BootsnAll Travel Network

Nameo: One of those days…

It was August 14th when we left Vieng Xai. We had planned to leave the day before to head across the border into Vietnam, but were told that buses only leave the border three times a week. So a lazy day was spent in Vieng Xai doing not much at all; Bec giving me a haircut was just about the highlight. Oh, that and buying a shirt at the local market, where I drew a nice crowd of curious women who all left their market stalls to come and watch whilst I tried the shirt on. A bit of gentle bargaining and the shirt was mine for just a few dollars. Three days later I threw it out.

We were disappointed to have spent the extra day there. Normally, we don’t have much of a timetable when we travel; shit happens when it wants to happen, and there’s not much you can do about it. But about a week earlier, we’d heard word that a couple of friends of ours were arriving in Hanoi on the 13th of August, so we made sure we would get to the Vietnamese border on the 13th. From there, Hanoi was little more than 200km away. A short bus ride, yes? That’s what you’d expect, right? Well, those expectations were way off, my friends, way off. I’m talking ‘expecting Iraq to resolve itself’ way off.

Leaving Vieng Xai itself was no simple task. There was no bus, just a truck that made the journey from Sam Neua past Vieng Xai to the border once a day, and that we would have to flag down from the side of the road as it went past. We were told a variety of times, from 7am to 9.15am, and so lugged our packs on the fifteen minute walk from our guset house to the main road nice and early, arriving a bit before 7am.

We were eventually joined by two other travellers, a lovely British girl, and a tall and gangly, slightly eccentric old Swiss guy who had lived in South Africa the last twenty-eight years. His strange accent consisted of an international, intelligent sounding Swiss half that had ben ripped to shreds by the coarse and grating South African accent. Whislt we chatted by the roadside, waiting for the truck to appear, he tried to convince me that you could travel through Switzerland quite cheaply; “What, by only camping?” I asked.
“No, no! No camping! I hate camping!”

He also tried to tell me that Wikpedia had stolen his idea with their Wikitravel page; essentially a page featuring up-to-the-minute information about places provided by travellers – an always up-to-date guidebook.

I smiled politely, and prayed for the truck to appear.

At about 8.30am my prayers were answered. Well, sort of. The truck did indeed appear. It even had four wheels and a driver. What it didn’t have was any space on there for us. The people-moving trucks in Laos are kitted out with custom-made steel cages on the back tray, with a bench seat running down each side for people’s arses to go on. They can range in size from seating about ten people, up to around twenty-five. This particular truck was licenced to seat fifteen people. At this point, it seems a quite appropriate time to mention that such a licence in Laos is really just a guideline. More a serving suggestion than any hard and fast rule. A bit like cyclists not being allowed to take drugs – you know, just a suggestion. Because this truck that could fit fifteen people already had twenty-six folks in there.

But I’ll give it to the Laotians (if that’s what you call them?), they’re not afraid to get up close and in your personal space. As it screeched to a halt in the gravel beside the road, the driver jumped out, raced over and started hauling our heavy packs up onto the roof of the truck. Well, looks like we’re gonna be squeezing in. Crazy Swiss guy was first, followed by the British girl and then Bec. The three of them found some room on the floor between the seats, with various peoples’ kneecaps up around their ears. I managed to just get my legs inside the tray, and squeeze my arse onto the back end of the tray – the bit that folds down when you want to unload stuff. I also had the knees of three people banging me in the back of the head; three people that were standing up and hanging onto the back of that truck for dear life.

This was how we travelled for an hour to get to the border, winding slowly up mountain roads, and screaming down the downhills, like sardines on a rollercoaster.At one point we flew around a corner and a pack from the top of the truck went flying went flying off and landed on the road.

“FUCK! That is my bag! SHIT! FUCK!” It was crazy Swiss guy, going, well, crazy. The Laos people in the back of the truck threw their eyes wide open in shock. I’ve never heard anyone from Laos raise their voice, let alone fly forth with angry profanities (although, to be honest, my knowledge of Laos profanities is on a par with, say, George W. Bush’s knowledge of world geography). He clambered his way across bodies and scrambled out of the truck, swearing under his breath, before angrily throwing the bag into the bag of the truck. Dude, it’s just a bag.

When we finally reached the border, after an hour of bouncing around on a piece of steel about an inch thick, I swear my arse smiled.

Getting through Vietnam customs is, in my experience, never a fun process. After a swift and uneventful passage through the Laos side of the border, we were ushered into a Vietnamese office with a huge wooden desk dominating half the room and stretching from wall to wall. Behind it sat two guys in green army uniforms. The first was an old, scarily non-expressive guy with glasses sitting way down on the tip of his nose, and who did all the work – the grabbing of the passports, the flicking through each page, not moving his head but raising his eyes to look suspiciously from the passport to each of us, the grunting as he slammed down each stamp onto the page as though trying to squash a steel cockroach. The second guy was younger, perhaps in his late twenties. His uniform was more scruffy, not the perfectly pressed cardboard of his companion. He sat lazily back in his chair, and did nothing more than puff slowly on his cigarette, looking like a Vietnamese hitman.

