calm and don’t worry about Chinese needles being bigger than Western ones. I’m a huge baby when it comes to blood tests but these nurses are incredibly skilled. Seriously, trust me! I had my most painless blood test of my life yesterday with the biggest needle I’ve ever seen. But I have to warn you that they leave all the blood samples out which can be unnerving.

There are a total of 6 – 8 “stations” where they will weight you, check your eye sight, blood pressure, listen to your heart and so on. The stickers I mentioned previously will be used by the doctors to stick on your results and tubes of blood. Each “station” will take about 3 minutes so you can be in and out of the hospital within 30 minutes of arrival. So try to focus on the speed and efficiency instead of feeling like a slab of meet! I spent several hours getting these tests done in Europe so I can’t complain.

Once you’ve been through the loop of nurses and hospital rooms, you end up back in the first line to give them all the papers and to discuss pickup. Many employers will give you an address to have the results sent to. This only costs around 20 RMB and the staff will fill out the envelope for you if the address is in Chinese.

Finally, make sure to have a hardy meal afterwards and celebrate your official arrival in China! It’s a crazy place that will keep you on your feet. Prepare for endless culture shocks and life-changing experiences. Not everyone has an easy time in China, but I guarantee that you won’t regret your choice to live here.