Earlier this month, my friend Yukihiro and I flew from Da Nang to New York thanks to Cathay Pacific’s unbelievable first class fare.
Because of Vietnam’s unusual visa exemption rules, Da Nang’s lacking “transfer infrastructure,” and lack of research on my side, the transfer turned out to be a bit more “dramatic” that I had originally hoped for.
Fortunately, all ended up well, and we had an excellent trip. Still, I decided to write this article as I think there are a couple of learnings applicable beyond just my trip.
Vietnam’s Unusual Visa Exemption Policy
Let me start by saying that as a Japanese passport holder, I am lucky enough to be able to enter Vietnam visa-free for 15 days.
There’s one catch to it, though: Japanese can only enter Vietnam visa-free 30 or more days after they last departed the country.
That means that Yukihiro and I had two options when booking positioning flights to and from Da Nang. We could either get visas and enter the country both on our way to New York and on our way back, or we could attempt to transfer without entering the country once and enter the country visa-free the other time.
We decided to do the latter.
To be on the safe side and “save” our visa-free entry for later, we decided to do an “airside” transfer on our way to New York and to enter Vietnam on our way back.
With that in mind, we booked a Bangkok Airways flight from Bangkok to Da Nang arriving at 12:45PM, almost five hours before our 5:35PM Cathay Dragon flight to Hong Kong.
Da Nang’s Deserted Transfer Desk
Fast forward to the day we were traveling, our flight from Bangkok arrived in Da Nang on time.
We got off and headed to the transfer desk just to find it dark and deserted. Considering that Da Nang is not exactly Dubai when it comes to the number of transfer passengers they get, we were not surprised by that.
Instead, we continued our walk towards the immigration area to see if there was any staff we could talk to. After waiting a bit, two ladies that seemed like they worked for the airport in one capacity or another walked by, and so we stopped them and asked them what we should do.
They made some calls, talked to their colleagues through their walkie-talkies, took pictures of our tickets, and told us to wait until 3PM when they would return with our boarding passes.
Around 3:30PM, with them still not being back, we started approaching other staff that was passing by.
Eventually, one of the immigration officers that was passing by and that we approached called Cathay Dragon for us. And, after another half-an-hour of waiting or so, Cathay Dragon staff arrived.
By this time, there were less than 90 minutes left until the flight’s departure.
Your Flight Stops in Vancouver, You Need Canadian ETA
At this point, Yukihiro who was flying to Hong Kong and then non-stop to New York was safe.
For me, on the other hand, the “drama” was not over yet.
I was flying on Cathay Pacific’s flight CX888 which stops in Vancouver along the way to New York for an hour or so. And, when booking the flight, I did not realize that I needed Canadian ETA (electronic travel authorization) even if I was flying on a direct flight.
Once it was clear that I did actually need it and that otherwise I would not be issued my boarding pass to New York, I tried to apply for it. After all, the process usually takes only a few minutes. For some reason, though, I would get an error over and over again when trying to access the application page.
Then, I remembered that I actually went to Canada last year – and that ETA is valid for a few years years. Voila!
Only, not so fast.
Unfortunately, it is also tied to passport number. And, of course, I had renewed my passport just a few days before departing to Da Nang.
By this time, a part of me was preparing to miss my first long-haul first class flight for a very stupid mistake on my side. At the same time, though, the staff offered to issue my boarding pass to Hong Kong which would give me a few more hours to sort out the ETA issue.
Accepting that, the staff took us through security and to the flight’s departure gate where our boarding passes were issued. Yukihiro’s all the way to New York and mine just to Hong Kong.
With the boarding passes in our hands, we went into the lounge where I immediately fired up my laptop again to try getting ETA again.
Luckily, this time, the site loaded on the first try. Just a minute or two after filling out the form and paying 7 CAD, I had the authorization in my inbox – I was ready to travel. All I needed to do was to stop by the transfer desk in Hong Kong to pick up the boarding pass for my flight to New York via Vancouver.
And, the reason why I got the error the first few times I tried loading the ETA page?
I learned that when I looked at the page better in the lounge. The system was under maintenance from 2:00AM until 5:30AM Eastern time. And, the first few times I tried accessing the page, it was around 5:15AM Eastern time.
Phew, that was a close one!
At one point, I thought I would miss the flight and go home from Da Nang “empty handed.” Especially when the ETA page wouldn’t load.
In the end, it all turned out fine.
That said, the experience left me with a couple of learnings that I will make sure to follow going forwards:
- Leave plenty of time when doing an airside transfer between two different airlines on two separate tickets at an airport that doesn’t usually get a lot of transfer passengers
- Always check transit visa requirements even if traveling on the same airline or – like in this case – a direct flight