A long story about an even longer bus ride. Crossing the border Laos to Vietnam.
Given how desperately people tried to avoid going to Vietnam, I find it a bit ironic when I think how desperately we tried to get in. We applied for visas at the Vietnamese Embassy in Bangkok the day we arrived in Asia, something that can be done when crossing the border in many other countries. They were only valid for a month (January 25- February 25), so we felt a little pressure to maximize our time in Vietnam. The plan was to take a bus from Laos to cross over the border. Easier said than done.
Due to the huge Chinese New Year (Tet) celebration in Vietnam, all of the travel agents told us that the land borders were closed and no buses were running until February 15.
Our guidebooks had not warned us about this, and with as much information as backpackers share, we were a little bit suspicious that we hadn’t heard anything about this dilemma. But, the responses from the travel agents were so consistent that we had started thinking about skipping Vietnam altogether. Then with one more agency to try, we struck gold. (Fools gold as it turned out).
It’s hard to get excited about a 26 hour bus ride, but we were so relieved to have found a way into Vietnam (and to book a sleeper bus no less) that it was with some glee that we handed him over the money.
The morning we were supposed to leave, we woke up to a crazy storm. It didn’t occur to me that this might affect our travel plans, but Brian followed a “bad feeling” to the travel agency while I went to a cafe to order breakfast. When he came back I suggested we order several sandwiches for takeaway so we would be able to eat our way through the 26 hour journey. He gave me a rather grim look and said “Okay, but we won’t need many… we only have to eat our way through a 3 hour trip.”
The bus we had scheduled, was not running that month after all. The agent told him our best bet was to go to Vientiane (only 3 hours south- and no where near the border we were trying to cross).
This did not fly well with me. I marched back over, determined to get us as close to that border as I could. Looking at the old laminated map on his wall, I pointed at the Laos station closest to Hue, Vietnam and said, with more gumption than I felt, “We need to get to Savannaket today.” At first he said it was too late to make changes today, and we would need to come back tomorrow. But I put the money on his desk and asked him as politely as I could to please find a way to get me there.
I think he was probably anxious to get us out of his city- and away from his potential clients- so several phone calls later, I had our tickets to Savannaket, Laos in hand. Feeling less and less triumphant as I walked back to the sandwich shop, my first words to Brain were: “I might have screwed up.” We had no idea if we would be able to cross the border to Vietnam on a bus from Savannaket. We really didn’t know anything about Savannaket- except that there is no airport so I had eliminated the option of flying if the land borders truly were closed. Ever the optimist, he said “Don’t worry about it. You took action and you got us close to the border. We will just hope for the best.”
The buses weren’t what was promised (or paid for). Rather than one long ride to Hue, Vietnam on a sleeper bus, we now had several long rides booked on all sorts of buses, which luckily included one sleeper for about 10 hours.
The first bus should have taken three hours but ended up taking six. By the time we showed up at the station to take the sleeper bus over night, four of us held the same tickets, and unfortunately… there were only two seats. Guess who got them? Not us. For the second time we were holding imaginary bus tickets.
We had about 15 minutes to argue with the Laos transit authority, as they were herding us toward a terrible local bus, farther and farther from the beautiful sleeper we had tickets for. I did everything short of beg (actually I did beg) them to find a way to get us on the right bus, but it’s amazing how quickly they forget all of their English when it is convenient.
They were shutting the doors of the local bus when we finally acquiesced and filed to the very back of an over-crowded bus. Moments after we sat down, a huge burlap sack of rice was being pushed through our half open window. Rather than literally drowning in rice, Brian had no choice but to help hoist half a dozen 100lb sacks into the back seats and aisle. Apparently they couldn’t get a spot on the sleeper bus either.
I took the last remaining seat while Brian balanced uncomfortably on sacks of rice for the entire trip to Savannaket. We arrived at the bus station at 4 a.m., where we sat outside, covered in sarongs to keep the mosquitoes off and stay as warm as possible until the sun came up.
All of the misfortunes aside, we got lucky. The borders were not closed, and after a two day pilgrimage, we made it to Vietnam. It seems that Laos may just have been trying to keep as many people (and as many dollars) from deserting it for their infinitely more popular neighbor’s Tet celebration.
Our border-crossing bus seats were right over a generator of sorts, so we couldn’t put our feet on the floor for the hours it took to get to Hue, but at least we had real seats. It was hard to complain, given that 15 people were sitting in plastic chairs lined up down the center aisle of the bus seats. Right when we thought they couldn’t crowd anything more into the bus a boy came on with a live rooster- in a bag. In Brian’s tired brain… a dream was born. A week later he traded his boots for a chicken and decided to see how far you can travel with a chicken. See his video blog here.
In 2013, I quit my job and bought a one-way ticket to Thailand. After four months of backpacking I returned to the States and fell in love with a guy whose job sent us straight back to Asia. Nothing has gone according to plan... and it's been absolutely magical.