I’ve been unusually stressed about getting to Laos from Vietnam. I’m not sure why it seems so much more complicated than any of the trips thus far. I guess because I’ve been unable to find very clear information on the Internet. Or maybe because I’m traveling a long distance across countries, and perhaps I should’ve broken the journey into smaller sections. I dunno. Regardless, I vacillated between plans for a week.
At the end of my trek to Hang En I was dropped of in town. The ATM was finally working, and I withdrew more money than I thought I needed, just to not be in the same situation, caught without cash. I assessed my options. I knew I was only 50km from the border, and it just seemed so silly to drive east when I wanted to go west. So I strolled into Easy Tiger and asked how much they thought it would cost to get a xe ôm to take me to the border. The guy working there this time was immensely more friendly and helpful than the first day I had gone there. He recommended taking the local bus to Dong Hoi at 5 the next morning, and catching the bus to the border from there. This seemed like the best option I had heard, and I asked if perchance they had a room. They did! So I checked in and he proceeded immediately to check me out since I was leaving so early in the morning. I had a meal there since I actually had money now, and I spent most of the evening catching up on writing.
I awoke at 4:30 and went to wait for the bus. As I was waiting I started reading the sign about the local bus. First, the bus I wanted wasn’t until 5:30. Second, there was another at 6:00 and another at 7:10. Did I really need to take the earliest bus? To the iPhone! I researched my options, and it looked like buses headed from Dong Hoi to the border every hour in the morning. And the bus from there to Vientiane wasn’t until the evening. Sweet! More sleep and free breakfast it was. I went back up to bed and came back down at the more reasonable hour of 6:30. I had my tea, fried egg, and baguette, and then went once again to wait for my bus. The guy next to me, who I assumed worked at Easy Tiger, struck up a conversation. We talked all the way onto the bus. He informed me that my travel plans were pretty unlikely to work out. He usually arranges trips for people to Vientiane, and I would probably need to leave from Dong Ha, where coincidentally he was going as well. He made a phone call for me and assured me there was a bus to Vientiane leaving Dong Ha at 12:30. So I would tag along with him and he’d deposit me at my bus. We proceeded to converse for the ninety minute ride to Dong Hoi. Come to find not only does he work at Easy Tiger, but he’s the co-owner! As well as being in charge of the local eco-tours and the wild animal refuge center. His name is Hai, and he is a really cool individual. We both agreed we were happy our fallen through plans had inexplicably changed the course of our respective days. He invited me to have breakfast in Dong Hoi and proceeded to pay for it, as the Vietnamese do. I went with him while he did some shopping for his businesses and then we jumped on the bus to Dong Ha. Which he also paid for. It was another couple of hours before we arrived. He took me to his friend the travel agent, and his friend quickly put me on the back of a xe ôm. A far too quick thank you to my new friend Hai and I was speeding off towards the bus that was waiting for me to leave. This is the point where the magical enchanting morning changes. Should’ve stayed in Vietnam. I was tempted.
I am currently on the most questionable bus I’ve ever taken. It’s a sleeper bus like the one I took between Hanoi and Phong Nha. But three quarters of the back is packed full of stuff. Lots of boxes, quite a few blankets, some random luggage. As far as I can tell there are eight other passengers, all from Vietnam or Laos, and fourish guys operating the bus. Like on all sleeper buses you are required to take your shoes off and place them in a plastic bag. In fact, they wouldn’t let me back until I had tied the bag. But despite the strictness concerning footwear, the crew is smoking as if it’s not an unusual thing. We’ve been watching this show that seems to be a competition of sorts of various couples trying to sing duets the most romantically. The crew is enthralled by it and have had heated discussions about various couples. I find this hilarious. These grungy guys all into the ooiest gooiest lovey singing you could imagine. Anyways, all of this seems a bit off to me. I’ve had a lot of thoughts running through my head. Like is this an entirely legal situation going on here? and if so, if this bus gets stopped, am I getting busted along with everyone else? and am I less likely to get through the border with these guys? or is this what a sex trafficking ring is like? Is this the time I’ve finally trusted too far?
