assport Confusion


February 17, 2006

We elected to enter Vietnam at the Friendship Pass bordern point, just south of Pingxiang, China. Our trusty guidebook explained that we would have to look for some kind of transportation from the city of Pingxiang up to the border and so it was. We did not have to look far however, because as soon as we got off the bus at Pingxiang bus station we were besieged by offers. It is hard to know why one picks one driver over another, but on this occasion a young woman of about thirty caught our eye. We bargained with her and concluded a deal for around 20 yuan. Her vehicle was a motorbike with a two-wheel cart attached. It was just big enough for our pile of luggage and ourselves.

Almost as soon as we left the town the road started to climb to Friendship Pass and the border. Unsurprisingly ours was just about the slowest vehicle on the road and it quickly became very apparent that hauling us uphill was quite a struggle for it. Twice we had to stop to let the motor cool down and each time our driver tended the motor with oil and water. She explained to us that her taxi was three years old and still not paid for and that it had not brought the instant prosperity she had expected when she bought it. "Too many taxis", she complained. But eventually our little vehicle did make it to the top of the hill and scurried past the lines of trucks waiting to cross to let us off as close as allowed to the customs building.

Exiting from China was trouble-free. Our visas and passports were both well within their expiry dates and there wasn't even a cursory customs check. So we left the building, crossed under the gate and walked down to the Vietnamese side. Here is where Jan's trouble began. About a hundred meters from the Vietnamese customs building was a guardpost. Here we were asked to show our passports. Jan's problem was that she was not sure which passport to produce.

While travelling in China she had used her British passport but after lots of trips between Shenzhen and Hong Kong, each of which resulted in four stamps in her passport she was fast running out of pages. The British Consulate in Hong Kong had been very unhelpful when she had tried to get some pages added to the passport. As a result, when we applied for visas for our return visit to Vietnam, Jan decided to switch to her U.S. passport which was empty. The Vietnamese Consulate in Guangzhou had not made any comment about the fact that the passport did not contain a Chinese visa so Jan was not unduly worried.

Confronted with the guardpost guard, Jan began by showing her U.S. passport with the Vietnamese visa. The guard took the passport, flicked through it, flicked through it again and then examined it very carefully and then said something incomprehensible. Jan then guessed of course that he was looking for the Chinese exit stamp and so pulled out her British passport and found the exit stamp and showed it to the guard, who looked totally shocked. After consulting with his companion, he eventually returned both passports and waived us on.

On we went to the immigration building and found it almost empty. After some wandering from counter to counter, we finally found the right one and dutifully handed over our passports. The same pantomime was repeated as Jan first offered her U.S. passport and the immigration officer searched vainly for the Chinese exit stamp. Jan then offered her British passport with exit stamp and caused such a look of consternation on the face of the immigration officer that had she known how, Jan would have advised him to sit down. The poor guy really didn't know what to do. He did speak some English and asked with a very worried expression why Jan had two passports. Jan explained very politely that being born in England she had the right to a British passport and being married to Gerry she had a right to a U.S.passport. She showed them that her British passport was almost full and did not have enough room for the Vietnamese visa. After some consultation with his colleague, he announced he must ask his chief, who seemed to be at lunch. He then asked her to take a seat and wait.

So we waited for about a half hour then waited another half hour and then suddenly the officer came over with some paper and asked Jan to write down her explanation of why she had two passports and to declare that she had no illegal intent and would not do anything bad with her two passports. Jan duly wrote out her explanation and the requested declaration in her neatest handwriting and returned the paper to the officer who asked her to please wait. After maybe another half hour, the officer called Jan over tothe counter and admonished her to be sure to not do anything wrong while in Vietnam and returned both of her passports, the U.S. one with a stamp granting her entry for one month, just as expected.

There was some relief to finally be officially admitted, but neither of us really expected anything but a good outcome. It was quite amusing in fact to see people's reaction to the two passports. And the case was never to be repeated because for the rest of the time in Vietnam only the U.S. passport was ever shown. We have often wondered what happened to that handwritten declaration.

Updated July 20, 2003