The Dark Cave (Hang Toi) is accessed by zip line, kayak, or by swimming to the mouth of the cave, and requires a guide. We were told that we would have to wear helmets with lights as well as life vests for this excursion, but that was all we were told.
We booked our flight from Tel Aviv, Israel to Hanoi, Vietnam 26 hours prior to our departure.
This required four different flights: Tel Aviv, Israel –> Istanbul, Turkey –> Rome, Italy –> Bangkok, Thailand –> Hanoi, Vietnam.
The security at the Tel Aviv airport in Israel was the strictest we have seen thus far, and took a long time, as nothing seemed very efficient. The lady at the desk, for whatever reason, didn’t like the fact that we had a backpack and a small book bag that we wanted to board the plane with, even though both fit the carry on/purse ‘size and weight’ limits. She told us that we were allowed only one bag each, as the planes were all full, and there would not be enough room on the plane. This was a frustrating bit of bogus info as we were flying on all different carriers, and she didn’t have access to other carrier’s flight information.
After some persuading, she agreed to let us keep one of our “bigger” bags, as long as we checked the other one, reassuring us that the checked bag would be waiting for us at our end destination. Since this was the first time in all ten months of traveling that we have had to check a bag, we weren’t prepared and didn’t have much time to think through how to redistribute our stuff.
Our first flight out of Tel Aviv, Israel was only two hours, arriving in Istanbul, Turkey at three am. We crashed on airport benches for a few hours before catching our next flight to Rome early that morning.
These four flights turned into a blur as we were tired from traveling, sleeping in airports, eating airline food, and adjusting to a six hour time difference that was introduced while in flight.
It wasn’t until we were about to board our last flight out of Bangkok, Thailand, that I remembered that we hadn’t checked the visa requirements for Vietnam, as we weren’t sure if we were even going to this country prior to booking the ticket.
Admittedly, booking our flight the previous day was a little too last minute, not allowing room for much of anything… It was at that moment that I realized we needed a pre-approval letter prior to landing in the country of Vietnam.
I asked a lady at the desk in Bangkok about the letter, and after she realized what I was asking, almost denied us access on that flight. It wasn’t until we showed her that we started applying for the same day pre-approval letter online, that she allowed us to continue to board. Thad literally finished the online application five minutes before they shut the gate.
Upon arrival in Hanoi, Vietnam, Thad walked around trying to find a wifi access point to check the approval letter status, to no avail. We were stuck in a small area, with no way to connect to wifi to see if our application went through or not.
The bag that Thad checked four flights ago, back in Israel, was supposedly going to meet us in Hanoi, Vietnam. In that bag we later remembered that we forgot to grab Thad’s passport-sized ID photos and currency from previous countries, including his stash of USD.
So there we were, a sad case to say the least, as we were experiencing some jet lag, no wifi to check the status of the letter, no bag, limited cash supply, and only my ID photos. We knew we were looking pretty rough, as if we had never traveled before, but we had to face the visa desk eventually.
We approached the visa desk, and tried to communicate that the flight we booked was extremely last minute and that the approval letter process was started but not confirmed. In the end, we had no letter. The visa man took our passports, other detailed paperwork that we filled out, and disappeared for a while.
After a considerable amount of time, another man came to meet us to discuss the options of either deporting us back to Bangkok or having us pay $320 USD for a third party to come and write the approval letter to move things along.
Again, we tried to explain that we applied earlier, but needed wifi to get the confirmation. At the end of our conversation, we agreed to pay the fee rather than discover the full costs of deportation.
A lady eventually came to get the paperwork started, asked more questions, and requested to see confirmation of our flight out of the country. This was yet another item that we did not have, as we are planning this trip as we went, proved by our last minute flight decision into Vietnam not so long ago. We told her that we were planning on taking overland transportation into Cambodia, but could book something if needed to prove our exit, but again would need internet to book it.
She eventually left, to either talk to someone or make a few phone calls, came back and finally accepted a written itinerary of our plans out of Vietnam.
After getting over that hurdle, she then requested the $320 USD processing fee. We asked if we could run to the baggage claim to get Thad’s bag to retrieve the extra cash from inside it or if there was an ATM that we could use, as our current cash stash was limited.
Since we were not supposed to leave that restricted area, she took Thad’s luggage tags and left to go track down his bag. It was quite a while later that she returned with news that Thad’s bag was nowhere to be found.
Thad and I knew from the start that the chances of his bag making all four flights, across a couple of continents, was not high, so we were not surprised by this news. This hiccup in the process proceeded to keep the application lady busy long enough for a different man from the visa desk to hand us back our passports, and usher us to the other side, to pay the normal visa fee.
From what we gathered, or are assuming, our last-minute application that was tied to our passport numbers finally went through into their computer system.
We didn’t want to get our hopes up too high, but things were looking up as we had our passports in hand, with the Vietnam visa stamp, and were in the final line to pay. This whole four-hour-long process went from nothing going right, to instantly approved.
Once we made it to the front of the line, we found out that the total cost for our visas into this country was $90 USD, which was the EXACT amount of cash that I had on me… not a cent more. I couldn’t believe it, and I had Thad count it again to double check, as it was too good to be true.
I am still confused as to how we got through without Thad having his passport sized photos, as everyone we watched go through that morning had to give the visa desk two copies. This is still a mystery, but for whatever reason they did not request these photos from us.
Walking outside of that airport felt pretty good after our first self-induced, challenging country entry. I couldn’t wipe the smile off of my face, knowing that someone was looking out for these two poor, sleep-deprived, spontaneous (almost to a fault) travelers.
The only thing that could have possibly made that moment any better, would have been walking out of that airport with Thad’s bag in hand. But I guess that will be another story.