Vietnam to Vientiane
To all those who supported us, I would like to apologise profusely for taking so long to recount our journey. We left Cat Ba in Vietnam on the 25th of July almost three months ago and a serious bout of ‘writer’s block, among many other disruptions, has plagued me. Now that we are nicely settled, we have decided to focus our attention back on the blog and write up the last four ‘chapters’ of our journey within the next two weeks. We will also start editing the footage that Yoel filmed along the way. The plan is to make a short video that encapsulates what we have learnt from our 52 day trip. Let us rewind time and retrace our steps across a complex yet beautiful Southeast Asia.
One of the drawbacks of travelling overland is the number of visas necessary. Of the 13 countries we crossed, with our European passports, 6 did not require visas (France, Belgium, Germany, Poland, Thailand and Singapore), 5 required them before entry (Belorussia, Russia, Mongolia, China, and Vietnam) and 2 issued visas on entry (Laos, Malaysia). If you want to stay longer in a country, it can get a little trickier and this is the case with Indonesia. We had learned that we could get a 30 days tourist visa on entry and were planning on changing it to a Social/Cultural visa once in Bali. However, we learnt on our way while staying at an ex-Green School parent’s house in Germany, that it was not possible to apply for such visas from Indonesia. To our horror, we would have to fly to Singapore or Australia to do a so-called visa run – something most Green School families do on a regular basis! It was out of the question – we were not going to fly back to Singapore for a visa. While in Russia, we contacted the school’s legal department and arranged to apply for our Social-Cultural visas from Bangkok. It was going to take five days and we had to change our itinerary accordingly. As mentioned in our last post, floods in South China and Northern Vietnam delayed us from our schedule and lured us to the beautiful coastline of Ha Long Bay and Cat Ba Island. All this meant that we only had three days and four nights to reach Bangkok. Sadly we had to cut short our travel through Laos.
We got on an early morning coach to catch a boat that speedily took us away from the green waters into a mucky industrial estuary and then onto mainland.
The road to Hanoi was fringed with factories with their hallmark scooter-parks near the entrances. A reminder of the ‘Made in Vietnam’ label on countless garments and sneaker shoes. We soon hit traffic and were brushed by the swarm of motorised scooters – the majority of which were ridden by women, now wearing helmets and long sleeves that covered their hands so as not to tan.
We made a conscious decision to turn our backs on Hanoi and only spent few hours there as we knew that we would have to stay five days in Bangkok and already had done our fair share of capital-cities. We arrived in Luong Yen Bus Station in the South East of Hanoi and had to cross the city to My Dinh bus station 7 km West of the centre. We had been warned to be careful of the taxi drivers so decided to take local buses instead. We ended up being dropped off in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere. We had been misguided and were told that coaches to Laos did not depart from My Dinh. In the end, we accepted the help of a friendly taxi driver who took pity on us and spoke english well. Funnily, almost all the taxis were tiny Korean city cars with hardly any space in the boot. We got onto a Kia Picanto (which happens to be our car back in England) with our large bags on our knees. He took us to the centre of the city where a small tour operator sold us some cheap ticket to Vientiane and let us leave our bags behind the counter while we walked among the small streets of the Old Quarter and ate a meal in a restaurant overlooking the famous Hoan Kiem Lake.
Few hours later, we ended up a the back of a most unusual night bus to Laos. The bus was a shoeless environment covered with mattresses on the aisles and rigged with two rows of reclining seats on either side. We were rushed in, and as there was no overhead storage we were asked to put our bags (including our food bag) in the luggage compartments. Most seats were broken and stayed in a 30 degrees reclining position, which meant that we ended up neither sitting nor lying for almost twenty hours with barely any room for our feet to move. Added to this, the red and purple neon-lights were continuously on and a large TV screen barred a mixture of Southeast Asian Bollywood-like movies, Viet-pop music and borderline dirty-dancing video clips throughout the journey.
We were the only westerners in the bus and no one spoke english. I never managed to clearly establish how long the journey would take and what route we were taking. The only thing that I understood is that we were heading for Vientiane.