The actual border crossing was where it really hit though. We were motioned to get out and the driver made a stamping sign with his hand. I followed two Vietnamese guys and we walked about a kilometer down a sun heated highway. I very decisively took my backpack with me; no way was I getting separated from my stuff. No way was I leaving it behind on this sketch bus. I wondered why we had to walk, and whether or not I would ever see the bus again. I had another predicament as well: I had almost exactly enough money for my Laos visa, but it was divided between USD and VND. Which just doesn’t work when you are entering a country. I had tried to research whether there was an ATM at the border, but found no answer. So I cringed when the Vietnamese officials stamped my exit. Point of no return and all. What happens if you are stuck at a border without cash to go either direction? I honestly didn’t want to know the answer. The two Vietnamese guys went to a separate immigration counter and I lost sight of them while I busied myself applying for my visa.
The man working at the visa on arrival desk was one of the nicest government officials I’ve ever encountered, which bolstered me a bit. There was, in fact, an ATM (hear that Internet? There is an ATM at the Lao Bao border.) As with Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam getting into Laos was really simple and non-troublesome. However, once I had my passport complete with a shiny new visa in hand (as well as my first Laotian phrase: ‘thank you’ stamped into my brain), my life was not so simple. My two Vietnamese comrades were gone. Like, definitely nowhere in the vicinity, and there was no sign of the bus. I hadn’t been told what to do, and I had no idea what to do. My heart sank. Was this my first Asian scam? It had been a really obvious one, if so, and they must have though I was so naive. I had heard so many stories of people being conned or cheated, but have managed to avoid any trouble so far. I wondered how long I should wait before finding alternative transportation to Vientiane. The man from the visa on arrival booth approached me and asked about my situation. He pointed me towards a seat and told me to wait there for my bus. Several minutes later he found me again and brought me to another of the passengers who had been on my bus. That gem of a border control man must have asked around for me. He told me to stick with this guy, because he was worried I would miss my bus. I breathed a little easier. At least I wasn’t the only one waiting here. And surely this local had more of a clue of what was happening than me? Also, if I was stranded here, at least this amazingly kind border control man would help me get somewhere. But, sure enough, our gaudy and overly packed bus appeared finally. I settled in [gratefully] for some more cheesy romance duets.
The road once we crossed into Laos was horrible. I’ve heard/read about ‘poor road quality’ and assumed that people were just being overly dramatic, but no. I just hadn’t experienced the extent of poor road quality yet. You literally could’ve ridden a bicycle faster. The large bus had to snake back and forth across the road to avoid potholes, and this with oncoming traffic doing the same. No wonder this seemingly short distance on the map was supposed to take so long.
The bus stopped for dinner and toilets at one of the usual roadside stops. The crew invited me to sit with them for dinner, which I did, hesitatingly. The locals at the restaurant appeared to never have seen a foreigner. They interacted very excitedly with my bus crew and even pulled out their iPads. Pictures I’m used to by now, but one woman walked around taking video as if to say ‘see, this is my establishment, and look what just walked in!‘ I smiled politely, but was relieved to get back on the bus. The spotlight is not my domain. I was also proposed to by one of the men on the bus, which, I’m not sure if I’ve talked about yet, but this is not unusual. I’ve had numerous proposals and declarations of love. Sometimes by the actual person, and often by an older individual for a younger man. They’ll point at the young, single male and pointedly say ‘I love you’, which is to say ‘this man loves you’. The man will smile sheepishly and I’ll perform the least awkward response I can muster, which is still deathly awkward. How are you supposed to respond to that? Anyways, if you are really desperate for a husband, Vietnam awaits you. Dress modestly and take transportation with the locals.
The rest of the journey was blessedly uneventful. Podcasts to drown out the duets and sleep before arriving around 5am at the soil of Vientiane. Thank God.
As a postscript, despite the sketchiness of the situation, I don’t regret it. And I don’t think I was conned. I had arrived in Dong Ha too late for the last bus to Vientiane, so I assume this was some sort of non-passenger bus headed that way that just took on what few passengers it could carry. In hindsight, this makes sense with a comment Hai had made to me about me maybe being lucky and still catching a bus. I suspect that if anyone else on the bus spoke English they could’ve easily explained the situation to me, but I just didn’t have any way of understanding what was happening. While I did have some concerns, if I had really felt at risk, I would’ve refused to board or gotten off. I’m not too shy for that. If your intuition kicks in, you pay attention. And that’s that. My trip to Laos was without question the strangest border crossing I’ve encountered. But I’m here, and none the worse for wear.