Vientiane, Laos – country number 12

Wow. Since I left the UK, I’ve visited 12 countries for the first time. Not a bad total for a first effort. This was one of the longer haul journeys taking about as long as that initial flight from Heathrow to Bangkok. However, this one smelt somewhat more of onions.

As usual when leaving Hanoi I was running round like a headless chicken with not enough time trying to get packed and buy crap food to eat on the journey. I didn’t get to catch up with Allen and Abby so I hope they’re reading this and that Abby got to the chocolate buffet!

My "taxi" (a bike) collected me at 18:00 and I was dropped at the tour operator office. Shortly after, myself and some others were all crammed into a taxi to go to the bus station. It’s quite a drive out of Hanoi – maybe half an hour. It seems like longer when you’re being bombarded by Vietnamese versions of Kylie Minogue’s Can’t Get You Out Of My Head. I thought the original was soul-warpingly bad enough but this version’s evil enough to turn Luke to the Dark Side.

With great relief, we reached the bus terminal and were marched onto the Vientiane express. Everyone on board bar the staff was a tourist and we all got at least one seat, most of us two. Apparently this is luxury – often all the seats are gone and people are relegated to tiny plastic stools in the central aisle.

This could be due to the popularity of the route, or equally as likely to the vast amounts of vegetable being transported in the back of the bus. Easily 1/2, possibly more was stuffed with orange string sacks full of potatoes and onions. The bus smelled like a dodgy greengrocers. Had it rained and become humid, we’d have been sitting in a bus full of mildly palatable soup.

At 19:30, our trek began. ETA 15:00 in Vientiane, Laos. I’ve heard nightmares about these journeys – this being one of the longest common ones in SE Asia. I hoped it would go like a dream.

Well, dreaming wasn’t going to happen. After watching several episodes of the utterly amazing Heroes on my PSP, I decided to nod off for a while. This was made nigh on impossible by the stupidly loud Vietnamese music being played through the coach’s sound system. Memories of the bus journeys through India floated back to haunt me.

Even with earplugs, it was like being in a foreign nightclub without access to beer. My hop-born friend would at least have eased me into unconsciousness, but I had to settle for pure exhaustion. Finally, this hit just in time for us pulling into a rest stop. Great.

I noticed that at each stop, the driver waited slightly more than half an hour then poured around three litres of water into the cooling system. And that one of the rear tyres had a tear in the side. Nice. I think we stopped somewhere for about 2 hours overnight and the engine was switched off. Or I was dreaming. Or hallucinating.

Somehow, we made it to the Vietnam/Laos border by an hour after sunup. This is where the contrast between the two countries became glaringly obvious. In both border controls we dealt with bureaucrats, yet the experiences couldn’t have been more different.

The Vietnamese "queue" was some mad melèe. Eventually, we got our passports stamped for exit after handing over a novel $1 fee which isn’t mentioned anywhere. I suppose the staff will have a few bia hoi on us tonight. In fairness, one Swiss guy paid for two passports and got them back separately. When the guard tried to make him pay for the second one again – he’d simply forgotten about the double-payment – voices were raised and the atmosphere got a little worrying… then he clicked what had happened, bowed his head, apologised profusely and put his hand through to shake with the tourist. Wow. Not something I expected to happen.

We than had to walk 100 yards or so down to the Lao immigration. Organised, yet friendly, chaos reigned. There was a mix of "visa on border" with "visa in advance" visitors, along with a huge number of beautiful insects which were all too happy to land on people. They seemed adept at choosing those who really hated them and several screams and laughs went up as forms were filled out.

All of the staff (bar the short man in the currency exchange booth who looked like the midget from Fantasy Island) was calm, polite, friendly and smiling. No uniformed overbearing presence here!

The pricing was a bit "ouch", but overall OK. $30 got you a 15-day… no, let’s make that 30-day, visa for Laos. People who’d applied in advance told me they’d also paid $30 for this (and got a really nice paper sticker visa) when all the adverts in Hanoi were for $49. Damn. I’d have liked one of those as well.

In addition to this, a fee was payable for entering the country regardless of whether you had your visa or were picking it up on the spot. 2000 Kip Mon-Fri, 12000 Sat-Sun. Only today was a public holiday (May 1st – huge in SE Asia) so we were getting hit with the 12000 Kip fee despite it being a Tuesday. Grr. Given the exchange rate of 10000 Kip to 1 US Dollar it’s not a huge amount but a pain nevertheless. They would only accept Kip so I changed all my remaining Dong and coughed up.

One woman on our bus now hit a predicament. She was only hopping out of Vietnam on a visa run, and had thought she could just stay in Nam Phao for a night or so before heading back. Only there’s nothing in Nam Phao except the border office. And she’d only paid her bus fare to there. And they would only accept Dong. And she had none – only Hong Kong dollars. And the money exchange wouldn’t accept them.

We ended up having a whip-round for her to get her ticket to Vientiane.

In addition, we took on two new passengers: a Scouser and a guy from Wigan (if I recall correctly). They’d just arrived at the border from Vientiane and been knocked back by the Vietnamese border guards as their visas had expired. Whoops. So they jumped on our bus to go all the way back again and reapply for new ones. Their overnight journey had been a nightmare, so they weren’t in the best of moods.

As we got close to Vientiane we started picking up local travellers and the roads became better paved, but steeper. Then… *screech* *strain* *ROOOOAR* *SQUEAL* followed by the "conductor" making many hand gestures for us to get the hell of damn quick like (I’m good with this sign language).

The bus, more due to the weight of the sodding vegetable I’m sure, couldn’t get up the hill. All the menfolk were ordered off to lighten the load and the bus reversed away into the distance. Eventually we heard it powering back up the hill at an amazing 2 miles per hour, gears screaming. It pulled level, we jumped behind it, it stopped, it started to roll back, we scattered like ninepins diving for cover.

OK, second time lucky. He seemed to reverse a lot further this time to get a good runup and this time we made it, shoving it up past the steep part while one of the guys ran in front taking photos instead of helping (but he’s forgiven if I get a copy of the pictures as he promised (which I never did so he isn’t)).

We re-boarded and set off on the last stretch. My attention was distracted from Heroes by some stupidly cute Lao kids who were playing as only small children can. They lightened the mood on the whole bus. Until the Evil Vietnamese Deafening Music Of Doom recommenced.

Finally, at last, at 16:30, we arrived in Vientiane and erupted from our vegetation-enshrouded death-wagon. A large tuk-tuk took (hehe) 10 of us down to the main centre of town and the driver legged it when we slightly overpaid him without giving us change. Ah well.

Our group divided at this point. I booked into a 3-bed dorm (the last available) at the Mixay Guest House with Jacob from Utrecht and Joseph from New York, and the rest wandered on down the street. A whacking $2 a night, but the hardest bed I’ve slept on since India and no working power sockets in the room. Good job I have plenty of spare batteries.

We treated ourselves to a good dinner. I had a pepper steak, two large bottles of Bia Lao and lemon sorbet with vodka to finish. OK, so I blew a whopping fiver on my meal but it was the first decent food I’d had in over 24 hours. After a quick walk to the local supermart (with an amazingly cute and polite little girl collecting the baskets) we headed back to chez nous and crashed for the night. Tomorrow would be my only full day in Vientiane so it would be an early and full one.

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