For a second there, Hartley and I were proud that we hadn’t fallen prey to the systematic scam machine that is Northern Vietnam, because all the southbound travelers we’d met along the way talked about being ripped off constantly. Paying for bogus tours, buying tickets for buses and trains that never show up, booking rooms in hotels that don’t exist. We’d escaped it. Or so we thought.
Sure, we’d been overcharged here and there. I’m positive none of the locals shelled out as much for a bowl of pho as we were in the habit of paying. But we’d managed to stay mostly within our budgets, and hadn’t yet accidentally ended up oh, say, 11 hours and 631 kilometers away from any of our intended destinations.
But there was one last thing to figure out in Vietnam: how to leave. Our visas were on their dying breaths, so we needed to hurry up and get to Laos. Upon the suggestion of a friend we knew from Koh Rong, we decided to go to Vieng Xai, an underground cave city just across the northern border. There was a reason for this: not only would it break up a zillion-hour bus ride to the central city of Luang Prabang, but our friend had listed Vieng Xai up there with the pyramids on the list of amazing things he’d seen.
We tried to book a ticket to Na Meo, the remote northern border town, but the agencies we asked only offered tickets through to Vientiane or Luang Prabang. Unfazed, we pulled out the map and consulted the lady at the front desk of our hotel, who made a rapid-fire call in Vietnamese for us. ”Bus leaves at 5 PM,” she told us. Brilliant. She scribbled us an unintelligible receipt, promising we’d arrive in Na Meo in the morning.
It seemed easy enough, but we knew it would be an adventure, because we discovered that we were unprepared in just about every way. We’d been unsuccessful in our search for American dollars (of COURSE this is the only way one can pay for a Lao visa at the border with Vietnam). I lost my sheet of passport photos. And we were nursing a worry in the back of our minds that we’d get hassled and overcharged because we’d be overstaying our visas by one day.
5 PM rolled around and a guy came to our hotel to collect us. The fact that he rode a motorbike and we had to chase him down the street carrying all of our luggage was a precursor to the way the rest of the trip was going to be, though we didn’t know it yet. We hurried from hostel to hotel to hostel, picking up a few more travelers at each stop for a collective ride to the bus station. A second guy packed us into a van meant for half as many people (below is where I sat on the floor – he had to physically shove me further back to get the door closed) and drove us to a dusty patch of road near the bus station.
From there we were treated worse than cattle, shoved along with a fury normally reserved for people with the blood of murdered puppies on their hands. ”VIENTIANE!” one guy-in-charge screamed, and some of our group went with him. ”LUANG PRABANG!,” the other shouted, and the rest stayed. Hartley went over to him. ”We’re going to Na Meo,” she started to say. ”YOU! GO!” he shouted, gesturing towards the Vientiane group. Pausing, then, to count the number of people in the Luang Prabang group, he pulled one girl from there and pushed the three of us along. Figuring we’d find our bus in the same area, we hurried after the Vientiane group. He couldn’t get us through the motions fast enough. Passports were taken, tickets were torn, and we were breathlessly herded towards the buses parked in back. We tried to stop our guide. ”Where is the bus to Vieng Xai?” Visibly angered by our question, he stormed along, refusing to answer. By that time we were in front of the Vientiane bus. ”BAGS!” he screamed, and people started pushing their backpacks forward.
“We’re not going to Vientiane,” I told him, pulling out our map of Laos and pointing at the northern border crossing. ”We’re going to Na Meo. Which bus do w-” ”BAGS!“, he repeated, shoving me aside. ”THIS BUS! BAGS!”
“So this is the bus to Na Meo?”
“NA MEO, NA MEO!” he yelled, violently stabbing the air in the direction of the Vientiane bus.
“So you’ll tell us when we need to get off?”
He ignored us. We got on, stumbling into the sleeper berths he hustled us into, and the bus pulled out of the station.
The misshapen, smelly foot of a big Russian guy was dangling in my face, but apart from that we were fine. I strategically angled the air conditioner towards it to blow the smell away and settled in for what I was sure would be a long night.
We were doing alright until the bus stopped to pick up the extra people, the ones who paid not for a seat but to sit in the aisle. Suddenly, under the gentle swinging of the callused Russian foot, I was spooning a middle-aged Vietnamese guy whose sharp elbow had an uncanny ability to connect with the most ticklish part of my back exactly as I was about to drift off to sleep.
The bus was barreling along, and we knew deep down that we were headed to Vientiane, whether we liked it or not. There was no reasoning with the slave drivers up front; we feared that if we asked about Na Meo again they might take some pliers from the glove compartment and start pulling our fingernails out to prove that we should have shut up when they told us to.
I locked my backpack, hugged my purse, took a couple of the sleeping pills I’d reserved for just such an occasion, and prayed I wouldn’t have to pee badly enough to take advantage of the side-of-the-road toilet stops (which of course only happened on the flat, bush-free stretches of road). I drifted off.
I woke up to a fresh, cool breeze and the soft dawn light in my window. My iPod said 6 AM. We were stopped, but where were we?
We’d made it to the border – or, at least, we were in the line of trucks waiting to cross the border. With an hour to kill before the offices even opened, we sat down with Vicky (the girl who was pushed from the Luang Prabang group into ours) and a French couple, and scrapped our Vieng Xai idea over savory bowls of pho. It was too early for instant noodles, but the beef was tasty and the broth tasted like chicken noodle soup from home. I had my last cup of Vietnamese coffee there, the thick kind that takes ages to drip through the grounds to mix with condensed milk in a waiting mug.
Surprisingly, the border crossing was easy. Our expired visas made me nervous, especially when the border official took his time looking through my passport and checking it against a list of names on a sheet of paper in front of him – but get this – nothing happened. He stamped us through. We were in Laos, shiny new visas in hand!
When we got on the bus, my aisle cuddle-buddy was gone. The dirt got redder, the air got hotter and we could hear the buzzing of cicadas. The frantic energy of Vietnam melted away and a calm I hadn’t felt since Cambodia settled over everything, even when the bus broke down and the drivers had to fool around with wrenches and pour water on the engine. Upon arrival we were asked (nicely!!) if we’d like a taxi, and when we got in the open-back of the pickup, two Lao ladies climbed in with us – not to push us to buy something – but just to say hello (and stroke my hair…though I’m not sure whether this had to do with the color or just how straggly it’s gotten).
So here we are in Vientiane. Completely by accident. But Laos, so far, is lovely.