To Laos by Land

I had barely any money to exchange to buy food. But that was ok because when we made a pit stop, the only food on offer was some sort of giant rodent which someone was burning the hair off to prepare it for being barbecued. Which I could live without.

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To get to Laos from Vietnam over land, you have to cross mountains. Physically, you traverse the Annamite mountain range which runs over 1000km down through Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. Mentally, you have to confront the journey it takes to get there.

I think, in some ways, travelling has an over-glorified image. From social media people are given the impression that every day presents sunsets, incredible food, beaches, mountains, basic Instagrams of people gazing faux-pensively into the distance. I freely admit I have contributed to perpetrate that image. And I have to admit, many moments are like that; some cannot be truly captured by a photograph. But many are not – the trials and tribulations of travelling aren’t always as ‘Instagram-able’. The border crossing from Vietnam to Laos was one such journey. Hey – the lows make the highs higher.

We had booked a night bus with our hotel in Sapa. The light faded from the sky and the bus didn’t come. When we went to check everything was ok, we were assured by the nice lady at reception that it was. A while later, she came and told us that a car was going to come and take us to the bus stop. She looked a bit harassed. We went with it – after a while of travelling, you learn that they don’t always tell you everything when you book a journey. So we got in the car – the lady did too – and we went to the bus stop. There was no bus there and it was cold. She stood with us for a while, shouted at a few people in Vietnamese and then left. There was still no bus, we didn’t know when it was coming and it was cold. Like children, we wished the lady would come back. We ate some oreos. Buses came and went; we didn’t know whether any of them were ours. There was a small crowd gathering on the tarmac and we established that a group of us were getting the same bus so we could at least stick together.

I don’t know how many hours later, a bus arrived that we thought might be ours. Despite having been there the longest, we ended up being one of the last on. As a result Roza and I had to share a space, not just with one another but with a Vietnamese family who had paid about a dollar for their fare (we had paid over thirty). Our relief at getting on the bus was short lived. We desperately tried to sleep but – with one lady asleep on my feet, one guy in the aisle with his feet sticking into me, another who kept jabbing me in the ribs with his elbows (I think on purpose) and two kids behind us who kept hitting us on the head – this was little short of impossible. Some solace came when the woman in front put her chair back onto my legs which at least meant that the lady could no longer sleep on my feet (which was painful). But then there was literally nowhere for her to go and I felt very sorry for her as she hunched with her knees tucked up in front of her in the tiny space that there was in the aisle. It’s not like it was comfortable for anybody (apart from the kids who had managed to fall asleep on the shelf behind us). As bus journeys went, it was definitely in my bottom five of all time.

When we pulled into Dien Bien Phu, it was still dark and we were knackered but we were able to get off that bus which could only be a good thing. There were a couple of other buses there and we guessed that one of them had to be ours but there were no signs of life. A few of us went off in search of coffee but the vendor at the bus shelter wasn’t serving. Someone must have come to open up the second bus because through a sleepy haze I remember giving my bag to a couple of guys and them hauling it up onto the roof of the bus and securing all the bags together with rope, an arrangement that I wasn’t overly comfortable with. I would later learn that this would be the case with all buses in Laos. The second bus set off as it was starting to get light. We stopped for breakfast for one last banh mi – our last meal in Vietnam. It was very cheap and very good. We also got some sticky rice with what we described as ‘fishy sawdust’ which, strange as it sounds, was thoroughly enjoyable.

As we drove up into the mountains, we kept stopping to load cardboard boxes onto the bus. Presumably this was their way of making a bit of money on the side – to take things across the border. However, it meant the bus was getting heavier and heavier as we approached the Vietnam-Laos border. On an area of road which could better be described as ‘scree’, the engine of our bus sputtered out. The driver revved it again and again but alas: we were stuck. We all piled out and the men gallantly attempted to push the bus back onto the main road to no avail.We looked at the time. The border we were attempting to cross was a quiet one and only open for a few hours each day. It was too far to walk, we were miles from anywhere and our Vietnamese visas would run out if we did not cross it today. Fortunately for us, there was some road construction work which had been going on around the bend and there were some workers, with a digger, on site.  The men, keen to show their chivalry once again got behind the bus, some sort of cord was attached from the bus to the digger and the bus was pulled out onto solid road. I’m pretty sure something significant broke in the process but the bus was free and we were back on the road. Crisis averted.

Not too long after we were pulled out, we arrived at the border which brought on the next round of drama and introduced us to the wonderful world of border scams. We had our Vietnam visas stamped as invalid and then had to walk in no man’s land for a while to get to the Tay Trang border crossing station where we hoped to get the Laos visa on arrival. The process is confusing and frustrating. You collect a form at the first window, fill in the form, attach your photo. You hand this in, along with your passport at which point you are more or less at their mercy as they make you pay a ‘processing fee’, a ‘stamp fee’ and a ‘tourism tax’ on top of the cost of the visa itself. You can argue the toss, as an Italian lady on our bus who’d already shown herself to be quite a character attempted to, threatening to call the police. But what can you do? They have your passport and even when you get it back, it’s likely you’ve already paid them by that point. They either laugh or get aggressive. However, me and Roza fortunately escaped the $5 ‘medical check’ by just walking past straight to the bus. Oscar wasn’t so lucky. But we had all made it to Laos, visas stamped in our passports.

It was at this point that I realised over $100 and some Thai Baht had gone missing from my document wallet. I had barely any money to exchange to buy food. But that was ok because when we made a pit stop, the only food on offer was some sort of giant rodent which someone was burning the hair off to prepare it for being barbecued. Which I could live without.

We eventually arrived in Muang Khua late afternoon. Some people on our bus were staying on it to Luang Prabang, almost three hundred kilometres away. But we had decided we wanted to experience Northern Laos and we had been recommended by a couple in Vietnam to take the slow boat down the Nam Ou. We wandered down through the town to the river to find we had missed the last boat (being the dry season, boats were infrequent). Despite some intense bartering largely involving the Italian woman, it wasn’t worth the cost to charter a boat downriver. She was not impressed. But we had made it over the mountains, both physical and mental, to laid-back languid Laos. And at least we were off that bus.