Traveling Smart: How I (Almost) Got Deported!


I think everyone that likes to dive or snorkel sees themselves as an experienced traveler.  I had the privilege of growing up with parents who took us around the country for family vacations.  This gave me the opportunity to see a lot of the United States growing up. When I became an adult, I expanded my travels a little more globally; through educational trips and conferences, I got good at traveling on a budget.  Having a good travel agent to help me find the best prices did not hurt either. While most of my articles for Deepblu are about water activities, this one is about travel safety. Many people forget that when they are traveling on vacation or business that the rules around the world are not the same as they are in their home country.  I would like to share a story about my recent trip to Southeast Asia.

In 2017, I was asked to be a keynote speaker at the Asia Pacific Mediation Forum’s APEC affiliated conferences in Da Nang, Vietnam.  Now, having traveled around the world a couple of times in the past. I followed the normal protocol:

  1. Get all the data about why I am going to be there;
  2. Call the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington for a VISA;
  3. Fill out the paperwork;
  4. Get Ready for the Trip.

The one step that I did not do that I normally would have (let’s call it 3.5) is I did not have the wholesaler of the trip check my VISA.  When I contacted the travel agent, they said since Vietnam was a new market, they did not have a pre-check available. As it turns out, this would come back to bite me.

Since I was traveling representing a company, I took a budget route to Vietnam.  While many people avoid the budget routes (in this case it was DC, Qatar, Thailand, Vietnam), I tend to like them as they give me time to explore each country that I pass through.  With 12 hours in Thailand and about 4 hours in Qatar, I had time for a couple of airport tours (these are tours that keep you within security on a bus so you can see some of the countries on your layover).  This also meant that the length of my trip was 44 hours from when I left DC to when I touched down in Vietnam. This was a long trip and I was exhausted when I arrived in the Land of the Blue Dragon.

As with any international trip, I went through customs and walked up to the man at the desk.  He looked at my passport and the “VISA” that I had been sent by the Embassy pointed to a desk where I needed to go.  Not thinking anything of it, I went to the desk and handed the information to the woman at the desk. Now since I cannot speak Vietnamese, I did not know that I had the wrong type of VISA.  Since I had an educational speech, my VISA needed to be quite specific, which I did not have. The young lady informed me that I had to return to Thailand.

Based on an arrogance that was bred from arriving with the United Nations delegation (we were on the same plane sitting together, I was not in the delegation), I requested that I speak to my embassy.  The young lady was taken aback and went and got her supervisor, who also said “go back to Thailand,” to whom I also replied I would like to speak to the American Embassy. By this point, the UN guys were taking pictures and (I assumed) called the embassy on my behalf. Within minutes a Qatar airways representative was there translating for me (Qatar airways was excellent in this situation).

I was taken to a little room (a comfortable room, I do not want to paint the Vietnamese government in the wrong light- they were courteous the whole time). Eventually, a gentleman with two stars on his shoulders came in, he did not speak English but asked me, through the Qatar representative, why I was there. When I provided my papers that showed I was with the conference, he told me it would be taken care of.

Next, I met a guy with three stars on his shoulders who did speak English, he told me what the error was – that it was not the correct VISA I had been provided with. After about 4 hours, a guy with four stars on his shoulders came into the room, with wet hair looking like he just got out of a shower. He had the young lady make a copy of my passport, slapped a sticker in it and then signed it himself. He then told me to leave the airport and get to the hotel.

Of course, by this time my car that the hotel had sent had left (I am assuming they were told I had been sent back to Thailand).  This meant that I had to get a taxi. When the taxi arrived (Vietnamese taxis are very fast and very affordable), I asked to be taken to my hotel.  Once again, the language was an issue (because I did not speak it, I do not expect them to speak English, it is their country). He dropped me off at a hotel near the beach.

When I walked up to the door, I was informed that the South Korean Ambassador was arriving and I would have to wait until after he went in (security). At this point, I had been traveling for nearly 50 hours, with about 2 hours of sleep (I simply cannot sleep in a moving vehicle).  The ambassador arrived and went through the reception line, then in the door. However, right behind his was his wife- whom the guards did not let in. So there I was, sleep-deprived and standing in the rain (I had taken my suit jacket off to cover the Korean Ambassador’s wife’s luggage (which was suede) so it was not ruined.  So I asked the bellhop they had assigned me who I needed to talk to go in. He said the guy we needed to talk to was on the other side of security. So doing what any American would do (which freaked the bellhop out because security had guns), I took out my passport and walked up to the security at the door. Luckily, he was an American security consultant and when I explained what happened (and that the drenched lady standing there was the Ambassador’s wife) he let us in.

After about 5 minutes in the hotel, one of the staff came and asked me to come to the counter.  She said that while I was scheduled to speak, they did not have a room for me. I presented my papers and found out that I was at the wrong hotel, I was to be at the Grand, not the Luxury.  They sent me over in a comped limo and there was an army of people there to help me when I arrived. The hotels were both nice and the trip turned out to be “exciting,” but that is a story for another time.

What is the moral of this story?  Use a travel agent. Most of the time I use an agent for travel, but I was going to “save money” on this trip by doing it myself.  I have been to several countries and have several thousand hours traveling for business on airplanes, I also hold three degrees in international business and three degrees in law.  I made a mistake that had me as a “guest of the Vietnamese government” for four hours, which if the conference would not have been in town would have gotten me deported.

When you travel, even if you are experienced, use a travel agent. A travel agent would have seen that the VISA was wrong and would have corrected it before I got to the country.  The agent I normally use is Weekend Wanderers, who could have caught the mistake, but I used a “bargain” travel site as an agent and it cost me four hours and almost got me deported.  When you are traveling, for business or pleasure- can you take the risk of making a mistake? You use professionals for your other business services, why should travel be any different? 

About the Author

Dr. Smithmyer is the Vice President of International Affairs for Brāv Online Conflict Management, an international consortium of conflict resolution professionals. Dr. Smithmyer is also a columnist for NRN doing mostly political and international business columns. When Dr. Smithmyer is not working with people to make the world a better place, he enjoys snorkeling the waters of the world.

Dr. Smithmyer has traveled extensively in the United States, Australia, Vietnam, and the Bahamas. He has also presented in the U.K., India, Brazil, Eastern Europe, and Southeast Asia. Dr. Smithmyer is one of the most lettered men in the world with nine degrees. As an adjunct professor in his spare time, Dr. Smithmyer uses his business experience and travels to help bring the world to his students and even brings the students to the world through experiential learning trips.

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