In the middle of the night, it occurred to me that I did not have enough cash to pay for the Laotian visas and that I may not be able to use my cards at the border. I went to the front of the bus waving my passport at the sleepy conductor gesturing whether I would be able to pay by card for the visas. I could not really get through. Back at my seat, I read up all the information I could on our Lonely Planet guide and realised that if I did not act swiftly, we would be stranded. I went back to the front of the bus, with the intent of communicating with the pseudo-universal language of body-talk. With gestures half way between Marcel Marceau and Mr Bean I tried to explain with my credit card in my hand that I needed money before we crossed the border. We were driving through a city at the time and a group of men who were sitting in the front believed that I was after a bar or ‘a lady’. Finally, I pronounced the three magical letters: ATM. A woman who quietly witnessed the whole situation, unexpectedly shouted some words at the driver and all of a sudden he put on the breaks and stopped. He gestured for me to get off the bus, pointing at some flip-flops in front of the door. I had made myself understood, I jumped out of the bus leaving Yoel and everything behind and ran in the streets towards a lit-up booth, hoping that the flip-flops I was wearing were enough ransom for them to wait for me. I withdrew a million Dongs and was soon back by Yoel’s side, sleeping and oblivious of what had just happened.
We arrived at the border around six-thirty the next morning and joined a queue of trucks and buses on a rural mountain road by a small hamlet with its usual chickens and wandering cows. The locals were waking up and brushing their teeth outside their houses and a few women were busy preparing food in a hall. The air was much fresher and the sky was grey. Most people stayed in their vehicles, the border was closed and it was clear that nothing was going to happen for a while. The funny part was that there was only one roadside restaurant, and one by one we saw the custom officers come out of their barracks in their military uniform and have breakfast in the same place as the tired looking travellers.
About an hour later, the bus conductor collected all of our passports and put them in a black plastic bag. I was not too comfortable letting go of ours and decided to follow him to keep an eye on the proceedings. At first, there were only two opened counters and all the bus drivers were pushing each other to be the first to hand out their bag of passports through the small openings. The officials were very laid back and took all of the bags and lined them up on their desks. Some of the drivers were handing out some money, to ensure that their bags would be processed first. Later, I met a handful of other western travellers at another counter who seemed to have been excluded from that process. They ended up going before us but had to pay some stipend to have their passports stamped. I had read that at some borders you had to walk about a kilometre with your bags through a no-man’s-land but here they did not bother with our luggage, and the distance between the Vietnamese and Laotian side was more like a few hundred meters. The guards on the Laos border looked more disciplined and proud and I was glad to have withdrawn some money during the night as there was no way of getting money anywhere and there were some official notice stating that they did not accept foreign currencies or bribes. There was even a little poster of Lao phrases of courtesy: “good morning”, “how are you”, “how much is the visa”, “thank you”… I wanted to take a picture but saw another sign that forbid cameras.
We drove through small roads for another ten hours, stopping every now and again at road-side cafés and I was surprised that we were not crossing any towns.
Back at home and prior to leaving, our dear neighbour had given us an address to visit in Laos. It was an organic Permaculture farm near Vang-Vieng owned by an eccentric yet very active environmentalist. We had been told that most buses heading for Vientiane went through Vang-Vieng and wanted to stop and stay there at least over-night, with the intention to visit this project and to possibly plant a tree there. I walked to the front of the bus once more and asked if we could be dropped off in Vang-Vieng showing a map. The conductor shook his head telling me this bus was going to Vientiane and judging by the way he looked at the map I got the sense that he belonged to an oral culture. It rained most of the time and it was hard to know where we were. We did not have access to our food, but the green landscape that we could see from our window somehow nourished us. Extreme weather had also affected Laos and I wondered whether our route had been changed as a consequence of the floods.
Finally, six hours later than what we had been promised in Hanoi, we arrived in a muddy nondescript bus yard. We were in Vientiane – the least urbanised capital city of our trip.