My first land border crossing- what an experience…
The decision to leave Vietnam had been made and the necessary arrangements sorted, nothing too difficult, an afternoon bus from Hoi An to Hue, a cheeky night in Hue saying bye to friends and then a tiny little 12 hour bus across the border into Laos, final destination to be Pakse. Easy!
Hah!! I mean the first bit was fine, after the last hugs and waves goodbye to the diamonds I was leaving behind in Hoi An, it was a comfortable sleeper bus for a lovely 3 hour journey to Hue. Got to Hue: The Imperial Vietnam Backpackers Hostel just in time for free beer and quiz night (which we came joint first in!) and then were up , showered, packed and having breakfast just in time for our pick up at 8am. Then it was 8:15, no problem, this is Asia after all, don’t think I’ve got a bus that was on time yet. 8:30, 8:45, 8:50. After a quick phone call, we were assured it was on the way, not to worry. Finally, we were picked up in a taxi and driven about 8 minutes into the town, where we had to wait next to an abandoned building, hopefully for the bus that we needed.
And it did arrive! Yay! They even gave us the sleeper seats at the back of the bus, clearly noticed us towering above the Vietnamese and realised we needed more leg room. Sorted, we had our blankets, our Winnie the Hoop pillows (no, that’s not a typo), plenty downloaded on Netflix, bags full of bus snacks, sorted. When we stopped at a fuel station no more than an hour later, no worries, just filling up the tank for the long journey. Well, that was until they started piling on bags of gravel. Yep, full on industrial sized bags of gravel, they were going underneath the bus, on top of the bus, and even 3 deep in the aisles of the bus. Again, Asia, not the strangest thing I have seen on a bus by far.
Eventually, it looked like we were about ready to leave, start pulling away when we spot our luggage, just casually strewn in front of the now empty containers of gravel. Erm, what? Cue a reasonable amount of panic, attempts to get the drivers attention which failed miserably, and as we slowly leave our worldly possessions behind, we just see a tiny Vietnamese man smiling at our panic and waving his hands before pointing to himself and nodding. What the hell was that supposed to mean? With very little we could do, we had to trust that at some point we would be reunited with our bags!
A rather uneventful journey to the border followed, punctuated only by discussions consisting of, ‘I’m sure it will all be fine’, ‘There must be another bus for luggage’, ‘I literally don’t have any clothes’, I swear, I am going to lose my shit if they have lost my bag!’ and so on.
We make it to the border around lunch time, the bus stops and we all get off, after arguing with a random woman who was trying to ‘help us’ exchange our dong for kip and adamant that you could not pay for the Laos visa with USD (a total lie!). Ok, so now what, no one seems to be in any particular hurry to cross borders, buy visas, or do anything really, including answering our questions about where we needed to go, brushing us off with vague waves in different directions. (Side note: still no sign of our bags)
Right, let’s pick a direction and see if we hit a barrier that we need to pay to cross. Solid plan. Thank God for the Dutch girl sat in a cafe who saw us clearly looking very lost and pathetic and shouted over to us that we were, in fact, going in the right direction! After going to the wrong place twice, we managed to join a queue that looked like it was something official, result, we were allowed to leave Vietnam! (Is it a prerequisite of the job of border agents to have that look that terrifies you, a bit like the Mom look when you are in trouble). Next, getting the visa for Laos, a couple of forms and $40 and there was a shiny new page taken up in my passport!
Walking across the border itself was not as impressive as I imagined it would be. I don’t really know what I expected, but you literally walk, show your passport to another scary looking dude and that’s it, you’re in Laos! So far, very very similar to Vietnam, which I can still see right over there. So now what, no sign of our bus, we didn’t even think to check the name/ number/ licence plate but we were pretty sure it had yellow curtains, not purple. So we wait, I’m sure it won’t be long… hah!!
Two hours, a sugar cane juice and twenty chapters of my book later, a bus finally pulls up that looks like it could be ours, yellow curtains and everything, and those people that look like they might have been sitting in front of us have got up as well! And…. we can see one of our bags strapped to the top of the bus along with a shit ton of other stuff! Ok, so this morning has taken a little longer than anticipated, it is now about 4pm, but surely nothing else can hold us up right? WRONGGGG!!!!!
We make a stop off for dinner, normal, set off again around 7pm, we are about 4 hours behind where we thought and hoped we would be, but its all good, should get in about midnight, we made sure to book a hotel close to the bus station, I’m sure they will still let us check in at that time. Settle in to watch a film (This Is The End) and I am barely half way through when the bus stops, and the driver comes and tells us we have to get off. Well, he shouts ‘Pakse’, points at us and points at the door. Thank God for maps.me which told us we were most definitely not in Pakse yet, and helped us figure out that we had to change to a different bus. Which bus was going to have to be pot luck though!
Thankfully, after a bit of asking around (‘Pakse?’ and pointing) we found the bus. And by bus I mean a tin can falling apart on 4 questionable wheels with broken seats and goodness knows what piled up to the ceiling. Awesome, we got this, we can totally manage this for an hour or two. Obviously, being the only white girls on the local bus, we attracted a certain amount of attention, from sneaky pictures (probably best to have turned the flash off if you didn’t want me to notice) to people who spoke really good English asking us lots and lots of questions. When we told them where we were going though, it was met with a little giggle. Did they know how long it would take to get to Pakse? An hour, two tops. Nope, 5-6 hours. What the actual? And they weren’t lying.
As the rain pissed it down, and the bus thundered down the pitch black roads, we realised we weren’t getting off this bus until at least 2am (if we didn’t fall out the door which kept opening as we were moving). But no, we didn’t factor in the need to stop 400 times for food, for deliveries, to pick up new luggage, drop people off and just generally have a little rest. 3am and we are finally told we are at the Pakse stop, not the bus station, oh no, we are just outside a random shop on a random street at 3am. Taxis, no chance, tuktuks, not one. How on earth were we going to get to our hotel? Maps.me to the rescue again, we showed the driver where we needed to get and he must have taken pity on us, because he told us to get back on the bus, turned it around and drove us back to where our hotel was. Finally a bit of luck! It’s now 3:30am, we have been travelling for almost 19 hours, just want to get into a bed and go to sleep. But guess what…?? Our hotel was closed, and not just locked up for the night, like closed closed, no guests, no staff, I had only booked it the day before! Looking around, it was deathly silent, no movement, no lights, no noise. We had to go from hotel to hotel knocking on doors and ringing bells until eventually we managed to wake up a guy sleeping behind the reception desk of one of the hotels. He opened the door, gave us a key, told us we would sort it in the morning and promptly took himself back to bed! Not that we were complaining. Exhausted we lugged our bags up the stairs and into our room, collapsed on the bed and slept until lunch time the next day!