Monday, April 5, 2010

The Magical Mystery Tour: Laos to Vietnam

We had originally planned to get a bus direct from Tha Khaek to Hue in Vietnam.  Our LP book informed us that this was possible but upon arrival in Tha Khaek we couldn't find any information about what days the buses run, what time they leave, or if there even were any buses going to Vietnam.  We were pretty confident we could get a bus to the border from Savannakhet, a town 3 hours south of where we were, so we headed for the bus station to catch the next bus south.

Our luck was in.  We arrived at the station minutes before a bus was scheduled to leave for Savannakhet.  We grabbed a couple of waters, hopped on board and we were on our way.  Off to a good start.  We pulled into Savannakhet 3 hours later and headed straight over to the ticket office to purchase tickets for the next bus into Vietnam.  It's a 12-hour, overnight journey from Savannakhet to Hue in Vietnam and there were several options - the VIP sleeper bus, the regular air-con bus, and the local bus.  We were hoping to travel in relative comfort on the sleeper but it was a Saturday and it only runs on weekdays.  Same story for the regular air-con bus.  That left us with the local bus.  We'd heard quite a few stories about the local bus but hadn't yet had the pleasure of riding one.  Now we'd get 12 full hours on one!

We were scheduled to leave at 10 pm so we killed some time in Savannakhet before heading back to the bus station.  Our ride rolled up at about 9:30 pm.  Didn't look too bad.  A bit shabby but pretty much in tact.  Nobody seemed in much of a rush to get on so Lee jumped on to check out the scene and try and secure some decent seats.  The seats only went about halfway back in the bus, the rest of the space looked like it was for transporting cargo.  On this particular bus there were 2 large spare tires and a number of boxes including one which contain several live chickens.  A hammock was also strung up between 2 poles toward the rear.  Most of the seats had boxes jammed under them which didn't leave much space for your legs.  We grabbed one of the few seats that had a bit of space below.  Much to our surprise the bus left on-time, the windows and front door were all open so there was a nice breeze flowing through the bus and we started to think this might not be so bad after all.

We chugged along at a steady pace for the first couple of hours.  We were the only foreigners on the entire bus and we stuck out like sore thumbs, but nobody was that interested in us at all and they went about their business.  The seats on this bus were tiny, probably half the size of a normal bus.  But that didn't stop most of our fellow passengers getting comfy by contorting their bodies into seemingly impossible positions and nodding off.  There were feet everywhere.  Locals weren't shy about using the armrest of the seat opposite to stretch their legs.  Those who weren't sleeping were passing the time chain-smoking and flicking their butts into the aisle.  The chickens pretty much kept to themselves, save for the odd bit of clucking.  Only another 10 hours to go.

1am rolled by and we were feeling pretty good about the public bus.  That's when things started to get a bit....bizarre.  First a tough-looking little old man sans shirt (sounds like an oxymoron but he was a muscley little fella) came back through the bus collecting passports.  Everyone else handed them over without a fuss so we assumed this was standard practice but we knew the border didn't open for another 6 hours so we were obviously a bit concerned giving ours up to this character who was clearly NOT an official representative of the Laos government.  We reluctantly handed them over figuring as long as we're all on the bus they can't go anywhere.

A short-while later we pulled over in the middle of nowhere and everyone but the chickens piled off and proceeded to relieve themselves in a field - men beside the bus, women behind.  All very organized.

At around 2am, the bus stopped in a small town, outside what looked like someone's house, and once again everyone got off.  We initially thought it was another "comfort" stop.  Not so.  After several unsuccessful attempts at communicating with other passengers we finally figured out that we were already in the border town of Davannsah and that's exactly where we would be staying until 7am when the border opened.  Out of nowhere a woman appeared and started rustling up noodle soup for everyone (except for us).  Once snack-time was over people started making their way up some stairs at the back of the building.  Noodle soup lady made a sleeping gesture to us and pointed to the stairs.  Watching too many episodes of Nat Geo's "Locked Up Abroad" has made us a bit paranoid about leaving our bags unattended, especially when a border crossing is involved, so we grabbed our bags from the bus and took them upstairs with us.

We slept in what we can only describe as an unfinished attic.  Set up around the room were blankets and pillows on the floor along with mosquito nets covering them.  And it was HOT.  We eventually managed to fall asleep for about 2 hours.

By this point of course we have no idea where our passports are.  Grandad muscles is wandering around but the passports are nowhere to be seen.  Just as the nerves were creeping in a smart looking mustachioed man zipped up on a motor-scooter.  He marched right up to Lee and asked for his passport.  Lee could see it in his hand so pointed at it.  Mustache smiled and said " See you at border.  7am."  And with that he hopped back on his scooter and was off again.

The border was chaos.  Lee eventually found Mustache and asked for our passports.  He pointed at another man we'd never seen before who was wearing a lovely matching denim jacket and jeans and holding a big stack of passports.  When he saw Lee he magically produced both our passports from an inside pocket of his 80s stonewash denim threads. 

We had to walk from Laos to Vietnam. Every time we got a stamp in our passports it cost us a $1.  There were probably close to 50 people crossing at the same time as us but we were the only ones diverted to quarantine.  Not even the chickens were subjected to this!

Finally in Vietnam and back on the bus headed to Hue, we thought nothing else could possibly happen.  About 30k out from Hue, the bus stopped at a little roadside cafe for some food.  At this point we were informed that the bus wasn't even going to Hue!  We were told we'd have to get on a motor bike the rest of the way and pay another 20,000 kip each!  We politely insisted that we'd got a ticket for Hue and that's where we would be going on this bus.

Back on the bus it seemed that our protests had been successful as we continued on towards Hue.  Suddenly the bus stopped again and we were told to get off.  This time they weren't having none of it so we grabbed our bags and made our way to the door.  Just as we were getting upset, a woman who was somehow involved with the bus company (not sure how but she seemed to know everyone and was the main person insisting we get off) handed us some cash and said it was to pay for the rest of our journey.  We got off, completely baffled by the whole exchange and sat by the side of the road.  Not 2 minutes later, a mini-bus showed up and we were bundled on it.  We handed over the money we were given and before we knew it we were right in the center of Hue, much closer than if we had gone to the bus station.

Overall one of the most bizarre experiences we've had on this trip or otherwise.  At the time the scariest thing about it was being completely helpless - we couldn't communicate with anyone and had no control over what was happening.  In the end it seems that there was a system in place the whole time and although chaotic and confusing to us, seems to work fine for the Lao and Vietnamese folks who regularly ride the local bus.


  1. Ah, see now that's *not* a story to tell your parents! You'll have them all freaking out about you getting stranded in the middle of nowhere with stolen passports and government conspiracies to set up Westerners as drug smugglers ;-)

    Glad it all turned out OK in the end xx

  2. Oh my gosh I would not have handled that very well at all. So glad it worked out fine!

  3. I would have peed my pants! Im surprised I haven't seen a Davida comment to this one, she may be on a plane over earlier than expected!