A Visit to the US Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City

my four-year-old passport was down to its last page and a couple months ago i had the bright idea that getting pages added at a consulate would be easier (and faster) than sending it off to the National Passport Processing Center. as luck would have it, the one here in HCMC is less than a 15-minute walk from my Airbnb. it was my first time at an American consulate or embassy so i had no idea what to expect. i have a feeling it’s different depending on what country you’re in, and it seemed this one was a microcosm of what i would have expected — but in a surprising way because it seemed that for each person that was there (see below), i kept thinking to myself, “of coooourrrrse they’d be here.”

practical matters

there are two queues in the front of the consulate. the right-hand side is for American citizens, the left-hand side is for everyone else. when you get to the front of the line, wait there until the guy calls you in to go through security (metal detector for you and x-ray machine for bags). you will need to leave your electronics (phone/camera/tablet) at the front; you will get a big gold metal claim ticket you redeem after you exit (U-turn to the entrance and hand the ticket back for your stuff). you also get a little laminated pass that lets you into the American citizen section — go through the inner gate and through the courtyard, pass through another metal detector, make a left and you’re there: a crowded (at least today — Monday? tax day?) but pleasant room that at least has air conditioning and clean toilets.

despite what the sign says (get a number and go to this counter for this, that counter for that, or wait for your number if not this or that), you will need to get a number and wait. don’t bother going to a counter without a number; all counters do all things. to get said number, there’s a button you press on top of a receipt printer. at first it may seem like it doesn’t work, but it does. just press firmly and hold a second or two until a number spits out. i stood there tapping at it (with people telling me to kick it, or press harder, etc.) until someone came and pressed it firmly and a number came out. i sat down and then five more slips printed out with no one there. : so yeah. just one firm press. if you are sitting/waiting in the front row, be prepared to instruct others on how to do it.

i got there at 8:25 and they supposedly open at 8:30, yet the waiting room was full. they were on number 5 when i arrived and i was number 32, i think. luckily, the lady at counter 1 (the cashier counter) announced (they were on 10 or so by this time) that if you were there just to add pages, go up to her and drop the form off. three of us went up. btw, it’s the same $82 whether you need 24 pages or 48, so you might as well check the 48-page box on the form. i paid with american express; they also take visa or mastercard or US dollars. no dong. (one lady needed $100 US but only had dong, so she was out of luck. i would have paid for her using my card but i withdrew more than enough dong for my stay here, i think.)

once i dropped the form off, it took another 30 minutes or so until i got my passport back (they’ll call you on the loudspeaker). total time start to finish: an hour and fifteen.

who’s who

the most fascinating part, though, was everyone else in the waiting room. the Lonely Planet guide to Vietnam has a line: “HCMC has it all” which reminded me of Stefon from SNL. but you know, it’s true. there were all these and more, which i found amazing.

  • a lady who has lived here in Vietnam for three years with her spouse and needed something notarized before she moves to Nigeria “for more adventures” (we bonded over number dispenser issues)
  • a Vietnamese guy who lived in San Diego for a while but is back in Vietnam (we bonded over the plethora of Vietnamese restaurants in Milpitas, a city near where i live)
  • two girls who needed extra passport pages as well, who i later saw at The Lunch Lady with a larger group of travel buddies
  • a (white) guy and his (Vietnamese) wife who were there to get a passport for their son (who i think was wearing a cape?)
  • a grizzled older man (i picture him as a Vietnam War vet, but maybe that’s just my vivid imagination) who somehow knew the previous guy (but they hadn’t seen each other in a long time). overheard he lives in Thailand but came to Vietnam to visit for a while and needed to renew his passport
  • two backpackers (i’m assuming) who were wearing hiking boots; imho it’s a bit hot for that but oh well
  • younger guys working for NGOs who stopped by to pick up some (tax?) forms
  • and of course lots of Vietnamese people (with American citizenship) who were there for one reason or another.

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