The Moc Bai Visa Run

Star Wars hero Han Solo, piloting his Millennium Falcon, famously boasted of doing “the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs”. Greg Hackett can top that: “the Moc Bai visa run”. Admittedly, it was more than 12 parsecs – and more than a handful of US$

The border visa run is an essential experience for any seasoned traveller in South-East Asia. Why get your tourist visa via the boring online method, when adventure and daring-do await at the border. In Cambodia, I usually acquire a Vietnam visa at the Vietnamese embassy in Phnom Penh. It’s simple: US$5 tuk tuk ride from guest house to the embassy, US$100 for a three-month multi-visit tourist visa which is ready to collect in four hours, and a US$5 tuk tuk back to guest house. This trip, I choose to do it the interesting way: at the Bavet/Moc Bai border.


The bus from Phnom Penh stops about a kilometre from the Bavet border gate, with a short stroll across “no man’s land” to Moc Bai, in Vietnam. A Dutch backpacker has kindly told me to “get off here and follow all of the others, and the border crossing isn’t far by foot.”


I follow the gaggle of Cambodians for about 200m that seems like 20km in the hot and humid early afternoon. A crook lower back likes to complain but I travel lightly with just a carry-on bag. The Cambodians begin peeling off as we pass a long street market. The sun is so hot, no tree shade, no checkpoint, just heaps of Cambodian market workers chattering loudly. 

“Not so brilliant.”


The road elbows to the right, and so I continue to trundle along – now with only a few remaining bus passengers who enter a gate on the left, into a long, long newly built factory/warehouse/office/motorbike shelter. It goes on for hundreds of metres. Okay, I’m thinking, this must be the start of the border checkpoint complex. Persevere. However, a further 200 or so metres and the building ends. So does the road.

“Brilliant” is no longer the word I use.

An hour of retracing my steps – the walk of shame, as the afore mentioned Cambodian workers and market shoppers gawk and grin at me (and never a tuk tuk available when you need one!) – I find the border crossing. Now the fun really begins.


Border checkpoints the world over have “expediters” (as I call them) who will handle all of the admin hassle for a small-ish fee. “Luc” appoints himself as mine. I queue in the packed, non-aircon, stifling room and get the $US20 “exit stamp”. Luc  takes me to “his man” at the vehicle exit gates, we pass through and trek to the Vietnam side, where the gates, the guards, the gardens, even the building’s paint all look military, serious and officious. Now the problem arises: Luc can acquire for me a three-month, multi-visit tourist visa for 6 million dong ($US250). However, I don’t have THE Letter. I’m supposed to have previously applied for and received a letter of invitation to visit Vietnam – something I had erroneously presumed would be in the “$US250 visa package”.

This is a major dilemma, Luc informs me, and he must call his “Boss lady”, who tells me over the mobile phone – in a distinctive, sweet but serious voice – that “The Letter” can be arranged at much effort on such short notice, and for a further $US150 fee. Cash, up front, of course.


The problem now: I’m out of cash. All ATMs are on the Cambodian side. I hop on the back of Luc’s motorbike and off we go, across the border and back into the Kingdom of Cambodia. Via the back way!

A dirt track skirts around the side of the official border checkpoints. This entire area is a huge construction site, and the track is buzzing with horn-honking motorbikes and trucks, as Cambodian and Vietnamese workers and delivery folk go about their business. No doubt a practical solution: no point in having local labourers clogging up the main route, where permits and visas and stamps are required. And fees.

These are high-rise casino-hotels in various states of completion. Luc tells me that they are all Chinese. We arrive at a newly opened bank branch, which has an outdoor ATM. By now I’m hot, tired, stressed, anxious – I just want to get this done. At any cost.     


Cashed up, we scoot back along the dirt track and over to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Luc drops me off at the checkpoint souvenir shop where I discover – and I nearly pass out in horror – that I have left my credit card in the ATM. The only ATM. On a street of casinos.

Back onto the motorbike, back onto the dirt track, back over the rain filled pot holes and weaving between huge concrete trucks and motorbike riders yabbering their mobile phones, back to the bank. Fortune indeed does smile upon the brave (and the tired, stressed forgetful traveller). The bank is sill open, the young bank manager has just popped back into the office and, by a stroke of good luck, she doe have a key to the outside ATM (which is not the normal practice). And the ATM did have my card. Relieved, I genially ask her why so many Chinese casinos? With ubiquitous Cambodian smile, she replies: “Casino? Chinese? Here? I no understand?” 


So, back we go to the Vietnam side, to the souvenir shop where I am to wait while Luc goes off to take care of things – with my cash and passport, a fact that does not help soothe the anxiety. The souvenir shop – which is huge and full of items that the well healed, modern Asian tourist might want – has a reception desk, where a young lady is on the phone … and I think that I might recognise that distinctively sweet but serious voice.

Such are the ways of South-East Asia, and I love it.

Two hours later, Luc returns with all documents, stamped and in order, and I am ready to go. A generous cash tip for Luc – hey, why stress about another million dong – and I wearily trundle to the car park and make a snap decision: stuff mucking about with public buses and group “VIP” vans, get a taxi for the 150km (4 hour) drive to Vung Tau. Then starts the final leg of this journey: The fare is US$110 and the driver must get his mate to do the trip. That mate arrives after 20 minutes and phones his wife to say the job is all the way to Vung Tau – and she goes ballistic! Sitting in the back seat, I could hear her. Half an hour of driving at 45kmh, we pull over for 10 minutes and a third driver arrives to take over. He has to veer off to a designated petrol station to fill up the car, so another 20 minutes before I finally embark on the last leg of my journey to Vung Tau.

Where more adventures await …

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