Unless you're traveling with the passport from a country on a short list of nations on terms with Vietnam, then you'll be forking over cash to get into the country—just how much is a total crap shoot, depending on where you go and who you talk to.
Obtaining a visa for a country typically boils down to methods: You do it yourself (which usually involves an embassy visit), or you pay to have it done for you. Visa proxy services are as common as drunk teenagers in Bangkok's Khaosan Road district, and are offered by most every travel agency in the same area.
Travel agents make their money by charging a small fee to run your passport to the embassy and back. The two or three U.S. dollars spent save you the time and energy of going to the embassy during scheduled hours (often times just two to four hours a day), filling out the paperwork, and waiting in line. Sometimes several days are needed to process a visa, in which case you must return to the embassy, and wait in line to collect it.
I've never used a visa proxy service before, but then again, I've only had to apply for such a thing in advance once before (in Argentina, for Brazil), out of about 40 countries visited. All others have been granted upon arrival.
I don't particularly like the idea of relinquishing my passport. I don't care who it is or what it's for, the sensation don't sit well with me. Asking someone like me (who has serious trust issues) to entrust such a thing to another is uncomfortable. But in this case, using a travel agency to save me from dealing with unnecessary bureaucratic red tape, and from paying to go back and forth to the embassy (twice) was appealing.
I held off on using the Vietnam visa proxy service at my hotel in the capital of Cambodia because they needed the exact date and point of entry and exit from the country—something a round trip airline ticket would show—and I wasn't sure if a pregnant Tatiana would still be up for Vietnam in a month's time. I normally wouldn't have a problem giving them a fake ticket, but had heard from other travelers that the exact dates were used on the visa. I didn't see the point in trying to spoof them when I'd have to travel on those days anyway.
For the record, the travel agency I used in Bangkok did not need or want a valid airline ticket. They simply wanted the arrival date and city of entry, and intended duration of stay. Although only two and a half weeks were requested, the visa issued was for 30 days, starting on the day specified, and made no mention of when or where I was to leave the country.
The mess of obtaining a tourist visa for Vietnam really boils down to how comfortable you are (over)paying for something that elsewhere costs a fraction of the amount charged in Bangkok. In Phenom Phen, the visa proxy service costs US$32 and takes at least three days. This is the same price as visiting the embassy itself, with the hotel making a few dollars off the transaction from the bulk processing discount they receive from staff. Elsewhere in Cambodia, it's possible to pay as little as US$25 in for while-you-wait service Sihanoukvilla.
In Bangkok, it's a different story. In fact, there are dozens and dozens of stories about how much a visa should cost.
I figured the financial outlay would be about the same as Cambodia, and a Web site I found that offered up well written a step-by-step tutorial on the process of going to the Vietnamese embassy in Bangkok confirmed such things—about 1,000 baht (US$31) for the full-page passport sticker.
But 1,000 baht is a far cry from price of visa proxy services for Vietnam around Khaosan Road. I ran around, getting quotes from a handful of agencies, just to try and make sense of things: 1,450; 1,480; 1,500; 1,550; 1,600 baht… they all wanted somewhere in the nature of US$47–51 for a non-express (three-four day turnaround) 30-day tourist visa.
Something was up. I asked around, trying to figure out how much it would actually cost if I visited the embassy itself. One agent told me 1,400 baht, another 1,500, and yet another—one I actually had more reason to believe than others—said the price would be 2,000 baht (over US$60) if I visited myself. The reason for the difference? He said they gave travel agents discounts.
Still not wanting to go all the way to the embassy myself, I dug around the Lonely Planet message forums to help shed light on the situation (a necessary resource, as the Web site for the Bangkok branch of the Vietnam embassy conveniently fails to specify the service fee). Prices paid by tourists were all over the place—even those from within the past two or three months. One traveled there and paid over US$60, while another slipped someone a US$20 note and a few baht. Many others claim that offices in Phuket consistently offer up fair and reasonable prices, and to avoid Bangkok all together.
Then there's the confusing/rumored tourist visa on arrival, if entering at a major airport (such as those in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City). It would seem this is only available for those who have faxed paperwork into Vietnam several days ahead of time—possibly used by travel agents, but who knows.
Ultimately I opted to save the stress and forked out nearly US$50 for the service offered up by a travel agency my Italian friend Giovanni used to get his Burma visa squared away. I'm dying to know how much this thing actually costs when you hit up the embassy yourself, but I suppose it'll remain a mystery for the time being.
This was easily the most money I've every paid for a visa—wildly excessive, if you ask me. I hope it's worth the US$212 for the flight plus visa it cost me to get there and back.
Obtaining a Vietnam Visa in Bangkok