We were robbed in Vietnam, not in a dramatic or frightening way but in a quiet non scary way – we didn’t even notice. And it didn’t even hit us until days later when we really felt the consequences… We were robbed of our passports but in reality we were robbed of a week’s holiday. A week of family fun was replaced with silent frustrations and anxious waitings. A week of exploring Vietnam that instead we had to spend in Hanoi; land and city-locked in the capital. Shuttling between embassies, government and immigration offices; told we were not legally allowed to leave even the capital city.
Carrying our back packs and holding our children by their hands we jumped over train tracks in the dark looking for our platform and our train. Exited to get on a sleep train at after nine o’clock in the evening and in the pitch black the boys were discussing who would be the last to fall asleep, what the sunrise would look like in Sapa, who would be making most friends in the homesteads. The platform filled up with people and we boarded our train.
It wasn’t until we were on the train and already in motion that we realised that one of the bags was missing.
Ok, everyone, what was in that bag?! Calm down! At least we have all the children! One, two, three… The blue bag. The shoulder bag. With… the passports. With everything. We all went quiet. The blue bag with tickets, reservations, flight information, iPad and passports was gone. Oh dear. We alerted the conductor who make phone calls but the bag was gone and we knew that we would never get it back. We were on an eight hour train journey north to Sapa and the Tonkinese alps. The traun wouldn’t stop until we reached our end destination. We had two options, either take the first train back to Hanoi – but to what avail? Th bag was gone. Or, we could carry on as planned. We decided to carry on with our planned trip and tackle the beaurocratic nightmare that we knew would come later, once we returned to Hanoi.
We made more phone calls and enquiries, spend hours of the train journey researching online and then forced the incident out of our minds as we drove into Sapa. We found our guide Xu and went off on ur 3 day trek through the rice fields. (We had booked a trek through Sapa O’Chau the night before). Read about our Sapa trek here. It was spectacular and we loved every minut of it. The kids got down and dirty, made local friends with the homestead children and walked for hours and hours without complaining. But back to the passports…
Boarding the night train again, we knew that when we arrived back in Hanoi early the following morning, a nightmare of police stations and embassies would begin. We didn’t get much sleep that night, partly from the jolting screeching train and partly from the not knowing what was going to happen now. The train rolled in to Hanoi at 4 am. The police station was closed so we went straight to a hotel we had found in the Lonely Planet travel guide. Nick went in search of a police station and I stayed with the kids. Each district in Hanoi have their own station and it is important to go to the station where the incident happened. We knew that we had to get a signed and stamped police report that later would have to be translated. Me and the boys set off to the British embassy where we were meeting Nick later, hopefully with a police report.
The hotel staff had been very helpful in finding and writing down the address to the British embassy for me and also explained to the taxi driver exactly where we were going. Off I went with the three boys through the Hanoi traffic. The driver stopped and pointed to a gate. On first attempt we entered the embassy of Kongo. They were very nice. Second attempt we seemed to have more success. The guard lead us straight into what looked like someones living room with family photos dotted about. Sit down and wait, he said. Theo felt right at home and shouted out – Helloooo?! Anyone here? It did feel like someone’s home… Something wasn’t right. After fifteen minutes a furious woman came running in, grabbed my arm and ushered us out. -You’re in the wrong place! That damn guard, he’s useless! He’s English is so bad! He’s done this before and I’m going to get him fired! THIS IS THE PRIVATE RESIDENCE OF THE BRITISH AMBASSADOR! Oh! That explained the photographs…
She hauled down another taxi for us, gave the correct address this time and we finally arrived at the British Embassy where we had to pass a security check and surrender everything apart form our clothes to the guard. We started the emergency passport forms and Nick arrived with a signed and stamped police report in both Vietnamese and English. After 3 hours applications for 3 family members were filed. We rushed in a taxi to our next appointment, the Swedish embassy in another part of town. We arrived with one minute to spare. – Well I’m sorry, but you’re late. We’re obviously on lunch now. You have to come back tomorrow. Bring the police report, £300 in cash and an the original police report officially stamped and legalised. Jävla förbannade skit!
To legalise a police report? In Vietnam there is a government institution where you have to go to make any paperwork from graduation diplomas to police reports “legal”. The embassy told me that I had to go across town again to another office (packed full of people where no one spoke English) to have our police report “legalised”. After 3 hours in this swelteringly hot office we got to speak to someone. She took one look at the police report and said that we had to go back to the police station to have it stamped again and signed again by the same officer as well as a superior officer because his stamp had not yet been registered with her particular government office and without it she could not proceed. I took the boys back for dinner at the hotel and send frustrated emails to the Swedish embassy as Nick went back to the police station. The police officer had of course gone home and no one else was willing to help.
Nick got a phone call from the British embassy to say that he could come and pick up his and the little one’s passport that same evening. So far, one day has passed. He also explained about the issues with the Swedish embassy. The British embassy made a phone call to the Swedish embassy and moments later I had an e-mail saying they would be willing to waver the “legalisation” of the police report this once. I’m not likely coming to Vietnam to loose my passport ever again!
So we were on track, we had three out of five passports! The following day we would get the other two. Phew! This wasn’t as bad as we had expected, could that really be? (Three family members have British passports and two of us Swedish).
We got our Swedish passports, all was good. As we were leaving the embassy lady said:
-There’s just this one problem now, you all have passports but you don’t have exit visas so you can’t legally exit the country. They won’t let you out. What? –Yes, to get exit visas you have to go to the immigration office.
At the immigration office, another overly packed and hot office with scary looking officials in military uniform, they demanded the original police report. The police report was back at the Swedish embassy. A copy of it wouldn’t do. -You won’t get visas without it. Impossible.
It was late afternoon and reaching closing time. I left the others at Immigration and jumped in a taxi and rushed back to the Swedish embassy to try to get them to give me the police rapport that they earlier that morning had insisted they absolutely had to keep. I kept phoning them from the taxi. Astonishingly they agreed to give up the police report, I picked it up from reception and rushed back. The immigration office had closed. That was day two.
Following day, we cued up at immigration again, bright and early after passing by the police station to have an official stamp all the documents again. Towards the afternoon we got to see someone. -Ok, it will take five days now. Five days?! For a stamp? -Surrender all your passports to me. And don’t leave the city. That was day three. See you in five days. Goodbye. Five days. So we had five days to kill in Hanoi! Five days. We had already spend over three days there, we were done with Hanoi.
We took deep deep breaths and thought about what to do for the next five days. We had seen everything there was to see in Hanoi. As wonderful it was to experience this hot, bustling chaotic city for a day, it was not an ideal place to be land locked with kids for a week. As the typhoon came rolling in we left the city for Nim Bhin. We had planned to go to Halong Bay but all trips were cancelled because of the weather. We had to get out of the city. Read about Nim Bihn here. We had photocopies of our stolen passports and got away with showing those to the hotel.
On the said morning we returned to the immigration office and received our passports and exit visas. We flew to Hong Kong the same evening and managed to get on a flight to the UK with 10 minutes to spare before our 24 hour passports expired.
In the UK we had to go through a similar week long process to receive our permanent passports. We are now tattooing our passport onto our backs!