Once we’d survived the non-verbal interrogation, and our passports were stamped, a couple of other officers in uniform appeared. One by one, they searched our bags.
“WHAT IS THIS?” They demanded.
“Uh, that’s a gift for my sister. It’s her birthday soon.”

They mellowed as they went through our things, eventually ignoring whole sections of the pack, and got a particular kick out of our mini-speakers that we plug the ipod into. What they didn’t get a kick out of was my dirty laundry bag. I was wearing my last set of clean clothes, and had a whole week’s worth of dirty, muddy, dusty, stinky garments stuffed into a plastic bag. Upon smelling those, they gave up and waved me on my way.

From here, we walked a few hundred metres into Vietnamese territory, and into a small border town, Nameo. There, much to our collective relief, was a bus that was travelling to Hanoi. Woo Hoo – we’d only be one day behind our friends, who we were really looking forward to catching up with.

Hmmmm, well, not quite one day behind, as it turned out. Due to the mountainous country that separated us at the border with the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi, the bus, rather than heading due northeast to Hanoi, would actually head due southeast, to the no-traveller-has-ever-heard-of-city of Thanh Hoa. It’s a city, and no traveller has ever heard of it, that’s how exciting that place promised to be. This would take seven hours. It was now about noon. From Thanh Hoa, the bus would turn to the north and head up to Hanoi, a journey of around four hours (I’m guessing). What this meant was that we would arrive in Hanoi in the middle of the night, with no place to stay, and no idea where our friends were (at this point, we’d been out of internet range for over a week, travelling across the north of Laos).

Well, if we had to arrive in the middle of the night, then we’d just do that. So, now, how much is the bus, that’s what we needed to find out. As the four of us waited, we were joined by a French couple who we’d shared a boat ride with back at Muang Ngoi. Eventually, the six of us were called onto the bus. As we waited in our seats, the driver came around to collect our money.

“Twenty dollar. One person.”
“No no no,” cried the Frenchman, “we are living in Vietnam two months now, this is too much money.”

The Frenchman was right, it was too much money. This was twenty dollars to go a few hundred kilometres. In comparison, you can get from Hanoi to Saigon, a journey in excess of 1000 kilometres, for around twenty-five dollars. Vietnam is well known for a country where travellers are chronically over-charged in comparison to locals.

The French couple argued with the ticket collector. He wouldn’t budge. They advised the other four of us not to pay that much. After much investigation, too-ing and fro-ing, they established that the locals were paying four dollars. The driver was asking us for five times that price.

The arguing went back and forth. The bus wasn’t moving. It wouldn’t move until we came to some sort of agreement. We sat for two hours, frustrated because all we wanted to do was get to Hanoi, and Bec and I were happy to pay up to fifteen dollars each, which was still way more than we should have. Vietnam was, just like the last time we arrived in the country, really starting to piss us off.

The French guy called his Vietnamese friend in Hanoi, and got him to argue on the phone with the driver. The driver didn’t give a shit. He looked at us with disdain, cigarette hanging from is mouth. The only English we heard him speak was ‘twenty dollar’. The rest was hand signals. At one point, he tried to force us all off the bus. We wouldn’t move.

The argument moved outside, where the driver found a friend who spoke English. The French guy spoke with him for ten minutes or so, whilst the rest of us watched from the bus. Then it was crazy Swiss guy’s turn. He jumped off the bus and joined in the arguing, except rather than the rational, calm negotiating off the Frenchman, within two minutes he went, well, crazy. He had his fists raised to the Vietnamese gentleman and stepped up threatening to punch the guy. Now, that’s a fucking stupid thing to do in any country, let alone a country in southeast Asia where confrontations are avoided at all costs (well, normally, the exception seemingly being when the Vietnamese can blatantly rip-off some foreigners).

Finally, we agreed to pay ten dollars each, but they would only take us as far as Thanh Hoa. From there, we would have to find another bus to take us north to Hanoi.

Fine. Whatever. Just get us the hell out of this shithole.

Once the agreement had been reached, the bus started moving. About a hundred metres down the road it went, before it stopped, and the driver loaded on bag after huge hessian bag of some sort of fermenting crap. For about half an hour they loaded on the stinking bags, stuffing them into every spare inch of space on the bus – under our legs, over our heads, under our arms. We’d just wasted two hours whilst they tried to get their hands on our money, and now he spends half an hour loading up the bus. Frustration hardly covers the feelings we had at this point.

Eventually, the bus finally started the journey proper. Within a few minutes, the local woman sitting in front of us started vomiting. Soon after, the Vietnamese guy sitting across the aisle from me was leaning across the person next to him, and was vomiting out the window. He brought his head back inside the vehicle, sat down, and vomited onto the seat between his legs.

Seven hours of winding mountain roads, vomiting noises, leg cramps, and toilet stops where the toilet was literally in a pig pen, and we arrived in Thanh Hoa. Oh, and the bus leaked. It rained the whole way, and the bus leaked; water droplets splashed down onto Bec every few seconds. By the time we got to Thanh Hoa, at around 9pm, her backpack was wet through.

Why did we come to Vietnam again?

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